In the eyes of criminality, the Kingdom of Gotham was falling to ruin. Every after day noblemen that once believed in truth and justice had become vile and corrupted. Elite families worked in the shadows, gaining profit by making deals with the devils that lurked like filthy rats.
A young dark haired woman stood outside a local tavern dressed in black garments with hair long falling down her back. Her name was Selina Kyle. She had grown into this world of sin. She'd seen beggars plead for coin while rioters caused destruction, heralds caused unrest and drunks bashed women as if they were animals.
To those kind of men, those women that she spent a few encounters with were called "stray cats" in her eyes.
Now she was witnessing another crime happening first hand. She glanced over at the broken windows that were shattered in from the inside. Tables were turned up and chairs broken. Cups of ale were sent flying out of the windows and were smashed on the wooden floor boards.
As her dark eyes gazed inside, she noticed unconscious bodies of drunk men hanging with blood dripping from their mouths. Three men were inside going through the coin box and gathering the profit of the tavern keeper who was wrestling with a number of his patrons to restore order to his establishment.
She could hear a herald near the horse stalls yelling at the top of his lungs to a small crowd gathered in front of him.
"The Prince has deserted us! We can all destroy ourselves in the hope we will be saved by a glorious tiding or we shall all rise up and face these greedy pretenders who claim to be our betters!"
Everything that once served a purpose to glorify, protect, contain and appease the kingdom was falling to decay along with their crumbling structures. The gallows of the prisons were rotting and poorly guarded. Graveyards were stocked and orphanages were without proper clothing and food for the children.
The village of the Narrows was a place for the worst crimes. It surrounded an old fortress for the mentally insane and debased minds. Many believed they were cursed from the forces of darkness. All that shook the walls was endless screaming and shouting of men that acted like caged - raving animals. They were prisoners of their own minds.
Her whole childhood she was given wrong reasons for kindness and had to fend for her own self. She had witnessed vandals disrupting events of charity, seen children become victims of abuse and abandonment within the long nights. Most of the rapists were locked away in Arkham. That was not the half of the crimes. Wrathful struck the homes of the villages and the wealthy treated the poor like swine that slept in their own filth.
In her eyes, innocence was becoming a fading word.
"Where's the justice?" She thought as her eyes saw poor children covered with grime being picked off from the streets into carts were they would be sent to the orphanages which was paid by Baron Carmine Falcone a social climber and tyrant who made profit by making people feel misery.
"Speak of the devil."
Sitting on the a grey horse, looking dirty and grimy was Flass a Gotham Knight who was worked with Falcone in secret. Selina carefully moved behind a barrel and crouched down observing them.
Falcone handed Flass a bag of silver as she overheard their conversation. "Ten pieces of silver as expected." The baron said. "Keep Gordon in the shadows and out of the capitol."
Flass nodded. "There's rumors about a rebellion."
"Things are going to change in this land Flass. Now that the heir is gone. We're going to see changes happen. Keep me informed about the conflict that is going on inside the walls of Wayne Castle."
"It sounds like you want this kingdom for yourself?" Flass implied.
Falcone shrugged. "We'll see. There's a lot of support to be bought. Have a good evening and don't spend all the profit at once."
He walked away while Flass rode off not caring about the brawl in the tavern.
Selina waited for a clear escape from their eyes and slowly walked down an alleyway. There she saw a young Gotham Knight in training, trying to stop a drunk that Selina recalled seeing in the tavern beating up a male-courtesan. She looked at the dark haired knight who was a little older than her own age.
He grabbed the drunk and pulled him off the courtesan roughly. "Enough." He yelled in a firm voice of authority. "This man has received enough punishment from your hands." He looked at the courtesan who was wiping the blood off his lip. "There is no need for fighting tonight. Go back to home and sleep it off."
The drunk gave the knight a scowl and walked away.
Selina noticed the courtesan had a dagger in his hand. She reacted. "Behind you!"
The knight turned around and gave the man a quick blow to the jaw and slapped the knife out of his hand. The man stumbled back. He landed on his back and yelped in pain from the impact.
The knight looked at Selina with relieved smile. "Thank you fair maiden." He replied, gazing at the alluring beauty.
Selina marveled at his smile. "You don't have to thank me. I could not stand to see such a handsome man being injured by a drunken fool."
He looked at her appealing crimson lips. "What is your name maiden?"
"Sorry noble knight, I am not one of telling my name to strangers." She said with a light tease to her voice.
"Fair enough. Seeing that you saved my life. I will tell you mine. My name is John Blake."
"Having a good evening, Sir Blake." She walked away but he followed.
"I need to reward you," He urged. "As a knight of this kingdom it is my duty to be courteous to a fair woman."
Selina paused and regarded him with a thoughtful posture, her arms crossed over her chest. He appeared chivalrous and brave which was a rare quality among the Gotham Knights these days. She smirked and conceded with a nod.
"Alright, since you insisted. You can buy me a pint at the pub."
Blake nodded as he followed her out of the alley and saw a row of horses belonging to the Gotham Knights standing near the tavern. Gordon was there arresting a few of the drunken vandals.
"What happened here?" He gestured.
"Same thing as every night. Another brawl and devious crime." Selina replied dryly with an unfazed expression, knowing things were becoming worse every night.
The dim moonlight reflected off the stone castle walls as Alfred walked through the courtyard of Wayne Castle in a silent manner. He thought of Prince Bruce and wondered if he was still alive or on a slave ship sailing off far away from the kingdom.
The was a sound of moment coming from the archway.
"Who goes there?" He yelled feeling nervous as the figure emerged from the shadows. It was the Gotham Knight's Captain James Gordon.
Alfred released a relieved sigh.
"Any word Captain," he asked with distraught in his voice.
Sir Gordon looked at the old white haired man, his dismal expression told enough. "My men have searched the bearings of the forest. There was nothing to be found or report. No witnesses or evidence to his whereabouts."
"Did you search the forest area?"
Gordon nodded. "At the old ruins of the Castle Blacklake. The trail went cold at the beach where the prince disappeared."
Alfred lowered his head. "The council must be kept in the dark. They must not know the truth."
"I shall order my men to keep searching. Maybe we have to look deeper. Further into the mountains." Gordon could see that this was eating Alfred's soul up. "My friend this was not your fault."
"The king and queen trusted me. I have failed him and the young prince."
Gordon placed a gentle hand on Alfred's shoulder. "There is always hope my friend. We just have to look harder." He paused, thinking about the fate of the kingdom. "Have you given any thought of the kingdom's new era if the young brat takes the throne?"
"I dread that day."
"So do I. The crime rate has increased and murder is on the rise in the village of the Narrows. I hope that the prince returns before winter. He has his father's blood flowing through his veins but also his mother's heart."
"When we last spoke the young prince said that he didn't want the crown. That was before he ran off... before he..." Alfred trailed off, feeling unable to finish his words.
"He will return." Gordon said simply, his belief firm.
Alfred looked up tiredly. "What if he is dead?"
"Are you convinced that he is?"
The silence was heavy as Gordon waited for the former knight's reply. Alfred each night prayed that the prince would return, that he was out there somewhere and hadn't run away like he had often wanted. That he was just... finding himself. And once he did, Alfred could only hope he would return to his home.
"No. I believe he is alive, wherever he is. He will find his way home."
High above, Brannon watched the two men in the courtyard as they conversed openly. His gaze was cold as his mother was sat in a chair reading over a few scrolls.
"What troubles you my son?" She asked, looking at her child that she bore alone for his father had died from the misfortune of a sudden illness by her hands.
Brannon shrugged with a loud breath. "There are unsettling thoughts that race in my mind mother." He grumbled as he tore his gaze from the courtyard and his faced his young mother across the room.
She set the scrolls aside and regarded him seriously. "Explain my son."
"Prince Bruce... I dread of his return. Mostly I dread of our fate mother." Brannon said as she walked over to the table.
"Perhaps I was too generous giving him more time to return. I should have demanded the crown with the haste the council was willing to offer it." He said with an air of panic but mostly frustration.
Maura looked at her son with her piercing green eyes. "You have nothing to fear Brannon. We've waited for this day since you were born. This will be your kingdom and the prince will be no more."
The blonde headed boy shook his head. "How mother? If Prince Bruce returns he will take his place at the throne."
Maura sneered. "Not if..." She paused.
Brannon narrowed his eyes at her sensing she was keeping something from him. "Mother you speak yet keep hidden secrets from your lips. What is the plan for the prince's fate?" He demanded.
"You will see my son." Maura answered with a kiss on his forehead. "Remember we have powerful friends on the other side." The brunette assured him.
Brannon nodded, however his stare suggested his concerns weren't diminished.
The afternoon sun stood high above the mountain pass, it full warmth and comfort held restrained by the winter clouds looming in the skies above the castle. The air was cool and the winds were calm which proved relaxing enough to the exiled Prince of Gotham who sat alone, high in the mountains at the base of a tower - east of the castle - in deep meditation.
He wore no tunic over his torso, leaving his broad flesh exposed to the cool air. He sat cross-legged, hands resting on his knees and his eyes closed as he let his thoughts wander. However imprisoned he might've felt in this place, his thoughts were free in moments like this.
A month had passed since the prince's fight - or rather training exercise as Ducard had put it - with Anton in the courtyard. A month since his instructor had beaten sense into him that he was ill prepared to return to Gotham and attempt a restoration from its decline. The sum of his stay here was now two months. Two months of fighting, eating, training, studying and thinking. The latter was a grim constant for him as his thoughts always swayed towards Alfred, Rachel, his kingdom and his people suffering from crime and poverty.
But most of all his parents. Their last moments would never leave his thoughts nor his nightmares it would seem along with the face that had taken them from him.
Ducard taught him the best way to alleviate and overcome his fears and his worries was to practice meditation. Bruce had heard of the practice before in his early youth but had never considered or witnessed it beforehand. However skeptical he was at first of its results, Bruce soon relished having these quiet moments of solitude and tranquility. Here he was able to organize and contemplate a solution to his turmoils.
His fears and concerns where set aside in place of calm and patience. Patience. A word he had now clung to almost everyday as thoughts and images of corrupted knights, vile fugitives and helpless good citizens wormed its way into his mind. That along with the realization that Alfred was alone, surrounded by conspirators and corrupt men he called: the King's Council who had likely given a small window of opportunity for him to return and claim his throne.
He reminded himself. He was progressing fast in his training since giving himself over to Ducard's teachings. In two months he'd learned a number of hand-to-hand combat techniques and styles to the point Ducard considered him a good study. His training soon moved to sword fighting. Something he'd eagerly been anticipating but now felt a slight apprehension towards. The number of healed cuts on his back and the side of his arms was a testament to the hard and grueling training sessions he'd endured.
His face itself carried a number of bruises still healing from the blows he'd received in his training exercises. Bruce wore them with pride. Each day he trained he did so without a shirt, leaving the proof of his devotion seen by all who still believed him to be a vain and insecure prince priding on his fair features and title. He let his hair begin to grow in longer along with his facial hair as further proof.
He'd made no friends here in the two months. He had no intention to, especially when he knew he would leave soon enough. His reason for solidarity here wasn't entirely born out of desire for independence...
His musing was interrupted by the opening of a doorway behind him.
"Your hour is over. You are expected in the courtyard Wayne."
One of his new guards barked at him. Gallic. A man less tormenting than Anton, but no less strict.
Bruce opened his hazel-green eyes and took in the expanse view of the fields and the forests in the distance just beyond the mountains from this high position. He gave no reply as he released a steady breath and slowly rose to his feet.
He turned and face the guard and followed him into the castle.
As it was each day, Bruce entered the courtyard to the sound of steel clashing against steel. A never-ending tune that sang within these mountains it would seem. His passive eyes stared straight ahead as he followed his guard through the courtyard. Unlike when he first arrived, the assassins and recruits didn't mock or scold his presence, they carried on about their training as if he were one of their own.
Bruce felt no sentiment towards that gesture, nor did he disapprove of it. It was only one less thing to bother him. As of now his feelings and emotions had become more guarded and controlled since learning to discipline himself in not just combat but in general appearances.
The snowfall had paused the last few weeks but left a blanket in its wake. It wouldn't deter the league from their daily routines as many were tasked with clearing the snow and ice from the courtyard and the base of the castle. Bruce himself wasn't among them as it was apparent that the great Ras al Ghul deemed his time and training here to be a high priority.
Setting his sights ahead, Bruce paused ever so slightly as he could see his instructor, Ducard, standing beside Ras al Ghul himself near the center of the courtyard. Two masked guards flanked their leader at either side as he seemed to be immersed in an important conversation with his right hand man. The leader of the shadows rarely approached him during his stay here and Bruce had reasons to suspect why.
As he came into their midst, Bruce stood attentively with his hands crossed behind him waiting to be addressed. An act that would've outraged the prince months ago, waiting to be be seen to, but now it had become a disciplinary act for a man training to be a warrior. A knight.
After a minute of conversing, Ducard nodded and turned to face his student who stood with a passive expression.
"The great Ras al Ghul believes your sword training has progressed far rapidly then he has come to expect. No doubt the basic training you learned before your arrival helped speed your adaptation."
Bruce said nothing to this form of praise but nodded his understanding. Humility. A trait he'd been taught by his father King Thomas and enforced harshly here by Ducard.
"Today we will test the summation of your Roman sword fighting techniques and your speed of adaptation towards your opponents."
"Opponents?" Bruce asked in amazement.
"You will find Prince of Gotham that in the thick of battle, you can but rely on only your own skills to not just survive but claim victory. Do not depend on the aid of those would call themselves ally." Ras al Ghul instructed with his drawl-like tone.
Bruce gave no reply other than a sharp nod. The words of the Shadows' leader however bitter were also truthful as Bruce remembered first hand how the King's Guard and his father were left to die in the forests, having no help or aid come to them.
Whatever he would learn here, it would be enough that he wouldn't find himself wanting or feeling the need to call for help.
"I am ready," Bruce said after a moment of silence passed.
"Then arm yourself. You will need all you can manage to carry." Ducard insisted.
Bruce immediately approached the racks of weapons setup nearby with the determination of a man being called into war. Taking the moment to gaze over his half-bare appearance, he decided to wear a simple chest-piece of armor to cover his exposed upper body. He placed scalloped gauntlets onto his forearms, a leather belt around his waist, shin-guards on his ankles and a small helmet on his head.
He felt heavy and it didn't have much to do with the armor he finished strapping to his torso. He weighed passed 230 pounds by now he felt. His daily exercises and stretches however helped him increase his agility so he didn't feel like a block of stone that couldn't move. Spying the weapons, he chose the two styles that accommodated his strength and agility in combat.
Moments later the space in the courtyard seemed to expand into a battle ground for the Prince of Gotham, however in the background the other recruits and instructors continued their own lessons. Bruce stood alone, wearing only his armor with a metal shield in one hand and a one handed sword in the other.
"Murmillo," Ducard nodded at Bruce's fighting style.
Bruce glanced without turning at the second sword he carried sheathed across his own back - his preferred fighting style. Across from Bruce stood three other moderate assassins dressed in similar armor but carried different weapons. Alberto, Thaddeus and Horus. One carried a net and trident (Alberto), the other a shield and spear (Thaddeus), and the last a sword and shield as his own (Horus).
"Retiarus, hoplomachus and murmillo," Bruce muttered.
He approached the center and met the other fighters half-way. They take their fighting stances and wait patiently. Bruce took deep breaths to calm his racing heart as he would each time in the face of combat that he was still growing accustomed to.
"Begin!" Ras yelled.
A trio of roars erupted as all three fighters charged at Bruce who raced to meet them. He side-stepped the hoplomachus' spear and parried the swing of the murmillo's sword with his own. He bashed the back of the hoplomachus that had passed him, sending him falling to the ground. Without pause, Bruce kicked at the front of the murmillo, but Horus raised his shield to protect himself. The force of the kick however sent the murmillo tumbling backward.
Bruce had but a moment to react as he felt the net of the retiarius descending on him. He rolled across the ground, careful to hold his sword and shield at an outward angle, and evaded the net. He rolled onto his knees just as Alberto spun his trident at Bruce who parried it with his sword.
Taking the initiative, Bruce swung his leg out and kicked the retiarus off his feet. Up ahead he could see Thaddeus and Horus charging at him again. Bruce raised his shield and blocked a blow coming at his shoulder from the murmillo's then spun and slashed at the spear of the hoplomachus beside him.
"Remember, your shield is more than a defensive instrument!" Ducard instructed.
Using the momentum behind his shield, Bruce smashed it into the helmeted face of the murmillo, sending him falling backwards to the ground. Bruce, feeling his energy and adrenaline building, raced and high kicked Thaddeus across the face. Behind him, Alberto regained his feet and lashed at him with his trident. Bruce ducked at the last moment, feeling the air whizzed passed his face.
His hope of victory was to either disarm his opponents or force them to yield. The former seemed like the best option. Alberto thrust his trident again at Bruce's waist which the prince blocked with his shield. A kick from behind Bruce sent him falling the floor. Ducard shook his head.
"Always mind your surroundings!"
Horus had surprised Bruce and the murmillo raised his shield to drive to Bruce's neck - to trap him.
Bruce could see Alberto recovering his net off the ground behind Horus. Thinking quickly, Bruce rolled away from the shield and heard the clank if the impact. He bashed his own shield into Horus' face, dazing him. In the far background Thaddeus recovered his spear to rejoin the battle. He wasn't Bruce's immediate concern as he saw Alberto twirling his net to throw at him. Acting quickly, Bruce reached and grabbed a hold of Horus and held him from behind as a captor would a hostage.
The net was sent flying at them. Bruce shoved Horus and the murmillo became entrapped into the net, yelling and cursing as he struggled to free himself. Bruce slashed at the bewildered Alberto's armor, cutting it from his torso leaving a red line of blood along his chest. A minor scratch - intentional enough to surprise his opponent. Bruce high-kicked the entrapped Horus, sending him falling to the ground. Incapacitated.
His moment of advantage was struck with the head of a spear across the side of his helmet, surprising the prince as he stumbled backwards. The hoplomachus had charged at him from behind and attacked. Bruce felt dazed and knew if not for his helmet he would've been incapacitated if not killed by that strike. Alberto took the opportunity to recover his trident while Bruce struggled to regain his focus. He'd taken down one of them, that left two remaining.
The number of exercises he'd practiced over the last month helped him better control his breathing and conserve his energy for crucial attacks. Right now he was glad to say he didn't feel exhausted nor vulnerable as he removed his dented helmet and threw it aside.
Sword and shield in hand, he waited as Thaddeus and Alberto charged at him, spear and trident raised. Bruce raised his shield to block a thrust of
Thaddeus' spear, and his sword to parry the trident aimed at his side. Bruce could see small signs of fatigue building in his opponents' eyes, he guessed from his determined onslaught. Fatigue often led to desperate or more aggressive tactics Bruce knew.
Thaddeus spun around to aim the back of his spear at Bruce's legs to take him off his feet. Bruce jumped but the action allowed Alberto to strike Bruce with his trident across shoulder. Bruce fell backward to his knees, growling from the blow. Any further and he wouldn't been cut.
Sensing their advantage, Thaddeus and Alberto rush forward towards the prince and grab a hold of his shield, trying to wrestle it from his grasp. Like a game of chess, Bruce contemplated his moves in advance and once he felt them using a considerate amount of strength, he released his shield from his arm and watched both fighters fall backward, holding the defensive weapon. To their error.
Like lightning, Bruce unsheathed his second sword from across his back with a growl. Ducard smirked.
Bruce stormed at his surprised opponents and twirled his swords in his grip as he allowed his agility to come forth in this fighting style. He twirled over the back of the hoplomachus, landing behind him and slashed his sword at his armored shoulder. He spun and slammed both blades downward across the length of the retiarius' trident with a loud grunt, sending the weapon out of Alberto's hands.
Bruce didn't feel tired. No. He felt invigorated.
After disarming Alberto, Bruce followed with two front kicks to the torso, knocking the fighter off of his feet. Behind him, Thaddeus recovered his spear and shield and lashed at Bruce. Bruce side-stepped and swung his dual-wielding swords with deadly speed and precision until finally he forced the hoplomachus to give pause and Bruce slapped the shield away with a swing of his swords.
This whole time, Ras and Ducard watched with mild fascination.
Bruce could see the frustration in his opponents' eyes and felt victory was near. Alberto recovered his trident and he and Thaddeus made a last attempt towards overwhelming the dimacharus. Bruce used both his swords to parry and counter-flank both of their weapons until Thaddeus' spear became entangled in Alberto's trident. Using the advantage, Bruce rolled beneath their weapons into a crouch behind them.
Seeing them still struggling with their weapons, Bruce charged at them. Using the small trace of ice on the floor, he slid forward on his knees in between both fighters then swiped his blades at their shins, leveling them weaponless onto the ground. He sat crouched between them and held both his blades at their throats.
"Yield," He commanded in a firm - icy tone.
Both men faced each other with a look of mutual resignation before they nodded begrudgingly at the prince.
"We yield," they said.
Bruce lowered his weapons as cheers and roars of approvals erupted around him. Bruce stood tall and victorious as the men helped themselves to their feet. His eyes met Ras who stood with his gaze fixed on him. Ducard grinning, leaned close and whispered something to his master. Ras nodded with a blank look.
Both Ducard and Ras approached while the cheers continued in the background.
"You have done well, Young Prince," Ras drawled.
Bruce blinked, it had been awhile since he'd heard himself called that. Nevertheless he nodded his humble acceptance.
"Continue with Ducard's instruction and you may yet find yourself home quicker than you think," Ras finished before he nodded to his right hand man then turned and departed back to his castle.
Ducard himself approached Bruce with a pleased smirk.
"He does not issue compliments lightly, Wayne. You have progressed faster than any recruit we've ever taken in."
"But I'm not done yet," Bruce said rhetorically.
Ducard nodded as he saw a horse and masked rider coming up along the causeway leading to the shroud of trees near the entrance to the courtyard. "No. For now continue with your exercises. I'll instruct you shortly."
Bruce watched as Ducard briskly walked away to approach the masked rider. Noticing the figure, Bruce's expression fell to one of apprehension as he knew it was an envoy or rather a spy of the league's coming to report news from the outside.
News from Gotham.
Minutes after his mentor had left him to his own practices, Bruce had followed his suggestion but only by his own eagerness. Adrenaline from his training session still lingered and the Prince of Gotham wasn't willing to let it waste when there was much more that he could do with himself today. After informing one of the nearby guards and sentries of his intentions, Bruce had set into a sprint down the causeway and began running laps around the lower grounds of the castle near the ice lake.
He paid no mind to the armed sentry, equipped with a bow and arrow, watching him closely from the courtyard above - ready to shoot him down at the first sign that he was trying to escape. Bruce felt the sun high above him shine down, its rays driving away the cold as he raced along the causeway at a slow pace. He took slow breaths as Ducard had instructed, timing his breathing with his pace and keeping his mind focused on his task rather than any issues from afar.
He remained this way for an hour before retreating back into the courtyard to take up another training exercise, one that would help ease the stiffness in his aching muscles. He shed his tunic and stood alone and calm in the expanse area. The assassins and their recruits had retired into the castle to partake in their afternoon meals, leaving the area all to the prince.
Bruce felt hungry, but most of all thirsty after his long morning of training. He had contemplated heading back inside to indulge himself, but he wanted to wait out here for Ducard to confer with him. Bruce took off his boots and stood wearing only his breeches at the center of the courtyard. Standing tall and regal, he took slow and relaxed breaths as he allowed his muscles to ease themselves before he began to sway in slow movements across the courtyard in battle-like poses and attacks.
Kata - like meditation - was a practice he had heard of but never experienced or witnessed first hand until he saw the Japanese warriors here train under the trees at the west end of the courtyard. Their movements were graceful and almost majestic in their own way that left Bruce feeling inspired and determined to follow. He took slow stretches as he moved, feeling his bones crack and settle into comfortable alignment along with his muscles. Here he felt solitude - freedom of thought and movement.
This practice was to help a novice better hone his fighting techniques - hone their precision, execution and fluidity so their movements in combat felt instinctual and natural. It was in these movements that Bruce felt he was more than a lost little boy playing prince and feeling sorry for himself, and more like a man given purpose - given peace of mind and body.
He carried on like this until he could hear approaching footsteps across the floor behind him. He shifted in his movements to look behind and saw Ducard approaching alone, his arms crossed behind him expectantly. Bruce slowed him movements then stood in an attentive posture as his mentor moved slowly - clearly having been observing his student's practice with scrutiny.
"Your waist has become wider along with your limbs. Your muscle mass has grown considerably compared to how you first appeared to me when you were brought here." Ducard observed with a practical tone.
Bruce nodded as he wiped away the sweat on his brow with a cloth he carried.
"I've noticed. I don't think I've ever eaten so much, even in the comfort of my palace."
"Well it stops now. You've been fed enough to build up your strength to wield heavier weapons in combat, and now you'll just need to maintain it."
"The exercises have helped. I've never felt this... invigorated - capable - ever in my life." Bruce admitted without arrogance nor pride in his tone - just an amazed observation.
"That's good. You're on the right path, only now its time to hasten your journey." Ducard said with a grim look.
Bruce's expression fell to one of seriousness.
"News from Gotham?" He asked eagerly.
"Your kingdom is in disarray after your disappearance. Half the population believes you dead and the rest are convinced you've abandoned them entirely to pursue your own freedom elsewhere."
Ducard watched the prince's reactions. He felt impressed that his young novice maintained a passive expression at this news, masking any emotions he might be feeling. He continued his report upon his silence.
"Your High Council wishes to declare you dead and appoint a successor."
Bruce narrowed his eyes in confusion.
"Successor? How? I'm the only son of my father, there is no other in my family to claim the throne."
Ducard nodded with a considerate look. "Perhaps in your extended family then. My spies report mention of a boy, fifteen-years passed, and his mother now residing within your palace."
Bruce lowered his gaze as he tried to conjure a memory of anyone on his mother or father's side of the family who could be next in line for the throne of Gotham. He could think of no one immediately as the memories of his childhood he had purposely tried to forget.
The prince shrugged, knowing this wasn't something to contemplate now. Instead he asked a more important question that he'd been contemplating.
"What of my adviser? Sir Pennyworth?"
"He has not given up the search for you. He's been dispatching knights to all corners of your land to find a clue of your whereabouts."
Bruce inwardly smiled to himself. His friend had not given up on him. Even now, as Alfred had every reason to suspect his prince was either dead, captured or running away he had not given up searching for him.
"The council and the boy have given you 4 months to resurface and claim your throne before they take full control themselves."
Bruce looked back up at Ducard.
"So that leaves me with how much time?"
"Two months. Crime has also been reported to have escalated in the villages outside your capital. Civil unrest is also growing as rival families of nobility are vying to take control of territories in hopes of rallying support to claim your throne for themselves."
Bruce resisted the urge to clench his teeth in fury. Instead he maintained his cool facade however there was no mistaking the fire in his eyes. Ducard looked over his sweaty face and appeared thoughtful as he reached into a pouch at his side pulled out a flask.
"Is there any good news in this report?" The prince asked sourly.
Ducard held the flask out to him and the prince eyed the object before nodding gratefully.
"You will see your kingdom again soon." Ducard announced.
Bruce looked at him with surprise.
"What do you mean?"
The prince opened the flask, eager to quench his thirst after his long day of training. He downed the cool liquid with a long gulp before withdrawing from the flask with a disgusted look.
"Ras al Ghul and I have conferred and your training will need to be accelerated to get you ready for your return."
Bruce felt his throat begin to grow cold along with all the muscles and bones in his body as he spat out the sour aftertaste left in his mouth from the liquid he'd just consumed. He dropped the flask onto the ground as he felt his fingers grow numb and pale. A purple colored substance leaked from the flask onto the cold floor.
Ducard watched with an expectant look as the prince fell to his knees, clutching his arms as if his bare-chest had just now felt the winter's chill upon him - only it was coming from within. The prince looked up at his instructor with an accusing look with slight panic etched into his eyes.
"Wh-What have y-you done to me?" Bruce asked with a strangled voice as he felt his words starting to become torn from him along with all feeling of his limbs, neck and torso.
He fell to the ground on his side as Ducard leaned down to face him at eye-level.
"Evil will attack you in many forms Bruce. Not just in flesh and steel but through dark magic. You must be prepared for such a threat when you return home."
Ducard patted Bruce on the shoulder while the Prince of Gotham could only glare up at his mentor angrily.
"Don't worry. The paralysis potion will only disable your bodily functions for an hour. Once you have taken enough of it your immune system should be able to withstand its effects."
Ducard gave Bruce a reassuring nod, then rose and left his student on the floor of the courtyard, staring into space.