Snacks and Sieges

Shifu simply gazed out over the massive army that had seemingly sprung into being overnight in the plains outside the valley proper, not really paying attention on a conscious level. Hands clasped behind his back, his ears drooped a little as he observed countless soldiers performing drills, sharpening weapons and moving strange... Devices across their camps. Shifting his gaze, he found his eyes resting on the group of villagers who, even after Shifu's warning in person, had decided to stay and fight, not just for themselves, or the Masters, but for the very thing that the Valley represented. Peace.

It was a touch ironic in his mind... Fighting, to preserve peace.

The woman, children and those who could not fight through illness, injury or age were helped up the mountainside to the Jade Palace, where they were to be guided through some of the natural caves below. These caves, used as basic storage for perishables, were now the last hope for the Peace Valley way of life to continue. A mighty task for something that had, until recently, been used to store bags of fruits and vegetables. Viper and Mantis were ordered to stay behind to guard them, their small stature meaning they would be able to utilise the Cave's cramped entrance to their advantage... If those on the outside fell, it would be two against two thousand... An impossible task, even for such fine warriors. And yet, it was the only thing they could do.

Tigress landed on the ground behind Shifu with barely a sound, straightening up and bowing low until he turned to address her.

"Tigress, What news from the other villages?" It was only now he saw, faintly glittering in the dying sunlight, the tears at the very edges of her eyes. Being the proud warrior she was, she would not let them fall. Not now. Not until she was ready.

"Mah-Master... The villages..." Pausing, she cleared her throat, voice now stronger and containing that same iron will that was normally found in her every word.

"Master... The villages have already been swamped over by this... Army. There... There was no one left." Eyes widening, Shifu tapped his fingers together, a faint flicker of concern passing across his face before it was swallowed once more in that expressionless mask of his.

"That is... Unfortunate. I had hoped that the Messenger's warning was simply youthful exaggeration..." He turned away as Tigress began to lose her battle with her tears, carefully ignoring her mild sobbing. She was a warrior, and yet she was still so very young. As far as he knew, she has never taken a life. When the sound of tears had ended, he turned round to face a Tigress he knew far better. Eyes cold and hard, filled with a burning desire to punish, she bowed low, voice firm.

"Master, please allow me to enter the front lines."

He stared at her straight in the eye, trying to determine her true reason for her wish to fight. Fighting for vengeance's sake, for pride's sake, would only lead to disaster. Even through his many years of training, it was a hard feat to reach into someone's inner psyche and be certain that this, this, is the reason for one's actions. After all, if even we ourselves can't determine why we do certain actions, how can anyone else?

But in his most promising student, he only found a burning desire to protect, to nurture, to defend... And admittedly, some wishes to punish, but that would be expected. She may not show it, but the mothering instinct is still there, even under the many layers of kung fu training.

"Tigress... If I allow you to battle alongside me, I must know your mind is not clouded by visions of retribution..."
She bowed slightly lower, voice and expression firm once more, as they always were. Not a trace of emotion shone through. Her face once more a mask.

"I swear Master; I only have the protection of the Valley in mind."

And the Children within it.

Unspoken, but still heard by both sides. Nodding once, Shifu turned to the sun, slipping behind the heavy cloud bank that was ready to begin its downpour upon the valley under siege. Darkness flowed up the many stairs of the Palace, like an obscene cloak that threatened to smoother all within its chill grip...

Po... Dragon Warrior. Where are you?

----

"Where are we"?

The odd duo of Leopard and Panda had been travelling for a few good hours since leaving Tai's Prison cell behind within the canyon. Still stiff from his years long imprisonment (And subsequent thrashing at the hands of Po), Tai was in some significant pain. Not a flicker passed over his face, but he could tell. You couldn't be held in the same position for year after year then suddenly expect full mobility without some pain.

So Po told him to stop outside a small road-side inn. Besides, there was a storm brewing, and not even the stoic feline could hold back a wince at the thought of journeying through the wind and lashing rain.

"It's a stopover I saw on the way here... It should have enough beds for the two of us for one night... Hopefully, that storm will blow over by tomorrow."

Tai sighed wearily, muttering something about Fat Pandas, but inwardly was relieved. No feline, even Snow Leopards, liked the rain...

He shivered mentally, recalling one particular bad storm back in the valley. His umbrella had decided to commit suicide on him, not only turning inside out, but shredding itself in the process. And Master Shifu had refused to bestow on him the necessary funds to either buy a new one, or repair the old.

He was certain that was when he began to turn evil...

Pushing open the door, Po was met with a very familiar sight... Rabbit waiters and waitresses were serving the needs of various armoured, scarred and muscle bound thugs. In fact, in the corner one rabbit was being held up by its ears and shook, various coins dropping to the Croc's outstretched palm below. Wriggling his snout a little, he waved Tai over, leaning into his ear.

"Best behaviour... I don't want an incident."

The feline scoffed slightly, but none the less bowed his head, averting his gaze from the various villains as the pair sat down at a table. One of the waiters, with a bad twitch under one eye, scuttled over, bracing himself for another abusive "Customer".

"C-can I help you?"

Po spoke up immediately, trying to put the lagomorphs at ease with his usual smile and jovial voice.

"A bowl of Dumplings for me Sir, and my friend will have...?" He stared at Tai, prompting him to reply. Tai glared at him for a few seconds before clearing his throat.

"I'll have... The..." His voice fell silent as he considered what kind of dish he would want... Years of the same gruel they forced between his lips every week or so at Chor Gom had left his palate begging for something decent... Po's cooking was like a godsend.

Eventually he managed to find his voice.

"I'll... Have the same..."

The rabbit nodded once before slinking away, still not truly convinced of their good natures, but giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Others however, weren't convinced.

A large yak, sporting an axe on his back slammed his fist on the table scowling at the pair. A large scar ran down his face, over both his lips and slightly down his chin, ending in a wicked curve. Po didn't even flinch as he pushed his face in front of Po's own, calmly blinking to avoid the spittle. A group had materialised around him, each with a leer on their face that suggests that someone was going to be in pain by the end of the day.

"Lookie what we got here... A Fatty and a Kitty..."

Po's arm snapped out under the table, grabbing Tai's leg and shoving him back into his seat before he could raise a cm or so. Instead the feline let his displeasure known by his swishing tail, snapping against the wood of the chair.

"Look at them... That one's so scrawny; I bet a stiff wind would knock him flat"

This time, Po had to grip, his short nails deceivingly sharp.

"And as for this one... Well, I don't know if he should be classed as a traveller... Or Baggage!"

A wrinkled snout was all he got in reply as the waiter calmly placed both bowls in front of them, before scurrying away. As he lifted one of the dumplings to his mouth, the Yak snarled, slamming his fist and making the bowls rattle.

"Do you think you're better than me? Answer me when I speak to you worm!"

Po sighed, pushing back the brim of his hat, examining him with a critical eye, before motioning over a waiter.

"Yes, can I have a pot of Green Tea please?"

Unaccustomed to being ignored, the yak pulled out his blade, embedding it halfway into the table.

"You Bastard! You think you can just ignore me? Then I challenge you! Your choice of weapon!" Po sighed, sipping from his small tea cup, before placing it down on the table, end up.

"Very well... Though I take no responsibility for your actions..."

He settled back into his chair, simply staring at the cup...

"What... You think you can kill me with your Thimble?" Po licked his lips once, before muttering 'Tea Cup' under his breath.

"What did you say?"

"Tea Cup. I'll kill you, with my tea cup..."

The Yak had had it. He had maintained his reputation of the strongest, most fearsome bandit in the land. There was no one, No One, who dared to mock that title. Pulling his blade out of the table, he lifted it over his head, ready to swing down....

However, Po was two steps in front of him, By the time anyone had realised what had happened, Po was on one knee, hand placed over the Yak's chest, twisting once. The Blade fell from his hands, and a trickle of blood seeped out from the corner of his mouth, before toppling backwards. The crowd reared back, staring at the Panda who was now removing his hat, placing it on the table. Staring at the mass of Bandits and thieves, he let his hand hover over the bandit's blade...

The crowd took one step back.

He moved his hand to the tea cup...

The crowd took two steps back.

Finally, he softly reached for the Yak's neck, pulling something loose and placing it carefully on the table, well out of reach of him.

It was a small Wolf fang necklace.

The bandits took one look at him, then the body, before reaching down, in the most subservient manner, dragging their friend's copse towards the door. Tai stared; slack jawed, as Po pulled out a few coins, tossing them towards the bandit's new leader.

"See to your friend... He was a Brave man..."

Replacing his hat, he bowed to the owner of the inn, before apologising, heading for the doorway.

----

Tai stumbled out of the inn' glancing from the Panda in front of him to the building behind him, mouth parting just enough for a single syllable before it snapped shut again, over and over as the feline tried to wrap his mind around what had just happened.

The monochromatic panda strode ahead briskly, face hidden beneath the wide brim of his woven hat, staring ahead, unseeing, using his feet to map the path in front of him and following them blindly. Eventually he halted mid-step, lifting his head to the sky that had just began to rain drizzle over the pair. Pulling off his hat, he closed his eyes as fat, heavy rain drops splashed against his face, running down his cheeks, until you couldn't tell when the rain began and his tears ended...

Tai stood beneath the shelter of a tree, watching the panda let himself get soaked in the prelude to the storm that was visible on the horizon. In a way, he partly understood the bear's pain... It was probably the first time he had killed in centuries, but on the other hand, it was a bandit... If he hadn't killed him, he would probably have died at the hands of an ambitious underling, disease, or famine... Not to mention all the deaths he would have caused before he finally slipped off the mortal coil.

Something told the leopard that this wouldn't exactly help the panda's condition any however.

Finally, when the panda was drenched from head to toes, he picked up his hat, emptied it of the collected rainwater, before slipping it back over his ears, glancing at the leopard out the corner of his eyes...
"... Come on..."

----

The storm had finally broke above the valley, wind turning mere rain into painful, stinging projectiles, worming their way through the most solid of defences and the thickest of clothes to coat the fur beneath in its biting chill. Dark clouds, flashing black from within obscured the sun and sky, casting the valley in a pit of the deepest shadow, shadows that seemed to bend and flow and weave by themselves. Roof slates cracked. Babies cried. Pets and livestock bolted, kicking down their pens before retreating into the safety of the light. Today, the skies belonged to something else... Something... Unnatural.

Among the swirling winds stood Shifu, hands clasped behind his back, his eyes following the arcs of black that travelled the clouds. It was almost like reverse lightning. Not a sound emerged from the boiling blackness, and yet waves of pitch darkness arced from sky to earth, accompanied by a biting chill deep within the soul. Forcing his gaze away from the heavens, he observed the army encamped just beyond the village's protective walls. Horses were being fitted with armour as their mounts secured the saddle and harnesses, slipping weapons in the built in sheaths for a ready weapon even on horseback. Archers strung their bows, and trimmed their arrows before a runner poured oil on the mound of grasses before them, setting them alight even as the rain put up a desperate fight with the flickering flames. Heavier warriors attended to their axes and spears, drinking heavily and consorting with their fellow men, more often than not grabbing some passing female and retreating to one of the many tents that littered the camp. One last moment of pleasure before their possible end.

The diminutive observer inhaled sharply as the full extent of the army rolled out before him, even as a fog bank rose up behind them, slinking towards the valley walls. If this was the true number of their forces, he wasn't surprised that the other villages fell. And yet, something niggled at his mind. It was too perfect... How could such a large force creep their way this close to the valley without being detected? How were they so ready for battle despite only now coming into the open? And something deep in his spirit was quite adamant that this storm was no mere coincidence. Licking his lips, he vaulted down from his makeshift perch, landing with barely a sound on the stone, already running headlong for the cavern entrance.

Mantis and Viper were guiding the last few, protesting villagers into the safety beneath the mountain, those too sick to fight but too guilty not to try and help. Only Mantis's sarcasm about how much use they would be and Viper's cool, understanding sympathy were able to get them to comply, at least reluctantly. At the very least, they might be able to help the two Warriors should the army make their way towards the cavern entrance.

Tigress and Monkey, along with the few villagers who knew how to handle a weapon, were on the walls of the valley, shoring up defences, setting up ambushes and traps. As the feline warrior tightened a makeshift rope holding several rather large, rather heavy boulders, she glanced over her shoulder, watching the ape leap from wall to wall, setting spikes into logs and setting trip wires. For a brief moment, their eyes met, locked in place for a few, swift seconds, but it was enough to convey their feeling to each other. Tigress, a rage burning deep within her heart, the urge to slay those who had committed such atrocities against the other villages, and the children within them, held in check by the thinnest of veils. Monkey, calm and collected, making a silent promise to look out for the feline. If she ever went too far, or became too reckless in the battles ahead, he would be there to cover her. Just like when they were kids. With a brief nod, Monkey gave the striped female a thumbs up before securing the last of the spike traps, flipping back to the ground, scanning the skies...

Crane flapped rapidly, climbing altitude until he could view the entirety of the planned battlefield, memorising each detail as best as he could to be recorded in his calligraphy kit later. Clicking his beak and squinting as the high wings threatened to knock him off course, the avian stared, expressionless at the army making themselves ready down below. Laughter, whoops of joy and bloodlust rose up to greet him and for a few moments he felt nauseated. Always taught that violence was always the last answer, it made him sick to his stomach to imagine that someone, somewhere, might actually get a thrill out of the crimes against everything sacred. His senses knocked him out of train of thought however, as he narrowly avoided one of the strange, black lightning bolts that seemed to concentrate within the enemy camp. As the dark energy crackled past him en route to the earth below ,he shivered, his breath visibly hanging in the air before him... So cold... Something... Something was waiting... Something... Cold...

----

Po, finally pushing aside the momentary weakness of guilt, patted the feline on the shoulder, chuckling at a joke he had made about water and felines before slowing, paw falling to his side. As the grey leopard walked on, he quickly realised he was alone, glancing over his shoulder...
"Po? What's wrong now? Surely even this hill isn't too steep for you..."

Po stared up at the storm hovering over the valley about two days travel away, boiling in the skies above, shivering hard and not just of the temperature pouring off the heavens. Something bad was happening... Something... Horrifyingly familiar. Bony segments slid out the back of his palms before retreating, only to extend once more. His eyes flickered, glowing bright enough to illuminate the ground before him; Violet, Black, Violet, Black... His breath hovered in the air in front of him, adding to the mist that quickly rose around the pair and the valley they were heading towards.

Po, with fists clenched, snarled loudly enough for even the stoic leopard to raise an eyebrow.
"Po? Are... You okay?"

Twisting round sharply, the leopard took a step back as the normally white parts of the panda's writhed and pulsed, a dirty grey spreading over them, growing blacker and blacker, the course, beastial growls from the ursine grabbing something inside the feline and causing him to shiver, his breath steaming in the air as the once panda approached...

With a shiver, Po dropped to his knees, his white patches coming back in full force as he gasped loudly, sucking in air, the oppressive chill in the air now a mild nip in the atmosphere. Climbing back up, using his knees for support, the bear grunted, glaring up to the sky before glancing over his shoulder to the agitated feline behind him.

"Something's... Something's wrong... We have to hurry..."

Before tai could part his lips to ask, the panda was already several metres from where he started, a haunted look in his eyes. And as the pair clamboured their way up the small hillside that would lead to the valley of Peace. And all the while, a single thought echoed through the bear's mind.

They're Here...

Oooookay... I believe I owe all of you an apology... I had one SERIOUS case of writer's block these past few...

...

Well, almost YEARS, so... Thank you for being so patient with me... I hope you can see the obvious increase in quality levels as you get closer to the end... It feels so good to be able to write without groaning...

I promise, the next chapter will not take so long to arrive... And I promise, a few things will be explained... Some asked about what the Defilers look like. You will see. You wonder what Ghost has to do with all this. That may take longer, but it will be revealed. And of course... Tai Lung... I promise all of you now, that you will be surprised and will enjoy what I'm about to reveal about him in the later chapters... Of course, you might already have worked it out...

Thank you all for being so patient with me, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed this chapter... If so...

*Innocently glances towards the Review button...*