Disclaimer: I do not claim any ownership to KFP, which is © of Dreamworks Animation Studios. The original characters appearing in this work are © me, and are my own intellectual property, so please do not use them without my permission. Thank you.
Author's Note: Well, it's been a while, hasn't it? But I'm glad to be back. For everyone who responded to the poll I had on my profile page, thank you. I was very honored to see so many people wished to see a sequel to "Memoirs of a Master"; however, I will have to decline on the basis that I feel anything I write concerning "Memoirs" would never live up to what I had accomplished with the original. I decided that my writing a sequel to it would be akin to painting another Mona Lisa—to do so takes away from the original work. Leaving "Memoirs" as it is, because all loose ends that can be tied, have been tied, and I can see no way to improve it, is probably for the best.
Now, as for "That's Why They Call It the Present", I felt there was quite a bit of potential there. I've already started penning/typing it, but don't expect to see full chapters anytime soon; I'm a terrible perfectionist, so I don't want to post anything until a) I have a surplus of chapters and b) when the chapters I have are to my standards. I've been very busy in my personal life, so weekly updates are probably not going to happen either—perhaps monthly or bi-monthly. But, I digress…for your reading pleasure, a teaser for "Soaring Dragon, Dancing Phoenix" (working title).
Far to the north, beyond China's borders, in a wind-swept land of frequent cold temperatures and fierce winters, a lone wolf strode down a well-beaten path, through a dense pine forest, to an old inn. The inn's timbers were gray from age and harsh weather, and the entire establishment looked near-ready to topple to its foundation. The sparse, tiny windows on the second floor were dark, but for one red-gold light in the middle that glared down at him like a single demon's eye. The wolf shivered and clutched his cloak closer around his shoulders, but it was not the howling wind he was shielding himself from.
The sign over the door had the inn's name written in Chinese and Mongolian, and featured the pictographic feature of a decapitated lupine head. The Wolf's Head Inn; the name alone made the canine swallow uncomfortably. This wolf was not the brightest, and still green, having only just entered the indentured service of his lord and master. Owing a debt to a warlord was never smart, but he had a hard choice to make: join and work off the debt…or die.
Actually, in hindsight, it was a rather easy decision.
Coming here in mid-Autumn, when the weather was just starting to take a turn for the worse, was probably not smart either. The days were getting shorter, and the nights—always the time for witchery and evil spirits—became longer and longer…too long for his comfort. So, however bad this place seemed from the name alone, it beat sleeping outside in these cold, dark, terrifyingly dense woods.
Stealing up what little nerve he had left, he approached the door, hearing the muffled din of music, yelling, and raucous laughter. As soon as he opened the door, the muffled noises became a fierce roar. Before his very eyes, a boar and a gorilla bandit decided to start a brawl over a mahjong game whilst the observers just sat back nursing hardy drinks and smoking opium pipes. Smoke hung in the air like veils from the ceiling, the smell invading his nostrils and making him choke on the thick, noxious air.
The wolf recognized quite a few different nationalities here. This inn was not too far off the Silk Road, and the nearest town was, in fact, a stop along the way. Here, he saw many different ethnicities, and creatures, with strange names, stranger customs, and even stranger languages. He'd lost count of it all; his comrades had pointed out many by name in the town, and he recognized some by their style of dress: Uighur, Persian, Kazakh, and Hazara from the far West, across the treacherous Gobi and over equally treacherous mountains. Mongol, Yao, Han, Manchu, from China. And from the far north were Tartars, Russians, and the hardier Siberians…the type of men no one trifled with.
The wolf's eyes flicked over to the bar, where a huge rhino served up various drinks with a dark scowl. The rough-looking patrons, no matter how tough they looked, kept their distance from this formidable creature…but offered some generous tips.
The rhino reached out a tattooed hand and grabbed up the foreign gold coins left on the table by large brown bear. Taking one, the rhino bit down on it; it was solid. With a shrug, he collected the rest and dumped the coins in a box behind the bar.
Now that the wolf thought about it, liquid courage was probably a good idea. The wolf carefully dodged another dueling duo and ducked when a chair flew over his head, as he made straight for the bar. The rhino eyed his new customer carefully, then banged his fist once against the bar. The sound echoed off the ancient walls, silencing the rowdy bunch. A stiff, dead-serious glare was the only suggestion needed to get the patrons to behave themselves; wordlessly, without a hint of protest, the patrons resumed their games, gambling and whore-cavorting, and the music struck up again on a quieter tune.
"What'll it be, kid?" the rhino greeted soberly.
"Uh…I guess the Amber."
The rhino snorted and reached behind the bar for a crystal bottle of deep amber liquid and poured a glass. "You got a meeting with some guy?"
"Uh, sort of…I'm actually looking to hire…a professional." The rhino gave him an odd look. "Not that kind of professional." The wolf lowered his voice. "I need someone…taken care of."
The bartender eyed him for a moment; then, once he believed that was the 'professional' the wolf was after, the bartender asked, "Gotcha. Who's the stiff?"
"Two stiffs: the Dragon Warrior, and Tai Lung."
The inn became deathly quiet, the music ceasing immediately, conversations and games of chance lulled as all eyes turned to stare. Someone swore in Mongolian and another muttered a Russian prayer. The hardiest of warriors all paled, the toughest bandits looked faint, and a few assassins began inching towards the nearest exit. Apparently, the Dragon Warrior's reputation preceded him…and Tai Lung's, too, for that matter.
A dark look from the bartender set the others back to minding their own business before the rhino turned back to the wolf. Much to the canine's surprise, the rhino looked quite shaken as well. "Not a lot of guys stupid enough to go after them two. But if you want the job done…"
"I want the job done right," the wolf emphasized. "If you know of anyone competent enough…"
The rhino fell silent, his small deep-set eyes glancing around the room nervously. He grabbed the wolf's collar, lifting the canine clear off the ground and hissed in his ear. "Only one fella for that kinda job…but you don't want his services. They come at a price."
"Any price will do."
"You don't understand—I'm not talkin' money, here. This guy will—"
"Look, my employer wants the job done, and I can't disobey him!" the wolf hissed, paling at the thought of what his master would do. Like a lowly dog, he desperately begged, "C'mon, buddy, help a guy out; if I don't get someone else to take care of this, it'll be my sorry tail going to kill them! I might be wet behind the ears, but I'm not stupid!"
The rhino glanced back at him, then let him go. "Fine; but it's your boss' head, remember that. He's set up shop in Room Three."
The wolf rubbed his throat and nodded, "And he's good?"
"He's got a reputation…but I'll let you decide," the rhino said cryptically, turning his back.
The wolf took the cue, stalking over to the stairs and climbing to the next level. Patrons purposefully moved out of his way as he passed, following the corridor to the room labeled with the character for "3" in red paint. Feeling his heartbeat thundering in his ears and his throat as dry as the Gobi, he raised his knuckle to knock. On the third rap, the door cracked open on its own. The wolf gulped, pressing against the door to poke his head in.
The room was dark, but for two blue-green eyes shining in the light of a glowing pipe, the tobacco leaves glowing red in the navy-black darkness. Blue-gray smoke filtered from the occupant's mouth, curling around its eyes as a deep, rumbling, heavily accented voice answered, "Business…or pleasure?"
"Business," the wolf answered quickly. "A, uh, request from my master, Lord White Wolf."
"Enter. Close, lock door behind you."
The wolf was no fool; he had no interest in locking himself in with a creature he did not know, who, if the bartender's behavior was any indication, was a very, very dangerous man. Still, he walked into the shadowy room, asking before he closed the door, "I don't know how to put this delicately…" he paused. "How do I know you won't kill me as soon as I close this door?"
A rough chuckle ripped from the creature's throat. "Smarter than you look. Very vell, I tell: vhen I kill you, you vill face me, you vill be armed. Da?"
He didn't know why, but this put him at ease. "No honor among thieves."
"Is good think am no thief," the creature chuckled, blowing out more smoke. "Sit, stand, don't care. State business, volf."
"I…My boss needs a couple guys taken care of…the bartender downstairs, he told me you uh..." How had he put it? "…you have a reputation."
"Depend who talk. Depend vhere you hear. Every lord from here to Kievan Rus know my name, and fear me. Is eh, how you say…gossip? You know, I know thinks people say…I say, is no gossip."
"I don't even know your name."
"Yet." The creature took another draw from his pipe, and his body moved to pick something up. In the red light of the burning tobacco, the wolf saw a candle lit on the burning leaves, the warm golden light finally revealing the face of the mysterious assassin.
He had heard of these creatures, from the far north, and incredibly rare. Rarer than snow leopards, even rarer than Siberian tigers, this was an uncommon species, but also, an extraordinary people. Not even Amur tigers like Jiao Shen could brag about their own hardiness when compared to a creature like this one. Amur leopards may not have been as large or imposing as their tiger neighbors, but they were tougher in leaps and bounds.
This was exactly what sat before him, with an open bottle of hard liquor at his spotted claw and carved pipe between his black lips. The spotted cat's hide had wide rosettes, black-lined and dark gray in the middle, and he sported a broad, round, brawny face remarkably clear of scars, and a bulky body covered by thick golden fur. The only thing that stood out about this cat where the striking blue-green eyes that stared back at his guest, devoid of emotion, studying him like prey.
The Amur leopard took another long drag and bade his guest to sit. "Sit, sit, haff drink, da? I no hurt a customer…unless given good reason."
Warily, the wolf took the offered seat, but declined the drink. "Listen, uh, my boss was wondering if it were possible—I mean, if you are the best—"
"If I am best?!" the leopard laughed hoarsely. "If?! Boychik, I vas killing long before you vere crawlink! Now, who is dead man? Who is so difficult to kill?" the leopard poured more hard liquor for himself and raised it to his lips.
"Two men: Tai Lung, and the Dragon Warrior Po Ping."
The cup stopped when the rim reached his lips. The Amur leopard stared at his guest, a flicker of amazement in his blue-green eyes.
"Is joke," he growled.
"It's no joke," the wolf stated firmly. "My boss wants to gain access to the Valley of Peace, to raid it. In order to do that, the Dragon Warrior and Tai Lung need to be taken out…"
"You think I am eediot?" the leopard snarled with a curled lip, revealing his dangerously sharp yellowed fangs. He slammed his cup down onto the table. "I know vhat happen to Jiao Shen—I no idiot. Dragon Varrior and Tai Luung can stay in pretty valley. Is no fur off my back..."
"My boss will pay any price you ask. Money is no object."
"No object? Who you think you talk vit?" the leopard sneered. "You vant this done, see Vu Sister; let little fool kill theyself!"
"Vu Sister?" the wolf asked in confusion.
"Da. Vu Sister. Snow leopard, kill magistrate family last month…"
"Oh, the Wu Sisters!" the wolf smiled in understanding.
"Is vhat I say." The leopard fell silent a moment, then asked, "Hypo…hypothe…vhat is vord?"
"Hypothetically?" he offered.
"Da, that. Hypothetically," he said, testing the word on his tongue, "…how much?"
"Five hundred in silver, each."
The Amur leopard dared to sneer at the obscene amount. The wolf was completely flabbergasted; five hundred in silver was a prince's ransom! But the leopard scoffed, "You give trinket for prince! Never vork for so little!"
He never worked for so little? This guy must be loaded. The wolf knew how much was riding on this; if he didn't get this guy to agree, the job would fall to him and his comrades. And since none of them truly favored the idea of going up against either the panda or the snow leopard…he had to think fast. If Jiao Shen and his entire army were no match for a single panda and single snow leopard, what chance did he have? He wasn't bred for this; hell, he was from a family of silkworm farmers for Kuan Yin's sake! If his boss said that money was no object…
"Five hundred each, up front, double later."
"One thousand each, after job done?"
"Fifteen hundred each, in the end…with interest; say…ten percent?"
The Amur leopard mulled over this a moment, then nodded, rubbing his chin as he mused, "Ten percent, eh? Ten percent is good start. But am not sold."
"We can easily make it twenty."
"Twenty? Vell, naow ve are talkink…" the leopard said, leaning forward with interest.
But he wasn't done; the wolf had yet one more weapon in his arsenal. "There's also a…rumor…"
"Haff no time for games," the leopard said, emptying the pipe's contents into the brazier next to him.
"No games. You mentioned Jiao Shen…"
"He die two year ago," he replied emotionlessly. "To recover body cost extra."
"No, nothing like that. See, in China, I don't know if you've heard…there's a, ah, bounty out for any Jiao Clan survivors."
"Is no survivors."
"Wrong. According to the rumors, there's one. He was pardoned by the Emperor himself a year ago, and allowed to live in the Valley of Peace. Shen's youngest, Jiao Dalang."
This time the leopard looked completely surprised, almost dropping his pipe in shock. "…Vhat?"
The wolf nodded, perfectly serious.
The leopard shook his head, fervidly denying, "Is joke. You pull tail. Dalang die ova ten year ago—Jiao Shang kill him; I vas there, I know."
"Wrong again." The wolf swallowed hard, reiterating the story as he'd heard it. "They say that Shang faked it, and Dalang escaped. Shang's now dead, and Dalang's residing in the Valley of Peace. I have on good authority that he is there…and is married to Master Tigress, the leader of the Furious Five. Though because he's the last Jiao, and Shen had many enemies…those enemies placed a high price on Dalang's head, including my master."
"If true he marry Master Tigress, he smart man, surround himself vit friends like that…" the leopard thought it over, still stroking his chin considerately. He flicked his eyes over to the brazier, watching the coals as they burned. "…How much is vorth?"
"Jiao's enemies overall are offering five thousand total, in gold and silver."
The leopard laughed, low and throaty, the harsh amusement sounding like crunching gravel deep in his throat; not quite the reaction the wolf was expecting. Still, the leopard shook his head, chortling, "Trinkets for prince…king's ransom for urchin…you Han never cease to amaze. Now that I know vhat you say…" he said, standing and pacing the room. "Makes situation…most interesting."
"We just want the Dragon Warrior and Tai Lung dead," the wolf explained. "What you do with Dalang is your business; you'll get paid either way. I just…thought you might like to know."
"Is interesting…" the leopard nodded, staring into space as he thought.
"If its any consolation, Dalang would be easy to take down—" The wolf drew back in alarm when the leopard rounded on him.
"EASY?! You think easy to kill Jiao?! Kill panda and snow leopard is easy! You vere not there, you not know vhat Dalang can do. May be veak-minded, but no, never veak. Remember alvays these vords: he does not fight…does not mean he cannot."
"Wait, I'm confused…are you taking the job or not?"
The leopard stared him down, unblinking, and the wolf wondered if he should fear for his own life. But the leopard pulled away after a long, tense minute. "I vill take job, to kill panda and snow leopard. If anythink, it prove I stronger than two 'strongest' varriors."
"Would you kill Jiao Dalang too?"
The leopard paused then shrugged. "Depend on mood. Money make situation most interesting…and inviting. Whole thing is challenge…" he smiled cruelly. "Challenge, I like.
"But," he said with great emphasis, "Vill not happen right avay. Vill need time to spy, to know enemy, find veakness and take down. They haff family? Too easy. Girlfriend? Much easy. No like 'easy'…'easy' is lazy, no imagination. I like challenge…"
Wait a minute, this sounded awfully familiar…
The wolf had heard this philosophy before, but where? An assassin, best of the best, from the far north, who never took an easy job…
His heart leap into his throat as he gasped out the Amur leopard's name, a name that sent shivers down the spine of any who traveled the Silk Road. When he heard his name whispered, as if invoking an evil spirit, the Amur leopard laughed.
"Ah, you haff heard of me!" the leopard grinned. "Most egg-cellent. Tell your boss I vill take job. Vill visit, sign contract."
"We typically don't write up con—but we can always make exceptions!" he added quickly after the leopard's fierce glare. "Matter of fact, I'll ask my boss if he's okay with doubling your payment for the Dragon Warrior and Tai Lung!"
"Do vhat you vant," the assassin said dismissively. "They are not prize I seek."
"You favor Jiao Dalang over those two? But…they're the greatest warriors in all of China!"
"You misunderstand. Is personal."
The wolf waited for clarification; when he received none, he quickly excused himself, gave the assassin the address for the meeting, then promptly left. Downstairs, he glanced at the bartender, who wordlessly poured another cup of amber liquor for the quaking canine. The wolf gratefully accepted it and threw it back, the liquid sloshing over the rim from the force of his shaking hand. When he slammed the cup back onto the bar, he reached a trembling hand to his money bag. "H-how m-m-much do I owe you?"
"Fuhgeddabowit," the rhino said, ashen-faced. "On the house; after meeting with that guy, I'd hafta be heartless to charge ya for a drink."
Far to the south, in the foothills of the Tibetan mountains, The Master opened his eyes as the vision came to him. In his age, very little took him by surprise anymore, but this image of the savage creature—more animal than man—crossed his vision and prompted long-buried memories to return to the surface. Despite his years, despite the horrors he had seen—wars, refugees, disasters both natural and mortal—he shivered right down to the bones…but not from the chill in the dark room.
Gathering his saffron-yellow robes around him, he stood abruptly from his meditation and marched from the room, alerting the young monks who had been assigned as his assistants. The boys followed in silence, barely keeping up with The Master as he hurried down dark halls, passing the cells of his fellow monks, until coming out into the main courtyard.
The monastery around him was dark and quiet in the still of the night, the only sounds were the birds flying to their winter roost and the winds howling between the jagged peaks like ravenous wolves coming in for the kill. The monastery, built years ago, had scarlet walls and blue tile roofs, the tiles' color representing heaven. Only shrines and temples were allowed this color; only the emperor's palaces were allowed golden yellow tiles. And yet, the very building The Master was marching towards was a tall pagoda, roofed in solid gold ceramic tiles, the walls painted a red so brilliant that not even the harsh elements over hundreds of years could fade it. The heavy double doors, that would normally have taken a dozen men to open, slammed open when the old Master pushed against them and marched into the shrine. Before him was a red hall, the floors and pillars made of red marble; in the latter were carved ornamental birds and flames. He came upon another set of double doors, leading to the sanctuary.
The young boys drew back as The Master approached the doors, drawing out a key that hung around his neck. Fitting the key into the lock of the giant scarlet doors, he pushed the ancient structures open and strode into the hall. Before him was the monastery's most sacred shrine, and resting upon the altar, was a brilliant statue of a bird. This strange bird had the head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, a peacock's tail and the long spindly legs of a crane. Its wings were outstretched as if preparing for flight, and it held a most precious object safely in its beak. The one striking feature of this bird was its brilliant colors: bright red with wingtips and tail a shimmering gold, the statue carved from rubies, it was said, and gilt with gold so pure it was not even worthy of the emperor himself. Not even the Son of Heaven was worthy of a god's gold.
The Master halted himself just in time, kneeling before the statue and offering silent prayers before continuing forward. He reached for the altar and opened a red lacquered box, finding a golden scroll laid upon red silk. He extracted the scroll and laid it on a low table in front of the altar, his old wrinkled eyes scanning the yellowed document until he came to the passage he desired.
In the time when great turmoil comes to the empire, when all are threatened by evil, the Dragon Warrior must be chosen. When the Dragon Warrior is chosen, the time of the Phoenix Warrior is close at hand. The fires of war will devastate, rivers of plague wash over the land, winds of greed driving men to vice and scandal, all the forces of nature setting to destroy mortal Man to restore balance. Only when the Dragon soars and the Phoenix dances, shall peace and prosperity reign over the land.
The Master closed his eyes and rolled up the prophetic scroll, replacing it back into its protective case and in the box, which he locked securely before laying his hand upon it. So, the prophecy was true. He had heard that the Dragon Warrior had been decided, by Oogway no less. Legends told of a time prior to the very existence of kung fu, to an age in turmoil, much like this one, the so-called "Third Age", when two legendary warriors rose from the ashes of war and devastation to bring peace and order to a lawless land. The Master had seen the writing on the wall, as the saying went, and through his meditations, his tireless research, and visions he had seen since he was a lad, many, many decades ago, that the end of the Fourth Age was at hand.
And only the Dragon Warrior—and the Phoenix Warrior—could save them from almost certain and absolute destruction.
His eyes rose to the ruby bird, the legendary protector of the legendary warrior this temple was dedicated to. The legend of a man brought back from the brink of death to serve the people of his adopted homeland, who fought as a brother beside the greatest warrior Chinese history had ever known.
The Master had heard the story of the Dragon Warrior…and also heard the rumors that the Phoenix Warrior had also come.
"Heaven help us," he whispered. "Whoever you are, wherever you are…" he ran his fingers along the golden tail feathers, coming as close as he dared to the deity's likeness. "Your people need you."
Well, that's it for the teaser (or should this be considered a first chapter? *shrug* ). Please let me know what you think, what thoughts you have, I'd be very interested to hear (read) what you have to say. Please don't expect anything for a while. My personal life has been pretty hectic, and as I stated above, I can't guarantee that I'll actually get anything additional posted for another few months. Ideally, I'd love to have this completed before I post it, but I think we all know how futile that is. Anyways, please read and review.