This took a loooooong time to write. I've been incredibly busy at work, plus planning my wedding and visiting various relatives, generally keeping a social life, and a bad dose of writer's block, has largely prevented me from updating as soon as I'd like.
I know it's crap, I'm trying to wrap this story up as quickly as I can because I feel terrible leaving it unfinished for so long. The plan is to be done sometime this summer. Please be kind.
Disclaimer: I do not own Kung Fu Panda, or any of the characters created by Dreamworks Animation Studios. Any of the original characters belong to me, so please do not use them without my permission. Thank you.
Chapter 20: The Battle, Part 2
Tigress watched the outlaws' progress from her hiding place on the roof. She had wrapped a scarf around her mouth and nose, mindful of the fog her breath would have made in the frigid air. Many of these baddies were veteran warriors; they would have picked up on something like that, and her cover would have been blown.
A short few rooftops away, Crane was cleverly disguised by a chimney. Monkey was within sight, clinging to the bottom of an eave on a nearby 's eyes flicked to her left when she detected movement. She saw just the slightest glimmer of scales against the rising sun. Viper was in position. The cooing of a dove from Monkey was the signal that Mantis was also in position. She trained her eyes on where the insect would be hiding.
The magistrate's palace was easily the largest residential building in the village, and, being a palace, was also the most likely to be raided. Tigress had little love for the magistrate; she found him an arrogant and detestable man, and she certainly wasn't alone in thinking he needed an attitude adjustment, preferrably on the business end of her own fist. But it was the perfect target. So, while the man and his family were huddling in some dark hole (she frankly didn't give a damn where they were exactly, as long as they were out of her way), she decided that the best course of action was to take out as many outlaws as possible by luring them into a trap.
Crane was initially against this. He had rightfully pointed out that the Furious Five was better at full frontal attacks, and that ambush scenarios were not in their usual playbook. Then he surprised her – and particularly his wife – when he hatched out the details just the night before. Tigress had to wonder how he became so devious, until Viper pointed out just how long he had been avoiding his mother since the wedding. He had to have gotten some practice at supterfuge to be able to avoid a harpy like that.
The outlaws were in position. The cooing of the dove got louder, replaced quickly by a mock-rooster crow. Tigress pounced. She took out the stragglers at the back, yanking them back by the backs of their shirts and slammed them into each other, knocking them senseless. Viper came out of her hiding place, shooting out like an arrow and wrapping around two others, slamming them into the wall of a house. Crane shot straight up into the sky, wings beating to give him greater height before he turned back down and nosedived right into the middle of the group.
The outlaws were taken by complete surprise. Four were knocked down senseless by Crane's powerful wings before they even knew what had happened. Before the others could react, Crane beat his wings hard, throwing up a screen of powdery snow, blinding them and providing him cover.
Into the cloud of snow came Monkey, jabbing here, punching there, tripping, and knocking down his quarry. The outlaws began attacking each other, thinking that their comrades were the ones responsible for the sudden melee. Before long, Monkey was able to sneak his way out and back to the relative safety of the sidelines, snickering as he went.
Tigress moved in just as the powdery snow settled. The outlaws' faces registered only terror to see a very pissed-off female tiger awaiting them.
Mantis triggered the trap.
Suddenly the snowy square beneath them gave way and a net swept them up and off their feet. In seconds nearly ten creatures were suspended above the square in a cleverly disguised net. Their shouts had alerted comrades in other sections of the city, whose feet pounded the streets. Tigress could feel the vibrations under her feet.
"Mantis, now!" she shouted.
Mantis jumped from roof to roof, setting off traps as he went. Soon the twang of ropes and snares gave way to the surprised shouts of the bandits they had trapped. Crane took a swoop around the square, then came down to a landing beside Tigress. "Each trap set off perfectly. Looks like we got about three-score."
"Sixty's not bad," she said. "Is phase two ready?"
"Ready and rarrin'," Mantis said as he landed on her shoulder. "Awaiting your orders, chief."
"Okay, set off the fireworks."
"You're the boss!" Monkey quipped, earning a smirk from the feline. The quintet jumped into action, each going off into opposite directions. At the tops of the houses, hidden inside the chimneys, were the signal fireworks. Mantis reached his first, drew his pincers across the brickwork and created the spark that set off his flare. Monkey cast a flint across his, as did Viper. Crane and Tigress similarly drew their talons and claws, respectively, across the stones and stood back to see the fireworks launch into the sky and explode into brilliant scarlet chrysthanthemums. Now they could only wait.
When Koshchei first heard the shouts, he thought nothing of it. It wasn't until he saw the red fireworks in the early morning sky that he paid attention. And by then it was too late. He ducked behind a nearby croc who took the majority of the arrows that had been intended for the leopard. Tossing the croc aside, the leopard assassin seethed, seeing faces peeking out from behind cracks in doors and windows. Fools.
"Take the houses!" he ordered. "Just farmers and villagers! Veaklings! Kill every last one of them!"
Koshchei however was not above believing that discretion was the better part of valor. He had not previously been aware of this. It wasn't until the sky above him suddenly darkened and he realized with horror that it was a torrent of arrows coming his way that he ducked under an abandoned cart. Some of the arrows had been going so fast their tips had gone straight through the wood, stopping just inches from his body. The rest of the creatures he had been travelling with were not as lucky, nor did they have his reflexes. Lang was the only one to escape the onslaught, taking refuge around a corner. The lupine youth crept out of his hiding place and passively looked over the bodies. "Like porcupines...they look like porcupines with all those arrows sticking out of them."
Koshchei ignored him and crawled out from under the cart and hissed to feel a twinge in his back. The old war wound was acting up. That wound hadn't bothered him in years. Not since the last time his life was absolutely threatened. So what did that say about this battle? Was he destined not to survive it?
It didn't matter. He would have his way by the end of the day, one way or another. He just needed to get his bearings, and his plan would come to fruition.
"So," Lang said off-handedly, "Farmers and villagers, huh? Looks like they got themselves an army after all."
"Shut up," Koshchei hissed.
"Where are we going anyway?" Lang asked, kicking a dead body aside.
"To make visit."
"Anyone we know?"
"Is, how you say, need to know basis."
"And I don't need to know?"
"Fine, screw you, too."
Koshchei bit back on the growl. He did not like this change in the lupine youth as much as he thought he would have. But no matter, he would serve his purpose soon enough.
Koshchei continued on his way towards the center of town, with Lang keeping a good distance away lest another volley of arrows decided to drop in.
Back in the main square, reinforcements had arrived. The villagers that had been trained with the more complex weapons charged right into the outlaws, who were taken completely by surprise. Tigress was astounded; the plan was working better than she could have ever imagined.
Fishermen from the lakes and rivers cast their nets and became fishers of men, yanking outlaws off their feet and hoisting them high in the air. Cormorants were similarly employed under Crane's direction, picking up outlaws in their talons and lifting them high in the air before "accidentally" letting them fall.
The fact that people could and would die had occurred to Tigress, briefly, but she had purposefully put those thoughts aside. Dwelling on them would not help her, and she had to stay focused. Outlaws were falling to the villagers' weapons at a steady rate, but not enough for her liking. Too many had already been wounded on her side, and not enough on the enemy's. She was, understandably, a little on-edge.
So when someone tapped on her shoulder, the only thing they could have possibly expected was Tigress wrapping her hand around their throat before asking any questions.
Dalang, despite being married to her, did not know this. "Hi...honey..." he choked out.
Tigress immediately let go, looking sheepish, "Sorry."
"It's okay," he said a little hoarsely, rubbing his throat. "I'm sorry I'm running late, we had a major stand-off a few blocks away. What'd I miss?"
"We have about twenty wounded on our side and more falling. We may have to retreat."
Just as she finished, a half dozen gorilla bandits stormed onto the scene. Villagers, terrified of the sheer size of these armored monsters, scattered and fled as the gorillas laughed.
"Okay," Tigress said, "Now we're definitely retreating."
"The hell we are," Dalang sniffed. "I'll take care of this."
Dalang grasped her hand and gave her a reassuring smile. "I got this." Then he strode forward to meet the six gorilla bandits.
They were huge. Easily eight hundred pounds each, and each meaner-looking than the next. Dalang didn't stop; he walked up to them as leisurely as greeting an old friend. "Mornin' boys," he said jovially enough. That was when Tigress noticed the shortened bamboo weapon tucked into his belt.
The gorillas' leader snorted and approached the tiger, who displayed no apparent fear. "Whoever challenges us, accepts death!"
"Wow, really? That's the best you can do?" Dalang asked with a quizzical brow. "I mean, really?"
"Shut up before we pound your face into the ground!"
"Don't you mean, 'shut up or we'll pound your face in the ground'? It's a pretty crucial conjunction."
Tigress's shout made Dalang cringe: "Damn it, Dalang, this is not the time to be a smart ass!"
Dalang forced a smile and waved back, "Thank you, honey."
"Honey?" the gorilla asked. "Wait, isn't that..."
"Master Tigress? Yup."
"And you just called her honey?"
"So that makes you..."
"Jiao Dalang? Also yep."
The gorilla stared at him a moment then burst out laughing. "You? You! Look at you, ha!" he shoved Dalang's shoulder roughly, causing the tiger to step back a couple paces. "Look at you! You're too scrawny to be a Jiao!"
"I didn't eat all my vegetables as a kid, stunted my growth. I hit 6'2" at age twelve and just stopped growing. My brothers never let me live it down."
"And what, you're going to fight all us...with a stick?"
"Oh, you mean this 'lil ole thing?" Dalang asked, drawing out the bamboo case. "Yeah, pretty much."
The gorilla glared at him. "Maybe you should listen to your little woman and stop runnin' your mouth."
"Gladly, as soon as you run the hell out of my town," he said as he held the weapon up in front of him with a hand on either end of the short bamboo staff.
The gorilla barely gave him time to react as he slammed his fist straight into the middle of the staff...and broke into two very sharp blades.
With a flourish and expert flicks of his wrists, Dalang swung the swords around and felled the gorilla leader in less than five seconds. As the gorilla lay dead in the street, his blood flowing between the cobble stones, his allies decided to attack the tiger who dared challenge them.
Dalng stepped to the side to avoid one fist, brought one sword up to block the war hammer from another, and used the other sword to swing upwards and slice the war hammer's handle in half. He turned around on his heel, bringing the other sword around with him and slashing at that gorilla's middle. He then brought both swords up, crisscrossed, to block the downward motion of the axe intended for his head. The tiger kicked the gorilla in the stomach and, when that didn't work, kicked lower. That one down, he swung the swords over his wrists, and thrust behind him as he dipped into a lunge, the blades going right into the guts of two other gorillas. As soon as they fell, he turned on his heel, bringing both swords together and leveled them at the throat of the last gorilla.
To his credit, this gorilla was not as dumb as he looked. He dropped his weapon immediately, staring into the eyes of a very pissed-off male tiger. Then the ape thumbed over his shoulder. "So...exit to the village thataway, yeah?"
Dalang's voice had no humor left in it: "You have to the count of five to get out and never come back."
They stared at each other again, the gorilla in wonderment and perhaps a little delayed response, and the tiger with barely controlled rage. The gorilla's time was a lot shorter than he imagined.
Dalang's blades sliced across his neck. Dalang stepped out of the way as the gorilla fell forward. Then he became aware of his surroundings once again. He shook his head to snap himself out of it. It bothered him that he had nearly blacked out – that was one of the first signs of Dragon Rage, and he had seen Shang suffer it too long to mistake it for anything else.
Dalang looked up and saw Tigress looking worriedly into his face, searching for something.
"No you're not," she said, her tone hardened. "That was murder. He had surrendered."
"No," he argued, "That was defense. I'm not running the risk of him going for reinforcements."
"Both of you!" Viper snapped, slithering up Tigress's arm, "Now is not the time! Have this argument later. We've got company!"
While he had tackled the gorillas, other outlaws had regrouped and surrounded them. The Furious Five were outnumbered, but so were the villagers, which was an even bigger worry for him.
"Sonam's not far from here," he whispered to them. "If we get a signal to him, he should send in our own reinforcements."
"Do we have any other flares?" Tigress asked her friend.
Viper pointed with her tail to the rooftop in question. "Over there."
Dalang looked and felt his stomach sink. "And it's just lousy with outlaws."
"Do you need help?"
"I just need a distraction so I can get up there with as few scratches as possible..."
Tigress and Viper shared a look before the serpent replied with a sly smile, "I think we can do that. Tigress, I'm thinking...Formation forty-two."
Tigress grinned wickedly. "Forty-two it is."
"What the hell is Formation Forty-two?" he asked.
Viper waved him off, "No time, too complicated to explain, just be ready!"
On the other side of the village, near the warehouse district, part of Tigress's plan was already beginning to come undone. Sonam, despite his unnatural (though perfectly rational) fear of tiny female red pandas, had resolved that his original plan was a good one. It was also important to remember that Tai Lung had to get his obstinacy from somewhere.
By the older snow leopard's side was Su Lin, who was instructing the villagers (mostly men) on how to use the little explosives. She had handed over some convenient disguised explosives to some of the females, but none whatsoever to children, who were safely hidden below in the root cellar of the house they were occupying.
Sonam gave a final round of instructions before donning his own assassin's uniform. His body and joints ached from the cold, but he wasn't about to give up the old mantle now, not when so many people needed him. And, more importantly, blowing stuff up never got old.
"Are you sure Tigress won't mind?" Su Lin asked for the umpteenth time.
"Don't fret your pretty self, love," Sonam answered confidently. "Besides, it's not Tigress I'm afraid of."
"Oh right," the panda said with a raised brow. "I distinctly recall Auntie threatening certain body parts if you went ahead with this anyway."
"I am rather partial to my kneecaps, yes. So what she doesn't know won't hurt me."
"How brave of you..."
Sonam shushed her. "Oi, any of these men would confess to being afraid of the old battle axe, and those who won't are either lying or haven't been on the business end of her fans."
Su Lin sighed in resignation and stood next to him, peeping through the crack in the shutters. She had traded in her usual dress for a loose quilted shirt and trousers, both belted tightly around her waist. A silly little dress would not be very practical for what she had planned. "I see someone coming," she whispered.
"I do, too," he whispered back, fixing the mask to the lower half of his face. "Right, positions, here we go!"
Down below, Zi Hao and his men had finally gotten away from Mrs. Chin and the knitting circle, only to find themselves fighting off residents of the neighborhood they found themselves in. And these weren't merchants who had gotten fat off their trades. No, he was now dealing with stronger workers, men and women who were used to heavy lifting and had little trouble throwing a fully grown male wolf over their shoulders and face down into the street. Needless to say, Zi Hao was not having a good day.
"Finally!" a crocodile managed to say. "Quiet!"
Hao stopped him, and after a pause said, "Too quiet. They're watching us."
"Oh good," a voice rasped behind him. "You're not as dumb as you look."
The explosives went off, here and there, bringing forth bursts of blinding white light and loud bangs, blinding and deafening the outlaws; a few tried to run and instead ran into walls or barrels, others tripped and fell all over each other. Zi Hao had the presence of mind to cover his ears when the little bombs went off, but his ears sting rang. What little he could hear, he knew he was quickly surrounded. He drew his sword and lashed out wildly in any direction. The pressure against his sword told him he'd made contact with something soft, a few things hard, but whether it were bodies and weapons or sacks of rice and random tools, he didn't know. The light had blinded him, and he had always been a poor student of blindfolded fighting.
By the time his vision started to come back, he came face to face with a masked feline with one eye. That eye wasn't as savage Koshchei's appealing blue-green, but it was no less dangerous.
"'Ello, 'ello, pup," the feline said before drawing his own blade. Zi Hao barely had any time to block it before the masked cat launched into yet another assault. The black wolf knew he was outmatched, and also knew that he was very much alone now, thanks to the fact his comrades were now indisposed. He would either have to make a run for it, or die here, or fight dirty. He decided to fight dirty.
He ducked to avoid a swing from Sonam's blade, dipping low to reach into his leg bindings for the knife he had concealed there. By the time he straightened up Sonam had already anticipated his move, sidestepped, and brought his elbow down hard on the wolf's outstretched stabbing arm. Hao dropped the knife, and it clattered to the frozen ground and slid off somewhere. Wherever it went, Hao needed to follow. He was out of his league, and needed reinforcements.
Luckily for him, Yu Wang was not far behind. When he saw his comrade in a fight to the death, the light gray wolf ran directly for the masked feline, drawing out a weapon he had stolen off a dead body. He raised the scythe over his head to bring down on Sonam's unprotected back, when something large hit him from the side. Yu Wang slammed into the nearest wall, cracking the plaster and a couple bones. When he came back to his senses, he was being held by the lapel by a female giant panda.
And Su Lin was furious. She held him at arm's length and delivered another punch that threw him backwards a few paces. The crunch of bone breaking was obvious. Yu Wang had heard something about bears being strong, but he didn't expect the females to be so aggressive!
"Going to sneak up on someone in a fair fight?" she asked him, cracking her knuckles. "You have two options. You can either stand and fight me, or surrender to me and I let you live." She was bluffing, and she knew it; her code forbade her to harm anyone (except in certain rare circumstances, such as this one), and killing someone was by far against her moral code. She hoped the wolf would accept her terms and not call her bluff.
He called her bluff. "You?" he laughed. "You're just a panda!"
"The Dragon Warrior is a panda," she reminded him.
"He's a male panda, sweetcheeks."
"Meaning what? Did a male panda just break your nose, or crack your ribs? And I'm pretty sure a male panda didn't give you that black eye."
Yu Wang bared his teeth at her. "No way, I'm not gonna stand here and have a woman speak to me like that!"
Su Lin rolled her eyes. Not another one, she thought. "Fine. Your funeral." she opened up a satchel tied to her hip, pulling out an incense stick. She knelt on the ground, sticking it into the frosty ground as deep as it would go. She lit it.
"What are you doing?" Yu Wang asked.
"I'm praying for you," she replied. "I think you'll need it." She stood up and adopted the same stance that Po and Tai Lung had taught her since they started teaching her basic kung fu. "Come and get it, big boy."
He did, launching into a number of punches and kicks that she quickly and efficiently blocked. They grappled for a moment or so, before Su Lin got impatient and slammed her foot down on top of his. Yu Wang wailed in pain and backed away, before getting hit in the face with another of Su Lin's punches. Then another...and another! This female panda was more than what he expected. But for some reason, for all her bravado, she still called to her masked friend, "Sonam, retreat!"
While she had turned to yell, Yu Wang snuck up behind her, twisting her arm behind her back, and pressing a knife to her throat. "That was a stupid move, babe," he hissed in her ear.
"Sonam, get out of here!" she shouted at the masked one. "I got this one!"
"Only thing you got, little girl," Wang grinned, "Is a whole mess of trouble. Now what's a sweet thing like you doing fighting in a war like this?"
"Sonam," she snapped, "I'm not telling you again, get your tail out of here, now!"
"Ooh, feisty, I like that," Wang said, before taking a deep whiff at the nape of her neck. "You smell good."
Su Lin hesitated before letting out a laugh. And she continued laughing. It was getting pretty unnerving. Finally Yu Wang had to ask, "What's so damn funny?"
She stomped her heel down hard on his toes, twisted around and away from the knife until she had turned to face him to give him a grim smile.
"That's not incense," she said, before making a run for it.
By the time Yu Wang realized what she meant, it was already too late for him.
The incense explosive went off, toppling the walls surrounding the wolf, and burying him beneath a pile of rubble.
Su Lin was safe, and she knew enough not to let out a sigh of relief until she was completely out of danger. Then she heard Sonam swear loudly. "What?" she asked.
He ripped the lower mask off his face in frustration. "Damned black wolf got away! Used the explosion to go off!"
"Forget about him, we need to keep moving," she snapped. She was shaking a bit, trying to fasten the pouch on her hip. "I used too much black powder..."
"You used enough to save your life; you were right. Now come on, Su Lin, we got to move!" Sonam took her by the hand and led her down the street, following the villagers, who were closing in on yet another band of outlaws.
Conditions in the birthing room were about the same as for the battle: some successes, and some drawbacks.
Mei Xing had stopped walking once the pain became too severe. Instinct and Aunt Wu's tips told her that walking would help speed up the delivery, but it hurt so much to even move her arm, that walking was out of the question. Aunt Wu and Shifu were both employed in rubbing the snow leopardess's lower back, the feline gripping the sheets tightly with each new contraction, and her whole body slackening when the contractions eased.
"How much longer?" she asked Wu.
"You're right on schedule, dear. Don't rush this."
"Check again, please."
"I checked you five mintues ago, I can assure you that little has changed."
Shifu sought to diffuse the feline's temper. "Why don't I get you some more food, maybe some herbal tea? You need your strength."
"Fine, okay, go."
Glad to be away, Shifu grabbed Little Brother and escorted the little red panda down to the kitchen. Mr. Ping was already down there, having just taken off his coat.
"Mr. Ping," Shifu asked, aghast, "You didn't just come from outside, did you?"
"I assure you I did!" the goose said. "I need to make noodles."
Shifu wanted to smack him, but held back. "Ping, we're in the middle of a war zone, and trying to keep a low profile with a laboring female upstairs..."
"Mei Xing's in labor? Why didn't you say so! I will make her a special soup!"
"I will have to make sure the ingredients include things that won't upset her stomach too much..."
"And extra thick noodles! And tofu, lots of tofu of course...though maybe I should go easy on the scallions..."
"Your fire!" Shifu pressed. "The smoke from the chimney will alert the outlaws that someone is in here! This will be the first place they hit!"
Mr Ping flippantly replied, "Oh, I'm not worried."
"You should be! What if someone were to walk right through that door and—"
And on cue, a trio of boars barged into the restaurant's serving area. Before they even got out a threat, however, Mr. Ping tugged on a cord Shifu hadn't noticed before, which triggered a booby trap featuring nearly every single kitchen knife at the goose's disposal. The boars were lucky they were standing where they were. Had they been a few inches closer, they would have been killed. Instead, they stood surrounded in a ring of knives that had stuck up in the floor. Quickly deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, the trio turned and fled, leaving their weapons behind.
"Thank you, come again!" Mr Ping called after them.
Shifu and Little Brother stared in amazement. The former had to ask, "When did you install this?"
"What, this old thing? Last night," the goose replied. "Though I've had other booby traps for years. Ah, careful you don't step to your left, there's a button that releases tongues of flame."
"Tongues of flame?" Shifu asked, astonished. "How did you...?"
"Of course he did."
"And speak of the devil, here he is!"
Sonam hoisted himself over the wall and landed next to the goose, clasping a hand over his bill. "Will you keep your bloody voice down? It's bad enough that I may have been foll—oh, the trap worked?"
"Like a charm!"
"Oh, jolly good!" the snow leopard said jovially, taking off the mask. "Otherwise, how are things? How's Mei?"
"In labor," Shifu responded.
Sonam's face paled. "What, since when?"
"Since early this morning, maybe late last night, apparently. She's up in her room now."
"I'd better see to her..."
"I'll bring up noodles for everyone when they're ready!" the goose said. "Though I think I could use a little help...that room is no place for a child so young."
Shifu handed Little Brother over to Mr. Ping's care, grateful for the goose's otherwise levelheadednessand natural paternal instinct. Because the red panda was nearly panicking. By the time they got back to the bedroom, Mei Xing was laying back on the pillows, focusing on her breathing to calm herself down.
"Alright, now that we're in here, how's it going out there?" Shifu asked Sonam, closing the door behind them.
The snow leopard stopped short of the bed where Mei Xing was lying down. "First," he said, taking her wrist and holding her arm straight out, "Let's see how far you can reach..." After determining her range, he took another step back for safety's sake, then said, "The warehouse district has been cleared out, the Furious Five and Dalang were last seen downtown, which is where I'm headed, and oh right, we decided that explosives were a good idea."
"What about Tai Lung?" Mei Xing asked desperately, before Wu could lose her temper.
"No bloody clue," was the answer she received.
Mei Xing swiped, hitting only air. Her claws came within inches of the older snow leopard's face.
Wu Lien nodded approvingly, allowing herself to ignore Sonam's insubordination. For now. "You learned from the last time."
"Last time?" Shifu asked.
"He got too close to Nima while she was in labor," the female red panda explained. "That's how he got those claw marks on the right side of his face."
Shifu glared at the other elder male, "You told me that was a war wound!"
"Oi, did I ask about that scar you got on your hip?"
"How did you know about—oh you have to be kidding!" he glared at his wife.
Wu Lien pursed her lips. "Shifu, now's really not the time..."
"You told him about the scar?"
"I told him you had a scar, not how you got it."
"I'm going to give every last one of you some scars if you don't shut the hell up and get this thing out of me!" Mei Xing growled.
Sonam sighed, "Ah, that takes me back...Except I'm rather glad I'm not the one who's being threatened this time; that's a lovely change of pace."
Wu stepped away from the bed after checking the snow leopardess's progress. "Well, you're about halfway there," she began washing her hands, "I'd give it another couple hours."
"Would the crying alert anyone?" Shifu asked.
Wu hesitated, realizing that he had a point. If the invaders heard the baby crying, they might target that house...and possibly kill everyone inside. If enough of them came in, they'd be overrun, even with two kung fu masters and one knife-obsessed goose.
Mei Xing then gritted out through another contraction, "I don't give a damn. If I live through this, and those assholes decide to come in, I'll kill every last one of them or die trying!"
"That's the spirit!" Sonam said happily. "Well, you seem to have things under control here, better go see how the Five and my pupil are doing..."
The Furious Five and Dalang were not doing so well. More and more outlaws began pouring into the main square, that was barely defended by the villagers. Farmers and fishermen were the physically strongest and able to take down their share of enemies, while the merchants and trained soldiers executed battle plans.
Formation Forty-two had been a success, however, as now Dalang had fought his way to the roof and set off the signal flare calling for reinforcements. The flare set off an angry red flower in the sky, the boom echoing off the peaks surrounding the valley. He surveyed the work ahead of him, then took a deep breath and leapt down onto the backs of the enemies below. His swords slashed and stabbed with fury, and he lost track of the number he had slain.
Keep it together, he told himself, don't lose focus. Don't be like Shang or Xiang...don't lose sight of who you are. That's what Shifu told you. Don't lose sight of who you are...
The Furious Five fought as a group, circled back to back, surrounded on all sides, but holding their own. Viper's subtlety, Crane's height, Mantis's speed, Monkey's wits and Tigress's strength were at their peak, with no signs of slowing down.
"Break!" Tigress shouted, and the Five scattered, forcing their way through the melee. The villains fell in droves as each of the skilled fighters picked them off. Dalang took his eyes off of them for only a moment to stab a boar that had snuck up on him. Tigress was moving in his direction, whether she was aware of this or not, he had no clue. He spied movement on the roof across the street. He turned to look over his shoulder. Just as he thought; the outlaws were climbing to the roof to get the drop on the Five.
He side-stepped to avoid a wolf that Tigress had thrown over her shoulder. Their eyes met across the melee, and he took the silent command. Spying a set of crates, Dalang easily scaled them and jumped onto the roof to go after the bandits. None of these outlaws were anywhere near as well-trained as any of Shen's horde had been. Dalang knew he should have felt guilt for killing them, and somehow Shifu's lessons had made their way to the forefront of his brain. So instead of killing them in cold blood, Dalang only wounded them enough to take them out of the fight: a cut here, blow to the head there, twisted arm, broken leg...
Then Dalang saw perhaps the scariest thing he had ever seen: yards away from his wife, an ox had struggled to his feet, grabbed a knife, and was slowly advancing on Tigress's unprotected back. Thinking quickly, Dalang grabbed the closest thing to him: a yak carrying a longbow and single arrow. The yak was pushed off the roof, and what happened to him, Dalang didn't care. He was too far away to throw a knife, too far away to reach her in time, and though he was a horrible shot, he had to do something. Notching the arrow to the bowstring, and feeling only slightly ridiculous, he raised his voice to the now-deserted roof.
"Feng, if you're there—and I really hope you are—I could really use your help right now."
The ox on the ground got closer, a murderous light in his eyes. Tigress was oblivious, fighting off the crocs in front of her.
"Feng," Dalang said as he raised the bow and tried to take aim. His arms were not meant for archery—they had always been much weaker, too weak, to hold a bow and arrow for long, "If this arrow doesn't hit that ox, I'm going to lose Tigress. She's the love of my life, and I can't lose her. If you have any idea what it feels like to lose someone you love..."
The ox broke into a run. Tigress's back was still turned.
"Feng, please. Please, help—!"
He felt something hit his arm and his arrow flew—high, too high, way too high.
Dalang cursed, but watched as the arrow richoeted off a roof tile, then off an overhanging eve, across the street, richoted off a wok...and straight into the ox's back. The ox let out a surprised grunt and fell forward. Tigress turned and saw the dead ox, then looked down the street at her husband. She looked as surprised to see him holding a bow as he was that his arrow actually hit its mark.
What the hell had just happened? He was alone, but for one strange moment, Dalang swore that he felt someone's hands on his arms, guiding them to the correct placement, and he swore it felt like someone had raised his aim to ricochet just like...
Just like Feng had done, many, many times during his lifetime.
"...Feng, if you're still in here, you are getting the biggest offering of shumai any ancestor has ever seen. Ever."
"Dalang! Heads up!" Crane shouted.
Dalang lifted the bow in the air and Crane grabbed hold, easily lifting the tiger above the crowd. The tiger let go and landed on a gorilla bandit, throwing him over his shoulder and unsheathing his swords again to face a black wolf that had just arrived on the scene.
The black wolf ground to a halt in front of the tiger, and took a step back in alarm. He blinked, then asked, "Jiao Dalang, right?"
"You want the bounty that bad, huh?" the tiger hissed, panting with exertion. "How much am I worth now?"
"I'm not interested in that. C'mon, only one guy here wants you really dead, and he's nowhere to be seen."
Dalang's anger evaporated immediately when he realized what the wolf was really saying, and after some thought, he realized with horror exactly what the old leopard had been planning. He broke off into a run.
Viper noticed him make a mad dash back into the village. "Where are you going?" she called.
"After Koshchei!" Dalang yelled back. "I know what he's planning!"
The black wolf, Zi Hao, only smirked triumphantly and slinked off down an alley to take care of his next target...
The trip up the mountain to the Jade Palace was made even more arduous thanks to the good foot of snow on the ground. Po and Tai Lung were used to the climb (though they still hated it), but Lan Duo and Altai were having a harder time of it. By the time they got to the top, they made right for the forge. The Palace was deserted, but all they needed was behind one padlocked door. Unfortunately for them, it was locked.
"Blast!" Tai Lung cursed. "Of all the times the old man has to lock his forge..."
Duo, who had finally caught his breath, scoffed and shoved him aside. "Move over, amateur." The wolf got down on one knee, took out a small case from a pocket inside his sleeve and opened it. He took out a tiny lockpick, inserted it into the lock, and the lock gave away almost as soon as the thin piece of metal made contact. Standing, the wolf took the lock off the bolt with a flick of the wrist and pushed open the door. In response to their surprised looks, he sighed, reminding them, "Okay, hello? Bandit."
When they got into the forge however, they were again dismayed.
"So...I'm not seeing any weapons," Altai said.
"What the...where did all the weapons go?" Po asked.
Tai Lung groaned. "They must have cleared it all out for the battle."
"Super," Duo said dourly. "Any other great ideas?"
"Just one," said Tai Lung, "The Sacred Hall of Warriors."
"Isn't that full of old kung fu artifacts?" Duo asked.
"Yes," he answered
"Really worth a lot of money, right?" the wolf mused aloud.
"I thought you were giving up the bandit lifestyle," Po said suspiciously.
Duo shrugged. "No one raised me a fool."
They made their way to the Sacred Hall of Warriors as quickly as they dared. Altai cautioned them to be as swift and covert as possible, though he didn't say why. Tai Lung assumed it was due to the fact that some of the outlaws must have already made their way to the top, and they were avoiding them as best as they could. Granted, he was confident he and Po could take on a few dozen...but Duo and Altai were a different story.
They snuck into the Sacred Hall through a back door that Po had "discovered" (Really he had fallen through it, though he left that part out whenever he told the story). The Sacred Hall of Warriors was empty, deserted but for the kung fu relics resting in their respective perches. Altai was the first to make a sound.
"Master Flying Rhino's armor...damn, that takes me back."
Tai Lung shushed him and crept along the wall. "Keep your voices down. No telling who's here or watching us."
"Yeesh, paranoid much?" Duo muttered.
"I heard that!" the snow leopard snarled.
Po was surveying the artifacts with a more practiced eye, seeing them now as weapons, not memorabilia. He had to focus. He couldn't geek out over Master Dog's ninja weapons, or the Golden Spear, or the Sword of Heroes. Po picked up the Sword of Heroes and felt the weight of it in his hand. It didn't feel right. He expected to feel strong, the weapon to be light in his hand...but instead it felt weighty and unwielding. He wouldn't be able to fight with this. The panda sighed and moved on...then stopped.
He smiled, and strode forward to the one artifact he knew now to be his birthright. Taking a moment to bow before the portrait above it, Po reached out and reverently picked up Oogway's staff. This felt right. This felt...this felt like he had always been meant to wield it. To carry it, and protect with it. Yes, this felt much better. Maybe not as bad-ass as the Sword of Heroes, but for the panda, it was certainly a much better fit.
Po paused a moment. Something was different about this exhibit. He realized that there, propped up against the same stand that held Oogway's staff, was a remarkably familiar-looking bamboo...
"Tai..." Po said warily, grabbing his friend's sleeve and yanking him over.
"What? I was thinking maybe the pudao here, but..."
"Tai Lung," Po said calmly but sternly, "Look at the bamboo staff leaning up against this table.
Tai Lung did, and when he saw it, the pudao in his hands clattered to the floor. "No...no, it can't be possible."
"Nothing is impossible," Po reminded him.
"But it...no, Po everything was destroyed in the fire, there's no way that's his staff!"
Po reached out and gently placed the bamboo staff in Tai Lung's hands. The staff was charred and scorched in some places, and dusted with a little ash, like it had been carelessly left by a hearth. Tai Lung refused to believe it. But he had a sneaking suspicion...
"Po, I'm going to ask you to do something rather silly."
"I want you to take this staff..."
"And bop me on the head with it."
Po paused. "You want me to hit you in the head with the stick that's currently in your hand."
"Okay, you asked for it." Po snatched it out of Tai Lung's open palms and gave his friend a hearty whap. The snow leopard reacted as expected, pressing his palms to his crown and letting out a surprised yowl of pain. But then he reacted in a way that was unexpected. He straightened, stared at the bamboo staff, and took it back, grinning like a child on New Year's. "It is! Sweet goddess of mercy, Po, it's Sun Bear's staff!"
"Wow," the panda gasped. "I know nothing is impossible and everything, but still, how the heck did that thing survive the fire? Everything else was destroyed..."
The warriors shared a look between them, looked down at their respective weapons, and came to a decision:
"You know what?" Tai Lung asked. "I'm not going to question it."
"Good plan," Po agreed. "So, we good?"
"I think so."
Meanwhile, Duo was going from artifact to artifact, testing their reliability. He scoffed at the golden shield, the heavy iron glove, and had instead moved on to a display Po knew well. The wolf read the plaque beneath the sword: "The Sword of Heroes, said to be so sharp you can cut yourself just by—OW!" he pulled away, sucking on his suddenly cut thumb. He cast a glare at the sword and shook his head. "Nope, not using that one."
Then his eyes settled on the most dazzling of the weapons in the hall. He grinned. "Now we're talking..."
Po and Tai Lung, however, were not as enthused. In fact, they dropped the staves in their hands, staring at Duo with twin horrified expressions. "Duo, WAIT!"
The wolf turned to look at them, the Golden Spear in his hands. His fingers were wrapped almost tenderly around the spear shaft, and standing there, he looked...almost regal, despite the rags and bandages still on his body. But what surprised them most...he wasn't writhing in agony, nor was he fully engulfed in flames. In fact, he looked like he was holding just any old spear, instead of one that was meant to turn the unworthy into a pile of ash the instant they touched it.
Duo, obviously, did not know this.
He stared back at them and said, "What?"
Po and Tai Lung shared a look, then looked back at the wolf, before the same smile spread across their faces.
"You know something?" Po asked, "It really doesn't matter."
"No, it matters," Duo said. "You looked at me like I just kicked a puppy. What? Can I use this or not?"
"Use it," Tai Lung said with meaning, "It looks like it was made for you."
That was when Duo gaped and then charged right at the snow leopard. Before Tai Lung could understand, Duo had already thrust the spear forward...and blocked the stab from a sword aimed right at Tai Lung's heart.
The wolf stood in front of him now, growling, hackles raised and gripping the spear shaft like a vice. Opposing him was someone Tai Lung did not know, a black war horse, who had a wild, dangerous look in his eyes. The horse was panting as if he had run from a long distance away, and this coupled with the insanity creeping behind his eyes told Tai Lung all he needed to know.
"You must be Zang Deshi."
The horse let out a little laugh. "Ah, you know who I am? Who warned you?"
"An old friend."
"Seriously," Duo hissed at him, "give me one reason..."
"Ah, and I see you have your own guard dog, how charming!" the horse laughed.
Tai Lung grabbed Duo's shoulder before the wolf could retaliate. "Don't, it's a trick."
"It's working," the wolf growled. "Nobody calls me a dog!"
"So are you going to hide behind your friends...and your women?" Zang taunted. "I've been waiting for you...oh yes, I've been waiting too long for this!"
"Fine," Tai Lung said, pushing Duo aside. "If you want a fight, you've got it."
Tai Lung, Po said telepathically, don't fall for it.
Don't worry, the snow leopard replied, I have a feeling I can beat him alone. There's something...off about him.
Altai said not to underestimate him.
You let me worry about that. Get Duo and Altai out of here, I'll finish this. "I understand you've been after me a long time?"
"Far too long," Zang said. "Because of you, many of my friends are dead."
"Yes, I get that a lot. You'll have to be more specific."
You get that a lot? Po asked him. Since when?
It's a ploy. If I get him mad enough, he'll make a mistake.
"Friends like Commander Vachir, does that ring any bells?" Zang hissed, twisting his sword in his hand and holding it ready to strike against Tai Lung's staff.
Tai Lung knew he had to play this part well. He needed to buy his friends some time. Po, Altai and Duo could get into the thick of battle while he took care of one crazy horse. But he couldn't let Zang in on the plan.
"That's amusing," he chuckled. "I didn't know he had any friends." I really hope I didn't sound this conceited before my reformation...he thought to himself. "Well, if you're intent to do this, let's not waste any time."
And Zang didn't. The warhorse lunged forward, stabbing right at Tai Lung's middle. The snow leopard repelled the blade with the staff, twisting his body just so that the sword point ripped through his sleeve, shaving the tops off a few hairs.
Okay, he's a bit better than I thought.
Zang swung the sword again, this time lodging it into the nearest pillar, right where Tai Lung's neck had been. The snow leopard knew his chances against a skilled swordsman like this, so he needed something better than steel, something that trumped metal.
Zang wasn't going to make it easy for him. The horse swung the blade around, turning on his hooves with a grace and fluidity that would have Sonam's approval.
Then it came to him.
He stood up, leaning right into Zang's attack, slamming the staff's end right into the horse's gut. Zang stumbled back, grabbing onto Tai Lung's arm for stability, instead tearing more at the fabric. Tai Lung finished the job, ripping the robe off his one shoulder to give him more flexibility. He didn't have the same amount of time that Sun Bear had, and in truth, Sun Bear had never taught him this move, but he needed it right now.
He closed his eyes, started his yoga breaths, lowered himself into a battle stance, hands out at his sides as if he were saluting the sun back at the monastery. He heard Zang recover. He heard the horse rise to his feet, pick up his sword. He heard the horse start to charge him.
He clenched his hands, flexed them, curled the fingers in toward his palms...and drew the claws on his thumbs across the claws on the other fingers.
Flames roared to life in his hands.
When Zang's sword swooped down to make a fatal blow, Tai Lung's arm shot up, and one claw engulfed in flames wrapped around the blade, stopping it short. The flames quickly heated the metal, travelling down until it made contact with Zang's hands. The horse dropped the suddenly hot weapon, only to be surprised by Tai Lung's other fist hitting him in the face.
Zang flew back several yards, landing hard on his back and rolled to the front doors of the Hall of Warriors. He was in pain, was scorched in some places, but he would not be denied...he would not be defeated. He would win yet!
He saw Tai Lung's feet come into view, and then the leopard leaned down. Zang reached into his belt and tore out a knife he had hidden there, jabbing it into the snow leopard's thigh. Tai Lung roared in pain, falling onto his rump as Zang tripped him and got the upper hand. Tai Lung kicked up, desperately trying to knock the knife out of the horse's hand, but Zang's paranoid insanity had given him an almost unnatural strength. The snow leopard rolled across the floor to avoid the downward strike. Once Zang's arm was down, he grabbed on with claws still enflamed.
Zang screamed in agonized rage, viciously kicking the snow leopard in the face. Tai Lung received several more brutal hits to the face and jaw, and somewhere he thought he heard Po shouting. The he realized Po was shouting in his head:
GET UP! He's going to kill you!
With a snarl, Tai Lung suddenly jumped to his feet, finally returning the horse's punches with a few of his own. His energy returning, Tai Lung laid into the black horse, just as he had – he realized with no small measure of horror – advanced on Shifu when he had returned to take the Dragon Scroll by force. But this was not the time for a furious speech...as much as he wanted to throw every insult at the horse. Right now, he wasn't going to give the black warhorse a chance to get the upper hand again. Altai hadn't been kidding when he warned him not to underestimate him.
"DUCK!" Altai shouted. Tai Lung reacted, missing the swing of Zang's arm, suddenly bearing another knife. Zang was fighting dirty, and the snow leopard knew if he was going to win, he would have to stoop to his opponent's level. He would have to become a monster to defeat a monster.
He took a chance and kicked Zang hard in the stomach. The horse doubled over, holding onto his middle, robbed of breath. Tai Lung straightened, panting, staring him down. Then his eyes flicked over to his friends, old and new. Altai had a stern look on his face; he knew what this battle meant, and knew to stay out of it. Duo was poised and ready to move in for the kill, held back only by a firm hand on each shoulder. Po just stood there, clearly waiting for a signal to tag-in to the fight and finish it. Then Tai Lung's eyes drifted up and came to rest on the golden dragon in the ceiling.
To defeat a monster, he would have to become a monster. That's what everyone had been saying. Tai Lung would have to give in. Zang Deshi was a monster, that much he knew, but the snow leopard had come too far and changed too much to slide back into the darkness that had consumed him for two decades. Intellectually, he knew what he had to do. But he didn't want to do it.
"All right, Captain, I've played your game," Tai Lung said. "I'm giving you one last chance to surrender. Then I will show no mercy."
"NO!" Po shouted. "That's exactly what he wants!"
"He's right," Zang said, slowly recovering, letting out short breathless laughs. "I know what an animal you are...what a monster you are...and as soon as you kill me, so will the rest of the world!"
"I don't want to kill you."
"Then you're weak. Do you want the world to believe that? Do you want your enemies to know you've gone soft? Think of your family—"
"Yes, the family you've been meaning to kill," he said with a hard edge in his voice. "You must have a death wish."
Zang didn't answer him, he only laughed, which told Tai Lung all he needed to know. That's exactly what he wants, he realized. He wants me to kill him. He wants me to make a martyr out of him.
Tai Lung cast one last glance at the dragon in the ceiling and made his decision. To hell with destiny and your damn expectations; I'm writing my own fortune.
So when Zang advanced on him one last time, Tai Lung was ready for him. He raised his arm up just in time and wrapped his now-extinguished hand around the horse's throat. Zang gripped at the leopard's arm, struggling and choking as the Phoenix Warrior tightened his grip.
"Kill me," Zang gasped. Tai Lung's grip slackened a bit. "Kill me," Zang said again. "I can't live with such dishonor."
"You can't live knowing I defeated you?" Tai Lung asked. "You're still breathing: you should take that as a compliment."
"Then kill me. Remember, I tried to kill your wife, your unborn child, I nearly killed your friends..." the horse laughed a little. "What are you waiting for? Isn't this what you broke out of Chorh-Gom for? Vengeance? Now you have it! See, I'm just giving it to you! Kill me!"
Tai Lung glared back at him. He wanted to. He knew he had to. Custom dictated it, and it would have felt good to finally take out someone who had threatened to kill so many of his loved ones. Maybe just this one time, a dark part of him said. What harm could it do?
Tai Lung's grip on the horse's throat tightened, and he lifted the black horse bodily into the air, his grip tightening further until...
...he let go.
Zang fell to the floor in a heap, gasping for air and coughing as he sucked in too much. He rubbed his throat, croaking out, "Aren't you going to kill me?"
Tai Lung knelt in front of him, making sure Zang could look directly into his eyes.
"I wouldn't give you the satisfaction." Then Tai Lung stood up, turned around, and walked away.
Po and Duo stood aghast, the former just grateful his friend had not given in to the darker side, and the latter asking, "What the hell, man? Why didn't you kill him?"
Tai Lung shrugged. "He isn't worth it. Let the courts deal with him."
"Hell no!" the wolf snapped. "The military takes after themselves! You won't get justice."
Altai cleared his throat. "Yeah, about that..." He put two fingers to his lips and let out a sharp whistle. From the ceiling, hidden in the shadows, three ropes fell to the floor, and three figures fast-roped down, one landing directly on the defeated Zang's back. The other two grabbed an arm each while the leader pushed her foot on the back of the horse's neck, forcing him to kneel on the floor.
Altai nodded with approval, "Nice job, ladies, as always."
Wu Tian looked back at the dumbstruck warriors and asked Altai, "Your orders, Captain?"
Altai replied, "Detain Zang Deshi, I want him alive for questioning. And where's Hu Quon?"
Zang's head snapped up to stare at the rhino. "...Quon?"
"That's right," the tiger said, sliding into the light from the shadows.
Quon smirked at the warhorse's expression. "I am eagerly awaiting your orders, Captain."
To Zang's surprise – and the other warriors – Altai answered: "Lieutenant, take Zang Deshi into custody."
Quon grinned toothily, drawing out a pair of shackles. Before Zang could respond, Quon and the two other Wu Sisters deftly fastened the shackles around the horse's wrists and another pair to his ankles. The tiger gleefully responded, "With pleasure, sir."
"Lieutenant?" Po, Tai Lung, and Duo gaped as the boy fitted the cuffs to the horse's wrists.
Quon smirked and, reaching inside his tunic, the youth took out—to their great astonishment—an Imperial badge!
"That's correct, gentlemen," he answered. Suddenly his clear, youthful voice had deepened a little, and the smile on his face bore little semblance of innocence that had previously been displayed. "I am Lieutenant Hu Quon of the Imperial Special Forces."
Po pointed, "But you're just a kid!"
"How old do I look?" Quon asked, looking slightly insulted.
"Sixteen, seventeen…if that," Tai Lung said warily.
"He's gotta be old enough to be in the Special Forces…" Duo said, "which means you're at least twenty-two."
"Twenty-one, actually—I graduated early." The tiger grabbed hold of Zang's shackles and yanked hard. "And we've been after this guy for a while."
"Who's 'we'?" Po asked.
"The Imperial Special Forces, Undercover Division," Wu Zhu answered. "And Lieutenant Hu wasn't the only one. We were too, obviously."
Quon interjected before the Dragon Warrior and Phoenix Warrior could interrupt, "We were briefed on this man last year, and I was authorized to join his troop as an undercover operative; the consequence of my looking years younger than I actually am helped the ruse significantly. Captain Altai was assigned to security duties if Tai Lung had ever left the Valley, which you did. And the Wu Sisters agreed to a covert mission to mark your progress; only lately have they joined Asmodei Koshchei's forces, providing some valuable information." Quon made sure the chains were good and tight before turning back to the warriors. "We've been following up on reports of defectors and imposters in the Imperial Army, and this one was by far the most suspicious case."
"So let me see if I have this right," Po said, turning to Altai, "You're an undercover agent?"
"And I wasn't the only one," the rhino said.
"Of course you weren't!" Duo griped. "Are you telling me I've been surrounded by cops this whole time?" He pointed at Wu Jiang, who actually looked a little guilty. "You have been a cop this whole time?
Altai silenced the wolf with a glare. Addressing the Dragon Warrior and Phoenix Warrior, he explained, "There's been a lot of us keeping an eye on you two. Some of us from the army, though we had a couple free agents. The Wu Sisters are actually our best operatives."
No one but Wu Jiang noticed the look of betrayal on Duo's face.
"They volunteered for this mission," Quon explained. "They've been operating as sleeper agents for our armed forces for years. But if their intelligence is right, there's no more time to explain everything. You two need to get to the village to stop Asmodei Koshchei; we'll finish up here."
Tai Lung turned to Altai. The rhino frowned at the snow leopard's look of betrayal, then said, "Go—I promise I'll give you a full explanation later."
Duo didn't waste another moment. He stormed towards the door.
Jiang tried to stop him. "Duo, listen..."
"Save it," he snapped. "If you're such a damn good spy, tell me where Lang is."
Jiang sighed. "He's probably with Koshchei, near the city center. They're planning to assassinate Jiao Dalang's entire family. Here's the address," she handed him a folded piece of paper.
Duo glanced at it, the paused. "This is Ping's Noodles."
"Formerly. Now the Long and Feng Cafe. How do you know it?"
"I left a lousy tip there, once." He quickly pocketed the paper and ran out the hall.
"Let him go, Jiang," Altai ordered. "He's got a job to do, and so do you."
Po handed Sun Bear's staff to Tai Lung, "And so do we," the panda said. "You guys coming?"
"We'll join the battle once he's detained," Quon said, nudging Zang with his foot. "You go on ahead, we'll follow."
"There's a storeroom below the barracks," Tai Lung said. "It's where they held me before I was carted off to prison. If it held me, it should hold him."
Altai nodded, signalled his people to move out, and between them, they carried off a struggling war horse.
Po and Tai Lung were now alone in the silent hall.
Which, naturally, didn't stay silent for very long.
"I really thought you were going to kill him," Po said.
"I wanted to," the snow leopard admitted. "But that meant that everyone would've been right about me. I am not a monster, not anymore. That's in the past." He turned his attention back to the dragon on the ceiling. Po followed his gaze.
"You hear that?" Tai Lung shouted at the statue. "To hell with you! To hell with expectations! I'm not going to fit your mold, and I will not be your pawn! And if you have such a problem with that, then you can come down from that ceiling and strike me down—"
They both jumped in alarm when the Dragon's eyes suddenly glowed, casting white-blue light down onto the pair as the serpent's jaws began to clench and flex with the fearsome roar rising from its throat-
"-or you could just stay up there, too, and we could talk..." Tai Lung finished with an uneasy grin.
But he was too late; the Dragon had awoken.
Cracks appeared in the ceiling tiles as the massive golden body surged to life, sending plaster and bits of stone tumbling to the floor. One claw ripped from the stone, then another. The beast's massive head yanked away and let out a fearsome roar, finally and sinuously pulling away from the ceiling and curling down to the floor in front of the snow leopard.
The Dragon stood on his forepaws, rearing his head back and glaring down his snout, appraising the spotted feline with a knowing look. It was only then that Tai Lung remembered...that Dragon had probably watched over him as he grew up. He knew what awful things he had done. And he was going to make him pay for it.
Tai Lung tensed and waited for the Dragon to strike him dead. The Dragon reared back further, like a snake about to strike, and then his head lunged forward.
Only to collide with Po's fist.
The Dragon wheeled back, shaking his mighty head and roaring more from surprise than pain. He drew back and saw the bi-color warrior standing firm in front of the snow leopard, a look of utmost anger on his round face.
"Over my dead body," Po growled. "God or no god, you want Tai, you go through me first. And I don't go down easy."
The Dragon stiffened, then advanced on the panda. Po stood firm, bunching his hands into fists, waiting for the beast to give him a reason to fight back. The Dragon got right in Po's face, mere inches from his snout, and from deep within his long serpentine throat, the Dragon spoke.
"You know not the sins of that monster you protect."
"And you don't know his virtues," Po said. "You've only known him since before he was imprisoned. I've known him since then, and seen what he's done."
"As have I," the Dragon intoned. "And there is great darkness in him."
The Dragon blinked.
"Of course he has darkness in him. I mean, hello, we all have darkness inside us, even me. Yet you chose me. Oogway chose me, to be his successor. Yeah, I know about that. Sun Bear told me...Sun Bear, the late Phoenix Warrior, remember him? And while we're on the subject, this guy?" Po thumbed over his shoulder at Tai Lung, who was sending worried looks between the dragon and the panda. "This guy, Tai Lung, the guy you were about to...well, I don't wanna think what you were gonna do to him, but he's the new Phoenix Warrior. He's got the Phoenix Scroll, knows it's secret and everything."
Po paused then hissed over his shoulder, "You got the secret of the scroll, right?"
"Y-yes, back at the guard cabin," Tai Lung said weakly. "Healed Duo with it."
"Erm, Po? Dragon?" the snow leopard reminded him.
"Oh yeah, right, right...Anyway, back on-topic," he planted his feet firmly on the floor then lowered himself into his strongest fighting stance, staring down a dragon that was nearly fifty feet long, with claws a good seven inches, and scales of gold that shone like tiny suns. And the teeth, Po could hardly miss the teeth. "You are not hurting Tai Lung. No one hurts Tai Lung. Not while I'm around."
The Dragon stared at him, then raised his head high. "You would die for him?"
"Yes," Po said soberly, without hesitation.
He likewise did not hesitate to punch the dragon again.
Tai Lung's jaw dropped as the Dragon doubled back from the force of the blow, shook his mighty head, and stared in astonishment at the panda, who had settled into a low stance to ward him off.
"'Course, dyin' ain't exactly my first plan," the panda bravely said.
The Dragon growled deep in his throat, and both warriors swore that the beast would kill them both for Po's bravado...until the beast sat back on his haunches and slowly smiled.
"Well," he said, "It is fitting, that the new Dragon Warrior should stand here before me and do the same exact thing his predecessor did over nine hundred years ago."
"Oogway attacked you?" Tai Lung asked. He couldn't help himself; the idea of the peaceful tortoise daring to take on something as powerful as a dragon was...frankly, out of character.
"He did..." the Dragon answered, "In favor of the Phoenix Warrior, the one you call Sun Bear."
"That's...not entirely surprising," the snow leopard admitted.
"It remains to be seen," the Dragon continued, "whether or not you live up to your vow. The great evil before you must be destroyed. I will leave you – both of you – with one word of advice: decide now, before you leave this hallowed hall, what part you play in the grand story...are you villain...or are you hero?"
Then before their eyes, the Dragon quickly faded away into nothingness. They were alone in the hall. The only evidence of their encounter was the missing statue from the ceiling.
"Hero," Po said.
"What?" Tai Lung asked.
The panda turned to look at him. "He asked us to decide what we were – and we're heroes. Don't say that you're not. You think a villain would have done all the great stuff you've done?"
"Everyone keeps saying that to defeat a monster, I have to become a monster."
"You defeated Zang, and you're still not a monster."
Tai Lung thought about it, but his thoughts were interrupted at the sound of fireworks going off below. Grasping the bamboo staff, he shared a single look with Po before both ran for the double doors to join their allies below.
Asmodei Koshchei was having a time finding his destination; pesky villagers kept getting in his way, slowing him down. The few outlaws he counted amongst his advance guard had been held back a few blocks ago and were fighting their way back to him. His claws were stained with their blood nearly up to his elbows, and he was getting tired of dealing with them. Lang was useless, the youth holding a spear and doing little else to help. He made very little effort, wounding a few here and there, impassively stepping over bodies. Koshchei made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat; the boy wasn't even bothering with mortal wounds!
Lang kicked one rabbit out of the way, and Koshchei lost his temper, turning abruptly and slapping the wolf. "Enough! You either kill or I kill you!"
Lang stared back at him a moment then straightened. The wolf opened his arms, exposing his thin chest. "So what're you waiting for?"
Koshchei raised his claw to bring down on the boy. Lang closed his eyes to accept his fate.
Then something hit Koshchei hard from behind, sending him sprawling in the snow. It felt like a boulder had been slammed into him.
When Koshchei struggled back to his feet, he was, for once, completely surprised. He hadn't been this shocked since he discovered Dalang was still alive. But he wasn't the only one surprised. Lang still stood with open arms, thinking that surely he was hallucinating. But no. Standing in front of them, wielding a marvellous golden spear, was Lan Duo, looking like he had dragged himself back up through every level of Hell...just to fight Koshchei.
Duo drew his lips back into a snarl to reveal his fangs that flashed white against the snow. "Round two, asshole."
Koschei wasn't ready for the onslaught. Duo caught him twice with the spear shaft, then once in the gut with the spear butt. The leopard fell onto his back, for once looking like a pathetic old man.
Duo knew better now.
He glared down at the leopard, standing motionless, waiting, his unraveling bandages flapping in the wind.
Koshchei waited as well until he could no longer allow himself to fake it. He growled at the advance guard that had finally caught up with him, "Kill him."
The others hesitated, noting that Duo looked ready to kill each and every last one of them. Then two advanced. Duo stabbed one, ripped the golden spear from his victim's torso, spun on his heel and shoved the spear through the second one behind his back. His footing was as sure as any swordsman.
Another wolf he didn't know advanced with a spear of his own. Duo blocked him with the golden shaft, hitting him with the spear butt in several places. He hit the knee, and the other wolf buckled, giving Duo a chance to sink the spear tip into him.
Duo quickly dodged a spear thrown at him, grabbing the dead wolf's weapon and throwing it right back at his attacker. The spear that he had just dodged had lodged into the dirt next to his foot. He kicked out to the side, uprooting the weapon, spun it in his hand, and thrust it backwards into the gut of a boar that had snuck up behind him.
His blazing eyes rarely left the Amur leopard. And Koshchei was for once actually frightened.
"Haow?" he asked. "Haow did you survive?"
"Uh-uh," Duo said. "Trade secret. Lang's coming with me. You don't have any hold over him anymore. You're finished."
The leopard laughed contemptuously. "Is that vhat you think? Vhat say you, malchik?"
Lang wasn't even looking at the leopard. His eyes were right on Duo. The youth's jaw moved, but his words failed until he finally choked out, "Did you come back for me?"
"You're damn right I did," Duo said with a small smile. "We're a pack, aren't we?"
After a moment, Lang finally smiled, and light finally returned to his eyes. Relief flooded his features and he sighed. "Yeah...yeah, we are."
"Oh this is such bull shit."
The two wolves and leopard looked down the alley and spied Zi Hao, the black wolf glaring at them. "I didn't think you could make me anymore sick than you already have, Lan Duo, but I stand corrected. You think that little shit cares about you?"
"Yeah, I do," Duo said, eyes flicking back and forth between Koshchei and Hao. Duo was not in a place he wanted to be, between two monsters, and protecting a kid. You trained him, he reminded himself, he can hold his own.
Or could he?
"So you don't know?" Hao spit on the ground, narrowly missing Lang's feet. "This little prick's been playing us this whole time. He's been planning to kill us all off."
"That's not true!" Lang protested.
"Then you planned to kill me off, and that's enough for me."
"Well duh," Duo said, rolling his eyes. "What d'ya think I've been trying to do?"
This took Zi Hao off-guard. "...What?"
Duo made his move, shouting an order at Lang, he couldn't remember what, and he went after Koshchei again. Lang grabbed a discarded spear and advanced on a stunned Zi Hao, who realized too late that he had bitten off too much. Lang was better trained than he expected...which meant Lan Duo was a better teacher than he feared.
Koshchei, meanwhile, was scrambling to get away. His chest started to hurt, but he ignored it in favor of surviving Duo's onslaught. Duo jabbed the spear at the leopard, who only, through some miracle, managed to avoid them. Duo twirled the spear in his hands, bringing the shaft down on the leopard. Koshchei brought his arm up to block the strike, and felt the impact vibrate through his old bones.
Hao wasn't having an easier time. His sword wasn't making any headway in defeating Lang, who was suddenly angry enough to cut right to the chase...and cut out the black wolf's heart. What the youth lacked in upper body strength, he made up for with speed and agility. He ducked and dodged with an ease and skill seen only in warriors far older than he was. And the kid was a damn sight better with a spear than Hao had ever been.
Lang jabbed the spear point in the ground, hoisted himself up and slammed both feet into Hao's chest. The black wolf fell back several paces, managing to stay on his feet. Lang ripped the spear from the ground and stabbed at his opponent several times, Hao only managing to block at just the last minute.
Meanwhile, the spear aimed at Koshchei ripped through his clothes, slicing off the tips of hairs. Duo was in a world of his own, with only a singular goal. Koshchei had fought men like this before, men who had nothing to lose, and didn't fear death. The leopard had fancied himself one of those men. But in his old age – and especially right now – he was beginning to fear death. Because it looked like it would really, really hurt.
But Duo was too focused on his goal, that he didn't see that Zi Hao had changed tactics, and Lang was now on the defensive. As much as Lang had learned, he was still no match for the brute force and savagery from the black wolf. The wolf youth had just about enough, though he couldn't get in a clear hit, no matter how hard he tried. Hao was too strong, repelling each of his strikes; Lang was going to need help.
Movement above him and behind Hao caught his eye, and when Lang glanced up for a moment, he saw Wu Jiang on the rooftop, staring at the fight below with horror.
And Lang saw why.
Duo's back was turned.
And Zi Hao took his chance, and lunged forward.
Duo knocked Koshchei down and turned just in time to feel the force of the strike in his core...
...as Lang's body slumped into his, the sword protruding from his back.
Duo felt breathless, staring down into Lang's wide eyes, the youth clinging to his arms as he felt his body get heavier. He coughed, some blood showing at the corners of his lips.
"No...oh gods, no! Lang!"
Lang's body jerked as Zi Hao savagely ripped the sword out of the boy's back. Duo grabbed hold of his protege, staring in horror at the black wolf, who was wiping off the blade on the snow. He shrugged, "He had it coming. He would have turned on you too, one day, I did you a fa—"
Hao never finished his prediction. He fell backwards, propped up by the Golden Spear that had been thrown right through his body.
Duo glanced over his shoulder; Koshchei was gone. Fuck him, he thought, he doesn't matter.
He knelt, gently laying Lang down on the cobblestone street. He pressed his palms down on the open wound, trying to stop the blood from gushing out.
Don't bother, the rational part of his brain told him, a wound like that, he won't make it, you know that.
No, not when I'm so close...not when we were so close!
"C'mon, l'il buddy, stay with me. Hey? C'mon, just a scratch, right? We got plans, you and me, we got plans. Start a pack of our own, a pack of outcasts, just like us. A pack of omegas...Lang, talk to me."
The young wolf coughed up more blood, drops running down his chin. "Duo...I'm sorry..."
"Don't be like that, it's okay; I forgive you. I should've been there for you, I should've protected you. C'mon, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and you're stronger than this, you can beat this."
Lang raised a shaking hand and wrapped it around one of Duo's hands on his stomach. Duo stopped talking, stopped rationalizing, stopped trying to deny the inevitable. Lang looked pale, too pale, and he wouldn't stop bleeding. Duo started shaking his head, utter devastation on his face.
"I'm sorry...I should've been a better friend." He was crying now; he knew he wouldn't be long, now.
Looking right into Lang's ashen face, Duo felt the blood draining from his head, and his heart thudding in his chest, his throat tightening. When he spoke, his voice broke. "Friend, nothin'. We could've been brothers...we are brothers. Lang..."
"But you said...you'd rather be dead..."
"I was wrong, I was angry, and I'm sorry, I should never have said that. Lang, please..."
Duo felt a hand on his shoulder, and knew by instinct that it wa Jiang. She knelt next to them in the snow, placing a cool hand on Lang's forehead.
Lang managed a smile. He gripped Duo's hand tighter. "Brothers?"
Duo gripped his hand like a vice. "Brothers," he whispered.
Lang, still smiling, closed his eyes.
His grip on Duo's hand slackened.
Duo heard Jiang gasp softly, but it barely registered. He reached a bloodied hand up and smoothed some of the fur around Lang's face. He sat still for a moment, staring into the young, peaceful face, then felt his whole body break. He grabbed the youth's body in his arms and held him as he cried for the first time since he was a child.
Jiang kept her respectful silence, wrapping her arms around Duo's quaking shoulders.
"Are the Dragon and Phoenix Warrior going after Koschei?" Duo asked suddenly.
Shocked by his tone, Jiang nodded. "Yes, they've gone after him."
"Will they kill him?"
"I don't know. I think so."
"If they don't, he's mine."
After a pause, he said, "I can't leave him, not like this."
"He'll understand. I'll stay with him if you want."
Duo paused and nodded after a thoughtful moment. "Okay." He gently laid Lang back down on the ground, crossing the younger wolf's arms over his chest. He glanced at her. "About what I said earlier..."
"Don't," Jiang said. "Just kill the bastard, if they haven't already."
Across town, Su Lin was having a hard time getting the menfolk to listen to her. Of all the times for mysoginy to rear its ugly head, it was when she was leading a group of them to defend their home. She wondered if Sonam knew he had given her command over a group of men who apparently hated women... Bastards, she thought. And thanks to their griping at being led by a woman, they had been easily ambushed. Surrounded on all sides, it didn't look good.
She was low on explosives, out of signal flares, and smoke screens were down to her last two.
"I need everyone to fall back, let them hit first. If you see an opening, take it! Break through their ranks and establish a perimeter and hold the line!
"Why should we take orders from you?" a pig said with contempt.
Suddenly enraged, Su Lin jabbed her elbow back and hit the solar plexus of the ox that had snuck up behind her, then brought her fist up to break his nose, then grabbed the front of his tunic and threw him with a hefty grunt over her shoulder and into the nearest wall. This happened in a mere fraction of a second, so when Su Lin turned back to glare at the pig, and snapped, "Why should you listen to me? Because as a healer I can fix you, but I can just as easily break you, that's why!"
He responded the only way that could be expected. "Okay...what she said. Establish a perimeter and...stuff."
I think I'm getting the hang of this assertiveness thing, she thought with satisfaction.
She looked up at the rooftop and smiled as she saw Sonam's familiar form. He jumped down and took out a couple bandits before reaching her side. "I've opened a window for you, take your men and get out!"
"What about you?" she asked.
"I can hold my own, love, get going!"
She nodded and ordered her group to retreat, moving back into the interior of the village.
Sonam ducked a swing from a hapless fox; he knocked him down and yanked the spear out of the vulpine's hands. He snapped the spear shaft easily on his thigh and used the two pieces to stab another two enemies.
"Bring it on, lads! I was killing and fighting long before you were walking!"
"I'm a lady!" cried the one female in the group.
"Then you'll be pleased to know I'm an equal opportunity assassin. Come on, then, are you lot too frightened to face Tai Lung's father?"
The ones advancing stopped immediately.
"Tai Lung's your son?" one of them asked.
"Ayup," Sonam said, ripping off the mask to show them the eerie similarities between father and son. The snow leopard grinned wickedly. "So...who's first?"
Sonam scowled. "Damn. Was looking forward to that..."
"Let me oblige you, old man!" someone hissed at him.
Sonam felt someone hit him from behind, right between the shoulder blades. He cursed himself. How could he neglect to check behind him? He turned onto his back and saw a thin crocodile standing over him, a spear point right at the feline's throat.
So this is it, is it? he thought. Fine then, I had a good run. He closed his eye and waited. He waited for the croc to strike him dead. He waited a little longer. Then he opened his eye and saw that another croc had knocked him down.
"The hell?" he asked.
His savior responded with a wink in an accent he couldn't identify, "Master Croc, at your service."
Sonam stared at him. "...Masters Council Master Croc, you mean?"
"The same. Friend of yours said you needed help."
"I'm guessing Shifu?" the snow leopard asked wryly.
"You guess right," the reptile said with a wink.
Sonam gladly accepted the outstretched claw from Master Croc. "So where's Master Ox? And the other masters?"
The bovine in question hailed him. "Right here. You must be Sonam. Shifu spoke highly of you."
"And now we know why," Master Croc said appreciatively. "You can hold your own...for an old guy."
"We came as soon as we could. Where are we needed?" Ox asked before Sonam could fire back.
Sonam ignored Master Croc's comment – for now – and pointed down the street. "We've blocked them off at the canal, but they're moving around. We need to establish a perimeter near the city center, push them back a few blocks. Villagers holding their own, but we're in desperate need of back-up."
Master Ox hefted up a mighty warhammer and snorted. "On it. The others are on their way. Get your people and pull back, we'll take care of the rest."
Sonam nodded once and shouted orders to the villagers to retreat to the interior.
Dalang ran helter skelter through the streets towards the restaurant. How could he have been so stupid? He knew Koshchei better than anyone else did, he should have foreseen this.
He skidded to a halt and turned into the restaurant. There were knives sticking up from the floor. Good, the trap worked, he sighed with relief. Now where is everybody?
He tiptoed into the kitchen, and froze in horror to see Mr. Ping lying on the floor. Forgetting himself, Dalang fell to his knees and felt for the goose's pulse. To his immense relief, the goose opened his eyes.
"Someone came in here," Mr. Ping whispered. "He went upstairs."
"Leopard?" Dalang asked.
Mr. Ping nodded. "He hit me, I stayed down. There was a child here, but he's hidden in the cabinet here." To prove it, the goose cracked open a cabinet to reveal a tiny red panda, staring frightfully at the large tiger.
Dalang offered the child a smile as he sighed with relief. "Ping, that's the smartest thing you could have done. Stay down here."
Ping held his head, likely where Koshchei had hit him. The goose was lucky that he was still alive, and Dalang knew it. But why had Koshchei not made sure he was dead?
Because what he wants to do, he wants to do it quickly, he thought.
Dalang quickly ascended the stairs, swords sheathed, but at the ready in case he needed them. But he allowed himself one thing that Shifu had forbade: he unsheathed his claws. If Koshchei were waiting for him at the top of the stairs, he was going to be prepared.
Dalang poked his head up and around the corner. The common room was empty. He stood still a moment and thought he heard movement from the other side of the house. It was either Koshchei or Mei Xing, and he stepped out to move over there...
Then he felt the breeze.
He stopped short. The frigid draft was coming from his room. He bounded in there immediately, knowing that neither he nor Tigress had left a window open.
He stepped in the door and stopped again, his heart leaping up into his throat.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?"
Dalang froze when he heard the voice speaking in Russian. He was amazed how quickly it came back to him, but what amazed – and horrified – him most was to see Asmodei Koshchei standing in his bedroom, with Baby Shang in his arms. Shang kept trying to bite the leopard, but settled for crying when the leopard tightened his grip on the infant.
"Your quarrel's with me, Asmodei, put my son back in his crib. Alive. In one piece." Experience told Dalang to be as specific as possible when dealing with this madman. "We can settle this the way we should have," Dalang responded in Russian. "The way we should have thirteen years ago."
Koshchei appeared to think about this for a moment, then smiled cruelly. "That is what I thought I wanted, but no. No, you humiliated me. I had a reputation, you know..."
"Oh, I know," Dalang said through gritted teeth. "You hated to leave any work unfinished. But I was never one of your targets."
"Oh, but you were. Did you never wonder why I chose you?"
"I assume to get back at my father for some slight or another. Or, knowing you, it could've just been for shits and giggles."
"Little bit of A, little bit of B," the leopard acknowledged. "Fact is, I truly wanted a protege, but that was not to be. I have been wondering how to get back at you, after all these years."
"You intended to kill me, didn't you?"
"Hmm? Oh, the thought crossed my mind, many times. At last minute, I decided to let you live, have someone carry on my work. But you hurt me. You hurt me very deeply. It was better for me to think you were dead. Now that I know you escaped the Demon of the North, no, death is too good for you. I have pondered and puzzled what could be a fate worse than death for a man like you..." Koshchei suddenly grinned wickedly and drew out his claws, positioning them right at Shang's neck.
Dalang instinctively moved forward; his sword got to Asmodei's throat before the leopard could kill the baby. Koshchei wagered that his reflexes had slowed as he gained on in years, but he truly had not expected Dalang to do this. The tiger's blade was right at his throat, and there certainly was a very real danger that if the leopard so much as exhaled, his former student would kill him.
"Put. Him. In. His. Crib. Now," Dalang hissed.
Wordlessly, Koshchei obeyed. He had only been on the receiving end of a Jiao temper like this once, and he would never forget it. It was the only time Shen had been so furious at him that Koshchei actually feared for his life. This second time facing a Jiao temper...he was beginning to feel that old fear creeping back up.
Once Shang was safely back in his crib, Koschei backed off and held his hands in the air so Dalang could see them. "Am unarmed."
"Bull shit" was the answer he got.
The old leopard smirked and drew his claws.
Then Mei Xing's agonized scream made him freeze.
Dalang had also frozen in place, his face paling.
Koshchei eyed the open door just as quickly as Dalang did.
The leopard made a move.
He was cut off by Dalang's sword blocking his path. The tiger blocked his way with his body, swinging both swords at his former mentor. He made a few hits, drawing cuts across the leopard's face. Koshchei swiped his claws at the tiger, ripping at the fabric but coming far too close to drawing blood for Dalang's liking. With an expert flick of his wrist, he held one sword up in front of him as the other one came around in a quick but graceful arc. Koshchei only barely dodged it, then tripped over the tiger's outstretched foot, slamming against the bed.
Not to be deterred, Koshchei pushed himself up and back-flipped over the bed to the other side, the furniture the only thing between him and two deadly blades. Dalang growled, "Okay, there is no way in hell you're still able to do that."
"I haff many surprises."
"Yeah, but I bet that old war wound's hurtin' like a bitch, ain't it?" Dalang smugly asked.
Koschei snarled and threw a pitcher from the wash basin at his opponent. Dalang deftly caught it and swung it back at him. Koshchei dodged and the pitcher shattered against the wall, showering the spotted feline with freezing cold water. Koshchei shook it off and charged. Dalang twisted his body so that the blades faced away from him, but that the tiger's elbow jabbed first into the leopard's gut, then the forearm into his throat.
Koshchei staggered back and hit the windowsill, grasping at his throat and making a gurgling noise. He had done that same move too many times to count. He wouldn't be able to call for help, even if he wanted to. But he certainly needed it. Dalang was a lot stronger than he remembered, Or am I just getting older?
Dalang stood his ground, down in a battle stance, ready to attack. Koshchei wondered why he didn't just finish him off; he had the upper hand, after all.
"I'm not finishing this," Dalang said, as if he knew exactly what he had been thinking, "Not yet. Not until you listen. You were wrong. I am nothing like you. I will never be anything like you. For example, you always kicked a guy when he was down. You're incapacitated, I can easily kill you right now and be done with it. But I'm not going to."
Idiot, Koshchei thought. He could feel his throat opening up a bit, and he sucked in gulps of air. His lungs burned. Was he dying? He had never felt this awful during a fight before. He usually had much better stamina than this. He would not give up, no, not yet. He would, instead, take Dalang's act of mercy and use it against him. Lure him into a false sense of security. Lure him in, closer and closer...and kill the son of a bitch right in front of his son. Then, he would kill the son. End that damnable line forever.
Koschei leaned back against the open window, snow falling onto the sill, a chill wind at his back. He may have imagined it, but one blast of wind seemed to cut right past him and under the eave. Dalang leveled his sword right at the leopard's neck. "Whenever you're ready, Azzie."
Well someone had a pair...he actually thought he had a chance of winning! And look at him, smirking like that...like he's already won.
He smirked, "You haff much fight in you, yet. I like that."
Claws dug into his shoulders from behind and a voice hissed in his ear: "Then you're going to love me."
And suddenly Koshchei was roughly yanked right out the window and landed hard on his back on top of a table in the courtyard. The table splintered beneath him, and he was once again robbed of breath. The next thing he was aware of was a striped fist colliding with his face. Suddenly he was up and standing, taking more hits in these few moments than he had felt in the last twenty years of his life.
When the hand wrapped around his throat and bodily slammed him into the nearest wall, he came face-to-face with Master Tigress.
And holy hell, was she pissed.
Then, most perplexingly, she let go of his neck and stood back, dropping low into a battle stance, fists and claws at the ready.
Koshchei remembered how Shen's wife glared at him. He was never intimidated. He remembered how Shen glared at him after the leopard had tortured Xiang. He wasn't intimidated then, either, though he should have been. So it said something that Master Tigress's look told the leopard he had made a terrible and perhaps deadly error.
Tigress stood her ground, calm like a goddess of mercy, but with a heat in her eyes like a goddess of Hell. She perplexed him, she never took her eyes off him, those flashing, dangerous ruby eyes, and she slowly began to circle him. He never took his eyes off her, even though his stomach and chest hurt, and he could feel the blood dripping down his clothes.
"Use claws," he coughed, "is not honorable vay to fight."
"Who said this was an honorable battle, or that you were an honorable opponent?" she replied, with a coolness that put Shen's to shame. Then she took three bold steps right up to him and, unlike Shen who had only backhanded him once, Tigress drew back her hand and slapped him, drawing her claws deep through his skin. Koshchei yowled and turned away from her, pressing his hand to his now torn up and bloodied face.
"Maybe you never got the message," Tigress icily said, scarcely above a whisper, "No one hurts my baby, or my husband, and expects to walk away in one piece."
"You vill kill me, then?"
Tigress pursed her lips. "No. I think I'll play with my prey before I kill it."
Upstairs, Dalang and little Shang peered out the window at the battling felines below. Dalang covered Shang's eyes with his hand to shield him from the worst of the carnage. "Well, she seems to have it covered, doesn't she?"
Dalang froze, then looked at his son. Shang returned his look with wide green eyes, and said it again. "Baba!"
He reacted the only way a father could: with absolute elation. "Your first word...Shang, your first word!" he grinned. "You just said—!"
The splintering wood below snapped him out of it, and when he thought about it, he froze and said, "...Your mother is going to kill me."
"What the hell is going on out there?" Wu demanded.
Dalang looked back at her, Shang in his arms, both tigers bearing matching perplexed looks. He hissed in his son's ear, "We will not speak of this." Then he answered Wu: "Honestly?" Dalang said. "Asmodei Koshchei was just in here."
"But it's okay, Tigress is taking care of it."
He paused to listen for the telltale sounds of shattering wood and agonized screams, and Koshchei's loud Russian swearing.
Wu stared at him, then out the window below, then retreated back to the room where Mei Xing was giving birth. "Well, that's that then, we'll leave her to it."
"Even though I'm supposed to be the one to kill him! I'm feeling a little cheated," Dalang said.
"Oh are you? Are you really going to come between her and her quarry when she's this mad?"
Dalang's nerve failed him. His expression said that much.
"Get in here," Wu ordered, "I need you to keep an eye on Mei for a moment. Where's Ping?"
"He's safe, he got hit and played dead. He's just got a bump on the head, but I think he'll be fine."
"Thank goodness for that!"
"So, what do you need me for?" he asked as he entered the birthing room. Wu pointed to the bed where a pale Mei Xing was laboring, gripping the sheets beneath her and gritting her teeth through another contraction.
"I need you to hold her hand."
His answer was immediate: "No way in hell. I learned my lesson from when Tigress was in labor with Shang."
"I'm not as strong as your wife," Mei Xing snapped, "So stop being a whiny bitch and get your ass over here!"
The tiger muttered as he sat Shang on the rug, "I'm not the one who's a..."
"You finish that statement and I'm ripping out your spleen!"
Koshchei had to hand it to Master Tigress: Shen probably would have been proud to call her his daughter-in-law. She posessed a strength and ferocity that put the old Jiao patriarch to shame. And for the leopard to admit that said something about how badly he was getting his ass kicked.
Tigress wasn't holding back either, and had no intention to. Crane's words echoed in her head, and now, finally, she was being the mother tigress she was. The only thing she felt bad about was breaking some of Mr. Ping's furniture.
She dodged a swing that the leopard managed to get in, and took some steps back as he tried to fight back. He was getting angry; good. The informant had warned her that when Koshchei got angry, he got sloppy.
She had no reason to doubt that intelligence until Koshchei managed to drag his claws over her face, just as she had done to him. He hit her again with a punch that shocked her with its intensity. You wouldn't think someone so old could hit that hard, she thought, even accounting for Shifu!
Stunned by the severity, she barely had time to duck as his claws raked through the air, intending to rip out her throat. He was fighting dirty, fighting desperately, and he was scared. She could see it in his blue-green eyes, he was scared. And that worried her. Because nothing is quite as dangerous as a predator that is cornered and scared.
She took a chance and aimed a punch at his stomach. She realized too late that she had fallen into his trap, because as she lunged to make contact, his claw came around in a swooping arch and wrapped tightly around her throat.
Tigress's claw dug into his arm as he tightened his grip. He was strong! Why couldn't she break this hold? She had been trained for this! But the tighter he squeezed, the whoozier she got, and her head swam as it was deprived of oxygen.
Still clutching Tigress in his fist, Koshchei snarled and squeezed tighter around the her throat. Tigress clawed at the leopard's hands, shaking and gasping for air, her eyes trained up on the upraised claw to be brought down on her head—
And it was then that Koshchei hesitated, an uncertain look across his features, then turned to look over his shoulder at the sudden din behind him. His grip relaxed enough to allow Tigress to suck down gulps of air, and loosened further when two loud voices proclaimed over the roar of firecrackers and furious flames.
"Well look what we have here!" a voice boomed exultantly. Koshchei whirled around to stare at Tigress's rescuers…and gaped when the forms of a panda and snow leopard emerged from the street. The panda swaggered into the restaurant, smugly grinning, "Looks like we got here right in the nick of time. What would that make us, Tai Lung?"
"Big Damn Heroes, Po," replied a triumphant Tai Lung.
"Ain't we just?"
The Warriors were back!
And Tigress, not to be outdone, took this opportunity and brought her arm back, and punched the leopard right through the wall and into the street. As she shakily stood up, rubbing her throat and coughing, she cracked her neck and said to them, "I know it's not honorable to hit an old man, but on occasion it is rather satisfying."
"We won't hold this one against you," Tai Lung assured her.
"I appreciate it."
There was a long pause.
"You're not going to let me finish him off, are you?" she asked them.
Po looked contrite. "Sorry."
"No, it's fine. My baby's safe, Dalang is safe, I should see to the villagers."
"They got reinforcements," Po said. "The entire Master's Council joined the fight, they're finally pushing them back out to the outskirts of town. We saw it on the way down."
Tigress groaned. "The Master's Dinner! I completely forgot about that!"
"Worked out in our favor, though," Tai Lung said. He whipped his head around to see Koshchei struggling to his feet. The snow leopard grabbed her arm and instructed, "Down by the river, they need help there. We saw Crane and his mother on the way down, he said the others would hold them off until you got there. Are you all right to fight?"
Tigress ripped her arm out of his grasp and started to run towards the river. "Never better. Just kill that son of a bitch."
After she was out of earshot, Tai Lung muttered, "Little ray of sunshine, isn't she?"
Po looked across the street and frowned to see Koshchei fully standing and glaring at them. Panda and snow leopard left the confines of the restaurant and approached their opponent, sharing a few telepathic words.
Po asked, So how do we take him out? I don't think the Wuxi Finger Hold will work again...
Tai Lung replied, I've got that part covered. You keep him distracted.
How should I know? You're the Dragon Warrior now. Try getting inside his head!
I'm...not really sure I want to.
Five minutes, Po. I just need him to get as distracted as possible before I make a move.
Po wracked his brain, trying to think of what to do. Koshchei now stood between them, the two kung fu warriors circling him, boxing him in, making sure he couldn't run.
"You're standing your ground," Po said as he slowly circled the Amur leopard. "So you don't think I'm a threat—which I'm not. I'm a big fat panda, after all—pandas are too cute to be dangerous, am I right?"
Koshchei's ear twitched, then he furrowed his brows. Something had changed here, a paradigm shift that he had neither predicted nor seen coming. He liked challenges, yes, but surprises were another matter. "Vhat are you planning, bear?"
Po shrugged; he was bluffing, and was a horrible actor, but he thought he was handling this well. "All I'm planning is how to figure you out. I heard a lot about you while I was away, a lot of conflicting stories, and most of them were just that—stories. I don't think in the eighty years you've been alive anyone in China has ever known the truth. Or maybe someone did, and you tried to kill him yourself."
"I hide nothink," the leopard growled.
"No, you don't have any reason to. Heck, most people would admire someone like you, Aleksei."
Po hid his self-satisfaction when he heard the leopard assassin gasp and whirl around to unabashedly gape at him. But how the heck did I know that? the panda wondered."Yeah, I know your real name. Aleksei Kasparov. Has a nicer ring than Asmodei Koshchei, I think. Aleksei sounds nicer; I'm surprised you hated the name so much. But maybe you would've liked it if you'd had a better childhood."
Koshchei snarled something at him in Russian, which Po took to be an alarmingly appalling insult, but the panda kept talking anyway.
Seriously, how do I know this stuff? Am I really getting into his head?
Tai Lung's voice sounded in his head, It doesn't matter, just keep his attention on you. You're doing great, keep at it!
Po continued, surprised to find that the intimate details of Asmodei's life were playing out before his eyes. Was it like this for Oogway? "You never had any older brothers. You were the oldest, but you were the runt of the family, so your siblings made fun of you, must've said things like 'we hope you don't survive the winter' and things like that. Even your own mom thought feeding you was wasteful. That must've hurt, huh?"
"Shut up," the leopard hissed.
"You got tired of being picked on all the time, so you eliminated the problem. You killed all your siblings, but made each one look like an accident. Your parents never knew. Your mom suspected, because most mothers know better. You cut out her tongue to keep her quiet. But by that time, your dad knew; you killed him so he wouldn't turn you in."
"Who cares?" Koshchei sniffed. "Is no loss. Never did anything for me—have to do for myself, alvays!"
"And not too long after you left Siberia," Po continued. "You met Jiao Shen. He wasn't like anyone else, was he? He knew you had gifts, and that you were good at what you did. He also knew you were dangerous, so he kept you busy by letting you torture people. You still hated your family—it was the only way to get the rage out, by taking it out on other people. And I bet you admired Shen, didn't you? You admired him enough to tell him everything; he was your first and only real friend, and he kept your secrets for you, no matter what you did. He was the brother you always wanted. You liked that he was as ruthless as you were…until he got married."
"She vas veak," Koshchei snorted. "He could do better." But there was something underlying the leopard's outwardly cool composure. It was hard to tell at first, but Po started seeing signs that the Siberian assassin was a bit nettled that he knew so much about him…
"Yeah, but Ming's kids weren't weak. You knew that. You knew as soon as Shang was born that he wasn't a good target. He was, what, three when he hit you that first time, and gave you those scars on your arm? You didn't go back for seconds."
Koshchei subconsciously pressed his hand against the covered scars on his forearm. "How are you knowing this?" the leopard asked, now studying the panda very closely. "All people who know are dead."
How do I know this? Then the answer came to him, a simple one, but one that made the most sense:
"Hey, buddy, I'm the Dragon Warrior…I know a lot of things. Oogway knew a lot of things, too…some people said he could read minds." He waited for it to sink in, and saw on Koshchei's face that the leopard was very unnerved…meaning he still had plenty to hide. And he was getting nervous, his whiskers twitching, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists, his forehead perspiring, and his breathing spiking. Po could practically hear the leopard's heart thudding against his ribcage. Asmodei Koshchei was very, very nervous.
"None of Shen's kids were targets; they all took after their dad as far as size and strength went…except Dalang." He paused for effect. "You saw yourself in him. You saw a little kid whose family largely didn't care for him. You saw a way to get back at Shen for 'going weak' after marrying Dalang's mom. You hated Ming Hua…because she was everything your mom wasn't."
Koshchei pressed his massive paws against his ears and shut his eyes tight. "Shut up—shut up, right naow!" he shrieked.
"So you took Dalang in," Po continued despite the interruption and repeated Russian curses, "and taught him everything you knew, and tried to make him just like you. But he was still too much like his mom; he had a conscience. You never did, you always thought the rules never applied to you, but they do, Aleksei, they do. And you made a very, very dumb mistake."
"Yeah, you developed a pattern. After Dalang, there was another kid you took in. He was the runt of the litter, too; his name was Rong. After five years with you, he killed himself. Then the one after that, Fei-Shi, who got caught killing those kids, kids you told him to kill; and you were at his execution, weren't you, laughing at him the whole time he was hanging from the gallows? Then there's Lang…" Po stopped to face Koshchei. "You took in strays who were just like you: small, unloved, desperate for someone—anyone—to love them, to show them the way, to give them something they never had…and you took advantage of that. Now that I know all this about you, Aleksei, I really should pity you, but honestly…I really wanna laugh because it's so pathetic!"
Koshchei snarled and lunged for the panda. Tai Lung pounced at the same time, grabbing the old leopard from behind. The snow leopard's arm wrapped around the northerner's neck as he twisted the old one's arm behind his back. Koshchei let out an enraged roar, reached back with his free arm and grabbed Tai Lung, his claws sinking into his side.
Tai Lung gasped in pain and let go. Koshchei turned and punched him twice in the face, then drew his claws across the snow leopard's cheek. Tai Lung fell back a few paces, Po, a little help would be great!
Po grabbed onto the back of Koshchei's tunic and yanked him back. "You don't like what I said, do you?" the panda asked calmly. "Guess what? I wasn't done...does Sonya's family know what happened to her?"
The panda didn't have time to block the blow before it hit him in the chest. Po had no idea that something like that would set him off. He had hoped that fighting both Dalang and especially Tigress would have worn out the old leopard, but it looked like the angrier he got, the stronger he got. But he also got sloppy. Just like Tai Lung did.
Tai, get him mad.
What? He seems plenty mad already.
He gets sloppy when he's ticked.
My jaw and left cheek say otherwise, mate.
Po brought up his arm to deflect Koshchei's punch. The old leopard unsheathed his claws and clawed at the air by the panda's face. The elder growled something in Russian. His blue-green eyes had a mad look in them, and that was how Po knew he was in trouble.
Okay...he's not mad, he's insane.
What did I just say about his being mad? Tai Lung asked.
Po stepped back and tried to dodge the deadly claws. Tai Lung jumped to his friend's rescue, only to get a strong kick in the gut from Koshchei. Pain shot up his right side as the old leopard's foot made contact with his ribs. Tai Lung fell hard on his back, but had enough presence of mind to back-flip to avoid Koshchei's next downward strike. Koshchei's claws sank into the frozen ground mere seconds after Tai Lung's head had vacated the space.
Snarling, Koshchei advanced on the snow leopard, the elder clenching and unclenching his fists.
"Vhat, is this the deadly Tai Luung? This is the one who killed one thousand men like it vas nothingk? You are rusty."
"Something I wouldn't dare accuse you of," the snow leopard said, carefully watching his opponent. "You're fighting two very capable warriors, and you're not even winded...I have to say, I hope I'm in such good shape when I'm your age."
"Flattery gets you novhere."
"I assure you that's not flattery; simply stating a fact. And speaking of facts—" Tai Lung grabbed Koshchei's fist in his palm, and held him at bay...barely. Koshchei appeared to be even stronger than Jiao Shen, and was absolutely insane. If anything could be said about Shen, at least he had all his faculties when he died. "...Why don't you explain why you're here? Why are you invading the Valley? Is it land you want? What, what do you want?"
Koshchei laughed harshly. "Vhat, you think I vant power? Vealth? Fame? Is this vhat you think?"
"So what is it?" Tai Lung asked. He felt Po's prescence, the panda was trying to get the drop on the old leopard, so the snow leopard kept him occupied.
"Immortality," Koshchei said with a wicked grin.
Tai Lung raised a brow. "...Immortality? I'll be honest, I know someone who would tell you it's not all it's chalked up to be."
"Long after I am dead," Koshchei said, his eyes radiating his madness, "People vill remember me, my name vill live forever, they vill fear me, I vill be the evil hiding in the shadows, the monster under the bed, the name you say vhen you vant to scare...you know vhat I mean."
"I don't. I don't know what you mean."
"You and me, ve are not so different, malchik."
The hairs on the back of Tai Lung's neck rose. "I am nothing like you," he hissed.
"But you are!" Koshchei said with a laugh. "Ve are like gods, you and me. The gods kill indis...vhat is vord?"
"Da, that. They kill vitout mercy...vitout thought. Old, young, men, vomen, children...no one lives. You know vhat that feels like, to kill indiscriminately...that makes you a god."
"You have a sick theory about deities," Tai Lung growled.
"You haff already gotten immortality. You see these people? These villagers? They already know you...they haff seen the ugly side of you...they haff seen the monster, the demon...the god of death that you are."
"Your vork kill innocent villagers, scores of them, even if not direct-like. Then you kill rhinos at Chorh-Gom...hundreds kill instantly. I thought I vas good at killing...but you are greatest mass murderer in China."
Tai Lung's blood ran cold. "That...that's not true."
"You deny! Ha!" the old leopard laughed. "You deny that these people vill think you alvays as hero? You are still monster. You are knowing this, I am knowing this. No one changes, and no matter how you pretend, you vill never change. Once monster, monster alvays."
"You're wrong," the snow leopard said firmly. "I am no monster. Not anymore."
"Then prove it. Defeat me, vitout killing me."
Tai Lung smirked. "Don't mind if I do."
That was when Po shoved Koshchei right into Tai Lung's waiting arms. Tai Lung gripped him tightly, crushing the old leopard's chest against his own. His mouth right by the old leopard's ear, he whispered, "Everyone has a dark side, Asmodei Koshchei. I never denied mine. But everyone also has a light side, and I've accepted mine. And despite the horrible things you've done...I forgive you."
Tai Lung left go of him long enough to press one hand to the old leopard's forehead, and the other over the leopard's heart.
Just as had happened to Lan Duo not long before, Koshchei growled, then screamed, his whole body violently convulsing as the golden light began to seep out of his body. Tai Lung's hands began to glow as well, somehow able to hold on as the old leopard shook and lashed out at him with his claws. The golden light passed from Tai Lung's hands into Koshchei's body until he was awash in holy light. His screams became louder, and louder, until the windows rattled in the houses around them.
Then the expected black smoke came from his mouth, and eyes, and nose, and just about every orifice he had. The blackness enveloped the old leopard, completely shielding him from view. But neither Tai Lung nor Po expected the explosion that knocked them back several yards.
When Tai Lung came back to his senses, he waited for the inevitable strike from a very angry Amur leopard, only to find a very silent street. Gingerly, he raised himself up to a sitting position. He looked across the street and then crawled his way over to Po. The snow leopard was exhausted, the move taking more out of him than he expected. When he reached the panda, the snow leopard helped him to sit up. Po shook his head and held it in his hands.
"Coulda done without the bump on the noggin," the Dragon Warrior groaned.
"I'm sorry about that," the Phoenix Warrior said. "I didn't know that would happen."
"What did just happen?"
"The Phoenix Tear technique...or that's what I intended to do. The Phoenix Scroll said nothing about explosions. I expected this to go the same way as with Duo."
"Isn't that technique supposed to get rid of all the darkness in someone?"
"That's the intent, as far as I know."
They looked to the middle of the street, seeing nothing but a shallow crater and quickly dissipating smoke, cast away by a wintry wind. All that lay in the middle of the crater were Koshchei's clothes. The Amur leopard was nowhere to be seen.
"Huh. I guess there was nothing but darkness in him," Po said.
"But that doesn't make sense," Tai Lung said. "Everyone has some good in them, don't they? Even just a little bit. I refuse to believe anyone was rotten to the core. I may be a bit biased in this opinion, of course."
Po shakily stood and leaned back against the wall. Tai Lung joined him, looking up and down the street. "Well, shall we survey the damage? I highly doubt he would be running around in his skivvies somewhere."
"Yeah, might as well. Not sure I can stomach it."
"Me neither, but I want to be sure."
They slowly made their way to the crater, Tai Lung leaning on Po for support. He felt much more tired than he had with Duo, and he figured it was because cleansing Koshchei of his darkness was a lot harder, given his age and the range of his sins.
"Municipality won't be happy with another crater to fill in," Po said idly.
"Hmm," his friend agreed. They stepped into the crater and surveyed the clothing.
"It's like he just disappeared into thin air..."
Then something moved inside the clothes. The warriors jumped back in alarm, shared a look, then gaped at the pile when it started to cry. Their jaws dropped. They scrambled back into the crater and carefully lifted the discarded tunic to reveal...
"Holy crap," Po gasped. "It's a baby."
A few notes (many of them geek references):
Formation Forty-two is my not-so-subtle nod to Douglas Adams fans, as "42" is featured prominently in the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" series.
Tigress and Dalang's argument about murder vs. defense is a nod to the "Doctor Who" episode when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) makes his first appearance; I personally loved it because of the dichonomy and difference in interpretation that the event had, and is, of course, open to debate as to whether it is better to spare your enemy or to make sure they never threaten you again (I like debate, so sue me...but seriously, please don't)
Su Lin's "that's not incense" line is from the movie "Serenity", when Inara used a similar ploy to get out of danger.
Mr. Ping saying "Thank you, come again!" is my nod to Apu Nahasapeemapepalon (sp?) from The Simpsons...it felt like something Ping would say, as he is ever the savvy and shrewd businessman.
Sonam checking how far Mei Xing could reach him from her bed is a reference to the "Scrubs" episode when Carla is giving birth; Keith, who is Elliot's main squeeze at the time, does the smart thing before delivering bad news.
Before anyone asks, yes, my not explaining what Formation 42 actually entailed was intentional. As was not bothering to explain how Sun Bear's staff survived the fire at the Phoenix Temple. Why did I not bother? Because this chapter ended up being nearly 40 pages in MS Word, and I wasn't going to make it any longer. And I had been working on it for months. I was ready to get it out the door. So there.
The scene where Su Lin's authority is challenged ("Why should we take orders from you?"), and she promptly proves why she should be taken seriously, is from the recent Marvel Avengers movie, in a pivotal scene between Captain America/Steve Rogers, and some of NYC's finest. (See this movie if you can; as a Joss Whedon fan, I was not disappointed!)
When Koshchei says "You have a lot of fight in you, I like that" and Tigress responds with "Then you're going to love me" came from the Dark Knight. (Is it obvious yet I'm a comic book super hero fan?)
And yes, "Big Damn Heroes" is another Firefly reference (And I'm not the only fan hoping that the success of The Avengers will entice someone to bring Firefly back!)