The Sacred Hall of Warriors, the center and focal point of the Jade Palace and as much the heart of kung fu and the heroism it inspired as Wu Dan Mountain, looked much the same as it had for the past nine hundred years—or so she'd been told by her teachers and Grand Master Shifu. Its smooth, unmarred marble floor still displayed the symbols of the Five Elements carved and painted with loving detail...the enormous pillars, entwined with jade serpents, perfectly matched the flooring surrounding the Moon Pool and the ceiling's inset tiers carved around the golden dragon's head...braziers stood in niches while lamps hung suspended from long bronze chains, filling the air with the rich scent of sandalwood incense...and along every wall stood row upon row of kung fu artifacts, while behind them hung the tapestries and paintings depicting the masters who had owned and fought with them.
If anyone had told her nine years ago that she would one day stand in this hallowed place, learning from the masters who called the Jade Palace home, and herself studying and mastering the scrolls of kung fu—and she had understood what they meant, what it entailed—she'd never have believed them. But once she was old enough to understand just what had happened to her beloved father and why, once she had learned the very important role her 'kitty' had played in punishing those responsible and ensuring they could never commit such acts again...well, she had been determined to learn the same teachings, to be as much a hero and defender as anyone else on the mountain. Regardless her mother's fears, or the scoffing in the village at one of the "soft and weak" daring to follow the path of the "hard and strong."
Shen Yi smiled to herself...confident, brave, and more than a little cocky. She'd proven them all wrong so far, and at only fourteen years old she wasn't done yet. And once he'd gotten over his shock, and his fears of her witnessing him use such aggressive, deadly moves in combat, Tai Lung had not only become her teacher and master, but one of her most ardent and unwavering supporters.
As if she would have chosen anyone else. Oh, Master Tigress had taken a proud and eager paw in her training too, as had Master Mei Ling whenever she was in the Valley, Master Viper, and even the Dragon Warrior on occasion. But in the end there really had been no contest...after all the snow leopard had done, and had done to him, all of his knowledge, and how determined he was to protect her at all costs, who better to be certain she received all the right and complete lessons so that she could come to protect herself, and others? He'd certainly earned the accolades of the Valley...Master of the Jade Palace, trainer of the Dragon Warrior, wielder of the Golden Spear…
The young cow stared up proudly at the wall behind that artifact, where a silkscreen painted by Master Crane hung just to the left of Grand Master Oogway's image, depicting Tai Lung standing tall and proud: a little more grizzled around the muzzle now, more dignified and respectable with his advancing age, but his arms were folded over his chest with a warm and somewhat sheepish smile—as well as that familiar, devilish twinkle in his golden eyes, which only seemed to match the burnished gleam of the spear's fiery blade. She was still admiring it when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and heard a deep voice she knew all too well, filled with reverence but tinged with faint wryness.
"He's sure something, ain't he?"
A thrill of excitement ran through her, starting in her rapidly-beating heart and flowing right down to her hooves. Stop it! You're a warrior in training, not a doe-eyed calf any more. Carefully composing her face so as not to betray her true feelings, she slowly turned and looked at him.
Towering above her as he had for the last four years (she only came up to his chest, now), the Javan rhino was as intimidating, massive, and solid as ever, but his craggy face bore a wide grin that made him much more handsome, and even a bit shy and endearing; he was far more gregarious now than when he'd first come to the Jade Palace—reserved, taciturn, and laconic by the nature of himself and his people, sullen and somewhat distrustful thanks to the loss of his father—but he still had a roughness to him that made him hard to get close to. Yet somehow...more attractive.
"Yes," she answered when she finally found her voice. "I've thought so ever since I was a little girl. Now that I'm older, it's even plainer to anyone with eyes." She didn't mention, of course, how she'd originally had a girlish crush on him; not only was that an embarrassing part of childhood she'd rather put behind her, and manifestly impossible, but once she'd gotten over her resentment of Tigress she'd found it wonderfully easy to move on, back into friendship as well as viewing him as a master and surrogate father. And of course, she had others she could set her sights on, much closer to her in age…
Chuluun nodded, though the lopsided smile he gave her showed he had a pretty good inkling what she'd been thinking; he certainly knew of her past feelings, everyone in the Valley did. "Hard to believe what he used to be...but then, that's part of why he's so amazing. After all that happened, no one would think he could be a hero again, especially not my old man. But now...even he'd have to give Master Tai Lung his respect." The rhino puffed out his chest. "It's thanks to him I've already mastered Dragon style; he's even said he'll teach me Great-Uncle Xiaozhi's Unstoppable Force, when I'm ready. Not gonna be too much longer before I'm a full-fledged master, and he's already said if I want to rebuild the Anvil of Heaven, I've got his blessing. And my namesake's, too."
Yi smiled winsomely at him; it was wonderful to hear of his accomplishments, and how Tai Lung had done right by his former enemy's son (and ensured Flying Rhino's line was going to continue, as illustrious and legendary as ever). And hearing the elder Chuluun, who had of course survived Chorh-Gom to go into retirement and was now the last living link to Vachir (other than his mother Odval), fully endorsed his plans for the future was one of the most heartwarming things she'd ever heard. But he did go on about it a bit too often. And it's not like he's the only one who's awesome here. "It's also thanks to him that I'm as close as I am to mastering Leopard style. He's already started me on Tiger, and Master Mei Ling is going to begin my Eagle Claw lessons next week."
She stood up straight and tall; these were incredible accomplishments in their own right, especially as a female of a traditionally prey species. She was carrying on the traditions of both Li Dai and the Furious Five in a way that suggested a whole new equality for kung fu and for the empire—she'd even heard it whispered that the Empress herself, though she was bound by her station, position, and gender, had expressed a wish such a life had been open to her when she was young, and that she wholeheartedly endorsed it now, and everything she, like Tigress and Mei Ling before her, could do to strengthen and legitimize the new discipline. And not only did Tai Lung, of course, support her completely in this, even Grand Master Shifu seemed to have mellowed in his past views of the 'weaker' sex. From what Master Tai and Master Cai say, that right there's the real sign we're in a new era.
But what made it even more worthwhile to her was what Chuluun said next. Resting his hand on her shoulder again, the rhino grinned wider. "That's what I like to hear. And you know what that means? Means we're gonna make a badass team on the battlefield."
She knew it was hopeless. Eight long years stood between them, and while that gap would not seem as significant once they were both of age, and the Mongolian would never try to enforce the antiquated and patriarchal views which allowed men to take young girls to wed (the better to raise sons for them while they still had the time and youth for it), neither did she believe he viewed her as anything but a friend and fellow trainee. But even that was enough for her...and she couldn't help wishing and believing anyway. So she smiled at him, pouring all her heart into her gaze...and unless she was seeing only what she wanted to see, she thought she spied the dawning of some deeper emotion in his dark eyes…
Nothing more could be said, however, because at that moment she heard the ghost of a sound behind her as soft-furred paws bound in leg wraps brushed against the marble floor, and instinctively she turned, evading the incoming blow even as she brought one hand down in a Viper slash, catching and blocking the upraised blade.
"Aw, man!" The husky voice, its depth always surprising her for one of his age, twisted with annoyance and resentment, even as it still held admiration at its core. "How'd you know I was there, Yi?"
"I'm older than you, I know everything." She smiled as she said it, though, and knew he saw the twinkle in her eyes—his own, as bright and golden in hue as his uncle's, only displayed affection and awe at how well she had played him.
The young snow leopard sheathed the sword he'd tried to strike her with (with the flat of the blade, she noted approvingly from how he'd been wielding it); like his eyes, it too he had received from his uncle, who'd noted somewhat wryly that it had been a training weapon for him when he was the boy's age, before Tai Lung had graduated to halberds and other polearms. Then he placed his paws together and bowed formally to her. "We'll see how long that lasts," he replied challengingly, though the mischief in his voice showed he wasn't nearly as arrogant as he sounded.
The cow had to privately admit, though, that he might be right. At eleven years old, Peng was a prodigy at kung fu just the way his uncle had been, despite having mostly self-taught himself back in Qinghai—in between stints as a potter, a trade he had learned from his mother. His father was De (no surprise to anyone who knew how much the older spotted cat had gotten around), and Yi still had to grin and fight back a wave of laughter at just how the boy and his previously-unaware father had met.
She hadn't been there for that, of course, but she had been with Tai Lung, Po, and the rest of the Five when Peng had told his uncle what took place. Despite the fact the former scourge of the Valley had been with no other woman before Tigress (and also spent twenty years in prison), Monkey had inadvertently started the line of thought that Peng's parentage might have been what seemed obvious on the surface, by noting just how taken with kung fu the boy was. Mantis, of course, had been the one to actually start to voice it.
"Hey...I know what he told us and all back in Yunxian, but you don't think Tai Lung might've—"
"Peng's too young," Viper had cut him off crisply. "Even you wouldn't suggest Vachir and his men let Tai Lung have visitors at Chorh-Gom, let alone of that nature."
"And he was too fixated on the Dragon Scroll to make any...side trips on the way to the Valley after he escaped," Crane had added even as the insect opened his mouth again.
"If you want to live beyond today, maybe you better not finish that sentence," Monkey had cut him off swiftly. "If Tai Lung doesn't kill you, Tigress will. It's like picking your poison." The snow leopard in question, who had remained surprisingly silent (and apparently amusedly so) as he allowed the others to defend his virtue and fidelity, had rather theatrically raised his eyes to the kitchen ceiling's beamwork and whistled innocently. Even Yi, who still thought he could do no wrong, had snorted at that one.
Mantis hadn't gotten a chance to keep taking his life in his pincers, though, because Peng had chuckled, bowed to his uncle, and settled the issue with his next words. "I'm glad Baba let me come to train at the Jade Palace, Uncle Tai Lung. He looked so surprised when I told him how interested I was in learning kung fu."
"Not quite as surprised as he was to learn he had a son he never knew, I imagine," Tai Lung had drawled in reply. Then, revealing how well he knew his brother, he'd added, "Let me guess: you followed up on every woman in the district who bragged about their time with him until you managed to track De down and showed up on his doorstep?"
The boy had blushed nearly as much as the Dragon Warrior was, though whether at how promiscuous his father was or at being caught in such a simple and blunt tactic, she couldn't tell. Then he'd cleared his throat and nodded, looking sheepish. "I'm afraid so. And he was in shock for about three days." Peng had winced, then confessed the rest, since there really wasn't any point in holding it back after how much he'd already revealed. "He called me 'son' and asked how he could help, so I'm afraid I pounced on that: as soon as he told me his name, so I knew I was in the right place, I just blurted out, 'It's a pleasure to meet you, Father.' He sort of...stared off into space for a while, like he'd turned to stone, and then...well, he fainted."
All of them, even Po, had burst out laughing at that. Even Peng ended up smiling shyly after a while.
That same look was on his upturned face now, and Yi shook her head as she came back to the present. The point, she reminded herself, was that Peng had taken to kung fu without any formal training whatsoever, and once both Po and his uncle had taken him under their wings, his skill and knowledge had grown by leaps and bounds. He might one day surpass Tai Lung himself; he'd certainly end up equaling him, as long as he stayed on the right path. And while there was a certain aggressiveness in his attacks, a tendency to become too ambitious in his goals or too determined to make his family proud, and he also shared the Qiao family temper, a very solemn, firm, and pointed discussion with Tai Lung—and constant encouragement from Po to "be a bodacious good guy"—had quelled such attitudes, suppressed or redirected his flaws. And neither she nor Chuluun would let him lose control, either.
Looking up at the painting behind them, Peng sighed in satisfaction and shook his head. "I know no one would lie about such a thing...and plenty of people have been willing to discuss it...but it's still so hard to believe he did anything bad. Let alone…" He couldn't say the rest, and didn't have to.
Now it was Yi's turn to wince; as if she didn't have enough experience with this very issue. The fact her mother had been able to unbend enough to allow Tai Lung to be her jiàofù, let alone to train in kung fu under his tutelage, was nothing short of a miracle. "Don't forget," she said gently, "we all have darkness in us. Yin and Yang. We all have to work to strike that balance...some of us harder than others."
She was aware of Chuluun stirring beside her, no longer proud and determined but with shoulders slumping. "Yeah. And some of us don't make it...don't get the chance to fix it until our next life."
Immediately, without even thinking about it, she reached for the rhino's hand; to her surprise, he let her take it, even squeezed it with his callused fingers.
"But what's important is that we all have that chance. As long as others are willing to trust and believe, anyone can find balance." The cow took a deep breath. "I had no way of knowing what he'd done to my mother when I first met him...all I could see was what he appeared on the outside. That let me look past what he'd done, to who he really was, so his inside and outside matched. Now he's become that man again—better, in fact, than he ever was, if what Master Shifu tells us is true. It's not easy...but if we all can try to live that way, to look at people the same, maybe they can surprise us too. Maybe they can be their best selves, if we give them their best chance."
Peng swallowed against a lump in his throat and nodded firmly; belatedly she realized her words could have been construed as criticism, a warning against future mistakes to hold him back from falling into that same darkness. "Yes. Yes, of course. You're right. And knowing my uncle could come back like that...seeing how someone was tested, and passed, instead of just being 'perfect' from the start, so he could actually understand what it is to fail only to get back up again...I think it makes him better. Makes him more a hero."
"You're not the only one," another voice said from the other side of the hall, and this time Yi was taken completely by surprise, jumping quite visibly. "He's always been my hero, more every day."
Turning, she spied him standing beside—well, lounging against—the nearest pillar, the red-orange of his fur glowing and burning in the light of the nearby brazier while its black stripes seemed to ripple and undulate, but she didn't discount him for a minute. At nine years old but as incredibly talented as his cousin (seeing as he'd only started training two years before), Qiao Hu was picking up his namesake style as rapidly as either of his parents had, not to mention Dragon style, but to everyone's startlement he had also been excelling at Mantis style, showing there was a lot more to him than mere strength and aggression—or rather, that he could channel such things, put them to good use instead of releasing them in undisciplined ferocity. In that respect, he was even more of a halfway point between Tai Lung and Tigress.
He was also exceedingly handsome (something he was unfortunately less humble about than his kung fu skills, but it usually came off as more endearing than annoying), and for his age rather well-built too. If Peng didn't match Tai Lung's build in time, Hu would.
"You kind of have to, you know," Yi said at last, teasingly. "Him being your father and all."
"True," his sister sniffed as she emerged from behind the pillar; as always, the twins were rarely separated. "But I happen to agree with him, most of the time. And you know I'd never say such a thing if it weren't true."
Cai Huo did indeed have the same exacting standards as her mother, which was why when she had finally begun training in kung fu as well, she'd accepted no substitute as a teacher but Tigress herself, with the occasional assistance from Mei Ling or Wu Jia. And needless to say, how intellectual and scholarly she'd been from a young age meant that even before she'd begun mastering the physical aspects of the discipline, she'd exceeded the understanding of everyone (except perhaps Master Crane) at its philosophy. More than once, Grand Master Shifu had been seen emerging from his study a bit gray-faced, eye twitching, brow soaked with sweat, muttering that he actually preferred Oogway's seemingly-nonsensical riddles to Huo's direct and rather mind-blowing wisdom.
As the snow leopardess joined the rest of them by her father's portrait, her tiger-patterned brother grinned rather naughtily and sauntered over too. "He's the best dad I could ever want...but I think he's been hanging around Uncle Po too much."
"What do you mean?" Yi narrowed her eyes; he seemed to be referring to something specific, something she'd missed.
Huo smiled slightly. "I suppose this means you weren't here when Master Yao visited the Jade Palace."
She had in fact been away, visiting the graves of her ancestors for the Double Ninth Festival (after, of course, paying respects to Zhuang's grave right here in the Valley), but she had been on hand to see Master Shifu's response to the goat's earlier visit. "Oh no. Don't tell me Master Tai—?"
Hu started laughing rather raucously. "Oh gods, he did! Master Shifu told me later that the way he went on about Master Yao while Dad was growing up rubbed off on him. You wouldn't think it, would ya, with how much he loves being badass and tough? But yeah...the kind of mind moves Master Yao could pull really wowed him. He thought he was the coolest thing, for a while there he wanted to be just like him, learn the way he did. So when Yao showed up last week, he tried to be so stern and serious, you know how he gets. But then he…"
When he broke down into a fit of giggles and couldn't continue, she looked to Huo for the rest. Examining her claws, the spotted cat smirked. "What was the word Master Po used? Oh yes; he said Father 'squeed.' And then everyone had to bury their faces in their hands."
All of them were laughing for a while after that, with Chuluun's belly laugh being the loudest of all. "Oh hell...if only my dad could've seen that...Master Tai never would have lived it down."
"I don't think he will now, either," Huo said a bit smugly. "He didn't mean to, but Master Po did end up telling Master Monkey and Master Mantis all about it later."
After they'd laughed even more, completely dispelling the solemnity of before as well as the rather depressing gloom which had begun to settle over them as they thought of Tai Lung's past, Yi chuckled one last time with a shake of her head and looked back to her master's portrait—the expression of which seemed even more appropriate now—then to Master Oogway's beside it, and each tapestry or silkscreen in the line beyond. So many masters, so much history in this one chamber...and they knew so little of them, really. They had all lived here, in this temple and in the Valley; they had traveled the empire, doing good deeds and furthering the knowledge of and respect for kung fu; they had laughed and cried, made fools of themselves and discovered lessons they'd never have expected, loved and lived and learned, with their own perspectives on the world. But how much of that was known, and how much had been forgotten?
Softly, she started voicing her thoughts aloud. "All joking aside, I don't think Master Tai Lung will mind that much—not the way he would have years ago. He's changed so much. But no one who knows him would ever believe it, without us to tell them about it. I wonder...I wonder how many stories there are like that of the old masters? We see them as just legends...codifiers of the scrolls, heroes larger than life...but they were people, too. They must have made mistakes...been confused and lonely, scared sometimes...they fell in love, had families. Does anyone know or remember that any more, without witnesses like us to talk about them?"
Everyone looked at her, and even Hu seemed unusually pensive instead of his typical lackadaisical self. "If they don't...that's kind of a shame, isn't it? I mean," and he shot all of them, but especially his sister, a defensive and pugnacious look, "that kind of stuff is what life is, most of the time, right? Dad told me...how much he missed out on, because he didn't care, he thought none of it mattered. Even when he was trying to be a hero to get the Dragon Scroll, he thought that was for other people...that he had to let those things go, so he could be their protector, and let them have what he couldn't."
He shook his head firmly. "That's not right, though. He knows that now, and I think he wants everybody to know who he really is. So they can learn what to do, and what not to do."
Huo looked at him with surprising respect, then glanced back to follow Yi's gaze—not only to the portraits, but to all the mystical artifacts displayed before them. "I never thought I'd be saying this, but my brother is correct. Those things...they cannot and should not be forgotten. They are what make us human. It is unfortunate so little remains of the old masters." Flicking her gaze to each of them in turn, but ending with Yi, she added, "I've read as much as I can of the scrolls...but details like that are not to be found in them. I don't know if Master Oogway somehow missed those lessons when he wrote their accounts, or if the masters themselves left them out when crafting their legends for posterity."
Yi shared her significant look, then exchanged it with Chuluun and Peng in turn. She turned back again, this time to peer at the Iron Fist of Justice and Master Jin Hu's portrait behind it; ever since coming to the palace she had secretly wondered if her family (perhaps her mother?) was related to him. But then all such thoughts were driven from her mind as she felt something quite unsettling and unpleasant...the sensation of eyes on the back of her head, watching her, along with a strange, unnatural chill—one that did not come from the autumn wind, seeing as the great jade-adorned doors stood closed.
Slowly, all her senses on high alert, ready to launch into action should the need arise, she looked over her shoulder.
At first she didn't see anything amiss at all, and thought she'd just been imagining things. But then she caught sight of a faint shimmer in the air, not far from the rack displaying the Ninja Weapons of Master Dog, and slowly but surely a figure wavered into view. Instantly she knew he was old, from a time long past in the empire, thanks to the cut of his robes and the manner of his tunic's bindings, which had not been used in centuries. The scholar's guan perched atop his feathered head was also rather out-of-date, or at least not particularly fashionable, presenting the image of one who had stayed secreted in his study for too long, and thus fallen behind the times, unaware of the world beyond and how it had changed.
She had no idea whom this specter belonged to—although something in the back of her mind told her she should—but something about him nevertheless felt disturbingly familiar. She studied him further...he was an Amur falcon, that much was clear, and he also had a definite imperious air to him, as if he were one used to being consulted, sought for advice, and obeyed without question. But there was something about his face and eyes: the arrogant haughtiness of his features seemed more like a mask, a facade marred with cracks to let something else become visible underneath. Sadness. Suffering. Pain. A deep and towering loss. Bitterness. And just a tinge of regret. It was even more obvious in his dark eyes, which seemed more like empty tunnels boring deep into the earth, into a shadow that terrified her as much as it made her want to weep, a darkness of the grave, of the next world, and of something indefinable.
He carried no weapons (although she could see loops on his cloth belt where they had clearly once hung) and presented no danger—as a shade he could not even affect the living, or the material world, if the lessons in the scrolls were to be trusted. Even for a bird he was exceptionally thin, particularly his neck, and she felt a chill sweep through her as she realized what he was. But he made no threatening gestures, did not beg for food or sacrifices, only remaining a silent sentinel standing on watch, as if he thought they meant harm to the hall's artifacts. His feathers, from what she could see, were a smoky gray save where his crest turned to white, but she had the feeling no matter what color they had been in life, they would have been muted by his current state, for even his cloak and robe were rather washed-out, and his entire figure was in fact a very pale blue, almost gray, as if it were composed of shifting fog.
Rigid and unmoving, Yi yet managed to gently tug on Chuluun's sleeve, drawing his attention. He too stiffened, muscles tensing, and even as he turned he struck a kung fu stance, hands forming into Dragon Fists. "What the—?"
Each of the others reacted to his words (though she noticed Huo seemed to have sensed something was amiss all on her own, since she was already looking that direction), and soon all of them were poised and ready, facing the hovering ghost with various attacks prepared should they be needed; Peng had not drawn his sword, but otherwise he was as disposed to fight as the rest of them.
Before any of them could challenge the spirit, or even speak at all, one wing lifted toward them, and she didn't know which bothered her more—that it blurred when it moved, as if shifted out of phase with time or the world, or that it made absolutely no noise. "Peace, children. I mean you no harm...and could bring none such to you, even should I wish you ill."
"Who're you calling a kid?" Chuluun objected, but Yi noticed he kept his voice to a mutter, and that the growl in it was muted by uncertainty and fear.
As if he hadn't even heard the rhino speak, the shade continued. Its voice was deep, sepulchral, but although an instinctive frisson ran through her, it seemed more wasted than anything. Hollow. Tired. As thin as the avian's skeletal frame. "I am merely here because I heard you speak of your interests, of the past, of your plea for knowledge and insight. And I was compelled to put in an appearance." Something about his choice of words, his tone...and the quite visible hardness to his features as his beak clamped shut...suggested he was being quite literal.
None of them dared take their eyes off him to look at each other, but she could sense each of them shift uncomfortably beside or behind her. "What do you mean?" Hu asked, suspicious. "You had to show up? And you've got some kind of info for us?"
"Yes," the falcon answered, seemingly to both of the tiger's questions. "I am, shall we say, the guardian of the Sacred Hall of Warriors. Of its artifacts, its history, the memories and stories of all who came before. My knowledge is at your disposal." He performed a brief bow of the head, and while there was a clear resignation to the gesture, a flatness to the words which suggested a rote recitation, there was just enough pride in both that she rather thought on some level it was genuine. Even if this shade were not here of his own free will, he seemed gratified to have his aptitude recognized, pleased to share what he knew—perhaps even craved it. Though that might have been just loneliness talking.
Still, something wasn't right. "I've never seen you before," she said, accusingly. "None of our teachers told us there was a guardian. Neither did our scrolls."
Again the silent ruffling of feathers, and his voice turned sour. "Contrary to what they may tell you, they do not know everything. In any event this is a...recent development. Consider the Hall under new management." There was enough sardonic amusement to his tone that for a moment she found herself turning up the corners of her mouth.
The flash of humor vanished as Peng spoke up, cutting right to the heart of the matter as he usually did. "Who are you, really?"
"My name does not mat—" Something seemed to seize the ghost, his figure trembling as his throat constricted, and despite already being dead he was on the verge of choking. At last he forced out strangled words. "I will...tell you, young sir!" He gasped as the spiritual punishment eased, rubbing at his neck out of the habit of the living, and once he was free to speak again went on more firmly, with determination. "But only after I have imparted to you my tale. I cannot leave...I am bound here for eternity, or until the Lords of Death see fit to release me to my next task. I must pass on what I know, keep the past from being irrevocably lost. My identity, however, would most certainly cause you to discount whatever I might relate, and so it must wait to be revealed until the proper time. Your minds must be unclouded, your hearts unbiased, if you are to hear my words."
Something in his voice gave her a renewed chill, and she was more certain now than ever that she knew him, somehow. That she had felt his presence before, that she had once encountered the darkness in the tombs which were his eyes.
"Very well," Huo said at last. "You have to tell us about the old masters. About whatever we decide to ask you, anything in the Sacred Hall, in the history of kung fu. But how do we know we can believe you, or trust you?"
A sneer tried to form on that raptor's beak, turned instead into a grimace. Stiffly, he replied, "As you surely have noticed, I can speak nothing but the truth. I can omit irrelevancies, but I must respond to all inquiries. I can withhold nothing, I must impart not only exact words and honest assessments, but I cannot evade or misrepresent. Even self-deceptions are not permitted: all events and thoughts, motives and emotions, must be conveyed with honesty, without judgment, so that only the listener can weigh each aspect and decide its value and meaning."
For a long moment, they were all silent. Then Chuluun breathed, "Gods...what did you do to deserve all that?"
"You do not wish to know," the falcon said softly, with conviction. "But if you have not discerned the truth of who I am by the end of my tale, I shall tell you then. Now, if I may begin?"
Yi finally dared to look at the others. Although none of them were sanguine with this, she could sense the spirit indeed told the truth. It wasn't as if they couldn't test his words, either by asking questions the scrolls had already answered for them or checking his story against what their masters, particularly Shifu and Tai Lung, could tell them. There was no danger here—no matter what her heart and soul told her otherwise—except perhaps the danger to be found in unvarnished truth. This might be their only chance to learn stories and lessons that had been lost. And clearly this spirit had been bound here for a purpose; it would go against the gods not to employ him for it.
Each of the others seemed to realize the same thing; Peng finally relaxed, took his paw away from his sword hilt, and sat down on the marble floor, adopting the lotus position. Huo joined him, while her brother and Chuluun crossed their arms and leaned back in mirroring postures against the pillars nearby.
"All right," Yi said slowly. "Speak, then."
There was a pause; then, with a slightly pained and nettled look, the ghost said, "What exactly do you wish to know, young ones?"
She exchanged a look with Huo. Flicking her eyes from Chuluun to the armor of his ancestor, from Jin Hu's portrait to the weapons which were visible behind (and through) the shade, then to each of the other tapestries and artifacts, she stood up straight, elevated her nose, and answered. "Tell us about all of the masters enshrined here. The greatest, oldest legends. A grand adventure where they were human, but still heroes in the end. A story of the palace's first kung fu masters."
Something passed over his feathered face—a spasm that could have been resentment or anguish, grief or frustration. But then, remarkably, a very sad smile appeared on his beak. "With that, young one, I can most definitely assist you. In fact...it would be my pleasure."
The world did not exist. It was nothing but quiet and shadow, cool mist and the distant rumbling of cataracts, looming rock and vast, empty space. Beside him, the broad expanse of the cavern's central pool lay flat, unmarred and undisturbed, its waters sending up shimmering, refracted rays of pure, palest blue to ripple and dance across the rocky overhang high above. The gigantic draconic statue that stood as a guardian remained unchanged and unchangeable, a silent sentinel covered over by years of moss growth. The cliff above produced countless curtains of water, small falls tumbling down from the mountain's heights to pour straight and true to the ledge below—where they produced mirroring waterfalls that spilled the rest of the way down the towering sides of the Jade Mountain's peak.
The Dragon's Grotto. Whatever else had been offered to him, whatever other lessons he had gleaned from the thousand scrolls of kung fu or endless repetitive hours in the kwoon, this place...this holy, spiritual place...had always proven to Xun Chao that he was right to trust and believe in his master. As long as he could meditate here, he could find peace. As long as he could meditate here, he knew one day the mystical secrets he sought for the betterment of China would be his.
He was meditating now, as was Master Oogway, the tortoise poised on a boulder which rose out of the thick carpet of moist, verdant moss along the pool's edge, his limbs bent into the lotus position with an ease that always made him marvel; whatever other doubts he often had about his mentor, his ability to dissemble and conceal just how skilled and talented he was was not one of them; many times he knew that air of confusion and inquisitive simplicity was concealing a quite penetrating and incisive understanding. His peach wood staff lay nearby, but at the moment the turtle remained straight and true rather than bent by age (and in truth he was only around a century old, rather young for his species), eyes closed and beak parted to slowly inhale and exhale the sweet, cool mountain air. A beatific smile appeared on his face, and he hummed softly to himself, an old tune which meant something only to him. His was an image of serenity and balance, knowledge and wisdom.
There was much to admire in him, much to learn from. If only he could be less…
"Flighty? Vapid? Or dare I say it, 'cuckoo'?" Oogway's eyes opened a slit, and his smile became much broader, and more amusedly teasing.
Chao harrumphed under his breath; he still didn't know if his master could actually read his mind, or if he was simply that predictable in his thought processes, the turtle that insightful. "I wish you would not do that, Master."
"You would take away one of the few entertainments of an old man? Shame on you." The gently chiding tone, he had to admit, did make him want to laugh, however much he strove to be serious and focused. "And I suspect it would not bother you so much, my student, if I were not so often proven right."
He had him there. "I would never say such things of you," he responded mildly. Aloud, anyway. Oogway chuckled.
"Forgive me, Master. I know my...impatience has been a burden to you."
From the wry look on the turtle's face, anyone else would doubt that claim.
"And I would never second-guess your lessons, or the order in which you impart them…"
Now he knew Oogway was trying extremely hard not to burst out in a paroxysm of wheezing laughter. His feathers rustled in irritation.
"But," he said with a certain severity, "I am afraid I don't understand the purpose of this particular one. Or how this will lead to the secrets you promised me. I don't mean to pressure you…" He couldn't keep the worry and a trace of anguish from his voice. "...but I'm afraid time is running short. I do not know how much longer we have before the empire collapses into another anarchic bloodbath...one which will, as always, harm the innocent common folk trapped in the middle more than any of the feuding, squabbling nobles who believe they have the right to use and abuse, even and especially the very ones they purport to rule."
As always when he considered these matters, he could not control his temper for long, and by the end of his tirade his raptor's screech had begun to enter his voice. Forcibly, he restrained himself, wrung his wingfeathers together, and took several long, calming breaths of the grotto's pristine air.
When Oogway spoke at last, it was with a certain wistful reverence, one that seemed completely in tune with the soft, gentle breezes that swirled around them to make the pool undulate and sent ghostly puffs of spray from the falls into their faces. "Chao. My dear Chao. As it has since you first spoke to me of this, your concern for the people does you great credit, and I know that once you are in the position to do so, you will do all that you can for them, just as I have since I came to this Valley. But I must implore you: please, be patient. The matters we are studying, particularly those which you believe will aid you in your task—and I do not think you are wrong—must be handled with great delicacy. Things of the spirit should never be treated lightly. They must be examined from all sides, understood on the outside and the inside, before they can be mastered and employed for a good cause. And even then, you shall only be wise when you realize you will never truly understand or master them...that they will serve you as they choose, and you may never know the reason why, only that they understood you and your purpose, and wished to aid it." The turtle grinned whimsically. "That is half the fun of it!"
"Fun, Master?" He couldn't help the deprecating tone in his voice.
"Yes, fun." Oogway would rarely ever look what Chao would call 'reproachful', but just then he came as close to it as he ever did. "It is important to be serious and earnest, but it is also important to know when to relax, to take pleasure in the wonders the world has to offer. There is a middle ground between austere asceticism and debauched revelry. Yin and Yang are meant to be balanced, not one side absolutely denied because it is seen as somehow immoral. And you must be aware that the spirits, and all mystical matters, have a certain playfulness to them. Enjoy their games, approach them on their own merits, and they will gladly support your endeavors." He paused, his voice becoming uncharacteristically solemn and serious. "Try to force them, impose your will upon them, and you will not like how they respond...or which ones do so."
For a moment, a shiver ran down his spine, making all his feathers rustle and stand on end; there was a meaning in this, a deeper import, a shadow that for the first time since he had begun studying the mystic arts made him wary. He hesitated...but then he brushed it aside. "Yes, Master. Believe me, I do respect them, and would never employ them to do anything that was not absolutely necessary for peace and goodwill to reign over us. And...I will try to be more open to...whimsy." His last words, he had to admit, had to be forced out—but he still said them.
The old master had been frowning slightly at his first answer, though whether at its phrasing or some unintentional implication on his part, he didn't know. But at his last words Oogway started to laugh. "There is no need for such grumbling! I assure you, once you learn to let go of your attachment to solemnity, it will come more and more naturally to you. And I guarantee that if you speak to Ochir and Jin Hu, they can assist you far better than I can."
Chao winced; as much as he privately liked Flying Rhino for his imposing regality and Iron Ox for his willingness to put his yuan where his muzzle was when it came to facing down evil, both of them had exactly the disposition he found most disconcerting. So laid-back and informal, so filled with endless joking, mockery, ribaldry, and witty rejoinders...to seek out their company willingly, let alone for such lessons, would seem more like a penance. But...he knew their hearts were good, and Oogway would not ask this if it were not necessary.
"Very well. But I do not see how that applies to our time together today."
The turtle blinked, looking befuddled (as he often did). "It doesn't! When did I say that it did?"
The falcon stared back at him, uncertain whether to be angry or puzzled himself, to take this as one of his master's jokes he was supposed to laugh at heartily or a misunderstanding. "Then today's lesson is for…" he ventured at last.
Oogway smiled. "Calm. Calm and peace. I have found, my student, that your mind is often quite agitated, as when the waterfall tumbles into our pool, here. But when you steady your thoughts, clear your mind—"
Although he was slightly exasperated, Chao couldn't help showing off just a bit. With a wave of one wing, he took a deep breath...centering himself, casting away all uncertainty and doubt, all frustration and concern, until his mind was as still as could be...and then with a soft shimmer in the air, his chi flowed outward, across the grotto pool. By the time it had splashed against the interior wall, behind the dragon statue, all movement within the cavern had ceased; the water pouring from above had halted in mid-air, the dragon's mouth spilled an eternally-frozen flow, and the pool was as unbroken as silvered glass.
Turning to regard his master, he found himself grinning lopsidedly. "I am sorry, Master, but I'm afraid you're mistaken on that point. When I need to, I can already calm myself quite perfectly. I have even found inner peace on many an occasion." To prove the point, he dipped his wing down into the unmoving waters...concentrating, drawing up a single beaded drop and sending it flowing, smooth and unbroken as the pool itself, up along one feather and down another in a fascinating spiraling pattern. Perhaps there is something to this 'fun' after all.
When he looked up, he was extremely pleased to see Oogway staring at him in amazement and shock...and, as he watched the course the drop traced along his wing, a definite fondness. But then the turtle grinned and lifted one stubby finger to point at him assertively. "Very good, very well done indeed. But...how long can you maintain it?"
Chao frowned (disapprovingly, he hoped, but was afraid it came off more petulantly than anything else)...and just like that, the drop burst and soaked his feathers, while the rest of the cavern's waters splashed back into motion again.
Oogway, unsurprisingly, was laughing instantly—and despite the insidious notion that his master had been mocking him deliberately, the falcon was soon doing so as well. You are good, Xun Chao, but you're not the best yet. Until then, a little humility will work wonders.
After they had both fallen silent, the turtle shook his head and began to climb to his feet. "You will do well, my student, but you must continue to practice. The longer you can hold your concentration, maintain that ability, the better a master of chi you will be. Calm, patience, a peaceful mind will all be needed if you are to—"
Suddenly he broke off, at the same time he froze in place, half-risen from the boulder...and when Chao, who had still been looking rather glumly at the pool, turned back to look at him, he was openly shocked. Never had he seen his master look that way—in point of order, exactly the opposite of everything he had just been describing. His moon-like eyes were even wider and more bulging than usual, his mouth was hanging open as if gawking, and every bit of his expression denoted agitation, turmoil, and fear. "Master? What—?" He reached out with his spiritual senses, drawing upon his chi to get a reading on the atmosphere of the grotto.
In the space between seconds he was abruptly flung backwards to lie sprawled ignominiously on the damp, mossy rock, but such a discomposure of his sense of propriety was nothing compared to what he had felt in his mind along with that somehow physical blow. Hatred. A desire for vengeance more passionate than even his own need to see the Emperor brought down. Desperation. And above all, a sorrow and grief so intense it nearly drove him to his knees; were it not for his iron will, he knew he would have become a sobbing ball of endless tears. What...what in the name of Shang Ti…?!
A loud, creaking gasp filled the air, seeming to break him out of his trance, and then Oogway stumbled forward out of his awkward position; swiftly, Chao caught him, grasped him by the shell and helped lift him upright once more. "Master! What is it, what has happened?" He was proud of how he kept his own sense of worry and horror from his voice, tingeing it only with concern and intense curiosity. His master needed to know he could be depended upon in a crisis.
"I...I am not certain. What I felt, what I saw…" He gave Chao a sharp look. "You did not see it?"
Chao shook his head, even as he cursed inwardly at lacking whatever spiritual power was needed for such a thing. "No, I did not. But I did feel…" He shuddered. There had been such power in that sending, but so painful, so twisted...how could anyone feel...what could make anyone feel…
"You are even farther in your training than I had suspected, if you could feel that," the turtle said, and the pride in his voice made Chao's heart swell. "But it was even more than this. Something is deeply wrong...something of the spirit world is out of balance, and must be set right immediately. I saw souls crying out—for blood, but also for absolution. I saw pain. I saw the dead." He paused, his hand reaching out with uncharacteristic palsy to grasp at his staff before planting it on the stone, propping himself upright. His look was one of deep pity...and fierce determination.
"Gather the others. Tell them you must all travel north and then west, into Gansu. Somewhere in that direction, there is an imbalance that must be resolved. Many souls depend on the choices you will make. This goes even beyond your fears regarding our Emperor. If this is not redressed, the energy there will grow...corrupt all that it touches, and spread that same pain you felt across the empire. You will need your fellow masters to combat it, but you are the one who will be the key. Your decision will affect everything we know and have. You will be tested. The test will not be what you believe it to be. But you will find what you seek, and if you follow the way revealed to you, China will not be the same."
Utterly shaken by these prophetic pronouncements and their import, Xun Chao hurriedly rose to his feet, gathered up his robes, and headed toward the grotto's mouth; such was the urgency in Oogway's voice that he began to spread his wings, intending to fly down to the Jade Palace rather than follow the ledges on foot. But his master's voice stopped him...made him turn back with how it had shifted from uncertainty and terror to warmth and affection.
"Xun Chao...my dear boy...have faith. As I have in you. I know you can do this. You shall do this. You have the makings of the greatest wielder of chi in the empire...and also a true hero who can use it to protect and defend those who need it most. Have courage as well. Whatever happens to the north, I know you will emerge victorious, and better for it."
The falcon swallowed hard; although his master had attested to such things before, it had never been so directly, in such simple words, usually couched instead in veiled riddles speaking of roses blooming in the desert amidst adversity, rays of sun breaking through cold mist to find a lotus among thorns. It made him believe...in his path, in these teachings, in everything Oogway had told and promised him. If he were patient only a little longer, he would have what he sought...and could begin his sojourns of peace, protection, and sacred healing that would set all to rights.
He glanced back at the turtle, leaning on his staff, then nodded once, smiling confidently. "Thank you, Master. I shall not disappoint you." Or myself.
So saying, he spread his wings again and took off without a sound, the sunlight reflecting from the nearest tumbling waterfall as well as, briefly, his plumage as he began spiraling down the rugged slopes.
Despite the fact several of his fellow masters were, for lack of a better term, homebodies and thus did not wish to leave the Jade Palace unless they absolutely had to, the nature of Oogway's vision, Chao's passionate importunings, and the description he gave of just how distressed and out-of-sorts their master had become were enough to convince them. Several, most notably Jin Hu and Hou Kuan, were skeptical of just how they were supposed to find this grave threat when the turtle had given them little more than vague directions, but Chao had opined that once he was near enough, he would be able to sense the same spiritual energies and emotions as he had during Oogway's premonition. If they kept traveling in the region and direction indicated, they would also surely run across travelers and locals alike who would be aware of any disturbance and could give them more specific guidance. With this, Master Dog had agreed.
And so once they had gathered their needed supplies, the nine of them had set out. There hadn't been much fanfare, since the people of the Valley were used to their comings and goings by now, but departing between the ancient statues of the Vault of Heroes had seemed like a beneficent aegis and good-luck charm in one—particularly since construction had already begun to cover the sentinels over with a grotto that would eventually become a sealed cavern carved with great pillars and arches.
Oogway had said this was to protect the guardian statuary from thieves and interlopers, as well as to help concentrate the holy spiritual energy beneath the Jade Mountain, but Chao wasn't certain he was being entirely truthful. Not that he thought the turtle would ever lie to them, but there had been a certain evasiveness in his eyes and voice, even beyond his usual vapidness, that made the falcon suspect something powerful and mystical was at work—which for some reason, he was not ready to attest to or speak of.
Whatever it was, he supposed it would be revealed at its proper time. For now at least, he was grateful the images of the great masters were still visible to grant their blessings for this journey...he had the feeling they were going to need it, especially himself.
Not that he had long to dwell morosely upon it; even as they were crossing the moon bridge and moving through the village streets toward the road that would take them north, toward the ledges that spiraled into the mountains past the Musician's Village, a heavy hand came down on his shoulder, startling him out of his thoughts. "Chao, I know this is a pretty big mission we're dealing with, and Master Oogway gave you a sacred charge and all that, but could you for once, maybe, lighten up a little? We're getting out of the palace, out into the world, and we should enjoy it, and ourselves!"
It was, of course, Jin Hu who had spoken, and who now lifted his face to the bright blue sky with a smile as warm as the sun overhead. Stretching his arms wide and arching his back until his shoulders popped, the bull let out a satisfied sigh, then actually dared to wrap his arm around the falcon's own shoulders, pulling him close for a comradely embrace. "Whaddaya say? Think you can manage that, or is that just a bit beyond your capabilities?" He smirked.
Chao fought the urge to shake him off, or brush his hand away; he did, however, look down at it with a fastidious, distasteful air. "If I must," he replied stiffly. "Contrary to your opinion, I can and do enjoy travel and interacting with the world. I simply prefer my study and its repository of scrolls, that is all."
Flying Rhino spoke next, and while his tone was less disapproving and mocking, there was still a gentle reprimand in it. "Come on, my friend. No one denies that learning and knowledge are the cornerstones of civilization, and of our art. But what good is it if ya never use it in a practical sense? We all admire your commitment, but there has to come a time when studying ends and application begins. When you can simply live." His horned countenance twisted with a wry, fond smile.
He glanced at each of them in turn, and while Twin Weasels were as silent and enigmatic as ever, he saw each of them looking at him in the same encouraging fashion. Even the massively towering figure of Hou Xiong had softened his usually granite-like features to gaze down at him in some concern...and of course Gou Cheng only eyed him with affection and understanding, his wrinkled face displaying his own wisdom even as he reached out, daring to do what no other would—grasping Chao's wingfeathers with one paw and squeezing slightly.
Finally the scholar sighed and relented. "Very well. I know you are all correct. Old habits die with great difficulty, however, this you know. Perhaps by the time we all have established our own kung fu academies, I shall finally be able to interact like a normal person?" He chuckled self-deprecatingly.
"You never know," Hou Kuan drawled in his rather florid baritone. "To hear Master Oogway speak of it, miracles happen every day." Everyone laughed, even Chao himself, albeit ruefully.
When they had fallen into companionable silence again, the falcon considered, and as they left the outskirts of the village behind and began climbing the slopes that would lead them over the northwestern cliffs that bounded the Valley, he asked at last, "So, while I have been perfecting my stint as the legendary Imperial Hermit, how have all of your studies been faring?"
As if he'd been waiting for just these words, Hou Sudu grinned excitably, practically bouncing on his heels and tossing his chestnut-brown mane out of his face. "Oh man, you wouldn't believe some of the moves I've been mastering lately!" And at once he launched into a rapid-fire whirlwind of words enumerating each and every new skill and lesson he had in his repertoire, quite often demonstrating them as he went with an enthusiasm and devotion that was both heartwarming and rather overwhelming.
Still, for once it made Chao smile a little, to himself, as he regarded his fellow students with new eyes. The words Oogway had imparted to him still remained with him—not just those regarding the vision, but those concerning his need to interact with others, to partake of the world, to find pleasure and enjoyment in more than only his books and scrolls. As the sage had predicted, Jin Hu and Ochir were the ones urging him toward the same openness and camaraderie, the need to live and laugh and take in what life had to offer, not just to learn. Or perhaps still to learn, but in a manner and for a goal he had never considered before.
But as they continued traveling up into the mountains ringing the Valley, crossing over the northwestern peaks through the little known, narrow, and well-guarded path alongside the gorge, and eventually turned to follow the Han River as it descended toward the border with Shaanxi, the falcon also found himself paying more attention to the quieter members of their company...and appreciating them in ways he hadn't allowed himself to before.
The two mustelids, You Min and You Li...he wasn't certain if any of the other masters had gotten close to them or truly knew them at all, or if he were the only one to find them so enigmatic and inscrutable. He had often found himself looking down his beak at them, for even though they were unequivocally on the side of goodness and virtue, and had taken all of Oogway's lessons to heart, they had always seemed incapable of escaping their species's proclivity for guile, slyness, and a certain craftiness in how they approached battles and enemies. The way they slipped and darted about with such swift silence, and how they were continually underestimated in how deadly and dangerous they could be, was certainly a point in their favor (although master of many styles, Li had always focused on Crane style, Min on Mantis). But he had never been quite able to bring himself to fully trust them…
Now, however? Glancing aside as they made their way down the deeply-cut and well-worn steps chiseled out of the mountainside that led down into the subtropical bowl of the Shen River valley, he couldn't help but notice the way the twins stayed almost protectively close to the eldest and youngest of the Three Lions. How one of them was engrossed in listening raptly to Sudu's bragging recitation of his accomplishments, while the other was smiling broadly at Kuan's latest joke, even throwing his dark-furred head back to laugh upon occasion.
While in time he overheard snatches of conversation that suggested the weasels had changed topics to just what sorts of plants were grown and harvested in this region, he soon realized they weren't speaking of poisons or other illicit substances, but the wide variety of herbs and medicines to be found in this corner of the province. That ones whom many would believe to be assassins were instead healers and herbalists was...reassuring, even touching.
And then of course there was the Lions themselves. Chao had always found felines, particularly lions, to be arrogant and pretentious, and to a certain degree Kuan at least had some of these traits. But there was something infectious about how playful and enthusiastic young Sudu was...the stoic and often brooding Xiong, who many times seemed more like a granite statue come to life, was now grinning in a way that made his craggy face light up with excited warmth as he and Ochir indulged in a playful sparring match down the cliffside—the massive cat rapidly swinging his halberd up and down at various angles to block the rhino's chui or his horn, the braids of his cinnamon mane bouncing and tossing on the back of his head.
As for Kuan, he and Jin Hu seemed to be caught up in a fierce and unrelenting competition to see which of them, by comparing the number and frequency of women they had taken to their beds, was the male with the most prowess...but then Chao heard the honey-maned lion aver that the winner would be the one who'd receive the privilege of donating money, food, and service to whichever charity was most in need at the next village they encountered, and the falcon had to slowly smile.
Thinking to himself that there was more, much more, to his companions than met the eye, more than he had known (or allowed himself to know), he was still watching Xiong and Flying Rhino pursue their mock-combat while Sudu, Iron Ox, and—surprisingly—Min egged them on from the sidelines when he felt a paw rest upon his robed arm. "Finding more in the world than you gave it credit, my friend?"
Unlike with Oogway, this apparent mind-reading didn't bother Chao—because he knew its actual source was how much he and his friend thought alike, how much they had in common, and how well his friend knew him. Turning to the Shar Pei, he smiled warmly, if a bit wryly. "As a matter of fact, I was. Before we departed, Master Oogway told me…"
"Let me guess." Gou Cheng adopted a hunched-over stance, posing as if supporting himself on a walking stick, and twisted the wrinkled folds of his furry face into an imitation of the tortoise's, eyes wide and filled with incredulous wonder; the resemblance was uncanny. "'You must let go of your desire to let go; freedom from earthly attachment is good, but reveling in earthly attachment is also good! The lotus is a symbol of release from this world, looking beyond it to matters of the spirit, and you do not have to smell it to know it is sweet...but you should still take the time to smell it.'"
Chao began to chuckle under his breath halfway through this speech, and not only because Dog had their master pegged; as usual, the canine could see to the heart of the most esoteric and mystical matters and not only understand them, but discern the central truths, then impart them back in language even Ox and Rhino could understand. No matter how strange and puzzling Oogway's sayings, he always seemed to understand them, and just as importantly know how to interpret them into relevant teachings.
"Yes, something similar to that," he drawled at last. "He seems to believe I need to make connections with the world at large, with all of you, because I have become too withdrawn, too steeped in arcana and lore. I can't imagine where he got that idea from."
"Nor I," Dog replied, eyes twinkling in their rolling folds.
"I can see where he is coming from," Chao admitted with a sigh. "And it is not as if I never appreciate life and all its myriad aspects. Why, you know full well one of my favorite activities upon leaving my study is to spend time with you—sipping tea, listening to a summer storm without, watching the rain stream and trickle down the glass...meditating to the aroma of fine and fragrant incense, doing calligraphy…"
Cheng nodded companionably, still smiling as he tucked his paws in his sleeves. "Of course, of course...the simple delights of Nature have always been something we two could share with one another, something the others rarely seem to appreciate. Beauty itself is worthy of veneration, and taking the time to simply be, to do nothing in particular but spontaneously enjoy Being—that is taking true delight in the Supreme Self.
"But," and here he looked back to Chao with a firm expression—not one of anger or disapproval, but conviction that masked a genuine curiosity, "you also forget that I do still spend time with the others. And whenever I do so, you seem to express distaste at the notion. Why is this, Chao? Do you truly believe you have nothing in common with them, and so could not enjoy their company? Are they so earthy and un-spiritual that they upset and insult you?"
The falcon paused, frowning; he was not used to speaking so openly and candidly of his feelings and judgments of others, however often they entered his thoughts, not even with Dog. At the same time, now that he was confronting the matter directly, he wasn't precisely sure of his motivations, or how to put them into words.
Feeling his way uncertainly, he said slowly, "Yes...and no. I know they are good men, or else they would not have come to the Jade Palace to learn how to defend and protect the soft and weak, and Oogway would not have accepted them. But...we are so different. My family has been protectors of the empire for dynasties, servants of the Emperor and nobles who became warriors and monks for the sake of the people they ruled—but unfortunately rarely interacted with directly." He held up a wing to cut the canine off. "I know; I cannot allow such classist mindsets to influence me. I have been struggling not to since we all first met. That is not truly what has given me so much trouble, although it certainly did not help in how it colored my views." He sighed again.
"No, the true issue has always been how...simple they and their pleasures seem. Not that I find them unintelligent—" Most of them. "—but that the things they take interest in, that consume their time when they are not training or embarking upon missions, are so...plain. Uncomplicated. Rich in experience, perhaps, but poor in soul and heart, less elevated than what the sages tell us we should be concerning ourselves with."
Master Dog, surprisingly, did not take offense; instead he only sighed as well, then gave him a glance of penetrating insight. "There is merit in what you say, one should not allow oneself to become so saturated in things of the physical, the material world and its tantalizing nature, that one becomes lost to the spiritual, even addicted to cravings of the flesh. But it is not a be-all, end-all matter either. There is no need for you to feel threatened by them and their interests."
"I am not threatened!" he burst out, instinctively, then hurriedly lowered his voice. "I am not."
"Are you afraid, then?"
A very long pause, and then he said, quietly. "Yes. But not in the way you think. I...I fear that if I were to indulge in such pastimes, I would be the one who could not resist...who would lose himself in hedonism and debauchery. Or become so enamored of pleasant entertainment that I would forget the books and scrolls that will guide me to wisdom and peace."
Cheng rested his paw on his shoulder and squeezed tightly. "The very fact you are worried about such things proves to me you will not succumb to them. Not so long as you do indulge, at least now and then." When Chao peered at him incredulously, the Shar Pei laughed. "I know, it sounds backwards, doesn't it? But surely you have realized that if something could possibly be bad for you, and it is something that is part of life and thus cannot be avoided forever, you will not evade this harm by simply ignoring it? Only by experiencing it, finding out what charms it holds but also what dangers, can you embrace the one and reject the other.
"Whether it is raunchy jokes or dirty mud-wrestling that offends your fastidious sensibilities, losing one's faculties to drink and drugs or...daring to open yourself up to a passionate tryst, whether it is simply finding humor in life at all—only by facing these things can you achieve the balance Master Oogway spoke of. Or do you really think the gods created this world of pleasure and physicality simply to tempt us away from the enlightenment of Nirvana, rather than as something to be enjoyed for its own sake? The sages tell us we must let it go to achieve Enlightenment, because Enlightenment is not a thing of this world but within—not because the world itself is bad."
As Chao was staring at him in stunned comprehension, as the wisdom and value of such an interpretation was sinking in for the first time, Dog finished off with what he clearly saw as his coup de grace. "Be silly for once in your life, Xun Chao. Make a naughty reference. Smoke an opium pipe. Take in a belly dance. Try the shaojiu. Play dice with Twin Weasels, and have a sparring match just for the fun of it with Sudu. And as for the thing you are most nervous about...don't you rather think you'll need some experience with matters of affection and arousal, if you are to please your Xiwang?"
Instantly the falcon's thoughts went to his darling nightingale, she who had been arranged to marry him since they were both chicks. She was prim and proper, a true lady in every sense of the word—but how he loved her, adored her, needed to show her his desire for her. And however her outward comportment, such knowledge would indeed be necessary for their nuptial chamber…
Master Dog was laughing at the look on his face, and as Chao realized his cheeks had turned beet red (and with more than just embarrassment), the color only deepened. But he did not grow wroth, instead he only smiled...small at first, then more warmly and broadly as he met his friend's gaze. Wrapping his wing around him, he shook his head at his own ridiculously uptight morality and said, "Fine. You win. It will not be easy for me, but I shall make the attempt as soon as possible, when next we reach civilization."
"That's the spirit!" Gou Cheng hugged him back, albeit in a proper and dignified fashion. "We'll make a man of the world of you yet."
The falcon kept smiling the rest of the way down from the mountains, feeling optimistic and hopeful in spite of himself, and in spite of whatever mysterious supernatural threat they had to deal with in Gansu. Which was why when, as they crossed the humid forests and river valleys of southern Shaanxi and eventually, as the sun was beginning to set, came within sight of the town of Ankang, he didn't object in the slightest to their stopping early for the night. Or at the fact the place Ochir, Jin Hu, and Hou Kuan unanimously chose for them to eat, drink, and be merry before bedding down was a rather raucous, wild, and boisterous inn—a fairly famous one, located out upon stilts and pilings over the middle of a shallow lake, and reached by way of a somewhat dilapidated jetty that angled back and forth above the waters, known as the Xiao Tou Inn.
Even the reputation of the place, or his knowledge of what his more worldly companions would find to be appealing traits to recommend it for their night's stay, didn't quite prepare him for what they would encounter, however.
The inn, despite being rather rickety and ramshackle to the point he was surprised it could withstand the wind or the waves of the lake without, was still quite well put-together with a design clearly geared toward promoting camaraderie and garrulousness, judging by the way the tables were arranged and the chairs cluttered around them—there was no way anyone, even a lone customer, could avoid being pressed up close to other patrons, something which also encouraged the sharing of bodily warmth in the autumn and winter months...and other manners of sharing any time of the year. (He also noted, perhaps a bit too cynically, that this arrangement, coupled with the bar being far in the back and thus requiring patrons to have to cross the entire room in order to pick up drinks or pay their tabs, made it quite easy for the staff to keep an eye on rowdy or larcenous customers no matter how crowded the place got.)
Although the inn was quite busy, it was also a touch quieter than Chao had been expecting. Instinctively, he would have normally preferred to retire to his bed for the night, but Oogway's words and the now-somewhat gentle but firm encouragement of his fellow warriors was keeping him in the main room. He sat along the wall in the quietest, least populated part of the tavern, a cup of shaojiu only partially drunk in front of him.
For a short time, Master Dog had sat with him, giving him company and conversation more to his liking. Chao knew that the man was doing it to help him feel more at ease in an environment that he normally would have avoided, and the falcon was sincerely grateful for Cheng's efforts. It had worked, and it had made it possible for him to now sit alone and observe what was going on. In particular, he was observing his friends.
The two weasels, along with Hou Kuan and Hou Sudu, were off in a corner chatting and playing dice—by turns serious and concentrating, at others boisterous and jocular, at still others snarling in irritation at bad rolls. They were clearly having a good time. Rhino, Ox and Xiong were standing and sitting close together in a well-lit corner beneath a red lantern, a color he suspected had to be deliberately chosen by the proprietor as well as the kung fu masters. In spite of himself, Chao suppressed a smirk at the sight, for the three had been posing and catching many eyes. They were the biggest people in the room, and it was hard to miss them. Chao did not believe that he could ever be so openly bold in the pursuit of sexual conquest...and while usually he would have prided himself on this fact, on this night he contemplated it with a sort of forlorn sorrow, at something which lay far beyond his reach, a loss which for the first time he found himself regretting.
The avian gazed down at his drink, feeling thirsty but definitely not for the shaojiu. Sighing, he was considering getting up when he suddenly noticed Kuan looking directly at him. When their eyes met, the great lion smiled and waved. Chao politely returned the gesture...and then the feline said something to his companions and stood up, indicating to the falcon with his gaze that he intended to join him shortly. He first caught a serving girl, made some order, and sauntered heavily over to Chao's table.
"How are ya, Chao? You doing all right?" the lion's deep voice sounded.
Nodding his head politely, Chao tried to sound inviting and not let on that he still felt out of place. "I am well, thank you. I have been observing the varied displays of humanity for the most part."
"And what's your verdict?" Kuan asked with a lopsided smile as he sat down beside the bird, dwarfing him utterly.
Utter befuddlement made him admit the honest truth. "I confess amazement that a single locale can display such diversity of action yet be so quotidian in nature."
Kuan nodded as he took out a long, thin pipe; unlike Ochir or Jin Hu, who would have rolled their eyes and teased him about his high diction and sesquipedalian vocabulary, the lion was another of Oogway's students who was among the most well-read and intelligent, often speaking in such a manner himself. The difference was he seemed able to seamlessly shift from that to a more relaxed and casually informal style which Chao didn't think he could ever master, and was a little distressed at even attempting. "Yes, a tavern is a good place for that sort of thing. People come here in all states, and because they are not moving so much, their feelings are easier to read than normal." He took out another pipe. "Care to smoke with me?"
Chao allowed a chuckle to escape along with a grin, and knew it sounded as weak and uncertain as the expression looked. "Dog suggested I should try an opium pipe."
Kuan laughed loudly. "I would pay to see you do that! Still, opium is rather strong. Even I will only touch it for medicinal uses; I expect one day soon the Emperor will outlaw it for any use but that, if not for its dangers to the mind and body than for how the cutthroat dealings surrounding its sale put so many lives and reputations in danger. I think perhaps a milder compromise might be more to your liking?" He pulled out a pouch, opened it, and stuck it under Chao's beak. "Cannabis?"
Even though this would still be recreational drug use, the difference was marked enough that Chao couldn't help nodding and smiling in gratitude. "That would be acceptable. Thank you for your consideration."
Kuan filled their pipes and used the candle at the table to light his own, the fire's light dancing off of his honey-hued mane. "You have smoked before, have you not?" he wondered, voice guarded and slightly accusative.
"I'm not quite so cloistered as that," Chao returned candidly.
Chuckling, the lion lifted the candle to light the other pipe as the falcon put the long neck to his beak and gently inhaled, causing the embers to flare. "That is good to know. I take it you didn't like the shaojiu?"
"I did not, I am afraid."
The serving girl returned with cups and vessels.
"Ah, thank you," Kuan muttered as he began pouring. "I know you like plum wine, so I ordered some. It's on me, my friend."
For the first time in many months—ever, with this companion?—a wide smile came over Chao's face and a rare warmth filled his voice; not for the monetary aspect, seeing as none of them were lacking in financial resources thanks to the Jade Palace coffers, but for the meaning behind the gesture. "You are a most generous fellow, Hou Kuan."
"That's what friends are for," the lion rumbled back as he took a slow draw on his pipe, quietly delighting in the effects of the cannabis.
"Do you suppose you might try to get lucky like they almost certainly will?" Kuan asked after several long moments of friendly silence, jerking his head at his younger brother and his equally burly and huge companions.
Once, Chao would have reacted in a cold rage, or at least a deeply disapproving contempt, at having such a blatantly lewd and crass suggestion offered to him. Now, he only shook his head, even if his reply was still diffident and painfully stiff. "Of course not. I am betrothed, soon to be wed, and while that hardly changes anything in many people's eyes, I prefer fidelity in such matters."
Kuan nodded. "Commendable. It is too easy for our sex, I have often thought. We could stand to be more faithful to our wives and intendeds—or if not, then at least let them play a bit more openly in the same manner as we are permitted." He smirked around his pipe, his sharp, pearly teeth bared in a wicked chuckle.
"If you were married, would you really be so cavalier?" Chao wondered, narrowing his eyes; part of him did find the idea of women being as unbound by rules of chastity and granted leave to act as seductive and forceful as men in carnal matters to be reprehensible or at least distasteful, sullying their purity and goodness. But the rest of him simply doubted whether a man, even one as wise and intelligent as Kuan, could really hold to such a standard when the shoe was on the other paw.
"Yes, I think so. Fair is fair, and I believe in fairness. Of course, thinking and doing are two different things, I admit. I am not married, so I don't have to worry about it yet."
"Touché." But it was a respectable answer, quite in keeping with the lion's stated aims and open-minded nature.
"Would I be correct in assuming that you would not care to discuss any intimate details regarding your fiancée's bed?" Kuan glanced sidelong at his companion; his eyes were indeed quite curious, even if his words had already assumed the outcome.
Chao thought for a while, and he winced as he quickly realized that his silence probably spoke more than if he had said anything. And the fact was, even if had wished to share such things with his brother warrior, he and Xiwang were of course waiting until after the ceremony before indulging in such pastimes—so there were no details to be had. Sighing, and with another shake of his head, he took a few thoughtful, shallow drags, letting the pungent smoke billow around his beak. "Not every union can be so blessed by Nuwa."
"Or Bai Mudan."
Chao almost choked on an inhalation of smoke, then let out an uncharacteristic belly laugh. "Perhaps Xiwang and I should make some prayers to her."
"Couldn't hurt." Kuan joined his friend in a laugh. "Now, take Ox, Rhino, and Xiong. In their case, it is to Pan Jinlian that they pray—or rather for Xiong, Tu Er Shen."
The falcon had long been aware of the fact Hou Xiong was quite enamored of taking other men to his bed, and did not have any particular aversion to this; while it wasn't the sort of thing one spoke of in polite, public company, everyone knew it occurred and hardly anyone minded so long as families still had heirs and care was taken to avoid certain illnesses. It was in fact extremely common among noble circles, so that he had more knowledge of it and its prevalence than most would.
Still, he had to wonder… "Does Xiong not find any temptation from women?" Chao ventured uncertainly.
Kuan shook his head. "No. He has always been unusual. As you know, most of us, even if we tend to focus on the opposite sex, will indulge freely with our own from time to time. Sometimes, the opportunity is better. It is sometimes easier to find a man to warm one's bed than a woman. You don't have to worry about pregnancy either, and sticking to your own kind is a sure way towards that end. Xiong, though, has only ever had eyes for other men—especially large ones like himself."
"Then why is he looking at that lady otter across the room?" He pointed delicately with his wing feathers, and a slight arch tone entered his voice. "And I've also noticed Rhino observing that large black wolf over by the stairs."
"Ah, now that is an interesting strategy," Kuan said with a real satisfaction, his voice a bit deeper and rumbling with eroticism, and he was surprised the lion didn't blatantly begin rubbing his paws together. The cannabis was, however, gradually changing his countenance, and whether he liked it or not, Chao felt himself following. His faculties were still perfectly sharp, but he was feeling quite relaxed and contented...as well as a bit amorous. Guan Yin, give me strength…
"Strategy?" the bird prompted, his mouth moving on ahead of his thoughts. He took another slow draw.
Kuan nodded as he slouched a bit and put his feet up on another chair. He draped a friendly arm around the falcon. "They all work together, helping each other out in their...conquests. Three pairs of eyes are better than one, you know. It's also a bit of sport for them, looking not only for themselves but for their friends. They're actually bonding while doing this."
Chao couldn't conceal his surprise. "I wouldn't have guessed people could bond over something such as that."
"My dear Chao, my friend," Kuan said, his muzzle coming low and up to Chao's ear. His breath was warm and fresh even with the smell of the cannabis on it. Its depth was such that it made his nerve endings quiver, and there was something in its tone that affected him too—or perhaps it was the words the lion spoke next, as he considered their implications, which caused the tremors. "People can bond even over ribaldry and carnality. We each have our own ways for forging connections. Perhaps such ways are not for you, but you must not forget that they do work for others, and there is no shame or wrongdoing in this. For those three, it works most efficaciously."
Chao could hear the pride in Kuan's voice, and while he was positive at least some of it was in regards to their prowess (especially his brother's), he also sensed warmth and camaraderie in it that he could not quite comprehend. Could it be he was simply so pleased to see his brother and friends fraternizing so harmoniously, regardless of the manner in which they went about it?
As he had since speaking with Master Oogway, and again after conversing with Master Dog, the falcon found himself reflecting—more than he had since beginning his lessons at the Jade Palace, or any time in the last few years—if he was perhaps not so wise as he had supposed himself to be, if he could have missed this. And as he contemplated this, something other than his usual arrogant assumption that he could not be mistaken or lacking in insight, or the equally typical self-beration at having failed to achieve the perfection of knowledge and truth which he ever sought, washed over him. No, instead he felt an odd sense of eagerness and wonder at having discovered something new to learn.
He was soon distracted, however, by something else—Kuan's scent, which Chao realized was also becoming increasingly aroused. If it was for the two massive men indulging in such tawdry games alongside his brother or just the situation, he could not tell. He had to admit, though, the aroma was not an unpleasant one.
"Come on, let's get a little closer so you can hear them, Chao." Kuan quietly stood, and with his massive paw pulled Chao along. "It should give you a better insight; and no, they would not mind. In fact they'd appreciate the audience. They are showing off, after all."
I cannot believe I'm going along with this, Chao thought to himself as he let himself be dragged along. It must be the cannabis...that is allowing me to be more curious than normal.
They took up a pair of seats only a few tables away from the towering kung fu warriors. The falcon was certain that they must have noticed, but for now they were ignoring him and Kuan, which suited him perfectly. The lion tapped out the used buds, refilled their pipes, and draped his arm back around Chao wordlessly.
"Good pickings tonight," Ox was saying with a definite smugness as he sipped his drink.
"You seen the rack on her?" Xiong asked as he pointed to the otteress. "That's what I call pickings for ya. Like ripe cherries!"
"I'd say they're quite a bit larger than that," Ochir quipped, his eyes roving appreciatively over her svelte, shapely frame. "She's a bit small for any of us, though."
"It's not stopped her from looking our way," the enormous cinnamon-maned lion pointed out.
"Now that wolf over there, I think he's definitely interested," Jin Hu cut in again with his own rumble. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Chao caught the very calculated gleam in the bull's dark eyes, and how he watched the canine in question from the corner of his peripheral vision, before he put his arm around Xiong's waist, drew him near, and gave the wolf a smoldering look. The feline's paw soon came around Ox's other side, resting comfortably on his hip.
"He looks like a blacksmith," Rhino observed. "Definitely your type, Xiong."
"Damn right." The lion licked his chops, then his eyes lit up for a completely different reason as he gestured with a quick stab of a thick finger. "Hey, check out the vixen that just walked in! By the Jade Emperor, she's built like a brick shithouse! If she's unattached, the men here are idiots!"
"She could build my house any day," Ochir said lustily.
"She probably could build a house with those muscles." Xiong snorted in amusement.
Chao's gaze followed her as she padded in with an easy, confident gait, one he had to privately admit had him shifting and squirming in his seat as much as the cannabis was—then she stopped beside the black wolf, patted him on the shoulder, and exchanged some friendly words before sitting down with him.
"Ah, hells. Maybe she is attached," Ox grumbled.
"Maybe… No, wait, I think they're talking about us."
It seemed the lion's insight was correct, as the two both kept looking back admiringly at the three kung fu masters. Suddenly a very audible slap cut through the tavern's chatter, and when Chao looked back he was startled and in fact completely flummoxed to see Xiong's other paw had landed on Rhino's rump. He was absolutely positive that the horned warrior was firmly and utterly devoted only to the pursuit of the fairer sex...and while it was true Ochir had, after an initial discomfort and even a certain amount of disgust, gotten over his prejudice and ceased avoiding the big lion, to be sanguine with being touched in such an intimate fashion by Xiong, to refrain from even showing any reaction…?
Yet he watched as the lion leaned in to talk to the Mongolian, making it look even more as if they were indulging in a lover's exchange of sweet nothings (or more likely, extremely suggestive innuendo). Since Xiong was whispering, he could not hear what was being said...but Ochir only smiled, threw his head back, and laughed in rather naughty fashion before swallowing more of his drink.
"You've probably noticed how close they are getting," Kuan's voice suddenly sounded conversationally in Chao's ear, making him lose his vaunted self-control as he jumped and nearly tumbled out of his chair. Once more, that warm breath and rumble made the falcon shudder.
"It's...it's as if they're flirting with each other!" He couldn't keep the astonishment and, unfortunately, the disapproval, from his voice.
But Kuan took no offense, only nodding. "That's right. They sometimes use this trick to attract more attention. It encourages the men for Xiong's sake—and sometimes Ox's. They've been known to share lays plenty of times."
"Really?" Chao looked back at his companion, his eyes wide; this was something he hadn't known.
"Oh yes, I've been there when they've done it." He laughed softly. "And just so you know, that technique also works just as well the other way, to make the women more interested. They seem to find it a challenge when Rhino looks their way, so interested, and then goes on to flirt with these two."
Chao took another smoke, and it wasn't only because he needed to clear his lungs before speaking that he took so long to do so. If what Hou Kuan said was true, this meant his fellow warrior, who desired women with as much passion and need as what the falcon himself secretly bore for his beloved Xiwang...was yet willing to feign interest in other men, whether to draw those ladies in or to aid his brothers-in-arms in their own trysts. That indicated a great deal of confidence in himself...a great deal of trust...and a bond of friendship the depth of which he could not begin to fathom. "I have not come across anything like this in the scriptorum."
"Well, at least not in the scrolls you're likely to read. Try a few pillow books sometime." Kuan patted the falcon's shoulder.
Chao shuddered. "I would never hear the end of it if I were observed to be reading one of those!"
"Read it with your fiancée. If there was ever a proper, faithful woman, she is that. It should inform you well."
The avian looked sidelong at his friend, who was in turn watching the scene between his brother, Ox, and Rhino and the table with the vixen and the black wolf, that same excited look on his face as he waited to see what would transpire, how this encounter would play out in the end. A thought came to him, and he dared to glance downward, past the edge of their table. What he saw convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that the eldest lion brother would be on the prowl before long himself.
"Hey, look!" Kuan suddenly said in a hushed tone.
For several horrified moments, Chao thought his companion had discovered just where he'd been looking, and he blushed fiercely—but soon he realized to his relief that the lion was still watching the table across the room. The black wolf, Chao now saw, had gotten up and was walking towards the three friends, his gaze quite intent on the lion and ox whose faces were in turn just as focused. The wolf's fur was like obsidian, well-groomed, and even from this distance, Chao's sharp senses could still detect the scent of the forge and metal, even though he had obviously bathed before coming to the tavern. He was clearly extremely strong (as one of his profession would have to be), darkly handsome, although he bore a firm and rounded gut around his middle. Looking back to their friends' table, the falcon thought that Xiong would be drooling if he were not a cat—but as he quickly performed the same inspection he had upon his brother, Chao could not help a laugh. In a way, he still is...
"What?" Kuan wondered aloud.
"Do not alert the traveling bards as yet," he said dryly, "but I do believe I just devised a joke." He let the lion in on his thoughts, and Kuan had a good laugh indeed.
"Good evening, fellows," the wolf rumbled, drawing his attention back. His accent and tone gave away his peasant origins (as well as, unless Chao missed his guess, hailing from Guizhou), and this only seemed to entrance Xiong more. Even Ox looked more interested.
"Good evening, sir," Xiong said as the huge wolf boldly came up to him, planting one giant paw on the scarred wooden table, leaning over him until he couldn't fail to draw in his aroused scent, and grinned...slowly, crookedly, filled with masculine confidence.
"My place is just down the street," the blacksmith observed, as if remarking on the weather or the local road conditions. "You looking for a warm bed tonight?" he almost purred.
Chao blinked in surprise.
"As a matter of fact, yes." Xiong, of course, did purr.
"Good man." The wolf turned to Ox. "Not putting you out, am I?"
Ox downed the last of his drink, leaned forward on one elbow, and reached out to grasp the wolf by the collar of his hanfu, jerking him forward as if he intended to smash him into unconsciousness...but then, without changing the toothy, sly grin on his face, he suddenly pressed their faces together for a quick but potent kiss. "Not at all."
The wolf struggled to recover his breath, but then he was smiling as if he'd just had the entire Imperial treasury bequeathed to him. Growling, he wrapped his arm around Jin Hu even as he turned his muzzle to give a similar kiss to Xiong.
"That's it?" Chao whispered to Kuan in shock, still unable to believe what he'd just witnessed. "Do you want to, yes or no?"
The swordsman lion burst out laughing yet again. "Yeah, that's it. Men don't usually need quite so much wooing as women do, my friend." Still chuckling, he explained further. "Oh, there are some who are interested in more than mere rolls in the hay, who seek the same sort of connection and longevity, romance and love...but even they tend to prefer cutting to the chase when it comes to the bedroom, for the simplicity and novelty of it if nothing else." Kuan glanced over again, then grinned even more broadly. "Oh-ho, now that vixen is headed over. Looks like Rhino's date's about to enter house left."
Chao watched as Ochir practically ignored her; instead, he was busy watching his companions. Unsurprisingly he seemed unwilling to go quite so far as Ox had, so that instead of kissing the wolf he was gently stroking the canine's tail and letting it run through his hands. He did, however, allow one hand to rest upon the wolf's back once in a while, giving the muscle there a firm massage...something the vixen was up close and observing with just as much interest and arousal. Finally unable to keep pretending not to notice her, Rhino looked over at her with a smile. "Good evening."
"Good evening to you, too." She was middle-aged, and Chao assumed she was either widowed or childless. She did not look poor, though, and she was clearly living as she liked. Bold as brass, she reached out with one paw upturned, as if about to evaluate produce at a market stand, then dropped it below the level of the table edge. After a moment she nodded in approval. "I'd say that's just about right."
"You should probably inspect it more closely," Rhino drawled, catching on to her metaphor. "No one buys melons in the dark."
She stepped closer, her nose flaring as she took in his scent and let out an appreciative moan. There was a rustle of cloth as she did something hidden from his view by both of their bodies, although he was fairly certain what it was. He was proven right when she abruptly sat back, letting out a gasp and staring at the rhino with widened eyes. Clearly she was getting more than she had anticipated...but she also did not appear put off in the slightest.
"Best deal in town," Ochir advertised as his hand moved over her shapely rump. He then nodded his head towards the stairs.
"I'll take it," she said, and they both smirked at the double meaning.
"See you two later," Rhino said off-handedly to his friends, who only waved back just as distractedly as they now shared a three-way kiss. The horned warrior finally acknowledged Chao and Kuan with a nod and began mounting the narrow stairs in the back of the inn, the vixen's paw in his hard-nailed hand.
"You're welcome to come along," the black wolf panted to Ox after another moment.
"I think I'll take you up on that offer," Jin Hu answered before looking over his shoulder. "My little otter lady seems to have lost interest." He did not sound too disappointed to Chao, who could see his right paw moving slowly up and down just out of sight. The falcon didn't need to think long at all to guess what that meant.
"Follow me," the wolf rumbled simply in his masculine baritone. And with that, the three promptly departed as well, in this case by making for the door out onto the pier.
"Incredible," was all Chao could say as he took a gulp of his wine to moisten his dry throat. He then abruptly noticed how much closer Kuan was to him, how warm the lion was. Suddenly the man's muzzle was at his neck, and Kuan began to purr. The falcon was quite alarmed in spite of feeling otherwise quite mellow. Oh no. "Kuan, what are you doing?"
"You see that snow leopardess directly opposite us?" the big feline asked as he nuzzled the falcon, who had to draw upon his iron willpower more than he ever had in his life to keep from flinching.
Realization suddenly dawned on Chao as he followed his friend's directions—and spied the way the lady was eyeing them with great interest.
"I've been watching her for a while," Kuan murmured so that only he could hear. "I think she likes you too. And you know, she might be up for a threesome. Live a little, enjoy yourself. If you play your cards right, you'll be ensuring my bed has a sweet spotted armful in it, too." He chuckled deeply as he drew the falcon a bit closer.
"I...I'd be glad to help, my friend, but I'm not sure… Oh, no, she's getting up."
"That's good. Just relax. Have fun."
In what seemed an impossibly long time, during which he watched her approach with something akin to how he imagined an archery target might feel—that predatory gaze was far too unsettling—she was finally upon them. Pulling up a chair and sitting in it with the back facing her, she let her ample bosom rest over the wooden slat, propping it up ever so enticingly. "Works every time, doesn't it?" she drawled at Kuan. It took several moments for the falcon's mind to catch up, but as soon as it did and he realized the import of her words, he started to laugh. And you thought you were so clever and subtle, my friend, that none of them were the wiser.
"Whatever do you mean, madam?" the lion was replying in the meantime, barely even trying to sound innocent—not that there was any point after being so clearly found out, but he doubted the man could have managed it convincingly in any case.
"You don't think we occasionally use it to make you interested in us too, flirting with our own sex?" The exotic cat grinned, her violet eyes twinkling hungrily.
"Oh, I like her," Kuan said to Chao.
"And I like the looks of the two of you."
"What do you say, Chao. You interested?" The maned feline regarded her somewhat sardonically. "I'm trying to get my friend to experience new things. And he has decided that he wishes to expand his experiences to more worldly matters."
She nodded in understanding. "My brother is a scholar, too. I can relate."
"How could you tell I am a scholar?" Chao asked, rather confused; for this journey he had not worn his guan, and his garments otherwise only suggested a reasonably well-off traveler and, to the well-trained eye, a warrior of the Jade Palace.
"The ink stains on your feathers aren't completely gone," the snow leopardess said simply.
Looking down, he saw that she was right. He had to give her credit for her sharp, observant eyes. Of course, cats were known for their ability to notice just about everything. He knew there was a reason he'd always been wary of them.
She smiled, purring, and got up to sit alongside Chao, who now found himself between the two cats and feeling even more nervous if that was possible...but also intensely aroused by her scent and gaze. She reached up a paw and gently traced her finger along his beak...the lightest of touches that yet made him freeze stiffened in place, breath rasping in his throat, as two contradictory impulses warred within him—mortal fear, and fiery, aching yearning. And slowly, while he was thus trapped as much by his emotions as by the bodies surrounding him, she leaned in and kissed him...so tenderly that he was amazed all over again.
Thoughts of Xiwang called to him, told him he must stay firm and true, that she would disapprove, that such things were if not immoral then at least inappropriate. Distractions from his current quest, his studies, his lessons with Oogway, the lofty goals he had dedicated himself to, the heroic deeds which he had sworn to perform for the sake of the empire and its people. But...this felt so wonderful, how could it truly be wrong, what harm could there be in indulging just this once, he was not married yet, and how could she fault him for taking this one taste of freedom that could make him a better lover for her, prove he was right to choose her…?
His resolve was quickly crumbling, and soon he was falling into it, slowly giving into the intense pleasure and novelty of the experience. The part of him that was always so controlled and aloof was screaming for him to regain his composure, but his body was hearing none of it. Truly biology could not be so easily dissuaded. And after so long without any choices but those dictated by his conscience and honor, it was so important that he make this one...so trivial and yet also so critical, one he'd never made before because he would never have considered it, one that didn't matter at all and yet also mattered more than anything...
After a long exchange, Chao realized just how close he was to her and that his feathers had been caressing her breasts. She clearly found him quite attractive, and deep down, it made him feel something he had never felt before—a certain pride in the idea of his own virility. Inexperienced as he may have been, even he could tell when a woman wanted him.
Kuan's muzzle suddenly came over his shoulder, and the lion's massive chest pressed into Chao's back as he too shared a deep kiss with the other cat. "I think we should take this upstairs," his friend rumbled.
The snow leopardess nodded, and suddenly they were both looking at him. He realized that they were awaiting his approval. Well now. This is it, then. The moment of truth. Swallowing hard, the falcon took a final draw on his pipe, held the smoke, and then let it go with an uneven breath and a renewed quiver.
"Oh, what the hell?" he finally said, his voice ragged with desire. Whatever he was getting into, for once, he decided to do as he had been advised again and again...to simply let himself enjoy it, come what may. With as much determination and bravery as he could muster, he tossed down the last of his wine, rose to his feet, and allowed himself to be led up the stairs as well.
As he did so, however, he did glance back one last time at the tavern's main room—and what he spied in the other corner made him stare, blink, and then laugh anew and more heartily than before: the dark, slender forms of You Min and You Li were watching him from beside Hou Sudu, who seemed to have dozed off in his chair with his paws clasped behind his chestnut-maned head, a satisfied smile on his muzzle...and as they watched him go, one of the weasels blithely thrust his paw out to the other, uttering only two words in his wry voice.
As might be expected, the next morning was quite a different affair for Xun Chao, mostly for waking to the aftereffects of recreational drug use (and to a lesser degree, a plum wine hangover), but also because he'd had to face head-on the results of indulging in matters of a carnal nature, too. Oddly, it had been the former which bothered him more than the latter, for while he still remained nervous and uneasy at the thought of sexual activities, awakening to find his wings wrapped securely around their snow leopardess lover—cuddled quite happily and warmly into his chest feathers—while Hou Kuan embraced her from the other side had been...sweet, and certainly quite satisfying.
For the first time in a very long time, he felt relaxed and at peace, and not for the usual spiritual, meditative reasons—and without the usually constant racing of his thoughts in the background as he tried to piece together all he had learned from the scrolls, grasp mystical secrets which eluded him, and plan out the further course of his studies. Perhaps that was why the lingering traces of alcohol and cannabis were what upset him, since the ache in his head and inability to focus reminded him all too much of the familiar results of his incessant education…
Still, that wasn't enough to keep him from giving the spotted cat a morning kiss on her brow, squeezing her body tightly to his, and smiling in gratitude at his leonine friend for pushing him into the decadent night before. And after their lover had also awoken and the two of them had given her fond smiles farewell (and caresses of a rather more arousing nature), Chao had even given Kuan a tight embrace too before they rose and dressed to go and rejoin the others.
Unsurprisingly, all the other masters seemed to know of his adventure, and only considered him more honorable rather than less, viewing him as a closer friend and loyal companion because he had proven not to be so above it all, that he shared some interests and urges in common with them after all and could play to them without fear or shame. Of course, from the huge grins and besotted expressions on the faces of Ox, Rhino, and Xiong, the falcon suspected his friends were too caught up in memories of their own conquests to spare too much thought for his...
So it was that after joining in a rich and hearty breakfast that was far more animated and lively than he was used to, then paying the innkeeper for their room and board (with a rather generous tip), the nine masters set off from Ankang in much higher spirits than when they had arrived, with Chao still marveling at what he had been persuaded to do, at how liberating and exciting and amusingly playful by turns it had been rather than the debasement and corruption he had feared.
He would remember those feelings later, how good and enlightening and reassuring they had been, something all of them had needed...when they crossed over into Gansu, and eventually discovered what lay in wait for them to the west.
The landscape, though progressively drier and more desolate, did not bother Chao in the slightest, since his homeland was of course the mountainous Tibet, and neither Ochir nor Jin Hu seemed particularly discommoded either; Twin Weasels and the Three Lions seemed more uncomfortable (though the only one who displayed it obviously was Sudu), while Dog admired the harsh beauty of the province but was unfortunately finding its heat a bit much for his thicker fur. As they wound their way along the Huang He as its various branches flowed down from the northwest to unite in one broad, life-giving expanse, they also encountered with some frequency roving bands of thieves and cutthroats, targeting traveling merchants and lone locals alike, whom they of course readily dispatched. Whenever they could, they left them alive but incapacitated and made sure they were brought to the nearest jail to be tried and sentenced, something which Kuan, Cheng, and Ochir insisted upon; sometimes, however, they had no choice but to slay them.
As depressing as that was for his companions (Chao rather thought they deserved their fates, but at the same time it distressed him to see such a failure of law and order, and he hated to see that look on Dog's face especially), that wasn't what made Gansu so worrisome, though.
Just beyond the city of Tianshui, they met a messenger threading his way down the river toward the east. A mountain owl with much coarser feathers than his species usually possessed—the better to fly in the fierce gales of his homeland without being completely denuded—he was on his way to the capital. Not Chang'an, of course, for despite that still officially being the seat of the empire, the real government had moved to the "eastern capital", Luoyang, more than ten years ago. But as much as that rankled, Chao was soon focused upon the tidings his fellow avian bore.
Somewhere even farther west, in the heights of the danxia peaks, something had risen to cast its disturbing pall over the land...something dark and frightening, something that had the common people in a constant state of terror, refusing to work or travel or do anything except huddle inside their homes, praying to the gods that their families would somehow be spared from this unseen menace. No one knew what it was, what it wanted, or why it had come, only that every night was filled with unearthly howls and roars, screams that chilled the blood and moans that could dissolve the hardest heart into tears.
At least, that was what the messenger said. Something in his choice of words and tone of voice, the evasive way he would not quite meet any of their eyes, made Chao suspicious. Owls were often mistrusted as harbingers of doom, but this went beyond such superstitious matters, or even any sense of rivalry between birds of prey; the other avian knew more than he was telling. But none of them, not even the gentle and wise Gou Cheng, could persuade him to reveal it, for it seemed he was either too frightened or intended it only for the ears of the Emperor and his ministers. That, Chao knew, was a lost cause, for even if the so-called Son of Heaven cared enough to receive one lowly messenger and pay heed to his missive, what could he and his armies do against a supernatural threat?
Yet of course none of them would countenance trying to force the owl to speak, and he did at least give them fairly detailed directions, interwoven with dire warnings and explicit blessings made for their protection, as to the location of this sorrowful haunting. So it was with a heavy heart but also a determination to bring peace and harmony back to this land that they fed the messenger, saw him on his way, and resumed their journey—more wary, alert, and deadly serious, but still united in their desire to stand by each other and see justice done.
By the time the next week had passed and they were following the looming battlements and stone barrier of Tŭlóng, the Earth Dragon (although with the increasingly belligerent and tyrannical policies of the Emperor, Chao thought with bitter cynicism that it should simply be called the Long Wall again), all of them were on edge, and no amount of joking, naughty innuendo, or heroic anecdotes could lift their spirits. It didn't help that the mountains which began where the Wall ended were utterly barren and lifeless, and that despite the farmland and gardens dotting the countryside thanks to the river and irrigation, there seemed to be no colors left but muddy brown and dismal gray, the rest leached away by some unknown source...something they could not see, but whose atmosphere they could surely feel.
The closer they drew to Zhangye, the more forlorn and agonized, the more empty and hostile, the land around them became. Both Chao and Dog could feel it, of course, right down to their very marrow, a coldness no amount of fire or layered clothing could dispel, an unrelenting hatred and righteous rage that ebbed and flowed but never ceased throbbing in the background. Yet eventually even the others were weighed down by its oppressive blanket, so that Ochir and Jin Hu became grim and bleak, Xiong returned to his stoic silence, and even Kuan and Sudu became uncharacteristically laconic. Even without the owl's warnings and Oogway's premonition, they would all sense something was off, that a spiritual danger of some sort lurked somewhere just ahead.
Finally, as the sun began to set far over the mountains of Qinghai, the nine of them arrived at Zhangye itself...and as they came around the last bend in the road, the rays of gold, crimson, and orange seemed to set the peaks aflame in a whole new manner. All of them came to a halt and stared, for while even this region seemed washed-out in color, the contrast between it and the rest of the landscape was so great it might as well have been lurid and blindingly brilliant. Everywhere they looked, the rock bent, humped up, folded and creased, as if the gods had reached down from the heavens to grasp and knead it into whatever shapes pleased them most. Peaks dropped off into sheer cliffs; rock had been sheared off from the rest of the mountains entirely to stand as rugged pinnacles; countless streams and rivers had worn away great valleys and narrow, incredibly deep ravines where waterfalls now churned and fell in glittering splendor. The land seemed to have formed into an intricate lattice, and every layer was a different hue so that the village was overlooked by rippling bands of color.
Sadly, the majestic effect faded as the sun began to recede, and somehow the way those glorious colors stood revealed as stark, pathetic shadows of what they should have been was even more heart-breaking and depressing than all the gray and gloomy world they had traveled through to reach this point—because he could tell how truly beautiful and awe-inspiring it would normally be. With an odd prescience, as he sent his chi out into the land to sense what ailed it, why all seemed so hollow and bereft, and what could be done to alleviate it, Chao knew that it was here, in these weirdly-shaped peaks and countless split formations of colored stone, that they would find the cause of their master's vision. And if all went well, set it to rights so that the danxia would again glow and blaze as it was meant to.
While they were standing there, either transfixed by the shimmering hues of the cliffsides or fighting off the uneasy sensation crawling up their spines, Chao's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Jin Hu letting out a deep grunt and huffing a hot breath from his nostrils. "Damn! What in the name of Dizang is wrong with this place?!" He turned and glanced searchingly at the falcon, and Chao was startled to see genuine worry and fear on his usually bold and confident face. "Chao...do you know? Are you close enough to tell?"
Before he could do more than stare in shock at the bull—uncertain which was more out-of-character, showing such uncertainty and hesitation or acknowledging Chao's prowess in spiritual matters (Ox was more likely to tease him, albeit only playfully, about "having the vapors" from keeping his head in the clouds all the time), You Min spoke up, solemn and serious. "I believe appealing to Zhong Kui would be more appropriate. But he's right...we all can feel it. Cheng?"
Dog was frowning, eyes half-closed so that they were fully lost in the folds of his skin as he too focused his concentration both outward and inward. Even before he found his voice, the Shar Pei was shivering, and certainly not due to the weather which remained oppressively warm. "Yes. I feel it. But I can't pinpoint it with any more accuracy, except…" He glanced at Chao, shoulders slightly slumped. "The mountains?"
"The mountains," the falcon answered him grimly. It was just as the messenger had suggested. Even now, with only the modicum of attention paid to it, he could feel the wrongness pulsing and radiating down at them from the peaks, a sensation of imbalance, of suffering and loss, and above all, an unyielding, burning hatred—though whether for something specific or the world itself, he knew not. It was like nothing he'd ever encountered before. It frightened him...and yet, deep down where he could barely admit it, he found himself admiring its relentless determination. And that frightened him even more.
For several long minutes, as the sun disappeared beyond the ridgeline and the land began to fall into an even more disturbing and terrifying world of fading twilight, deep blackness, and dancing, constantly shifting shadows, they all stared alternately at each other or the ledges and paths which wound up into the ominously silent danxia. Then with a visible shudder and a shake of his maned head, Sudu suddenly said, "Well...I was gonna suggest we make camp for the night, like we usually do, but...I don't think I wanna be out here when it's dark. Do you guys?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest they should in fact stay in the mountains, for in no other way did he think they could get to the bottom of what was amiss and restore the balance. But the longer he thought about it, the more Chao was convinced that being so open and exposed to this baleful influence, unprotected from whatever might threaten, would not be safe for any of them. Not until they knew more, could make plans and gather their strength. Not until he had racked his brains to draw upon every last scrap of mystical knowledge and chi study that might prove essential to saving them.
Ochir said, slow and deliberate, "I'm with the cat. This don't feel right at all. We gotta get to some kind of place of safety before we can decide what to do. And I won't feel good unless I've got a roof and walls around me."
"Huh. You read my mind, my friend," Kuan rumbled. "I was just thinking, that I wished we were back at the inn." For a wonder, he sounded less like he was missing the fun, the naughtiness, or the camaraderie, and more just being somewhere he felt safe and protected—if only for a brief respite before they faced the challenge ahead.
Chao took one look into that saddened, uncomfortable face, then impulsively wrapped his wing around the feline, taking him into a brief but firm embrace. "I do as well. I think your brother is right. Let us proceed to Zhangye and find a haven to bed down for the vespertine hours. Something is abroad this night we can neither fathom nor confront as yet...there is safety in numbers, and I for one would very much like to inquire of the locals."
"Yes," Li said. "Surely someone here has some idea of what's going on, and why."
Everyone, even the massive, bluff Xiong, looked relieved and reassured...and somehow, as they all quite firmly turned their backs on the increasingly-shadowed rock formations and proceeded down the path toward the emerging lights of the village below, Chao found himself comforted to know they were still united in their fear and worry. It made it easier to admit such things if everyone, even the most courageous and bold, did so as well—and it meant they would all be even more likely to come to the defense at the right time, to do what was needed...
By the time they had reached Zhangye and found the town's sole inn on a quiet side street, full night had fallen, and even the risen moon overhead could not completely dispel the sense of futility and impending doom which lay over them. Still, the place was respectable, clean, and rather homey, and while it was smaller than the Xiao Tou Inn had been, it was also in perfect repair and lacked any of the seedier, raunchier elements; while Chao wouldn't mind and might even welcome such things now, none of them were truly in the mood anymore, and the traditional peasant values of the place were rather reassuring at present. Its small size meant they would have to double or even triple up for bed space, but this was nothing new for the common folk, or for the masters when they traveled on missions...and again, the closeness this would impose was something they were all pleased by.
The proprietors of the inn, this close to the mountains of Qinghai, were an antelope and his wife, and they were as cordial, amicable, and helpful as could be. However, when they had paid for their rooms in advance (upon practical Dog's insistence, just in case...something...forced them to flee in the night and they did not have time or thought to handle their bill then) and were about to retire, Rhino made a casual observation. "So my friends and I saw those colorful cliffs you've got just to the north. Didn't have time to take a closer look, with the sun going down and all, but we were thinking of checking them out tomorrow morning. Anything special or interesting up there we should know about?"
The innkeeper, Gui Xin by name, suddenly stopped puttering about with his money and went pale. "What? Why should you think that?" He tried to keep his trembling out of his voice, but unfortunately the great curves of his horns gave it away. "I mean, yes, the landscape is quite gorgeous up there, very unique, but otherwise there's nothing. Nothing there at all, very empty and boring."
"Oh really?" Xiong leaned in from the other side, resting his elbow on the wooden counter. "Not even any mining up there? Gotta be some great resources for metal and gems."
"No, no. Not anymore, anyway. Not since—" The antelope broke off, so quickly he almost choked, and then hurriedly turned to fetch their room keys.
Chao exchanged a knowing look with Dog, but it was Kuan who spoke what they were all thinking. "Something happened, didn't it? There's a reason nobody goes there or lives there. What is it? What are you so afraid of?" The lion frowned, gaze searching, and although his words were demanding, their tone was conciliatory, even gentle.
For a very long moment, the horned fellow stared at them, seeming both nettled and intimidated by so many large predators surrounding and interrogating him. At the same time, there was something in his very wide eyes...something secretive, even a flicker of buried pain and sorrow...that made it clear something else frightened and upset him besides being pressed in this manner. Then he sighed and shook his head. "If you must know, there was a terrible accident up there in the Qilian Shan. Many people died, it was a tragedy for the entire town. But it happened years ago, and there is nothing we can do about it except pray to the gods to bring peace to their souls and grant protection from the dangers in those peaks."
Stepping out from behind the counter, Master Gui adopted a brisk, no-nonsense attitude and pointed down a short hallway decorated with a long handwoven carpet and a small table with a vase of flowers. "Dangers you also would be wise to avoid, good sirs. Now your rooms are just down there. If you need extra bedding, it is in the hall closet. Have a good evening, and may Shang Ti watch over you."
After they had stared at each other nonplussed for several moments, You Min moved with swift silence to the nearest door indicated and peered inside. Smirking back over his shoulder at the rest of them, he opined, "Well, it's a good thing we're all used to close quarters. I'd call this extreme coziness."
They moved to his side to see what he meant, and in seconds Xiong was laughing softly. "I'm afraid we have to stay one to a bed. But at least there's space for three beds in a room."
Ducking his head to look beneath his brother's arm, Sudu chuckled too, then glanced at Kuan. "You sure, bro? The three of us could curl up together, like we used to when we were cubs. I miss that, don't you?"
Both of them joined him in purring, none of the warriors seeming perturbed in the least to be caught reminiscing about something so childish and innocent, or acting in such an un-masculine manner, but then Kuan sighed and shook his head a bit. "I'm afraid we're too big for that now, at least in these accommodations. Or rather Xiong is; you and I could still manage it, I think."
The cinnamon-maned lion shrugged his broad shoulders. "It wouldn't be the same without Jie anyway; I'll just take a bed in here with Rhino and Ox." Chao blinked a bit; he rarely ever heard the Three Lions mention their youngest brother, who was still a simple blacksmith in their home village in Guangxi—although when they did it was always in the most respectful of tones. After all, it had been his example that taught them how to be humble, not to mention it had been he who had forged their Sword of Heroes.
Since Twin Weasels usually got by solely on meditation anyway, they took up the proper postures on the room's wooden floor, with the three largest members of the company in the beds encircling them. This left Chao and Dog beds to themselves in the other room, while Kuan and Sudu did indeed curl up together in the last remaining bed, directly behind the falcon's. Although he did not admit it aloud, this arrangement pleased him more than he could have imagined two weeks ago.
Here where the desert ran up against the base of the mountains, the day's heat faded very quickly...yet somehow, as they all stowed away their belongings and settled down for sleep, the inn seemed to become unnaturally cold. The same sort of cold as Chao had felt in the mountains as he reached out with his chi. Glancing out the nearest window, he inhaled sharply as he noticed fog gathering, slowly but surely moving to fill the village streets until each building seemed to be floating in a pearly-gray sea...a sea that constantly writhed and churned as he watched, a sea that rather than welling up from the land, where lingering heat and descending cold met, was actually pouring down the banded mountainsides…
Yet somehow no one in the inn dared to complain about the temperature, or demand that extra fuel be gathered, and only a few chimneys in Zhangye showed the telltale curls of smoke wafting upward. It was as if everyone was too afraid to go out to the woodbin for logs, or even to rise from their beds and strike flames upon their hearths. So there was hardly anything to prevent the impenetrable veil of mist from wending its way through town, curling and wrapping about every home as if it intended to strangle them and their occupants. Nothing to keep out the cold...although it was so sharp, so pervasive, so much a part of the night's shadows, that he wasn't certain even the most roaring of brilliant fires could keep it at bay…
He shivered, for more reasons than one, and pulled his blankets up closer, tighter, as he found himself pressing into Hou Kuan's warm, furred back for more than just the sharing of body heat. Is this an evil of the spirit realm? The cruelty of monstrous, inhuman beings? Or simply the hate and jealousy of the dead for the living?
In a way, that last possibility was the most disturbing of all...for while spirit beings were quite capable of an evil far beyond human understanding, without any morality to hold them back from pursuing it as often and perversely as they saw fit, and there were monsters which were similarly malicious and vile...those who had once been human, he had found, could be the most wicked and hurtful of all when denied their heart's desire or forced to witness others with the happiness they craved but could never have satisfied.
How anyone could be expected to sleep in such conditions, with these thoughts and fears and sensations filling their mind, was hard to countenance, but staying awake would leave him fairly useless in the morning, so Chao made the attempt. Yet even as he closed his eyes, steadied his breathing, and tried to drift off, he found himself straining to hear something, anything, to warn of danger to come.
What was most nerve-wracking of all, however, was not only the lack of any such noise...but the lack of any sound at all.
Other than the occasional noises made by his companions as they shifted in bed or grumbled to themselves, the inn was as silent as the grave...not even the creaking of boards from the wind or settling into the earth, let alone someone moving about. And outside, in the streets of Zhangye, it was if anything even more quiet...no footsteps, no voices, no nocturnal animals snuffling or hunting in the shadows. Even the breeze was mostly inaudible, and the nearest stream was so small and narrow he doubted he could hear it even under normal conditions.
If he were a canine or feline, he knew his ears would be pricked and stretched to their limits, striving to break the stillness that weighed down on him with such relentless force. Very slowly, very softly, he inhaled and exhaled...focusing...using the spiritual senses granted to him by his training as well as the physical ones. In...out...his body stiff and frozen as he struggled against the oppressive atmosphere, his nervousness and uneasiness growing along with the dark, deepening cold of the bleak desert.
And then, as he lay unmoving in the muted night, Xun Chao realized to his shock that gradually his breath was becoming visible, crystallizing into small icy clouds that hung over his face, twisting and writhing slowly as they expanded outward. He involuntarily shivered, not from the suddenly, unnaturally cool air, but from fright. He could not remember the last time he had ever shivered because of being scared, and it was too intense for him to feel ashamed.
Chao started as he felt something slither over his hip, almost leaping straight out of his bed, but he just managed to contain a cry as he realized it was Kuan's tail. Closing his eyes and slowly letting out the inhalation he had unknowingly been holding, he took a few moments to collect himself. It took all his discipline to quiet his mind, as if he were about to meditate.
He began to reach outward with his senses again, to feel what lay without, but now it was rather like being in the midst of thousands of people all talking in one great cacophony of sound. So was the spiritual energy surrounding them, and it was becoming more acute. He felt intensely vulnerable...and sad. He felt tears stinging at the corners of his closed eyes, wanting to leak out. Then he felt a growing rage that had him clenching his fists. He suddenly wanted to wrench Kuan's tail off his body and tell him to mind his own damn space. No, no, a thousand times no!
Chao redoubled his concentration in order to push those thoughts aside, but it only served to replace them with an intense terror and sorrow. It was like enduring stitches without the aid of an analgesic, and soon he was quivering, tears escaping out of his eyes, and his sobs were now audible in the room.
The falcon hardly noticed the bed behind him shifting as Kuan turned over, his heavy paw coming to rest on the bird's chest and shaking him firmly.
"Chao, stop reaching out to it. It's hurting you!" the great lion whispered huskily.
It was enough to break all his concentration. Chao's eyes flew open suddenly, and he gasped a deep breath—and he didn't know if he was relieved or more frightened than ever to find there was not a ghostly countenance peering down at him...only the empty darkness of the room. His heart, however, was racing.
He turned and buried his face and body into Kuan's, continuing to sob from the strain of so many intense emotions coursing through him. His friend held him tightly, protectively, rocking him ever so gently as he tried to calm him. His broad nose rested on Chao's head, his tongue occasionally coming out to lick him comfortingly, and it was a mark of how truly overwhelmed and agitated he was that he not only allowed this, but yearned for it.
"Chao, what is it?" the lion asked after a minute when he felt the falcon's breathing beginning to return to normal. He sounded reluctant...but determined to know. "I know it's painful, but what did you feel?"
"What's happening?" It was Dog's voice, chiming in from the bed on the other side of the room.
"I don't know yet," Kuan said, keeping a cool head as he almost always did.
The bird refused to look up, still much too shaken to come out from under his friend's enormous mane. It was warm and safe there, the scent of a friend like a heavenly balm, his soft fur a comforting caress. But slowly, as if each one caused him an obscure pain, he forced out words, feeling his way toward an explanation of what he had sensed, one they could understand. "I think it was a residue of the emotions from that mining accident to which our host referred. It was, however, more than an accident, I think. There was so much anger, fear, and hopelessness. It felt...as if they must have been slaves who had suddenly been pressed into a terrible bondage. Or that the manner of their deaths was not only unexpected...but negligent, truly callous. So much bitterness! I think they are hungry for a terrible resolution."
Chao moaned piteously and sobbed once more. "I wish it would stop!"
Sudu climbed over them both and came to rest behind Chao so the bird was surrounded by the two of them. The falcon felt immediately grateful.
"Come on, buddy, stop focusing on it. Close your mind to it. You're letting them in, and we need you to have your wits about ya. We can't do anything without your abilities in this!" Sudu said wisely, clearly trying hard to keep his own emotions in check, and just as obviously quite unsettled to see one of the most stable and detached warriors from the Jade Palace so suddenly unhinged. The avian had to admit he'd be just as distressed by that were he in his position.
"Yes, calm your mind, my friend. Breathe," Cheng said steadily, now much closer. The bird felt the edge of the bed descend from the man's weight.
Slowly, they managed to help him relax, even as the energies of the place seemed to only mount. The very air seemed agonizingly pregnant, even so physically oppressive that the room was becoming darker in spite of the full moon spilling in through the window slats—which Chao noticed when he finally allowed himself to peek out from under Kuan's mane. He looked into his friend's worried eyes and felt a great love and affection well up inside of him for the lion, for all of them. It made him smile, and each of them gratefully returned it. For just a moment, Chao felt a sense of peace return to him, and along with it his nerves and resolve.
"I'm all right now," he whispered to the two lions, patting Kuan's side as best he could while still being firmly pinned between them. "Thank you, both of you. I have never felt so overwhelmed by spiritual energy before. It was most unpleasant, let me tell you."
"What are we going to do?" Dog asked from behind him, his paw idly stroking the falcon's shoulder comfortingly.
Chao knew better than to reach out with his chi again, instead merely thinking and feeling with his normal senses what was around him. Why is it so damnably dark? he wondered irritably. Then he suddenly became still as a chilling thought occurred to him.
"Kuan, my friend. What can you see out the window behind me?" he asked, regretting that his friend had to carry out this task yet also privately grateful that he himself was spared it.
Watching the lion's thoughtful gaze move over to the window was more than enough. What had been a resolved if uneasy look gradually shifted before his eyes into one of confusion, fear, and apprehension. His honey-hued mane looked as washed-out and gray in the shadows as if he himself had become one of the dead. I wish I had not thought of that.
"What the hell?" Kuan breathed.
"What is it, brother?" Sudu asked in a tight voice, the strength of his grip on both of them increasing, more than one would expect for his relatively slender build.
"It is like...shadow puppets floating by. They are transparent, and yet they seem to absorb the light. I can't make out definite forms. There are bits of red, intense red, too. I don't know what I'm seeing."
"Hungry ghosts," the falcon said gravely, setting everyone's fur on end. "No, worse. Yuan gui." And although he could not formulate the words to express it, he was becoming more and more certain just what their grievance was...
The sound and feeling of heavy footsteps suddenly sounded in the next room—had it taken this long for the less spiritual masters to feel what was happening, or for them to work up the nerve to leave their beds?—quickly migrating along the wall and to their door. Ox, Xiong, Rhino, and Twin Weasels came into the room and quickly closed the door behind them. They had not even bothered to collect their shirts or boots and seemed just as on edge. They stared at everyone gathered around Chao expectantly...worriedly.
"What happened?" Xiong asked at last, his voice still surprisingly stoic.
"I...think he may have let too much in," Sudu answered his brother. He didn't have to explain what he meant, and that craggy face beneath the cinnamon mane went pale.
"Something's happening," one of the Weasels, which Chao could not see, said. At any other time he would have been annoyed by the lack of specificity, but just now he didn't think he could be any more forthcoming himself.
"The battle, I'm afraid, may now be upon us," the falcon said darkly as he finally disengaged himself from the protection of his friends and sat up in the bed. It was now his turn to return the favor, and while he lived, he would give all he could to make sure no harm came to any of them—or to this town. He gazed at the window once more, and this time he saw what he had feared before, what his mind's eye had fashioned from its own nightmares: crowding at the panes were faces, wraith-like, writhing and shimmering with an anger whose heat belied the cold they created...dark and nearly invisible but for hovering spots of blood red. One suddenly slipped through the cracks and entered the room, floating about near the ceiling. They could now all see a vague form, and the red dots were quite clearly horrible, menacing eyes.
A chill more biting than any they had yet felt, so cold it burned, suddenly filled the room, far worse than what had started turning their breaths to condensation earlier, along with a raspy, low moan. The wraith stopped circling about and began descending towards them. He didn't know if the others were maintaining their places thanks to their warrior's training...or were frozen solid by their sheer terror.
Steady and with unwavering fortitude, Chao abruptly thrust a feathered limb out, and instantly a shimmering orb of golden light emerged from his wing, filling the room with a heavenly radiance and warmth. The wraith shrieked terribly and fled back out the window—and with heartened conviction he saw that his summoning had even dispelled most of the spirits from its near vicinity, allowing a clearer view of the town for the first time in hours...although the bank of fog and what it contained still roiled and undulated in the streets just beyond the inn. Slowly, the orb faded and then vanished.
"What was that? That was awesome, how'd you know to do it?" Sudu breathed, suddenly sounding impressed—and, typically, excited.
Chao shook his head. "I'm not certain. I merely acted on instinct, knew to do it as the only thing that could, that must, be done." He looked towards Dog, who naturally enough was nodding in understanding. Jin Hu swallowed hard, while Ochir flicked his tiny ears and bowed his head in respect and Xiong squared his broad shoulders with renewed bravery. Even You Li and You Min's eyes glittered with awe.
Looking back to Sudu, the falcon shrugged apologetically. "If you ever learn more advanced chi techniques, you shall understand it as well." He gazed at his companions resolutely, the confident, detached countenance that had been his trademark firmly reestablished. Kuan smiled encouragingly back at him. "We have work to do, men. Gather your weapons. I have a notion or two that should redress the balance, aid us in laying these spirits to rest—but not here, where there are so many innocents about. We must take the fight to them."
Although none of them were particularly sanguine about it, all of his friends knew they were the only defense Zhangye had against the yuan gui, and this was merely an extension of their usual oaths to defend the empire and its people anyway. The only objection raised, by a worried and uncomfortable Ox, was that other than the Three Lions who had of course brought the Sword of Heroes with them, all of them had only ordinary (if skillfully and masterfully wrought) weapons—which would surely be unable to even strike, let alone harm, supernatural beings. And since the mystical blade could only be wielded by one or at most two warriors, even some of the lions would still have to fight with normal weapons too.
But Chao had the answer for that: in the short time they had before they went into battle...before the ghosts' rage and desire for revenge overcame their fear of his holy powers...he was able to concentrate as much power and purity into his chi as he could muster, then send it flowing down through his wingfeathers into each of his brothers' weapons to bless them as they held them out to him. Dog's Ninja Weapons...the Weasels' Ring Blades...Ox's Iron Fist...Rhino's chui...and even Xiong's qinglong ji, since his brothers had decided to wield the two halves of their artifact as shortsword and dagger. As for Chao himself, he was rather certain any combat he would enter would be of a spiritual nature only, but if it came down to it he could channel his chi into either his Emeici or his claw bracer with but a thought and thus be unexpectedly and dangerously effective.
No one bothered with donning the rest of their clothing, save a robe here and there; there was no more time, and soon enough their exertions in battle would counteract the unnatural chill in the air. Instead they departed the inn as swiftly and silently as they could, although Chao knew Gui Xin and his wife were nearby and watching motionlessly from the crack at their bedroom door—he could sense their fear and worry, their simple body heat. And once they had carefully closed the door behind them...not that it would keep the yuan gui out should they choose to invade again...the nine masters made their way to the central street of Zhangye, where space was the widest, most easily defensible. There they formed a broad circle, facing outward with weapons braced against the gathered mist...and waited.
Everything became utterly still...not a sound breaking the silence, not even the wind. It was as if winter had fallen, along with the supernatural chill, so that all noise was deadened as if by a blanket of snow. Except there was none, other than on the highest elevation of the peaks...yet the muting of all sound persisted. It seemed to be caused by the fog itself—or more likely, what lay within it—which continued to curl, writhe, and shift through the streets...only growing denser and heavier until it cut off all view of the surrounding countryside...then the outer edges of the town...and then finally the nearest buildings and streets, until they could see nothing but each other's dim forms, shoulder to shoulder…and those other patches of darkness, with glowing spots of red...
Chao clamped his beak shut; he would not let his fear rule him. "Ready…on my mark..."
He felt Cheng at his left, heard the shimmering of metal as his blades scraped together, aimed in an X-formation toward whichever spirit approached first. He sensed Kuan's looming bulk on his right, saw the unearthly green glow of the dragon carvings upon his shortsword's blade as it cut through the mist.
Then a shape lunged at him, mouth open in a horrible parody of life, another of those distressing shrieks of endless yearning bursting from that dark hole, and he sent out a swirling stream of chi, like a golden whip, to slash through it, then the rest of the first rank of ghosts beside it. "Now!"
As if they had rehearsed it, his fellow masters leaped into action together. Even if there had been no fog obscuring them, he knew he would have a hard time discerning them, so rapid and blurring were many of their motions. Master Dog, as he always did, belied his age and his appearance, leaping and twisting and whirling as if he were a leaf caught in a tornado, his knowledge of Crane style quite evident as each of the Ninja Weapons flickered, angled, inverted and rotated endlessly through the air to strike one yuan gui after another; wherever they made contact, a burst of golden light radiated outward as if a stone had been tossed in a pond, and the creature shrieked again, this time in agony, as it flitted out of reach. On his other side, amber mixed with viridian as Hou Kuan's blade struck out with all the ferocity of a Tiger Fist, sometimes slashing and other times aiming the flat so that more surface area burned into the ghosts surging at him.
On around the circle, each of the masters strove to ensure their formation did not break or collapse—each of the Ring Blades swung with deadly precision in the paws of Twin Weasels, Sudu stabbed just as perfectly with his dagger, while Ochir and Jin Hu struck more directly as was their wont, spheres of bright light exploding like cannonballs whenever the head of the former's chui or the Iron Fist of the latter slammed into the hordes of ghosts closing in around them—usually making the spirits fly outward and upward as if they were mahjong tiles, but the screams and soulless cries robbed the sight of any comedy it might otherwise have had.
However, it didn't take long before the yuan gui tried a new tactic, literally, as instead of merely mindlessly swarming, the ghosts began gathering together in their own lines of attack—had some of them been warriors in life, and retained this knowledge? While some continued to harass the circle from all sides, a larger group floated upward and forward, what seemed like a cloud of them descending from the night sky to swoop with outstretched claws toward their throats, eyes blazing with hellish fire.
Horrified, Chao froze for a few moments, even as he continued to instinctively lash out with his chi to drive the dead back again and again. Luckily, his friends knew what to do and reacted without needing direction. Swiftly sheathing one sword, Cheng drew out from the pouch at his waist the throwing stars that were the match to his blades, and after pausing to swiftly mutter under his breath, he began tossing and hurling these with expert skill at the yuan gui. Each metal projectile glowed with mystical light, almost seeming to hover in mid-air as it rotated madly, and then suddenly they were burying themselves in ghostly throats, chests, abdomens—and the creatures were doubling over, keening in pain, some of them even hurled backward with audible detonations thanks to the force of the chi-imbued stars. My word! Dog has progressed so far, so well, so fast...he could soon be a match for me one day…!
Meanwhile, Kuan, Sudu, and the Weasels had exchanged a quick look before the mustelids swiftly knelt and ducked down, twirling in place several times to slice the incoming spirits so that they retreated with screeches and hisses—and then their glowing Ring Blades were instead interlocked to form a solid framework on which the lions could brace themselves. Youngest and eldest feline did just that, gripping free paws and springing from the ground, to the blades, and thence to the low-hanging porch roof of the nearest house. Not even out of breath, Kuan and Sudu inverted their weapons, two green-etched blades stabbing downward, at the same time Rhino and Ox were attacking from beneath—the Mongolian's chui acting more like a mallet than a hammer, while the bovine punched his iron-gauntleted fist with a rather smug grin on his muzzle.
The falcon blinked; the two largest warriors sent their adversaries hurtling upward, right into the waiting halves of the Sword of Heroes. If they had still lived, they either would have been impaled or sliced cleanly in two; as it was, the screams which echoed off the storefronts and mountain peaks were more hateful and furious than ever before, tinged with the pain of the chi-wounds that tore gaunt robes and emaciated, colorless spirit-flesh with equal impunity.
And as for Hou Xiong? The largest lion of all had held the center line, from the middle of the arc opposite Chao, and even as he sent another surging wave of chi toward the ghosts (this time in the form of a sheet of rain, each drop of which seemed to make the creatures howl and flail as if they were acid), he saw the feline wield his polearm with such skill and speed that it might as well have been half its size. Like an extension of his limbs, Xiong rotated, spun, and thrust his weapon horizontally before his massive chest—and then without warning he became a literal whirlwind of motion, spinning from one foot to the next, around and around, as the single crescent blade of the qinglong ji flashed like silver in the air. Golden chi formed a further halo around it, and wherever it struck he swore he saw slices of the dead go sailing off into the fog, dissipating into the ether.
The combination of these effective and shockingly violent attacks was enough to make the yuan gui rear back in frustration, rage—and fear. And only a few moments after that, their ranks broke and fled, surging in a rush of cold, roiling gray straight down the street out of the village. With them was drawn their enclosing mist, and in a few more moments Zhangye was free of its haunting...because, as they watched, poised and ready in case this was a trick before a renewed army of the dead came pouring like a flooding river back toward them, the spirits instead continued their retreat toward the banded danxia rising to the north. And in the moonlight, with the energy of the spirit world adding further illumination, Chao could see the fog had now gathered completely around the mountain range, swirling and building and churning up into the heavens until nothing could be seen but the tops of the peaks...and the hundreds of red points still burning within.
All of them stared, catching their breath, chests heaving; Ochir and Jin Hu stood back-to-back, keeping each other safe; the Weasels stopped in mirroring poses, Ring Blades held next to either face or side; Sudu and Kuan leapt adroitly from the roof to land on the balls of their footpaws, tails lashing, manes disheveled. At last Chao voiced what they were all were thinking, what each of them knew deep in his heart.
"They shall not tarry there long. We have driven them back, but they now have an enmity with us they had not before. They will return to our inn to terrorize us again; and if they are cunning enough not to, they will surely descend upon Zhangye with greater horror than before if we are not here to—"
Dog cut him off with a low, harrumphing cough. His second blade was in his paw once more, crossed with the first. "You do not even need to say it, my friend. We're going after them, and we won't rest this night until they are laid to rest, one way or another."
Each of the others nodded, bound in solidarity even if they still displayed fear in their widened eyes, set and quivering jaws, or fluttering throats. They knew what they had to do, and while they were as flawed as any man, they were still determined to do what was right. They were courageous. They were heroes. And he could not be prouder to be at their sides.
It didn't take them long at all to make their way back up the mountain ledges, seeing as there were no preparations to make, the ghosts could not be allowed any more time to plan another spiritual assault, and the sooner they were back in battle, the less chance their fear could paralyze them. Not that they didn't have a right to be frightened—for as soon as they began scaling the heights, the fog enshrouded and ensnared them, cutting off all view of the town below or any of the surrounding land...all there was to tie them to the solidity of reality was the mountain itself, with all else screened away by massive fogbanks and tentacular curls of mist, until it was as if they had truly entered another world. A world of creeping terror and cheerless cold, where each writhing streamer and roiling cloud could conceal any malicious denizen of the spirit plane, waiting to claim them…
Yet despite this, there was still the sensation of height, of emptiness around and below them, so that even though all lay gray and impenetrable without, they knew the land was still out there, the world still existed for them to return to. And as they achieved a broad ledge high upon the mountain, one with enough strewn rubble and deeply-worn tracks to show there had been constant use and heavy traffic at some time in the past, they were reminded even more of the living by what they beheld. Before them, where the fog dispersed and thinned until it became finger-like wisps, the mountain lay open...a gaping cave mouth where a deep, dark tunnel bored endlessly into the core of the peak.
And while there were other such caves dotting the banded slopes, visible whenever the mist shifted, this one was different. This one had been shored up and braced with wooden timbers, and showed the remnants of past industry: rusted tools, tumbled stones and rotted carts, leaning poles where shattered lanterns still swung and creaked eerily in the wind. That, plus the piles of crushed stone and what the innkeeper had said, made Chao suspect just what sort of activity had once been carried out in that ominous cavern, which certainly explained why there would be so many souls of the dead here. It was also, he thought uneasily, of far more recent usage than Master Gui had implied...
But why would they have become yuan gui? Could a simple accident, however tragic, truly create such a fierce and unholy desire for the redress of a grievance? Or was it something more? And was there any chance they could appease the dead, satisfy this howling fury…?
If there was, it would not be dealt with any time soon. For at that moment, while he was still staring with trepidation deep into the throat of the mine shaft, that dreadful keening wail rose again, mingled with and carried upon the wind but far harsher and filled with agony than anything of nature alone could be. Whirling about, Chao instinctively brandished his Emeici, a move that sent a thin spear of golden light shooting out from the weapon's arrow tip, lancing into the darkness and illuminating the brooding, black-hued forest that covered the slopes around and below them. Illuminating what lay amongst the slowly shifting layers of mist, the utterly still angled trunks of trees that seemed leached of life.
"They are coming," he snapped crisply, striking an Eagle Claw stance; not only the Emei piercers but also the claws of his bracer were glowing with brilliant light. "This is the moment, this is our test. If you will follow my lead, I will bring you through to victory...and peace. Fear not; should any of you falter, grow weary, or even become injured, I can bolster your strength with my chi...heal you, purge you of spiritual corruption...whatever is necessary. If you trust, and believe."
"We're with you, Chao," Kuan rumbled, brandishing his shortsword so that its emerald light reflected up into his eyes.
A soft, gruff bark came from his other side, and Cheng smiled to make the folds of his face even deeper and more expressive of his kindness and warmth of heart. "To the very end, my friend."
On this ledge, there wasn't the space for a wide circle as there had been in the street, which while it meant it was easier for them to protect one another, there was also less room for wide attacks and sweeping defenses. Still, they were used to having to fight in close quarters, and it felt right to be side by side, shoulder to shoulder, weapons brought to bay and bodies primed for combat. Sudu ducked low, aiming his dagger outward, while Kuan slashed over his head and bent shoulders, a green shimmer passing through the frigid air; back-to-back, You Li and You Min aimed their blades horizontally and vertically so as to strike out in three dimensions; Ox mirrored his Iron Fist with a Tiger one, chest thrust out and shoulders heaving; Rhino swept his chui in arcs before him, alternately sweeping the ghosts away and forcing them to scatter like frightened geese; Xiong angled his ji this way and that, sometimes stabbing out with its wicked-looking tip, at others slashing down, around, and up to catch a yuan gui and send it hurtling into the oppressive mist and shadows as if shot from a catapult; and Dog was constantly muttering under his breath, a litany that kept his Ninja Weapons burning in a golden X that seared the eye and made the air sizzle each time he thrust it outward like a priest's holy symbol, making the spirits rear away.
Nothing seemed to deter the yuan gui for long, however, their wasted, withered forms always returning...their horrid, leering faces always thrusting close...their clawed hands swiping, their teeth gnashing, their endless, unendurable moans rising and falling in a macabre counterpoint to the warriors' grunts and growls. A troop of them surrounded Xiong, somehow bearing him down toward the ground, only for the cinnamon-maned lion to surge upward with a tenacious roar, flexing every enormous muscle as he sent the spirits flying back, then immediately struck again by swinging his halberd in a huge arc, slicing the ghouls with bursts of flaring light. A clever and devious ghost slipped up behind one of the Weasels, aiming its claws at the small of his back, but the other mustelid ducked down and sent his Ring Blade between his brother's legs, slashing upward to slice the yuan gui from what would have been groin to sternum—screeching, the enraged being disappeared back into the fog.
On the other side of the ledge, Ochir swung and swung, never seeming to feel fatigue, and the dead, seeming to realize he was a rallying point of courage and fortitude, swarmed over him as they had the largest lion. This time, the rhino did begin to succumb, falling to one knee even as he still struck out blindly—for every yuan gui the head of his chui smashed into, two or three more were there to take its place. But just as it seemed he would be torn to pieces by his enemies, Chao sent out a burning surge of energy, like the corona of the sun, and as it washed in a disk across the rocky surface and disappeared beneath the wavering smoke that was all the yuan gui had for feet, there was a pause...the beautiful, holy energy shone through the gaps between the writhing spirits, as if a volcano's lava were still molten behind a hardening crust...and then it exploded out and up, rays and beams blending into one colossal sphere of light that hurled the ghosts aside like rag dolls, leaving the rhino standing alone, on his feet, triumphant.
Still, there was only so much they could do against such indefatigable foes, even with the strength and training they possessed that placed them above other mortals. And although each of them fought onward, sustained by the waves of chi that he used to saturate their bodies, they were still tiring—and Chao himself was depleting his reserves. Something would have to give. How much time passed, he did not know, although it had to be several hours at least by how much deeper and more impenetrable the darkness became. He only knew that each blast of spiritual energy he sent forth from his wings or that were produced by each of his companions' weapons was rippling and leaping into the sky until it seemed as if the peak itself were afire...that it made the mountain a beacon to draw in the dead like moths to a flame, and as more and more of the spirits surrounded them, hungry and desperate, he despaired of them winning. Not like this, at any rate. Something more catastrophic, more permanent, would be needed.
Twisting and gyrating across the rock, more often than not actually hovering above it on unfurled wings, the falcon made himself the center of the battle—drawing upon every kung fu move in his repertoire until it seemed as if he were dancing, each stab of an Emeici or slash of his bracer incorporated into the graceful motions as natural as breathing. Another form of the release, the freedom and openness to the flood of emotions that he had experienced back at the Xiao Tou Inn, filled him as he gave himself over to not just the beauty and perfection of Eagle Claw but also the simple revelry that came from indulging in flight, in a union with nature that unleashed him from all earthly tethers.
It was almost blithe—yet also absolutely aware, his every sense in tune with the world around him and especially with the life-force of his companions—when he reached out to send his healing touch to those who needed it...Kuan, who had been felled as Xiong nearly was, the claws of the yuan gui ripping through clothing, fur, and flesh and leaving behind terrible wounds that sapped him of strength and would not close; and Jin Hu, who was in a similar state, trapped and pinned against the mountainside.
No more could be allowed to come to harm while he was here. This conflict had to be brought to an end, before he was drained of all his energy and could no longer heal or augment his friends...before he succumbed, and then so too did each of the others. He was not certain what would happen if the spirits were allowed to fell them, whether their claws would consign them to the same limbo between life and death, corrupt and poison them into the same sort of vengeful ghosts, but he did not want to take the chance. Oogway had said the imbalance could not be allowed to spread across China, and experiencing it firsthand he knew how right the old turtle had been. Whatever had to be done, whatever the price would be, he must make his choice and do it now, before he no longer had the power, before he lost someone he cared about.
And as he stabbed another ghost through its vacant eye, briefly ripping its head apart with golden light; as he watched Dog twirl and leap like a lotus blossom upon the wind so as to slice and shatter one creature after another with his whipping blades; as Min grasped one ghost after another in a Mantis pincer-strike to send it flying away by sheer strength, there to be impaled by Sudu's dagger; and as Rhino spun again and again, building up more and more momentum until his chui was sweeping and tossing yuan gui everywhere like milkweed floss...as he witnessed all of this, Chao felt their enemies' rage churning and building within the fog, plunging the ledge into an ever-deeper, more intense and unrelenting chill...and suddenly he knew what to try against them.
Something he had never attempted before, at least not on such a grand scale. Something he had been practicing in secret until he had perfected it, felt confident in demonstrating it for Oogway—but which if it worked would destroy or at least seal away these monstrous beings, all without placing the other masters in danger. And if it required all his energy as he suspected, left him drained of chi—well, at that point he wouldn't need it anymore and could take his well-earned rest to replenish.
Clamping his beak tightly closed, Chao quickly removed his weapons and stowed them away; he would need his feathers completely free and unencumbered for this. Then...he focused...concentrated...expanded his will out across the ledge, up to the most frigid heights of the peak, yet at the same time deep within his heart and soul. And as he unfurled his wings to their greatest extent, he put the knowledge of those ancient scrolls to use...struck a mid-air Yue Shi San Shou stance...flying higher, spiraling in ever-wider circles to encompass the entire battlefield, beginning to pour every ounce of chi he could draw from both himself and the landscape, pouring it into each of the One Hundred and Eight Seize Grabs. Reaching out, latching on...drawing the air along with him, and just as importantly the cold of the dead that filled it, so that it permeated everything around them, became stronger, deeper…
Slowly at first, but then with ever-increasing rapidity, a funnel came into shape—formed from wind and mystic energy, from clouds above and snow drawn from the heights of the peak, charged and crystallized by his chi with a power that had impressed Oogway by its rarity and how swiftly he had mastered the technique. As the speed of its winds increased, the fog became thicker and roiled wildly, drawing its strength from nature as well as each of the kung fu moves with which he directed it, until it began to achieve a life of its own. At the same time, he continued to drive his will into the construct, guiding it to become what he had envisioned—something as rare in the ordinary world as his ice chi was in the spiritual.
Higher, broader the energy surged, the winds built, and the cold infused the air until it seemed as brittle and crackling as the crystals themselves...around and around, building, rising, forming a gradually increasing spiral. As Chao poured still more of his chi into the resultant whirlwind, it began to pick up speed and started shimmering a white gold. Soon enough the summoning stood revealed as a winter tornado, glowing brighter, whiter, and finally burning with a nearly silver fire of chi energy, flurries of snow roaring and howling within it, the lower end of the spout siphoning up and absorbing the ghostly fog...as well as, inevitably, finally, the yuan gui.
The friction of moisture and spiritual energy soon created lightning discharges whose flashes illuminated the world and were followed by booming thunder, only growing stronger and more chaotic as he shifted his stance to incorporate the more violent and rigorous motions of Eagle Claw—those intended to not merely catch, freeze, or lock joints, but crush and snap them. By sheer force of will he bent and directed the bolts so that none struck his companions, just as the whirling winds and towering snow column were guided to surround only the ghostly horde, leaving the other masters well outside its boundary.
The whines of the cursed dead, checked impotently at the edge of the storm, sounded over the howl of the tornadic winds and the claps of thunder as they struggled futilely to escape what Chao had fashioned or the agony of his attack. Higher and higher the falcon soared, his concentration firm and unwavering, and while he kept his expression as fixed and placid as the Buddha's, inwardly he could not help smiling grimly; no matter how they ranted and railed, he would not allow these spirits to touch his friends, or the innocent. Not ever again.
Chao's senses were so sharp and skillfully focused that he did not miss a single yuan gui in his sweep, pulling them from everywhere with tendrils of chi and thickly-knotted tunnels of roaring, bitterly frozen winds—be they in the sky, around the mountain crag, or hidden within its caves and mine shafts. In point of fact, it was from the shafts that the vast majority seemed to be emanating, savagely pulled out as if Ch'eng Huang did not have the patience to wait for the afterlife's messengers and wished to drag them preemptively into Di Yu.
For a moment he chuckled, low and mirthless; apparently there was far more bad karma associated with these beings than even he had realized. Master Oogway was right. The imbalance here, the corruption, the uncontrolled Yang, is immense. Watching as the spirits seemed to flow endlessly from the hollow openings, holes which pulsed with an aching emptiness of pain, hatred, and retribution that were as oddly enthralling as they were repellent, Chao could easily sense that the yuan gui wanted to return from whence they came. Were they that attached to their rage that they would let it tether them eternally to this wretched existence? Or were they so lost and alone, so bereft of guidance and human morality, that they would rather cling to that sad darkness than risk passing on, into the unknown?
The falcon shook his head and began to gather his will for one last titanic surge of power—the remaining reserves of his chi, but enough for him to bring this to an end. To seal these pathetic souls forever in the mountain they seemed to yearn for as their tomb, block them from the world so they could never harm the living, perhaps even obliterate them; he wasn't altogether certain what the lessons of the scrolls would inflict upon the yuan gui. But he had no choice, it was what his master had told him he must do if China was to be spared...
Suddenly he paused...there was something wrong there. That was not what he had been told, what the turtle had sensed in his vision. Something of the spirit world is out of balance, and must be set right immediately... Souls crying out—for blood, but also for absolution... There is an imbalance that must be resolved... Many souls depend on the choices you will make. You will be tested. The test will not be what you believe it to be.
Chao's eyes widened. How could imprisoning the yuan gui set things to right, bring absolution? How could destroying these souls, as tempting a prospect as that might be after seeing what they had become, what they had done, end imbalance? What if, instead, the way to win was to find peace for all...to heal the aftermath of this tragedy so that both sides could cease the hostilities, and the dead could rest? But even if he could find the objectivity and strength of will to judge such a matter and impart sympathy and reassurance, that would require knowledge he did not have...
Opening his eyes, the falcon gazed down into the cyclone he had called into being...stared at the souls spiraling about yet somehow never taking their eyes from his...eyes that were as terrifyingly bright with blazing red flames, yet in their true depths he saw desperation, loss, an endless plea begging for succor. They were lashing out from the extremity of their pain—but that did not alter the fact they were the victims here. That they needed help.
Taking a deep breath, Chao reached out with his senses, listening with more than his ears, allowing his mind to slip once more into a meditative trance so that his consciousness became one with the tornado. And as his will and the chi he had poured into this storm melded, so that his mind and soul suddenly surrounded and engulfed the yuan gui held trapped within it, he gasped in shock and horror.
He could see it all now. Felt it, knew it, understood it. His suspicions were confirmed—and in brief snatches at first, then more and more overwhelming in their clarity and truth, the memories and experiences of these miners washed over him...
"...I'm sorry, sir! I just can't go on any longer…"
"You can and you will! Who do you think you are, defying the will of the Son of Heaven?"
"But I'm so tired...so sore…"
"Hah! You'll rest when you're dead. The Emperor needs the ores in this mine, just as he needs every able-bodied man for his armies. The nomad invaders must be stopped, his great and glorious projects must continue! Don't you want the empire safe and protected? Don't you want our people to be rich and prosperous?"
A snort from the other side of the tunnel, followed by a vicious snarl. "The only one getting rich out of this is him!"
"Which is as it should be. That is where the gods placed him, just as you were placed among the peasantry. Be grateful you were given a place at all, and aren't just a worm wriggling in the mud."
"But...the crops...if we don't get to plant them soon, everyone will starve!"
"Quiet! You'll get to that when the Emperor is done with you, and no sooner. All glory to the Sui!"
...pain. So much pain. Shoulders sore and back bent by constant, heavy labor, dragging carts and wagons filled to the brim with stone and metal, until the flesh was practically imprinted permanently with the shape of the straps, harnesses, and handles. Every muscle aching, screaming out for release. Dust and rock always hovering in the tunnels, until everyone was breathing that more than they were actual air—or the bursts of toxic gases that broke through walls or floors when a pick or axe struck the wrong spot. How many had passed out, never to awaken? How many had their lungs coated in gritty layers until their every breath was a painful wheeze?
Sore hands and paws with fingers made gnarled by repeated usage, or crippled by injury inflicted on top of injury. Broken, nearly useless feet with blisters, calluses, nerveless flesh and cracked keratin. One man had his arm crushed and was simply told to chew on a pain-killing leaf so he could continue working; his screams filled the tiny makeshift infirmary in between doses, and often echoed within the mines as well until it seemed the mountain itself was howling its suffering. Another lost a foot to a cart with a shoddily-constructed braking mechanism and died of blood loss; a third was poisoned by something in the tunnel rock that got into his bloodstream through an abrasion—it took him three days to die, writhing in agony, babbling in his delirium of seeing horrific monsters leaning over his sickbed, eagerly awaiting the moment his soul would be theirs to torment. At least, the miners hoped that had only been a hallucination…
How many had been lost in that explosion when the gunpowder, improperly stored, had been ignited by the spark from a rusty wheel? How many had fallen down seemingly bottomless pits that were carelessly left without protective barriers erected, or were not clearly marked as lying ahead in the darkness? What of the miner who'd been blinded—no, had his eyes scalded to shriveled husks—by a blast of steam from the uncovered smelter? The children and elderly who had been forced to work far more hours than either could stand? The rockfalls when rotten beams broke? The lashings for anyone who objected to such conditions? The more vocal dissenters who had mysteriously vanished, or were taken to distant tunnels and left to wander until they died of thirst and starvation…?
"No! You have to—you can't just let them—!" Fists pounding futilely against the pile of tumbled boulders and crushed rock that blocked the passage from floor to ceiling. Coughing, choking against the dust and silt billowing up in the air.
"Their own fault, not following safety procedures!" A leering smirk; everyone knew there were no safety procedures, it was every man for himself and no care taken for those left to lag behind, corners cut at every turn, worn and fatigued chains ready to snap if you even looked at them wrong, no gloves or boots, threadbare clothes, forges left unattended, no medicines for diseases which swept through the camp, everyone cramped and packed together like rotting fish in barrels in their hovel of a sleeping barracks while the 'noble' toadies from the capital and the plump, pampered foreman stayed warm and decadently fed in their sumptuous dwellings…
"But I can still hear them—crying, screaming! If we just dig, break through, we can let them out, save them—"
"Hear what? Must be the wind, I don't hear anything. Forget that cave-in, you've got work to do in the next set of tunnels…"
Collapse after collapse, until the rumble of rock and rising of dust became almost commonplace—though nothing could block out the shrieks and wails, the images of desperate faces pleading for a release and rescue that would never come. Imploring hands...a crack through which nothing but an eye peering out could be discerned, but the terror and pleading in it, the deranged and disjointed way it flicked and darted and jerked about as its owner's sanity snapped, could never be blotted from the memory. The poor soul who had tried to assassinate the foreman, only to be walled up alive while bound beneath dripping water. The bruises and welts and scars from the many hours of torture applied—to those who had simply pleaded for a chance to rest. The workers who would not labor no matter how they were abused, marched in manacles to the edge of a gorge where the first in the line was forced over the edge at spearpoint...one by one dragging all the others with him, screaming…
And then, when all of the ore had been dug up and carted off, and only one flooded section of the mountain had been left to be mined, had come the final order: to break down several walls, unleash the water so that section, too, could be plumbed for its resources.
"But—that will flood the lower depths! The other miners, they'll be trapped there, they'll—"
"So? They're just conscripts anyway. And now that we've reached the last tunnels, we won't be needing them any more. This way, no more mouths to feed, no more injuries to treat, no complaints from the workers when they get back to the village. Nice and neat, everything cleaned up with nothing left behind." A malicious grin, a sardonic lilt to the voice. "You said they wanted a break so they could rest…"
"No! No! Not like this—"
The rumble building...more rock collapsing...the surging, churning crashes of water pouring through where walls and piles of stone had once been, washing down one tunnel after another to smash through all barriers restraining it. The whole mountain shaking, timbers breaking, roofs falling...and through it all, one voice after another screaming in fear and anguish, rising above everything as their owners tried pointlessly to flee their watery doom, to break out to the surface, to find somewhere to hide where they could somehow be sheltered...until they all joined into one keening, pitiful, almost fiendishly inhuman cry that echoed and resounded within the peak, rising to the uncaring sky...as if the world itself were protesting this atrocity…
"All glory to the Sui."
Xun Chao wrenched his mind clear of the yuan gui, chest heaving, sweat soaking his feathers to the skin despite the still frigid air of the mountain night, and it was all he could do himself not to lapse into more ragged, choking sobs, as he had back at the inn. How? How could they? How could anyone…?
He had known the Emperor was a ruthless and determined man, one who often cared more for his throne and his palaces than he did for the common people. But he had thought that the way he defended the borders and his genuinely amazing public works projects which only benefited the empire meant he was still a good ruler where it counted. Yet if this were true...if those who worked this mine had not only been practically enslaved and most certainly compelled, under the most horrible and neglectful of conditions, but outright slaughtered when the work was completed...dismissed as having any value or even humanity...buried and drowned and sealed away in such a series of cruel events written off as "accidents" or simply concealed from common knowledge…
Was the Emperor directly culpable, had he ordered such craven, callous, wicked actions? Or had he simply delegated, ordered his men to carry out the mining the same way he had the conscription of his armies, and those lesser men suddenly given power they never should have obtained decided their ruler's "at any cost" mentality would allow for such horrors? It almost didn't matter in the end, for not even bothering to check up on their policies and progress, not caring if he did ever learn what had been committed here, was as awful as directly commanding it himself.
Now he knew why the innkeeper and the messenger would not speak in greater detail of what had transpired. Now he knew why these spirits had attached themselves so strongly to this place. Now he knew why they were filled with such rage and despair, such agony and sorrow, and thus refused to cease their haunt until some form of recompense was given them. As the cries of the dead and their memories swelled higher in endless torture, begging, longing, the falcon shuddered from crest to talons, his fury and hatred and anguish mirroring their own. Scores of them...hundreds even...so many lost spirits in need of balance and peace. They were lashing out blindly, hurting those they had at hand since the ones truly responsible were far away, out of reach. He did not blame them...but they had to be convinced to let their vendetta go, to cease unfairly terrorizing the innocent. And above all, they must have their wrongful deaths avenged, true justice served.
Softly at first, then with louder, more declamatory tones, Chao spoke to the yuan gui. "I pity you, poor spirits. The ills done to you cannot be described, they are beyond the boundaries of morality, truly the acts of monstrous, inhuman beings. If there is any justice in the next world, the karma they have accrued can never truly be expunged. They can never be forgiven, and their incarnations shall always be lowly, worthless, and vile until such time as they finally, truly understand the suffering and cruelty they inflicted upon you. But I can swear to you this." He clenched his feathered fist tightly.
"I shall not rest until I have hastened them onto that path. No matter who they are or where they can be found, no matter what protects them from prosecution, no matter if it is the Emperor himself...I will redress your grievances, I will bring you the justice you deserve. And if I am right, then the Lord of Ten Thousand Years will have ten thousand years of torment before he can ever be washed down the river of Mount Meru to live again!"
There was a very long pause, pregnant with meaning, as the ghosts still caught within his icy tornado stared up at him...some with the first dawning of hope in their crimson eyes, others with an unholy glee at the vengeance he had described, and still others with skepticism and suspicion on their still-twisted, ravaged features. Their voices rose again—still wordless, but now keening in a different tone: questioning, uncertain, insistent.
Somehow, he knew what they wanted, why they were not willing to simply trust and let go. "I cannot promise you how long it will take, when I can exact the price. But I promise it shall be done. Until then…" He hesitated, then took the plunge. "Until then, you must rest. I can aid you in this, in breaking the bonds that hold you here, so you can finally have peace. If you allow me to, if you can let go and pass on."
Again those desperate looks, and this time he saw something that both filled him with a surge of elated triumph and chilled his heart with the beginnings of despair: the ghosts wanted to, they hated their cursed existence, they longed to be free and go before the Lords of Death so they could be given new lives...better than the tragic ones of suffering they had endured. But they did not know how...they either could not abandon their grievances until the proof of redress was before them, or they simply did not have the power to overcome their bloodthirstiness and revenge, to replace them with calm, acceptance, and peace.
He would have to do it for them, to show them the course from this life to the next, to draw upon the mystical secrets of the scrolls to guide them from this mountain to the holy one of Yeng-Wang-Yeh. But that would require chi...a great wealth of it, more than he currently had thanks to the combat that had raged before, the ice storm he had wielded. Even if that were not so, he somehow doubted he had enough chi in his full reservoir for this many souls, for as monumental a task as this.
There was only one place he could find that much now, here on this desolate peak where nothing of sacredness and harmony and balance remained, since the yuan gui were doomed to be trapped here and he certainly could not bring it to them, even if he were allowed to depart. But this place was one he knew well, knew and trusted with all his heart. It would be all the boundless source he would ever need, and to call upon it now felt appropriate, undeniably right.
All he had to do was ask, and pray he received the answer he hoped for.
Slowly, gradually, Chao lowered his head and peered down at the mountain ledge. As was the wisest course, when the yuan gui had gathered into one gigantic wave of vindictive, ravenous destruction, and when he had instead caught them up in his colossal storm of chi and crystallized cloud, the other masters had fallen back out of the line of fire, either pressing up against the cliff face or moving as far toward the edge as safety permitted. Now that Dog saw him looking, the Shar Pei called out to him over the roaring and shattering of the ice-bearing wind, the spirits' shrieks and screams. "Chao! What is it, what's wrong? You have to end this!"
"Yes. Yes I do." The falcon stretched his wings once more to their greatest extent, ruffled his feathers, and raised his own voice to a stentorian boom; the more mundane and utilitarian aspects of chi manipulation (in this case, augmenting sound in both volume and depth) were something he never would have considered before coming to the Jade Palace, but he had to admit they were still quite useful. And rather...ego-stroking. "But I cannot do so without aid. Without all of your help." He paused, not at having to confess such a humbling thing, but because of the gravity and import of the request he was about to make. "Please, my friends...I am afraid that, at least temporarily, I have need of your chi. As much of it as you can spare."
Everyone stared at him—in shock, disbelief, confusion, but then at last the dawning of understanding. Although he rather thought both Ox and Rhino's expressions hardened briefly, something which was as disheartening as it was unsurprising; other than Kuan and Xiong, he knew they had the largest wells of chi within their massive frames, and he had been counting on that strength. But it had to be willing or it would not work, and of course the idea of simply stealing it was utterly abhorrent.
"I know, it is much to ask; far too much, I think," he sighed. "But I do not believe we have any other choice, and it will replenish itself readily enough. I also have every intention of returning as much of it to you as I can. If you can find it in your hearts to trust me—"
To his absolute shock, something that would have knocked him out of the air to flutter down onto the ledge were not all his concentration focused on maintaining the cyclone and holding back the yuan gui's rage, it was Jin Hu who cut him off with a peremptory snort, his hot breath steaming in the mountain wind as if it were itself part of the fog and mist. "Quiet, birdbrain. Do you really think we aren't all ready to sacrifice whatever we have to, to save China? And I know I always tease ya about that book-learnin' you always have your beak buried in—but right now, I think that's the only thing that can save us. If you say it's needed, then that's all I need to hear. What do we have to do?"
"What he said," Ochir added with a craggy grin.
Each of the others willingly lent their support then: Cheng with reverence and love, Twin Weasels with soft but determined tones of affirmation, Sudu with eager boyish charm, Xiong and Kuan with equal pride burning in their brave eyes and upon their stern visages. Chao fought back tears, and the lump in his throat; he didn't know which overwhelmed and pleased him more—that all of these men could feel such loyalty and trust, and express it, or that he was so very glad they did.
There was no time for further contemplation, however; he could feel the restlessness and vile hunger for the blood of those who had betrayed them, growing stronger and straining for release again within the icy winds. Swiftly he explained what he wanted, and the eight warriors formed a circle once more—but this time, they were facing inward, and while they still gripped their weapons, this time they were not aimed to attack or defend, were not meant to kill...instead crossing, touching, overlapping, forming a sort of phalanx in the air between them.
Xiong's halberd extended completely across the circle, making the base of the framework; echoing this, Rhino held out his chui. Li and Min placed their Ring Blades vertically on either side; Dog inserted each of the Ninja Weapons diagonally from the next points of the compass. Sudu and Kuan angled their blades in the next layer across the top, making sure to touch the jade dragon carvings together; and Ox brought his Iron Fist up from beneath, an odd gentleness to the motion as he touched it to the center where all the weapons lay atop one another. Then, when all of them were still, they nodded up at him...and each began to concentrate, focusing his chi through the artifact he bore.
Chao gasped again—he could feel it, not only their individual power, the strength of their hearts and souls, and the energy bound within the weapons, but their emotions regarding him. That Cheng and Kuan brimmed over with fondness, warmth, and kindness did not startle him; but the others...Jin Hu actually admired his intelligence and knowledge, was embarrassed by how ignorant he seemed in comparison? Sudu hero-worshipped him? Even the Weasels regarded him with sly respect.
He hadn't known. He'd had no idea.
You can do this. Ochir, his presence as steady and boulder-like as his muscles.
Do not despair. Xiong, a flame of such compassion and wisdom.
I told you so. Dog, smirking up at him rather smugly, but the Shar Pei had every right to be, after how many times he had insisted the other masters saw him as a friend.
C'mon, Chao. Show us how frickin' awesome ya are! There was brightness, so much brightness in Sudu. He shone like Heaven's Tear.
And as if that had been a signal, Kuan threw back his honey-maned head and let loose with the roar that was his family's namesake, his brothers joining in—and a sphere like the sun itself, the most beautiful and pure gathering of chi he had ever seen, bloomed from the criss-crossed weapons, growing wider, higher, bursting up and outward as if a gigantic boulder had plummeted in the center of a vast sea.
Quickly, instinctively, Chao reacted, extending his senses to tap into the expanding well of energy. He gasped yet again, eyes wide in their sockets, every inch of his body burning with it, shining with it. For a moment he was convinced he had left his body behind, had become a being of pure spirit, that he had transformed into living light. Power. Such power!
But he did not let it consume or control him. He was its master, and it was not here to destroy or slay, but to purify. With deft motions he had months ago memorized from the scrolls, the falcon twisted...turned...angling his feathers this way and that, flowing seamlessly from tai chi to Eagle Claw to Viper and Crane and back again. And as he wove his fingers in the intricate gestures whose precision and accuracy was so critically necessary, he felt it. Felt the chi following his will...extending, attenuating, reaching out in long, thread-like tendrils to wind about and encircle the towering cyclone.
As when he had fashioned the storm, the chi spiraled where he directed, as if forming a coiling stairway to the Jade Emperor's throne, rising to completely surround the icy winds and the spirits that lay trapped within them—frozen now not in his chilly grip or with impotent rage, but with something else, something that had their red eyes fading to pink as they stared in awe at something no mortal could see. Every ounce of his spirit he poured into it, every surging, churning rush of his friends' chi, and as he watched with his mind's eye (for the light was growing so intense he could not gaze upon it physically), the winding thread began to change color, and with it the winds of the storm did as well. Bright, brighter it glowed—a shining white rising along the strand and up into the rotating cyclone, followed by blazing silver fire, and finally a molten gold so pure and perfect it made him want to weep even as it brought calm and peace to his heart.
The same seemed to be happening to the air around which the storm whirled, and to the ghosts caught suspended within it, white and silver and gold creeping up the smoky shape of each yuan gui as if it were being dipped in paint...and as each changed hues from their sullen blue and lifeless gray, it spread its arms as if enraptured, tilted its head back to stare up into the heavens...and eyes that had been enraged became tranquil, gentle, expectant with hope, the deadness awakening to new life. Mouths closed; claws retracted and vanished so that hands, paws, and wings could clasp in an attitude of prayer; gradually, as each was pacified, the ranks of the dead shifted from a chaotic horde to orderly, concentric circles that slowly began to orbit, and rise.
Chao did not fathom what it was his mystical power was inciting into being, or how it was being created; he only knew that it felt right. He continued streaming his will into it, gathering up what his friends offered and shaping it into something he thought partook of the divine...a radiance of goodness, something which suggested and hinted that no matter the storms which raged, the death and cruelty and wickedness to be found in the world, there would always be hope. Evil would not endure. Those who perpetrated it would either be shown the error of their ways, made to repent and make amends, or they would be punished by the gods. Wisdom would come. Truth would be revealed. And someday, despite the pain which haunted and broke so many, there would be peace.
Finally, every yuan gui was a luminescent figure of gold and silver light, so bright it could barely be discerned, as if each had turned instead into an enduring, eternal fire. Then, as he sent one last thought—that the way to achieve this vision of the future was only by moving on, departing this world and beginning a new journey away from the site of so much anguish and hatred—there seemed to be a soundless detonation. As one, the spirits who had once been such tortured souls surged upward, bearing with them the spiraling winds and the winding coils of chi...the former now bearing only scintillating crystal rather than frigid ice, the latter losing cohesion to dissolve into a pillar of light.
Suddenly there was a flash, as fiery as the sun, exploding upward from the bottom of the cyclone—and outward, completely blasting out across the ledge and surging up past the peak, until that rocky promontory seemed cut off from the earth, an island floating in glory. The mountain shook right down to its far-distant base, and as the endless, chi-laden winds roared upward in a reverse cascade of silver and white, now the sound could be heard—so powerful, so loud, that it was immediately replaced by silence again as Chao was temporarily deafened.
All trace of darkness and corruption, death and despair, was gone, driven away into the spirit world...leaving not only the dead but the mountain as well cleansed of the hatred and anger that had hung over its slopes for so long. Everything blazed with life, color, and light, to the point he was convinced a window had been opened to Ti'en itself, and now, now he could see the true wonder and beauty of the danxia. Color after color, like the layers of the richest and most decadent of cakes, rose in alternating bands of rough and smooth rock, and each burned more brilliant than any hue he had ever seen in the spiritual god-light. Crimson, ocher, goldenrod, ivory, magenta, scarlet, cream, orange, lemon, peach, violet, rose, and colors he could not put a name to—they all glittered and shone, brighter, purer, a beacon which lit the land for miles around. The column of chi speared straight upward, its light reflecting from the peaks and cliffs to banish all shadow and suffering, illuminating Zhangye and this portion of Gansu as if it were noonday rather than almost midnight.
And then, one by one, in pairs, in larger clusters, and finally in a multi-layered, shifting curtain of indistinct figures, the purified souls flew upward, shot as if from a bow, rising up into that pillar of blessed light.
Slowly...very slowly...the burning silver-white fire began to fade, the halo of gold encircling the peak like Kuan's mane dissipated. Chao had to blink, wipe at his watering eyes, and even then it took many minutes before the afterimage had finally faded as well. Slowly the darkness of night reasserted itself, although now it was peaceful, friendly, cool without being bitterly cold, the stars shining down in a vast panoply to cast their benediction on the scene. In the town below, lights were coming on in every dwelling, but on the peak, all was silent save for the wind.
More exhausted than he could ever recall being, the falcon descended—almost plummeted—back to the ledge. And though each of them was almost as worn out, weak with the loss of so much of their life-force, the other masters...his friends...were right there to catch him. Supporting him, cradling him in their paws as if he were fragile, shattered. Each face peering down at him was awed, almost worshipful, although Kuan and Cheng also displayed a pride so beaming Chao didn't think he could ever again doubt himself or his path.
"You did it. You did it!" The eldest lion squeezed his wing in both paws.
"Congratulations," Dog said with a soft chuckle, slowly shaking his head. "I can feel it...they are gone, free at last. Able to find their peace, and their next lives. I don't know what you promised them, but you have done so well, my friend."
One after another, the other valorous warriors offered their praise...Sudu cheering excitedly, Xiong opining this surely meant Chao would be Master of the Jade Palace when Oogway was gone, Ox and Rhino arguing good-naturedly over which of them had supplied more chi to reach the tipping point at the critical moment, thus ensuring victory. And the falcon knew that once they reached Zhangye again, the villagers would surely join in on this wild and relieved celebration.
But as he lay there in their arms, fluttering his feathers vaguely at Min and Li to dismiss their worry and concern and embracing the venerable Shar Pei and the eldest feline, Xun Chao could only fix his dazed, buzzing thoughts on one thing. Something he knew would change his life forever, something which ensured he would be able to keep his oath to the yuan gui and thus become the master of chi, and his fate, that he had always longed to be.
The power. Such vast, unlimited power. Master Oogway was right. This was the way, this was the key to unlocking what I seek. With this, I could do anything. If I could tap into so much chi whenever I wished...I do not know what power this is I felt within it, I cannot interpret or comprehend it. But it matters not. Now I know what to look for. Now, I can direct my studies into these channels. I must find this power again. It must be mine. In no other way can I remove the Emperor from power, and keep my promise. In no other way can there be peace, an empire of goodness and honor and nobility.
I will have it. All of it. And with this power...all shall be right again. I guarantee it.
Quiet settled once more over the Hall of Warriors as the echoes of the last syllable of the ghost's story faded away. No sound could be heard except breathing—that of the young kung fu trainees, of course, since the dead guardian no longer respirated—and the faint trilling of birdsong from the branches of the trees which grew richly on the Jade Mountain. It was autumn, and so the avians in question were nightingales, smaller and non-sentient cousins to… Chao closed his eyes against the memories that surged up unbidden.
Xiwang...his beloved Xiwang...what had happened to her? He had never looked in on her, never checked to see what her fate might have been—not even after he had learned to detach his soul from his imprisoned body and travel by astral projection. And while he could tell himself (had done so for centuries) that this was because he no longer had need of her, that their arranged betrothal had never inspired true love in him and that he had in fact rejected love at all as a pathetic weakness...something that only had a use insofar as it allowed him to manipulate, beguile, and trick those he wished to twist and control...he knew the truth, now.
That no matter how he lied to himself, her loss had crushed him, an event that if it had not destroyed the last of his humanity had certainly hastily sped up the process. That when he had pretended over the years that his plans for the empire would allow mortals to escape suffering and loss—an impossible and ridiculous goal, yet one for which they had so desperately yearned that it had rendered them so easily corrupted and misled—there had been a grain of truth to his words after all. Because after losing his Xiwang, he had never wanted to experience such a bitter, aching pain again, and had convinced himself he wanted to spare others the same sorrows and agonies. He had fooled himself as much as he ever had any of his victims.
So that was why he had never learned of her fate...to refrain from a repetition of those debilitating emotions, to keep from discovering the equally heart-rending loss she had suffered without him—or just as distressing, the possibility she hadn't suffered at all, had in fact found happiness and peace without him to drag her down into degradation, filling her life only with shadows… He knew that now, just as he knew she had not been the only loss he had suffered. His story just now had quite harshly, and plainly, made that clear…
Chao's thoughts were interrupted as, unsurprisingly, his listeners suddenly snapped out of their stasis as the truth of what it meant, of him, dawned on them. "Stupid!" Chuluun growled, lurching forward from the pillar he'd been lounging against to stalk toward him—although his next words revealed the insult had been meant for himself. "Stupid! How could I miss it? I knew something was familiar about ya. You're him, aren't you? Heian Chao!"
The name seemed to susurrate in the vast chamber, echoing from walls and ceiling until it seemed as if legions of voices were speaking it, as had once accompanied the falcon's speech when the dark spirits he had called forth and absorbed had lent their wickedness to his words.
He shuddered. "I was once called that, by my own choice. But my true name is Xun Chao."
The rhino shoved it aside. "You think I care about that? You don't deserve the consideration. You're the one who possessed my old man...made him into a monster while you used him to kill all those people…'til the only way out for him was for him to die too. You killed him!" He sounded so much like his father...like Ochir before him.
"And you killed my father as well," Yi said shakily, also stepping forward, fists upraised. "Or at least, you helped that assassin Xiu do it."
"You tried to kill my uncle too!" Peng choked out—the same sort of sob Sudu had made, the day he had died, and like the chestnut-maned lion, he brandished his blade menacingly, tip pointed straight toward where Chao's heart would be. Amazingly, despite the emotion coursing through him, the young snow leopard did not let his weapon quiver even a millimeter.
"Or possess and corrupt him as well." Huo's voice was almost clinical, merely stating a fact, but the way every muscle in her small frame was tense and ready to snap like a bowstring spoke volumes.
"And you tried to kill Mom and Uncle Po!" Tai Lung's striped son growled, a sound far deeper and more threatening than one of his age should be capable of...but then, with his parentage…
Each of the youths moved closer, forming a circle as he and his friends had done in Gansu all those years ago...as the eight masters had done to him, the day he cast aside all morality and soul by committing those acts of betrayal and depravity. The first of many.
Chao gazed at them, then slowly shook his feathered head. "Yes. All of that is quite true. But as I have already informed you, I am being punished for that, for every terrible thing I did in my long life...and unlife. Punished far more than you can ever imagine, far more than you yourselves could inflict upon me." He paused meaningfully, but could not refrain from adding, with a brittleness and a slight note of satisfaction, "Nor can you harm me now, any more than I can harm you."
All of them stopped, and though they lowered fists and weapons, he could easily discern how all the males were still brimming over with a belligerence that needed expression. Yi and Huo, by contrast, regarded him thoughtfully, intelligence and insight in their eyes.
"I hate ghosts," Chuluun muttered at last. "I know I've said that before, right?"
Sheathing his sword, Peng crossed his arms over his chest and stared at him challengingly. "Fine. You're right. And now we know why you didn't want to tell us who you were...why you thought we wouldn't trust your tales."
"Got that right," Hu hissed.
"But I don't see the point," the snow leopard finished with some aspersion. "I mean...you being who you are, you do have a great deal of knowledge you can pass on. But how could anyone here at the Jade Palace not know who you are? How could you not give yourself away all the time? How could anyone believe or trust you, even with that...that…"
"Interdiction," Yi supplied helpfully.
"Yes. That." Peng blushed.
The falcon was uncertain what he would have said to gainsay him. On the one hand, he knew what task he had been set, it was indeed a momentous and important one—and he had also seen the look in Yeng-Wang-Yeh's eyes, heard the tone in his voice, that meant he had no choice but to comply if he wished to survive in any form at all, let alone receive the chance to expiate his karma. On the other hand, he couldn't help privately agreeing that placing him here, in this situation, around these people, was a recipe for disaster at worst and futile and pointless at best...which was what made this both a challenge and a punishment, of course, but it did leave him frustrated, at a loss on how to proceed.
But before Chao could even try to respond, another voice spoke from behind him. One he knew so very well, even though he had not heard it in nine hundred years...one that made him both bristle and go cold, cringe in fear and gnash his teeth in fury. But in the end all he could do was sigh in resignation with eyes closed.
"The same could be said of Master Tai Lung, should he encounter any of those he harmed in his rampage, could it not? Or of that lovely Miss Wu Jia, if she met any of those her sister forced her to hurt?" A ghostly chuckle, and the scent of peach blossoms wafting on the air. "It is all in how you look at things!"
He refused to look at his old master; he fixed his eyes only on the marble floor of the hall, since looking up risked meeting the gaze of any of the tapestries and paintings of his old friends, or glancing at the artifacts they had carried. Instead he only listened, silent and closed-off, as Oogway and the young ones spoke.
"Master Oogway!" It was Peng who spoke first. "Uncle Tai Lung and Master Shifu have spoken so much of you, so highly!"
Chuluun grinned lopsidedly. "Even my dad did, the few times I could get him to talk about who trained him in kung fu."
After the others had given their greetings and made deep bows, Huo finally said, soft but firmly, "You are right, of course, Master. While it is by the past we are judged, and it is the choices we made then which determine our karma, we can never grow, or change, or come closer to Enlightenment, if we do not let it go. If others around us do not learn to do the same." She paused meaningfully. "But surely you can understand why that is not easy for many of us. Why we are...wary."
"Of course, of course," the turtle said in his soothing, somnolent voice. "But did I ever say it would be easy?" He laughed in genuine amusement, but also ruefully. "No, child. It is not, and that is precisely the point. If we did not struggle to learn, to find truth, to become our best selves, we would learn nothing, and we would not value it if we did. How often do we fail to appreciate the beauty of the world around us…but if the journey we must take to reach it is long and arduous, quite suddenly it becomes everything, worthy of veneration? The world has not changed; the change was in us. Climb the mountain, and the view is the reward for your sweat and toil in achieving it. Without the peak to overcome, you would not even remark on what lies around you...you would not even be able to physically see it the same way. The mountain...elevates you."
Chao struggled to hold back a groan at the pun, and wasn't the only one; Chuluun and Hu were both quite audible, in fact. But the others all nodded, clasped their hands and paws in proper kung fu bows once more, and smiled at the wisdom of the pointed lesson. Then Peng sighed and looked up searchingly. "So what you're saying is, we can't let who Chao was, what he did, influence how we see him now, or what he tells us?"
"More or less, yes." Oogway's voice lost its playful quality, became impassioned and urgent. "Whether or not you can get past it, or even forgive him, is neither here nor there. What matters is, if you are willing to weather the obstacle that is knowing who he is, you can learn things you otherwise never could, things that are worth the difficulty." There was a smile in his voice as he gestured with one stubby-clawed hand. "The story he told just now, for example. It was a good one, wasn't it?"
Each of the young ones looked at each other, and then had to admit that it was.
"And it was exactly what you asked for, was it not?" The turtle glanced at Yi. "A humanizing story?"
Slowly she nodded, and as her eyes flicked toward where Chao's figure shimmered, he thought he caught a gleam of something else in them—a dawning of understanding, one that made him want to shrink back, to flee, even as he longed for it more than anything.
"And it taught many lessons, did it not?"
Chuluun glanced at Peng; the twins at each other. Then they all nodded as one, although he noticed more than a few blushes and bemused looks on the older ones' faces, as they properly understood just what some of those more adult lessons had entailed. Privately he cursed, yet again, the embarrassing openness his interdiction compelled of him.
"Very well then! You need not fear this shade. You can be free to query him at any time, and believe that the knowledge he has for you is both true and helpful. If you do not trust him, then trust an old turtle."
Again concerned glances shot around the circle, and then finally Huo remarked to her brother, "That is acceptable. But I do not think we should tell Mother and Father about this. They would not understand." Hu nodded emphatically, golden eyes wide.
"Not Master Shifu either," Peng added solemnly.
There was a pause. Then, in a very grave tone, Oogway replied, "No, no. Definitely not."
Everyone laughed, and much of the tension seemed to go out of the room. But Chao retreated even further in on himself.
As if his old master had sensed this (or, just as likely, knew the falcon could not leave unless one of the children dismissed him or he gave his permission), the former Grand Master turned and gestured toward the doors. "In that case, may I suggest you return to the rest of your lessons for the day? Unless you have, oh, someone else you wish to see?" There was a teasing note in his wheezy voice that hinted, as always, he was aware of far more than he let on.
Hu grinned and nodded eagerly. "Yeah! Uncle Po said he was gonna teach us some more advanced Dragon moves today!"
"Master Jien said the same thing about his style," Peng added.
Chuluun grinned down at both of them. "And of course, the fact that'll let ya play with all their kids doesn't hurt, right?" The rhino was of course referring to the orphans the Dragon Warrior and Crane, and their wives, had adopted from Bao Gu...something Chao had watched from afar even if he could not manifest himself or otherwise be a part of their lives. Two for the avian and Mei Ling, three for the panda and Jia (and he rather suspected many more would be added in due time)...the Jade Palace was once again filled with the joy, chatter, and innocence of the young, something he had never thought to see again…
Looking up from his pained and solitary reverie, the falcon watched as each of the kung fu trainees made their respectful farewells to Oogway, then headed out the doors to the palace steps—the rhino, he noticed, beckoning to Yi with an outstretched arm that rather seemed to invite an embrace. But the cow stopped before reaching him, turning to look back at where Chao hovered, morose and silent.
"Thank you," she said...tentatively, but sincerely. As direct as her mother.
"You are welcome," he managed to say, just as softly.
"Maybe we will talk to you again. But if I may say so, I think these stories are as much for your benefit as ours. I mean, you had to notice what you did wrong at Zhangye, right?"
For a moment his temper flared, but then Chao reined it in to regard her frostily—yet he only clasped his wings and said, "Do tell."
"Well…" Yi shrugged a bit, then gave him a sad smile. "At the end, there. You were so fixated on all that power you got, that you used to send the yuan gui on...but you didn't get where it came from at all. You thought it was just chi...that if you could just get enough of it, you could stop the Emperor, save China, all the heroic things you wanted to do. But didn't you see? It wasn't the chi...it was who it came from. Your friends. How they loved each other...loved you. That was the power. That was why it worked to help the dead rest."
The earnestness in her voice, on her face, was so real, so touching, that he once again felt teary-eyed. Yes. You had what you wanted, and more importantly what you needed, with you all along. And you sacrificed it...destroyed it...for the sake of a power that was never really yours, a power that ruined you and the empire you wanted to save. The irony was so painful he felt crippled by it.
Finally, after many long moments had passed, Chao managed to say, "Your insight does you credit, Shen Gū niang, as it always has. Although in this case, it is something that had already occurred to me, yes. Still…" He offered her a tiny smile, hoping it hid the brokenness of his heart. "I will consider your words."
After Yi had gone, and the doors were gently closed, he floated there for some time, staring at them even as he stared at nothing at all. When Oogway spoke again, he was not in the least surprised, since he had not felt the holy presence depart...since he knew the sage's coming could not only have been to calm the young ones and correct their impressions of him. That it heralded something more.
"I am glad you did reach such a conclusion yourself, my student. It was what I always hoped for you. It is why I was willing to risk everything so that Tai Lung and the others could do what I could not. And it is why I interceded for you with the Lords of Death."
He had suspected all along that this had been the case, but now that he had confirmation, he could not help himself—bitterly, sardonically, he growled over his shoulder. "Of course. It was you. You chose this punishment. I suppose you find this all very amusing."
"Do I sound as if I am laughing, Xun Chao? I have never been more serious in my life."
Indeed, when he finally forced himself to turn around and gaze at his old master, there was not a sign of it in him—not only a lack of humor, but also no satisfaction, no malice, not even a hint of his typical confidence in his own knowledge and actions. Instead the turtle only gazed at him with infinite sadness, moon-like eyes just as gleaming with unshed tears, every line of his countenance turned down and etched deeper than the bark of the oldest tree, a testament to the ravages of his grief.
Chao stared at this in shock; part of him instinctively rejected it, wished to scream and rant at the pity he refused to accept, while another part wished more than anything he could fall into the turtle's embrace and weep for what he had wrought...for his very existence. The rest of him...was at a complete loss. Paralyzed with indecision, unable to commit, to articulate, to do anything but contemplate his lot while absolutely unaware how to change it.
Finally, after enough time had passed that he knew there would be no outburst, but also that there could not yet be any acceptance or gratitude, Oogway spoke again. There was a slight tremor in his voice, but his steadiness and solemnity were otherwise quite apparent. "I know you are not ready yet. That you may never be. But I have waited nine hundred years for this moment. I can wait a little longer. What matters is this...that you are here, that the good that was in you could be saved, and with it your valuable knowledge. What you can pass on...and how you can do what you originally set out to do: make the world a better place than it was when you left it."
With those words, the turtle turned away, began to drift between the pillars as if he intended to pass straight through a wall on his journey back to the spirit realm. Chao watched him go, his throat locking up. He could not apologize, yet, did not know if he ever could; there was no apology that could ever suffice, what he had done went far beyond Tai Lung's crimes. Neither could he admit the true depth of his wrongness, nor even express thanks for Oogway's beneficence saving him from what otherwise would have been a truly horrific second death.
Just before the spirit would have dissolved into mist and rosy light, Chao at last was able to latch onto the last thing the turtle had said. "Is it? Is it really? Is it truly a better place?"
Oogway peered back over his shell, looking rather befuddled. "Do you not think so? The Dragon Warrior...the one I prophesied, the one whose powers you helped me to instill in an artifact of chi...has come at last and is here to protect the empire. Even if he is not at all what you would have expected." The corner of his mouth quirked. "Tai Lung has been redeemed. New generations of warriors have come, are being trained again. And we have a wise and noble Emperor. Whatever the future holds, we face it now as prepared and strong as we shall ever be."
Chao glowered, and not at the references and implications made. "Perhaps it is, now, and perhaps it shall be in the future. But you and I both know it was not so in the past. Not least because I failed to make it so." He held up a wing to forestall him. "I know; I must let it go. But before I can do so, I must know. After all I did...all the mistakes I made, all that I sacrificed, all that occurred in the long years since...what happened to Emperor Yang? I failed...in so many ways, but particularly in fulfilling my oath. Was he ever held accountable? Was he ever made to pay for what he did to the empire—to the people?"
His words, filled with righteous anger and fierce desperation, echoed through the vast emptiness of the hall before dying into silence. Oogway looked at him unwaveringly; there was no judgment in his gaze, no indication at all of what he was thinking—whether he was debating the advisability of answering, wondering how best to answer, whether Chao even deserved one, or perhaps if he could even remember the answer.
Then at last he turned again, floating through the air until he hovered at a place halfway between the Moon Pool and his own shrine among the kung fu masters. A hand lifted, gestured—and the peach wood staff levitated from its stands, moving serenely through the air until it reached his side. Then he took it...pointed its knobby head down at the waters before him (which now held lotus blooms as well as peach)...and touched the liquid surface. At once the ripples stirred in it died, despite the breezes still coming in through the windows, and it became as flat and unmarred as polished glass.
"Here, my student," the turtle intoned softly, resignedly. "Look into the waters, and see what there is to be seen. May it bring you what you seek...and, I hope, help you to rest easier. Better able to face your task and the long road which lies ahead of you."
Something about those words, and his tone, worried Chao, even frightened him a little. But he had asked for this, he was not about to turn it down now. Not when he could finally learn something that had been denied him, hidden from him, lost to history by the time he ever escaped in any fashion from his prison in the Vault of Heroes. Even if nothing else changed, though nothing could be changed, now, he still had to know. He had a right to!
Moving by thought alone until he was only a few feet from the other shade (though he made quite certain to be no closer than necessary—even aside from being uncertain, even now, whether the sanctity of the enlightened Grand Master could safely approach or even brush his once-corrupted ghost, he simply did not feel worthy in his presence anymore), the falcon stopped at the edge of the pool. Then, swallowing hard, he turned his gaze down to the glowing, shining waters…
Gaudy, overwrought, and pretentious, the bejeweled golden doors of the royal bedchamber yet opened easily under the pressure of his walking stick's knob. Oogway moved quietly, so softly in fact that his passage into the room was utterly soundless, but the hinges of the doors, or perhaps some sixth sense, alerted the one he had come to see as to his presence, and even as the panels swung shut behind the turtle, the robed figure that had been standing at one window—peering fearfully down at the beleaguered, smoke-filled streets of Jiangdu—whirled about. One paw hurriedly grasped and unsheathed the sword at his belt, aiming it shakily toward the intruder. "What?! I left orders I was not to be disturbed under pain of death. Who dares—oh." The blade shook even more in his paw, as did his unslung jaw. "M-Master Oogway! What an unexpected pleasure."
"It is, is it not?" Although resentment, sullen fury, and disgust filled his heart, the turtle kept his tone light and whimsical—to put him off balance, if nothing else. And considering everything this man had done, it was far more enjoyable than it should have been, watching him cringe. He knew, he knew why the Grand Master of kung fu was here, knew that what was coming was a punishment long overdue and richly deserved, and his visitor's mildness and vaguely amused attitude had the man waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop.
Emperor Yang of Sui, the Son of Heaven and ruler of all China, was a rabbit—or more strictly speaking, a desert hare, with black markings in his brownish-tan fur that stood in marked contrast to his bright gold and crimson robes and extremely long ears that at the moment stood as stiff and straight as could be...the exact pose for one on the verge of flight, not so coincidentally. Although he was otherwise in good shape for one of middle age, there was definitely a marked paunch swelling out the front of his clothing, and despite the competence with which he held his sword, Oogway knew for a fact that those paws of his were far more used to holding a brush, whether for painting or calligraphy. And his eyes, though shrewd and perceptive, were at the moment starting from their sockets, exposed by widely-stretched lids.
The tableau between them held for several more long moments, and then, as Yang reached back with his free paw to steady himself against his bedpost, Oogway smiled at him...slowly, thinly, with a wintry cast he could not fail to miss...and took another few paces toward him. "Aren't you going to ask me to sit down? I had hoped we could handle this politely, with civility. But if you truly wish otherwise, then I can regretfully oblige—"
"No! No." His second word was far more moderately pitched, after the first was nearly shouted. Hurriedly he sheathed his sword—it took him three tries before he could do so without either slicing his robes or stabbing himself in the leg—and gestured to a deeply-cushioned chair before the fireplace. "By all means, have a seat, Master Oogway." As he moved to take his own place by the hearth—sliding the furniture much farther back from the other chair in what he clearly thought was an unobtrusive manner, body trembling all the while—he added in a conciliatory tone, "What brings you to my chambers, Revered One? Clearly this is a matter that could not wait."
"It most certainly could not. Truthfully, it has actually waited too long already, and should have been dealt with long ago." As Oogway settled into his seat, he never took his unwavering gaze from the hare's, completely ignoring the lavishly expensive furnishings and artwork adorning his surroundings—and he marked quite easily the evasiveness and worry which haunted those lapine eyes. Yes, he knew exactly what this was about, and no amount of dissembling or feigned ignorance would be able to deny it.
Before the Emperor could attempt such a response, however, the turtle continued, his voice as steady and direct as his gaze, which peered past the peach wood staff he held vertically before him. "Normally I would not involve myself in such things, as I am concerned only with protecting the lives and rights of the common people, and I find interfering with governmental matters both tiring and a waste of my valuable time. But I am afraid there have been too many...irregularities in your reign, which have now required me to step in."
Yang could not help marking the rather ominous finality in those last words, and it seemed quite the contest between his desire to respond with furious, blustering denials and the need to avoid offending one of such stature as the creator of kung fu. Clasping the arms of his chair, he said, "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, Shèng Oogway. There have been problems, of course, as a ruler of any vast realm must contend with from time to time, but—"
"Do not take me for a fool." His tone came out much sharper than he preferred, but he swore that the longer he stayed in this man's presence, the more he felt his selfish, haughty aura soaking into him like a fetid miasma. He felt unclean, and even without the cruel and deplorable actions he had taken, the incredible contrast between him and the good, just rulers that had preceded him on the throne would call for his removal.
"You and I both know exactly what you have done," Oogway continued softy, fiercely, after another long moment. "There is no use in claiming otherwise. But if you insist on making me enumerate your crimes...well, perhaps it is better this way. Even without the courts or the other nobles involved, a formal list of charges just adds that necessary legality, don't you think?" He held up one hand, folding his fingers one by one as he called the Emperor out.
"Your reign was inauspicious from the start, considering how abruptly your father Wen died. At the time I never believed the rumors that you had him murdered, particularly when so much of the gossip was contradictory. But now I have to wonder if I should have inspected the situation more closely."
The hare reached over to a nearby endtable, picked up a cup of tea—as if he needed to steady his nerves—and sipped, although his tone was arrogantly chiding. "Never proven." The fact it wasn't an outright denial was confirmation in itself, the turtle thought.
"Be that as it may, we are concerned with things which are well-documented. For example, your claims that your brothers were wasteful and extravagant, in order to discredit them in your father's eyes, when one of the first things you did as Emperor was finance many exorbitant projects, particularly the systems of canals—"
"That was for the good of the people, and the empire," Yang protested piously. "For transporting goods, travel…"
"When it cost the lives of almost half the men employed to build it?" Oogway cut him off, harshly. "And what of the many palaces you ordered erected around the empire? Were they, too, for the benefit of anyone besides yourself?"
"I must have the means to see the true conditions throughout the empire," he replied mildly. "So I may more effectively govern."
"Forty?" the turtle snapped. The hare didn't even have the grace to look embarrassed, but he did, however, drink his tea in silence.
"And what of the many rebellions there have been? How many deaths you have caused in rebuilding the Wall? Your fruitless military campaigns in Goguryeo? The malaria that slew your men when you invaded Champa? The enemies you cruelly executed, the friends and officials you had killed when they told you what you did not wish to hear, or when they simply exercised good common sense in questioning your policies?"
Yang was gripping his teacup so tightly it would have shattered were he a stronger man. "No one can please all the people all the time. There will always be costs, sacrifices that must be made for the greater good. Disasters that cannot be accounted for or predicted. And I have done good, much good! Expanding and protecting our borders, the new road system—"
Oogway had to work harder than he recalled in recent memory to restrain his growing anger. The words were always the same, the excuses and justifications used to deflect blame and conceal selfishness behind a veneer of concern for the less fortunate. "You dare act as if somehow that changes or undoes the evils you have committed? I know, Yang. I know what you have done, and what the price has been. How many have died by your hand, at your order or through sheer wastefulness and neglect. The famine and ruin and bankruptcy you have brought to the empire. The paranoia that has killed anyone you fear will supplant you. The immorality, the decadence. I know of how many men, fearing death in your endless wars or from being pulled away from the farms that would feed them, have broken their limbs to escape conscription. They call it 'propitious paws' and 'fortunate feet', were you aware?" Not allowing him to answer the rhetorical question, he rose to his feet now, staff pounding the floor regularly in cadence with his ringing denouncement.
"Battles everywhere, assassinations, revolts. When will it end, when will your thirst for blood and riches be quenched? When will you admit you care for nothing but yourself, and that you will do anything, eliminate anyone, to achieve your goals? You have made enemies everywhere, crossed too many lines. Your generals desert you. Your treasury is nearly empty. You have driven men who would otherwise be good and decent to immoral acts simply to bring you down."
He gestured peremptorily toward the window, pausing to let the sounds of chanting citizens, fires and catapult stones breaching the walls, clashing weaponry, and marching feet echo around them; he knew they were what the Emperor had been witnessing with such vigilance from the embrasure, why he had been so frightened and nervous when he had entered.
"Your city is on the verge of falling. You are alone, save your wife and concubines. Your own Xiaoguo Army has mutinied against you. And I know what you ordered done in Zhangye—nor was that an isolated atrocity, I am certain." He paused meaningfully, letting the import of his words sink in, particularly the last since such a thing had been kept utterly secret...a secret which had literally gone to the grave with those poor miners, and would not have come to light if not obtained from beyond the grave. "All of the earth is angry at you. It does not stop at just one man."
For a very long space of time, the Emperor stared at him—denying nothing, chin elevated, chest thrust out, pride and imperiousness mixing with disdain and resentment on his features. Nostrils flaring, whiskers twitching, he narrowed his eyes with suspicion and flashing hate before he finally answered the diatribe in the most insolent and infuriating manner possible. "So? What exactly do you propose to do about it? Your vaunted kung fu will avail you not, when it is meant to be employed only in defense. Kill me, or join the coup in toppling me from power, and you will no longer be a neutral observer or a trusted advisor. You will be no better than I. You will not risk that. And what would you have me do? Even if I expressed regret for the things I have done, even if I admitted it all and agreed with your indictment of me, how would that change anything? What would you have me do?"
Oogway regarded him soberly, meaningfully, waiting until the arrogance faltered, the certainty cracked, and the anger deflated into worry—and fear. Then he leaned on his stick and craned his neck at the unusual curve and angle he knew always disconcerted people as he spoke, softly but firmly. "Of course not. Even if anyone believed you, that would indeed change nothing. What you must do, Ying, is step down. Renounce your throne, and allow a new Emperor to repair what you have broken, make the empire strong and secure once more."
He had used the hare's original given name deliberately—the one which soothsayers had said bore an ill omen—and received the reaction he'd expected. But then his solution would have provoked it anyway. "How dare you!" He leapt to his feet, in one motion throwing down his teacup so that it shattered, his other paw reaching to unsheath his sword again. "I am the Son of Heaven, and Lord of Ten Thousand Years! I don't care who you are, or how much everyone kowtows to you, I will not be lectured and given orders in my own—"
"I rather think," the turtle interjected darkly, "that Heaven wishes nothing further to do with you. And one way or another, whether you heed my advice or not, this year will be the end of your reign—only fourteen in number, such a short span of time, yet also far too long for this land to groan under the oppression of a tyrant."
As if hearing the truth in such bold, blunt terms were the final straw, making it impossible to dither and prevaricate and deflect now that he had been revealed for what he truly was, Yang seemed to lose all sense of control and reason—for what else could explain attacking the creator of kung fu, who while he would never brag knew far more about combat than the hare ever could? Not that the lapine was completely without skill or talent, since he had after all led armies and even fought on battlefields for his father when he was still Prince of Jin—but in most respects he was sadly outclassed.
Again and again Yang swung and slashed, twisting and twirling and leaping from one long footpaw to the other as he brought his blade to bear, and again and again Oogway blocked him with casual ease—and the amoral ruler let out one furious bellow and incredulous shriek after another, for the turtle was able to do so as often with his staff as his shell...and despite being a simple length of peach wood, the stick was imbued with the sanctity and power of the tree that had grown it, as well as his own rather significant holy chi. Soon the chamber was glowing with its golden radiance, brighter than the reflections in the luxurious gilt decorations or the light of the flames burning in the streets of Jiangdu without. It flared each time their weapons met, until the hare was flinching as it burned into his eyes, and he was forced often as not to strike out blindly.
But Oogway was used to fighting without senses, or at least without those of this world, and so he had no difficulty pursuing and pressing his advantage. High, low, crescent sweep and rotating windmill, he brought his staff in—jabbing at the Emperor's side, inverting to nearly slam into where his legs joined, then striking at his knees to knock his legs out from under him. Yang leapt out of the way, first simply off the floor, then up onto a table, but Oogway moved with lightning speed to slam his stick down across the polished furniture top—and with a thunderous crack it split in two, spilling the hare on his backside.
From the smashed wreckage he jabbed upward, aiming straight for Oogway's unprotected face, but he immediately withdrew into his shell—then kicked at the Emperor as he was starting to rise, sending him flying back into a wall, toppling a set of knick-knack laden shelves to land in pieces on the floor. Bleeding, the hare rose again, yelling wildly as he slashed at the turtle's own legs, but Oogway leapt up to perch atop his stick, which took the blow without jostling an inch but caused the sword to almost vibrate out of Yang's paw.
Fast and furiously they fought, speed only increasing as Yang became more and more desperate and enraged. The Emperor managed to get in a lucky strike that sent one piece of plastron flying from Oogway's carapace, but he immediately retaliated with an agile thrust that caught the tie of the hare's belt on the knob of his staff; undone, his robes flared wide, knocking him off-balance and forcing him to quickly tear them away before he became entangled. But that allowed the Grand Master to follow up with another series of blows, each harder, more determined, and more decisive than the one before. One moment rotating in wide circles like a heron, in the next flicking and twirling as if knocking lotus blooms from the air, he moved in—hitting Yang's side, his hip, crunching into his knee, then flipping up to slam right into his breastbone. Finally, as the Emperor staggered backward, spitting blood from a split lip and cursing Oogway's ancestors, he brought his stick up and around one last time to slam with full force into the hare's wrist.
Yang howled, his sword tumbling from his numb grip; from the way he clutched at his limb, it could either have been sprained or broken, but the crunch when the unyielding wood had connected was certainly suggestive. "You! You pompous, vile wángbādàn!"
The turtle threw his head back and laughed—not nastily or maliciously, but in genuine amusement. "Really, Yang? That is the best you can do? Why, that's not even an insult, you know, it's literally true!" He chuckled again.
Ignoring him other than to lurch to his feet while glaring with hateful, narrowed eyes, he called, "Guards! Guards! Seize this intruder! Defend your Emperor!"
"Do you really want your soldiers in here?" Oogway asked mildly. "Are you certain they will attack me...and not yourself?"
Yang froze, and while he was thus distracted, the turtle casually gestured, coils of golden chi swirling out to wrap around the Emperor—hoisting him off the floor and pinning him against the wall. Struggling, he snarled, "Fine, then! Do your worst!"
"I could, you know," the Grand Master said thoughtfully. "As we are now, I could simply...draw your soul out from your body, and send you before Yeng-Wang-Yeh this very instant. I believe he would be most anxious to meet you…"
The ruler of all China sneered despite his predicament. "You don't frighten me. I know you would never dare such a thing. You may know how to fight, and will do so if you must, but you consider all life sacred. You would never kill if you did not have to...certainly not in such a wicked fashion."
"But you are not altogether sure, are you?" Oogway kept his eyes narrowed, his voice low and husky...and he saw the lie in those watery blue eyes, the fear he could not hide.
Yet he had to admit the truth; after all, if he would not allow his fallen student to perform such deplorable acts with the power he had unleashed, why would he do something comparable in his place? However much Yang might deserve such a fate, however much Chao's fate had compelled this visit, he was not the hare's judge or executioner.
"No, you are right. I would not do such a heinous thing. But there are other things I could do, and will, if you press me. Things which will leave you quite alive...but after which, you will wish I had killed you." He didn't know which angered him more—the sins this man had committed, that in order to stop him Xun Chao had been so painfully lost to the darkness, or that he himself was saying and contemplating such things, had been driven to it by those acts.
"If you wish to avoid that fate...and if you will not step down...then you only have two other options."
"And what would they be?" Yang tried to sound contemptuous but only came off as pitiful and mewling.
Oogway paused, cocking his head as he listened to the sounds in the corridor without—the sounds of many armed men approaching, pounding along the polished marble toward the Emperor's chambers. "Well now. You can hear them coming, xiăo bàwáng zhōu tōng...they were once loyal to you, but now they will be your killer. If you allow this, let them execute you without struggle or dissent, I will intercede on behalf of your family...this coup cannot be stopped, nor should it be, but I can spare the innocent." He did not say, of course, that he would do this anyway; if leaving such a mercy as a bargaining chip would convince Yang to cooperate at last, it was a small and worthwhile omission.
"Or," he said after leaving his thought hanging, as the roars and shouts of men grew closer, the rattling of armor and shields and the screams of those few who attempted to stop them, "you can take your own life. In this case, that would actually leave you with some shred of honor."
The hare stared at him...swallowed hard...flicked his eyes toward the panels of gold...then whispered, "You would? You would truly make sure they live?"
"Yes," Oogway said gently.
A few moments more, the lapine worked his mouth soundlessly, defeat and anguish vying with pride and frustration on his haggard face. Then, as the doors of the next chamber down were quite audibly broken from their hinges, he snapped his jaw shut. "No. No, I refuse to be treated so shamefully. If I am to die, let it be in battle! That is the only true honor."
Slowly the turtle closed his eyes. As if the man even understood the meaning of that word now. As if it would be decent or fair to allow him such an end. Shaking his head, he gestured, lowering the gasping figure to the floor with his tendrils of chi...but as the Emperor settled into place and seemed to be seeking about for a weapon, some means of defending himself to the very last, Oogway concentrated—and then released his will.
A wave of chi, stronger than the previous, washed over Yang, rippling through his fur and clothing yet otherwise leaving him unmoved and untouched. The hare froze again, this time by his own volition, eyes wider than ever before...staring at something unseen, something beyond this world...something he could never escape, as it lay within his own heart and mind.
"Perhaps that will help your conscience make the right decision," he remarked, almost off-handedly. "Since you seem unable to feel for your victims, to understand what they went through, what your actions did to them...perhaps feeling their pain, their anguish, their suffering as if it were your own will...put things in perspective."
Yang screamed. It was a sound like none he had ever heard, as if each of those who had died by the hare's orders were now crying out through his throat in one voice. It came again and again, heart-rending, throat-wrenching, awful cries that echoed to the vaulted ceiling, and it seemed it would never stop. Those eyes were filled with unspeakable horror, but he did not have to see them for long before the Emperor had clapped his paws to his face to cover them...pound at them...scrape at them as if he meant to gouge them out.
Then he was running, leaping toward the doors, jerking them open as he babbled disjointed words about ending things, ending it all—though whether what he was experiencing or his own existence, none could later say. The panels flew open, slamming into the walls, revealing the army men standing in the middle of the hall, as stricken into immobility as Yang had been by the demented shrieks reaching their ears. At the forefront was Yuwen Huaji, leader of the coup—and even as the takin stood staring in suspicion turning to disbelief, the hare ran forward and, with a despairing yet oddly relieved sob, threw himself at the soldier, impaling himself on his outstretched sword.
Then, and only then, were those cries silenced at last.
For what seemed an eternity, Huaji and the rest of the Xiaoguo Army remained poleaxed, arranged like Go pieces on a board, unable to move or speak while they met Oogway's calm, passive gaze. At last the turtle shuffled forward, leaning on his staff, and looked from Yang's body—still with that horrified look twisted on its features—to the horned beast looming over him, seeking an explanation, a direction...a reassurance that no other would be suffering this same disturbing fate.
"Guilt," he observed sagely, "can be a powerful motivator."
Chao stepped back from the Moon Pool's edge as the vision disappeared from its waters...and as much as seeing the one he had sworn to bring down, the one who had made that oath to the yuan gui necessary, have his life ended in such a manner was both satisfying and viscerally cathartic...he couldn't help but shudder. Because it was still terrible to watch...and because he realized how easily the same could have been done to him, if his master had not still held out hope for him.
"Did that answer your question, my student?" Oogway said softly, wearily, as he sent his staff floating back to its stand.
"Yes...and no." He shook himself, ruffled his feathers. "I mean...how...how could you—?"
"I did not enjoy it," he said abruptly. "Not truly, however it might have appeared. It remains one of the darkest memories of my life, and something I will always regret, regret that I had no other choice left to me because he was too stubborn and lost to wickedness to allow me one...even as I wish I had acted sooner, before it was too late for those he had betrayed and harmed. But I trust you remember: just because kung fu is meant for defense and protection does not mean it cannot be used to attack or for offense. That there will not be times when the unfortunate choice of dealing out death and violence...is better than the far worse choice of letting the imbalanced and the black-hearted remain free to do as they please. Sometimes the only way to save the soft and weak is by removing the hard and strong permanently. And most often, the only way evil shall triumph is when good men do nothing."
Turning again toward the open stretch of chamber wall between the pillars, the turtle added, pensively, "Besides...while what you became was by your own choice, it might never have happened if not for him and his cruelties. I had to ensure none would follow in his footsteps...or yours. That your loss was atoned for as much as those of his victims.
"He could not learn from his mistakes, Xun Chao. It doomed him in the end. But I hope, I dearly hope, that with you here now, in this place...you still can. And if so, well...who knows what might come? After all..." Oogway's voice turned lilting, and as he began to recite a familiar phrase which now held a new meaning, he began to fade and dissolve into mist, light, and a last stray scattering of peach blossoms that passed into the wall. "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why they call it the present."
By the time the last word had been uttered, the Grand Master was gone.
Slowly...very slowly...Xun Chao turned away, floating in a lonely vigil before the sacred artifacts of this most hallowed hall...gazing up at the artistry hung on every wall. And after looking from each of his old friends' portraits to the next, he finally let his eyes rest on that of Hou Sudu...and a memory came back to him. A memory of the morning after the cleansing of the danxia, the freeing of Zhangye from the pall of shadow, death, and grief...when he had joined his friends in contemplating the colored cliffs in all their glorious splendor beneath the sunset's burnished light. When he had allowed himself to truly let go, to soar the currents of the sky, enjoy the gentle breezes of summer, had even engaged in a rare bout of playful sparring with Sudu and Ochir and allowed himself to laugh—rather like the Buddha was said to have done when he finally understood the truth of reality.
He had alit there, on the boulder-strewn ledges leading to the heights, sat amongst and alongside his fellow masters, and contemplated the gorgeous golden and orange rays setting the bands of rock to shining and blazing more wondrously than before, until he wanted to cry from the sight. A sight no artist could ever hope to capture, no matter how skilled, a sight that instead remained personal, unique for every viewer, something to treasure in the heart...like all else in this transitory world.
He had considered, waxing philosophical as was usually his wont, that even though one day Zhangye would be gone, as would he and his friends, the bitterness of decay and death were very much balanced by the sheer beauty of life. That life had to be enjoyed for what it was, with gratitude and equanimity, appreciated for all the joys and sorrows it brought, allowed to come and go like the wind, gentle at times and harsh at others, but always temporary. It was all one could truly live for—not for things or the illusions of immortality in all its fraudulent guises, but simply for the good and love of others, even if they were also fleeting in their years. Jewels and palaces could not appreciate being appreciated, nor could they be loved or made love to, and they were indifferent to being in good repair or in dissolution. It was a model to emulate on some levels, but without the living with their capacity for emotions, the lessons were meaningless. They were the soul, the spark of light, they made the world alive and the life was them. The road to Nirvana, he knew, thus lay between the extremes.
If he had remembered this...had taken this to heart and refused to let it go no matter what he did or learned in his studies, so much would have been different. They could indeed have grown old and seen such awesome glory together. It was too late now, and yet...he couldn't help remembering what Sudu had wished, as they stood there in various embraces and comradely gestures of warmth and affection. And as both Shen Yi and Oogway's words hung in his mind, he felt a tiny ray of light, of hope, accompanied by other words, floating out of the past.
"Sure. It'll be a memory for all of us. But maybe one day long in the future, we'll all be reincarnated together again and we'll be able to see this once more as friends. Wouldn't that be great?"
Extending his wing toward the youngest lion's portrait, then gazing at each of the others...Dog and Kuan longest of all...he whispered, as he had then, "Yes, Sudu, my dear friend. That would be marvelous."
With a ghostly ripple, the gray fog that was his bound form dispersed, and he gradually faded from mortal sight.
(A/N: So...references first. While Chuluun, as I said before, is named for Vachir's second-in-command from Ilien's "Book of Changes" [who is also referenced here], the character of Peng, his background as a potter, Tai Lung's sword [itself a reference to Tai's original design in Art of KFP], and Master Yao are all from Legends of Awesomeness. The Xiao Tou Inn is of course the inn from Po's dream sequence at the start of the first movie, which Luna also had appear in "Soaring Dragon, Dancing Phoenix" [and if I remember correctly, Marie used it in "From Scratch" too]; the name was Luna's invention. The Dragon's Grotto and the "inner peace" lesson are of course from KFP2. I made reference to a number of the Chinese gods this time around, so for your own edification: Nuwa is the goddess of weddings and married couples, Bai Mudan is a goddess who tempts men [especially ascetics], Pan Jinlian is goddess of sex and prostitution, and Tu Er Shen is the god who oversees love between male homosexuals; Dizang is ruler of the ten hells, Zhong Kui is vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings, and Ch'eng Huang is the god of moats and walls [and also cities] who oversees the preliminary hearings for each soul that reaches the afterlife.
Other references: Tŭlóng the Earth Dragon is an old poetic name for the Great Wall; its original name, the Long Wall, became associated with tyranny and thus was usually avoided. The colorful danxia formations near Zhangye are real, and part of a national park which Ilien linked me to; I agreed with her it was a gorgeous and unique place and deserved to be used in a KFP story somewhere. Since she had no plans... The imagery used for the chi cleansing was inspired by both Unalaq's method of purifying dark spirits in Legend of Korra and the ending of The Dark Crystal. Lastly, a few terms of address/translations: Gū niang means "maiden" or "miss", Shèng means "sage" [sometimes saint!], xiăo bàwáng zhōu tōng means a wicked man, and wángbādàn is a rather crass insult too explicit for me to go into, other than to say it's slang which essentially translates to "son of a bitch" but literally means "turtle egg".
Emperor Yang of Sui is of course historical in origin, and for the most part I've included every bit of information about him that I could; other than the atrocity at the mines which was my own invention, everything Oogway and Chao spoke of is true of him and his reign, and in fact there was even some I couldn't get into. Truly my depiction of him here is just the tip of the iceberg. The only mitigating features which I left out was that he was a genuinely devoted husband and father, and that the real Yang knew his death was coming, seemed resigned to it, and when the soldiers came he actually admitted his wrongdoing—but also pointed out to the army men that he had always treated them well. In the end, since poison could not be found, he was strangled with one of his own scarves and buried by his wife and concubines in a coffin made from the head and footboard of his bed; his children and all his male relatives were actually killed, save one who was friends with the leader of the coup and who would become the next Emperor. Through Oogway I changed the fate of his family, and I made him a bit worse than his historical counterpart, but for all intents and purposes you can view him as the same, and either way he was pretty much responsible for the end of his dynasty. Obviously in my universe, what Oogway did when he stepped in was kept hushed up, with the official story being the one from real history.
One side note: those of you with very good memories may recall that what Oogway told Shifu of Yang does not quite gel with what I revealed about him here. That is neither a mistake nor a Retcon. Part of it is that Oogway's words are still true, at least so far as speaking of his ruthlessness goes: it might well have been necessary to help defend the empire from invaders. But the rest is a case of Oogway, for once, being an Unreliable Narrator. Not because he has a self-serving memory, but because once again he is not flawless; his shame, not only of what Chao became in his quest to stop Yang but also what he himself was forced to do to stop him, of the things Yang had done which prompted him to act...and of his delay in putting a stop to him until it was too late for Chao, and for Yang's victims—this drove him to conceal the full truth from Shifu, leaving only himself to know. I hope this, and his resultant guilt, make him seem more human to you rather than a Karma Houdini. And if anyone thinks what I had Oogway do was out-of-character for him [regardless whether Yang deserved it]...well, I had him give my rebuttal to that in-story.
As for the rest of the tale: I always intended to have Yi grow up to be a kung fu warrior; whether she'll end up with Chuluun or not, you'll have to decide for yourself. Peng of course was included both because I really liked the character and his potential, but felt the series didn't do well by him [not to mention how it treated Tai Lung]. So this is my version of him which personally I think fits in better and makes more sense, what with the writers still not explaining how exactly they were related or how Peng could have learned of Tai's location when his family abandoned him and never made an effort to find him again—or how Tai's location could be revealed to Peng without him or the rest of the family knowing about the rampage. Hu and Huo I decided to give their father and mother's real last names, respectively, since obviously neither Tai Lung nor Tigress would work for family names and I like the idea of both family names getting to live on.
I'm sure some of you will wonder or even have objections about certain aspects of the tale of Chao and the old masters. To nip the likeliest ones in the bud, let me say this. 1) Cannabis was in fact smoked a great deal in the East, and despite its long-standing illegality in the United States it is or has been accepted all around the world for many years—and as I pointed out, opium was actually outlawed in ancient China and with good reason since it is a much stronger and far more dangerous drug, so cannabis is a much better [and more likely available] alternative. 2) I had always intended to make at least one of the old masters [and most likely one of the Lions] gay, and the strategy Kuan and the others used at the inn to help Xiong and themselves find bedmates for the night is something I see no particular problems with—many modern people like to forget or actually do not realize that in the ancient world, not only was homosexuality not always the hated and condemned sin it is seen as by so many nowadays, but the nature of masculinity and what was considered an affront/attack against it and what was not were very different back then. Again, so long as a man was not indecent [i.e. public] about it, and the family would still have heirs, it was perfectly allowed to have homosexual family members, to be a man who indulged in both sexes, or to be friends with one who did.
Some might try to suggest, particularly when combining this with the running thread of Chao refusing to be more open-minded/give in to his desires/have more fun and relaxation in his life, that I am trying to imply either that it was repressed sexual urges [gay or otherwise] which caused Chao to become evil, or that if he had indulged more he never would have been corrupted. I.e., that sex or being gay could somehow have saved the day. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I do think being repressed harmed him a great deal, and I always hinted throughout ADL that there were sexual elements to Chao's darker deeds. But while I believe people need to be more open-minded and less puritanical about sex in general and gays in particular, what I wish made clear here is that Chao's real problem was like Tai Lung's: imbalance. The snow leopard, of course, gave in too much to his impulses, at least when it came to his rage, hatred, pride, and selfishness; Chao was the opposite, although at the same time both of them did try to restrain their urges, albeit in different manners and with different degrees of success. The end result was that Tai's temper finally exploded in the rampage when he was denied everything he thought gave his life meaning, while Chao, once he unlocked the secrets of chi and became tempted by darker spirits, used this as an excuse to act on his repressed desires. If he had been more in touch with the world, more relaxed and free of guilt and shame, more willing to do things he felt tawdry and inappropriate, if he had simply been more connected with his friends, then he would have been more balanced. Would he have been able to resist the darkness and not become corrupted? I don't know, but at least it would have been harder for that degradation to happen, he might have fought it more due to his bonds with the other masters.
Which brings me finally to the fact that I seem to be trying to redeem Chao here. Aside from the fact ADL was always about redemption [and for more than just Tai Lung], as I made fairly clear, the creature Chao became after nine hundred years and the man he once was are really two completely different people. So without exaggeration I can say that the demonic being who was my Big Bad is and shall always remain a Complete Monster who cannot ever be redeemed...but Xun Chao, the good man he once was, who was saved by the use of Oogway's staff and the Golden Spear? There is still hope for him. It will not be easy [hence the punishment he is given here], it will take a very long time and much true repentance before his karma can be expiated, and even then he will need to be reborn many times before he can be truly forgiven and earn a place in Ti'en. But...it is possible, and I wished to plant that seed now as a capstone for this series and everything I attempted to say with it. So if this story makes you like him or at least feel some pity for him, then I succeeded at what I set out to do.
So that is the end of the vignettes. All that remains now is that one last set of shuffles, which should be posted within the next week or so after I have written the last one. Again, I must apologize for the long wait on these [which has, it seems, caused most of my original readers to abandon me, either because they assumed I was never going to finish or because they lost interest in the story/KFP itself] but life just gets in the way. At least I can say they all turned out as I had hoped for if not better, and the time it took to do them [and the length they ended up coming to] turned out to be necessary to finish them to my satisfaction. I must also, of course, thank my friend Kenneth Beltan one last time, as he provided more assistance and support to me through the writing process which only made the tale richer and truer. And I thank all of you who are still out there reading, whether silently or otherwise, for enjoying my work and following through to the end of my KFP world. R/R!)