Kung Fu Panda: Book of Changes
This story is dedicated to the memory of Michael Clarke Duncan; a great actor and human being, he will be truly missed.
Prologue – The Warlord
They had brought the army through the mountains, traveling east and then turning north, skirting the high plateau. After weeks of river crossings and snaking along narrow paths, they had finally come out into the lowlands, and Ushi was once more in China.
It had been more than ten years since the ox had left his homeland; more than twenty since he had seen his moment of supreme triumph turn to failure and humiliation. But now, now he was back, and all would be put right before he was done. He would have what should never have been taken in the first place.
He walked through the sprawling camp, making sure that all was in order. The army consisted mainly of contingents of dholes and hyenas, though there were other animals as well. A bear worked at an open-air smithy repairing armor. A group of crocodiles lounged at the edge of the river, shouting advice to two of their number who were sparring. As he made his way further into the camp, his path crossed that of a funeral procession of rats, taking three of their number out of the camp for cremation. The assassin master, Rahas, must be refining his poisons again, Ushi thought.
The warlord was outside his tent in the center of the camp. Spread on a low table before him were a number of maps. "Ah, Ushi," he said, without looking up, "I was wondering when you'd get here." The Bengal tiger's voice was deep, and contained its habitual undercurrent of contempt. Ushi had long since ceased to take offense; Akshatha's disdain for anyone other than himself was habitual, almost a reflex.
Ushi laid the scroll in his hand on the table. "I've heard from my friends in the capitol," he said.
"You sound less than pleased. Nothing that affects our plans, I hope?"
"I'm not sure." He seated himself and stared at the scroll as if it could tell him more than the words it contained. "There was an incident some months ago, in Gongmen - one of the coastal cities."
"A bit outside our line of march," Akshatha commented, locating the place on his map. "What happened there?"
"An ambitious lordling developed a new weapon," Ushi said. "Sounds as though it might have had some potential, but a group of warriors destroyed it… and him."
Akshatha glanced up. "And this local spat affects us how?"
"The warriors were kung fu masters. And one of them was supposedly the Dragon Warrior."
Akshatha's disdain broke through the surface. "And what exactly is a 'Dragon Warrior'?" He had little use for mysticism, and less regard for the land he planned to conquer, Ushi thought.
"It's a prophecy, centuries old, that a great warrior would appear one day."
"They usually do. You think this one could be a rival?" The tiger seemed mildly amused at the thought.
Ushi knew he needed to explain. "I think I told you about my early days in the royal guard. When the current emperor was crown prince, he went to a famous school to study with a renowned philosopher. He always put great store in such things, and this Master Oogway was very old and respected. He's the one who foretold the Dragon Warrior. But he had never given this supposed secret to any of his students, so many of us thought it was just nonsense, something to hold out as an incentive but never actually reveal."
"So now you think there may be something to this after all?"
Ushi considered. "You know how I feel about all this. I was with the prince's bodyguard, but I could only sit around listening to that tortoise maundering on about inner peace and letting go of control for so long. So I spent most of my time watching the students training to fight."
"I'm used to soldiers. You pick up a weapon, learn to use it, and go out and fight. These students spent years - years - learning poses and strikes and leaps. And all mixed with this mystical foolishness. You wouldn't believe it. One day the master was out there, a little red panda, had all the students around him, everything from a yak to a little green bug. And he's telling them about this Wuxi finger hold thing."
"Near as I could figure, you're supposed to grab your opponent's finger in the middle of a fight and he explodes."
The tiger laughed aloud. "What?!"
"That's the sort of thing they were teaching. So they had this hall of relics, and this 'dragon scroll' stuck in a frieze up in the ceiling, and it was supposed to go to the best student. Been up there for centuries, whatever was in that case had probably turned to dust long ago."
"And no one just climbed up and got it down? That would have settled the issue."
"I heard one tried. Snow leopard, the master's favorite. Big mouth, bigger attitude. They told him he couldn't have it and he went crazy, tore up the place until they knocked him out."
"I'm surprised they didn't all go crazy, if they had to listen to such nonsense. What happened to your leopard?"
"It gets better. They put him in prison, and assigned an entire company of warriors to guard him. The Anvil of Heaven, one of the most elite war bands in the kingdom. Wusheng and I tried to recruit them for our venture, but their leader, Vachir, took this guard job instead, The whole lot of them are probably still freezing their tails off on that mountain."
"What a waste. Who talked them into that?"
"The same old tortoise."
"Ushi, if this is what goes on up here, I hardly think you have cause for concern. We'll have the country in less than a month."
"Still," the ox said. "it was this Dragon Warrior who defeated this lord and his weapon in Gongmen. It might be worth finding out who he is, what he's capable of."
Akshatha shrugged it off. "Well, I'll leave it to you. If your friends can't give you more information, find a way to lure this warrior to us. And then we'll see if there's a real threat there, and if necessary, neutralize it."
The Emperor of China, the Son of Heaven, was a golden pheasant of middle years. He didn't consider that being somewhat past his prime was a handicap - as he told his favorite courtier, Wei, old birds only became tougher. But the years had seemed to shorten his patience with the formalities of the court. When he could, he retreated to his garden to meditate. Chongde, of course, would complain. The owl had been a tiresome young scholar in his father's court, and had grown to be a tiresome old scholar in his. But complain was all the owl could do. He was, after all, the Emperor, and that had to at least afford him the benefit of time to himself.
Sometimes he regretted being firstborn and heir apparent. In his younger days he could at times pursue his own interests. The months he had spent at the Jade Palace learning from Master Oogway were among his fondest memories. His guard captain Ushi had been a bother, of course, interfering with and annoying Master Shifu's students, but on the whole, his time there had been most pleasant.
Ushi, of course, had continued to be trouble. When he had deliberately disobeyed the new Emperor's orders, he had finally had to dismiss the ox and replace him. His grasp for personal glory had undone months of negotiations. Later he'd been informed that the ox had fled to the borderlands, and joined a group of bandits there. A waste of a good soldier, but the Emperor needed reliable, loyal guards, not ambitious would-be heroes.
That had been an odd time, he thought. Something similar had occurred at the Jade Palace just prior to Ushi's lapse. Master Shifu's prize pupil and adopted son had gone mad with ambition and rampaged through the Valley of Peace. The Emperor had been shocked at the news. He remembered Tai Lung as driven and overly convinced of his own worth, but that he would go so far as to try to take the Dragon Scroll by force when Master Oogway refused it to him was very distressing. When he learned Master Shifu had been injured, it was only his respect for Oogway that led him to grant the old master's request that Tai Lung be imprisoned rather than executed. The proprieties of royal life he might find stifling, but the idea of a student attacking his master or a son his father was deeply offensive to his sense of rightness and order.
And that problem had reared its ugly head again, not two years past, when Tai Lung had escaped his prison. Another attack on Shifu, another attempt to steal the Dragon Scroll. Fortunately, Oogway had chosen a student worthy to be the Dragon Warrior, and Tai Lung's ambitions had been put to rest once and for all.
He sighed and tried to turn his mind to more pleasant matters. What had Oogway said, the past was history, tomorrow was a mystery, but the present is a gift? He would make use of that gift, he thought. He would consider the journey he would soon take. Though Chongde and his clique of courtiers would have to be brought along with him, he would enjoy seeing new things. He left the palace so seldom.
He was settling into his thoughts when he heard soft footsteps approaching. He smiled to himself. Wei was one of very few people he allowed into his private retreat. He opened his eyes.
"What is it, Wei?" he smiled.
The Pekingese bowed and smiled back. "Your Majesty. I have received a letter from a village in Guizhou province. A simple request I can easily deal with, but I thought your Majesty would find it of interest. There is a shrine near a small village there, commemorating the Battle of Cloudy River."
The Emperor considered his knowledge of history. "That is where Master Golden Rhino fell in battle, was it not?"
"Yes, your Majesty. The villagers placed his weapon in a shrine to his memory, and a monk tended it for many years. Now he writes that he is growing old and wishes the relic to be taken to the Jade Palace. He has requested that the Dragon Warrior take the relic there."
And he had just been thinking about his own time at the Jade Palace. The Emperor smiled. As old Master Oogway had said, there were no coincidences. "Most interesting, Wei. By all means, have this message passed to the Dragon Warrior, and add our request that he retrieve this relic."
Wei bowed again. He knew this was the sort of thing the Emperor found a welcome diversion from the affairs of court. "At once, your Majesty."
Ushi truly disliked the company of the assassin's rats, and so it was with great relief that he watched them scurry off as they reentered the main camp of Akshatha's army. Rahas' poison had worked admirably, though. The old monk had succumbed quickly and quietly. A properly phrased letter sent to the royal court would catch the Emperor's eye, he was sure. He'd had it sent to that fool Wei, the Emperor's childhood friend and just as entranced by the mystical as the old pheasant. The weight of an imperial request would surely send this Dragon Warrior their way.
He hefted the war hammer he'd taken from the shrine. Nearly fifty years since Golden Rhino had dropped it on the Cloudy River battlefield, but it had been kept in perfect condition. He studied the intricate etching of a phoenix on the head. Far too fine a weapon to sit unused, being venerated by peasants who hadn't been born the last time it was wielded. It would be a fine weapon for his return to his homeland.
He made his way to Akshatha's tent. The tiger was outside, sparring with one of the bear weapon masters. The tiger's favored weapon was his pata, the sword blade extending from a heavy gauntlet. Ushi watched for a time. The bear was good, he decided, but ultimately didn't stand a chance. The tiger was fast, and a vicious fighter, and while the bear was a larger opponent than most, Akshatha would have the advantage of size over most adversaries.
The tiger saw him and broke off the sparring session. "Well?"
"He should be on his way before too long."
"Then we'll be sure to keep a watch for him."