The Anvil of Heaven
Shifu could feel the tension building like a thunderstorm, and the fact that no one else seemed to notice only heightened his growing sense of unease.
He'd been able to ignore it himself, earlier, while he trained, while he practiced one attack over and over until he knew that, when he needed it, body memory would take over, would guide him through that one move before doubt or sentiment could pull him up short. Again. He had come to that one decision in the early hours of the morning, as he tossed sleepless on a too-soft bed in an upper room of the fortress. He had failed Tai Lung. He had failed to see where his training and expectations were leading his son. He had failed, on the night it all went wrong, to protect his master and the Dragon Scroll. He had not protested when Oogway had appealed for Tai Lung's life, although he knew what Tai Lung's crimes deserved, and what a lifetime of imprisonment would mean for the snow leopard. He had failed to correct his mistakes two years ago, and left Po to bungle the end of that battle. The only thing he could do for Tai Lung, the only thing he could ever have done since that horrible night that he had unknowingly set in motion, was to make sure his end was quick and painless.
But it caused a soul-deep ache that numbed his thoughts and dulled the world around him, different from the pain and bitterness that had haunted him all those years, but, he feared, as long-lasting.
He found himself on the wall again, staring out at the land turning silver under the crescent moon overhead. A thick mist had rolled up from the river valley, but had begun to dissipate as the night deepened. He tried to shake off the expectation of grief that drew him into memories of the past, of a smiling cub, a studious boy, an intense young man, of a love and hope that had foundered and festered before he had even seen the trap he had drawn them into…
He had to think of something else. Oogway's gentle smile came into his mind, as clear as if the old tortoise were there before him. He almost expected a drift of peach petals to blow across the stones of the wall. The illusion of control, Oogway had said, on that last evening before he had ascended. He had wanted Shifu to let go of the illusion of control, and he had argued that there were things he could control. Oogway, as always, had only smiled, and tried to impart one last lesson. And he had only half listened, caught up in his fear of Tai Lung's return, and his frustration with Po, and his sudden realization that his master, the only steady point in his life, was leaving him alone.
Well, he had taken as much control as he could of this situation, he thought, and so it was time to heed his master's teachings and let go, focus on the present, be alert to what would come. Still, he wondered what had been the meaning of these last few weeks, when it had seemed that he and his son had been given one last chance…
There are no accidents. The words had come back to him so clearly, he actually turned to see if Oogway were standing behind him. He shook his head, wondering if his worries were truly beginning to affect his thinking. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath of the cool, moist night air. He let himself become one with his surroundings, the stone underfoot, the cool flow of the breeze, the sounds around him. Nothing but the rustle of leaves, the whisper of the grass, in the valley. Soft words in the courtyard below, where Kuang's men stood guard at the barred gate. He opened his eyes. Moonlit dark outside the fortress, lamplight within. More armored rams patrolled the walls, manned the small corner turrets. He wondered where the fortress' own garrison was, but remembered seeing them earlier, while the guard captain's men drilled and, later, ate their dinner. No doubt the local soldiers were relaxing, eating their own meal, gambling and gossiping in their barracks, getting some sleep before they took their next shift on guard.
He turned to head back to the fortress, intending to meditate a bit, still his thoughts further. He needed the peace that would give, if he could find it. As he set foot on the stairway leading to the courtyard, he hesitated a moment. Had he heard… what? A sound from outside the walls? He returned to his position, stood still, listening intently. He leaned out from the wall, turning his head slowly from side to side. Nothing. It had been nothing. He had been just below the level of the wall when he thought he'd heard something; perhaps it had been an odd echo, a word spoken near one of the upper windows of the central tower affected by some quirk of the courtyard's acoustics. Still frowning, he descended the stairs, then paused by the guards at the gates.
"Keep alert," he told them. "I'm concerned at how long we have stayed in one place. Enemies might be near."
The rams straightened up, the soul of professionalism. "Certainly, Master Shifu," one of them answered.
"We'll be on guard. Gan," he said to his companion, "pass the word to the guards on the wall, keep a sharp lookout." The other ram gave a curt nod and headed for the stairs. Shifu nodded in approval, then crossed the courtyard, his thoughts crowding in on him again.
He passed the heavy wooden doors into the fortress, glancing around at the shadowed expanse of the hall. A few lanterns illuminated the central section, between the outside door and the stairs to the upper levels, but the rest of the large room was dark. He was halfway across before his steps faltered. It wasn't what he heard, this time; it was what he didn't. No low voices, no shuffling of feet or soft metallic sound of movement in armor. He stopped, looking around in confusion. There had always been at least a few of Kuang's men in here since they had arrived. Now there were none. Where were the guards at the stairway? And those that had always kept their post at the outer door – he'd passed no one.
A cold sense of dread seeped into his chest. What was going on here? He spun, headed for the outer door… and heard a noise that caught his breath short. The heavy bar at the gate was being lifted. The massive gates were swinging open.
He sprinted for the door before the full implication hit him. Treachery, this was treachery. Whatever was about to come in that gate, he couldn't defeat it alone. And even if he could, there were certainly enemies behind him, in the upper floors of the fort. That was where he was needed. He turned, ran for the stairs, hoping he could reach the Emperor's apartments before it was too late.
Vachir fought against the shock and despair that rose up in him at the sight of the fortress' breached defenses. Too late, he thought, we're too late… He could hear the same words rising around him, murmurs and growls from the men near at hand, flowing away down the road behind him. For a moment longer, he flailed about in a fog of failure, finding nothing substantial to hold onto, to stop the final plunge of a slide that had begun two years before. Then, with a ferocious effort, he dragged himself back to the moment, to what he had to do next. What could he see? The gates were open. They didn't appear to be broken in. He could make out no one on the wall, but thought a form was moving around one of the guard towers. There would be more movement if Akshatha had his men in there already; so where were they? The valley… could he see any troops in the valley? The faint moonlight and wisps of fog were messing with his eyes…
He looked around him, at the faces of his men where the initial shock was fading to an anger and determination to match his own, and that was heartening, but not what he needed most, right now, this moment. A low growl led him to what he wanted, and he took a step back and around Chuluun and grabbed the snow leopard just before the cat started forward.
"We'll get there soon enough, just wait a moment!" He met Tai Lung's glare. "No, don't look at me," he sneered, "I need you to tell me what you can see down there!" He pointed into the valley below. "Your night vision's better, you see any –"
Tai Lung was already peering intently into the darkness. "There!" He pointed to the south, up the valley from the fort. "There they are, moving fast!"
"Right!" Vachir thumped the snow leopard's shoulder, and turned to Chuluun. He almost shouted the order to charge, but caught himself. No telling how far the sound might carry, and their presence here was still unknown, he hoped. Their one sure advantage. Chuluun knew what was needed anyway, had started the order passing down the line. Time to move. He started forward, and felt a smile tug at his mouth as Tigress caught up to him.
"Where are they?" she asked, not at all winded. Po puffed up behind her, Monkey and Viper just behind him.
He gestured to his left. "Tai says up the valley, coming in fast." He had sped up to a trot, and was working into a run. The mass of rhinos pushed forward behind him.
Tigress looked where he pointed. "It'll be close," she said, dropping to all fours as the rhinos put on more speed. "I think they've got distance on us."
They were nearing the valley floor when the moon sailed clear of the last few clouds. A shout came clear from across the valley.
"They've seen us," Tai Lung snarled. "They're putting on speed."
Vachir forced a deeper breath. "We're not done yet!" He pulled even more air into his lungs, though he wasn't sure how. "Let's MOVE, Anvil!"
A bass roar swelled up behind him in answer, and he all but felt himself borne forward by the press behind him, rolling down the hill and across the valley like a great wave. Tigress and Tai Lung, running full out, were slightly ahead of him, but not pulling away from the onrushing body of rhinos. Beside him, Chuluun already had his mace in hand; and on the other side, he was surprised to see Po rolling along at a pace to match his own. He was always amazed at how fast the soft-looking bear could move. He thought he caught the echo of the Anvil's shout from the walls ahead of them. Good, he thought. Let them know we're coming. And let them tremble!
Ushi's eyes widened at the echoing shout from the eastern slope of the valley, and his teeth gritted in fury. "How?!" he demanded. "How could Yuan have known? How could he have gotten troops here in time?!"
"It doesn't matter!" snarled Akshatha. "They'll never make the fortress before we can seal it up tight. We'll have the old bird in our trap, and if this Yuan has pulled his troops from the pass, Vikram will cut through whatever is left there and join us to take the capital!"
Ushi studied the tiger as he pounded along beside him. Akshatha had held himself back from most of the fighting on the way here, as a great leader should, but now, so close to their goal, he was taking the lead. He was a monster in battle, the ox knew, enjoying the fighting, and the killing, the show of his prodigious strength and intense training. His eyes were all but glowing in the pale light, and his teeth were bared in a ferocious grin.
In only a matter of days, Ushi thought, the tiger would make himself emperor. And he would have his old rank back; perhaps more than that. If Akshatha was grateful, and valued his loyalty, he could ask for what he wished when this was done. The rank of general sounded like a fair reward. Of course… it was a big if. Akshatha was a ruthless man, and if he felt a follower could be a threat, well, Rahas was gone now, but it wouldn't be long, the ox was sure, before the cobra's place was filled…
But there were other ifs, too. Like, if the foreigner could gain and hold the loyalty of men whose land he'd usurped. If he could do so better than one born to the Middle Kingdom, who still had friends and kin here. And if he even survived this night… the chances of battle could be so arbitrary, couldn't they?
Ushi fell back, glancing to where an indistinct mass of soldiers was streaming down the road to the east, moving to intercept them. Akshatha was right, he thought, if they pushed themselves they would cut their enemy off, shut them out of the fortress until it was too late. What had possessed that antelope to suddenly take such initiative? But no matter. He dropped back further, to the end of their line, shouting orders to pick up the pace, offering rewards for success and dire consequences for failure. He fell in with the last of his men, feeling the ground rising beneath them as the massive walls and welcoming rectangle of light from the open gates loomed up over them.
He could hear the pounding of hundreds of feet coming from the valley below, the thunder of a thousand deep voices. And then, as Akshatha and the first ranks reached the gate, the rising roar from the oncoming enemy resolved itself into a single, repeating chant. "Hit them hard! Tiānshàng de zhēn!"
Ushi stared in shock at the massed, heavy figures now rushing up the slope towards him, the battle cry becoming louder by the moment. He knew it, all too well – the Anvil of Heaven had arrived. "No! How could they –" He turned back to his own troops. "In!" he bellowed frantically. "Get into the fortress now! Bar the gate!" The bodies in front of him, blocking his own way into that sanctuary, couldn't move fast enough to suit him. He was all but pushing the last of his men through. Then the archway was overhead, the courtyard opened out around him, the massive wooden gates were closing, and as the first rank of rhinos came in view, Vachir at their head charging toward him with a battle axe in hand and a look of shocked recognition – and fury – on his face, the gates slammed to with a resounding boom and the locking bar shot to. Above, blue-and-gold armored rams fanned out along the parapet, his own men running up the stairs to join them, bows pointed reassuringly outward.
Vachir pulled up short as the gates all but slammed shut in his face. He'd been in too many battles to imagine that the sound of movement on the wall above heralded the arrival of soldiers wanting only a better look at them. "Bowmen on the wall!" he bellowed. "Qorchi, clear them out! Tai Lung, get that gate back open!"
The snow leopard, about to leap, pulled up short, growling in outrage. "What do you think I was – ?!"
"Just go!" the rhino shouted, as Qorchi and his archers let a volley of arrows fly at the rams above. "And mind the arrows!" he grinned.
"Mind the…" Tai Lung muttered, then gathered himself to spring and launched himself at the top of the wall.
"Monkey, Mantis, go with him!" Tigress ordered. "Crane, Viper, get into the central tower, find Master Shifu! Defend the Emperor!" Crane swept upward, Viper wrapped around one leg. A few of the archers turned to fire as they flew past; Crane evaded most of the arrows, while Viper lashed out to deflect a few close shots. Monkey swarmed up the wall, finding purchase on the smallest imperfections of the seemingly smooth surface; Tai Lung's leap had brought him near the top, and he had already clawed his way over the lip of the parapet. Cries of alarm replaced arrow fire in that section.
Po looked from Vachir and the rhinos, so anxious to charge forward that they barely seemed to notice the arrows falling among them, to the new source of disturbance on the wall that marked Monkey's arrival, to Tigress waiting tense as a bowstring beside him. "And what are we -?"
"As soon as that gate opens," she answered, "we go straight in."
"We don't stop until the Emperor is safe and Akshatha and Ushi are defeated."
Monkey's head told him that the figures on the wall above him were the enemy, but part of him still wanted to believe that the rams in the blue and gold armor were what they appeared to be, the emperor's loyal bodyguard, allies against the invaders. The fact that a half dozen arrows were aimed at him when he launched himself over the parapet went a long way toward dispelling that notion. And yet, as his backflip landed him on top of the wall, Mantis still airborne and deflecting the last of the arrows, he still felt that these guys should be on his side. He crouched, came up on one hand, legs sweeping out to catch the nearest blue-clad figure at knee level and knock him from the wall to the courtyard below. With a cry, the ram disappeared, to be replaced just as quickly by one of his fellows. All around him, rams were dropping their bows and drawing swords, and Monkey could see the soldier he'd thrown from the wall racing back up the stairs, followed by a knot of dholes. Okay, he thought, so they're seriously not on our side. He struck out with hands, feet and tail at the soldiers surrounding him, hoping they'd fall back and give him a chance to orient himself on the wall. No such luck; Kuang's men were professionals, pressing in for the attack. Monkey dropped low under a sword stroke from one guard, seized the wrist of another ram, and pulled the soldier off balance into a third. He heard Mantis behind him, and got his bearings.
"This way! I think Tai's on the other side of the gatehouse!"
Monkey grabbed the parapet, swung up into the face of a dhole who had gained the top of the wall, caught him by the ears with his feet, and twisted around, slamming him into a ram. Both went over the side, this time to the ground where the Anvil waited. A deep-voiced shout went up, and the sound of blows from the ground below.
It wasn't that there were too many opponents for him, Monkey thought, it was that there were too many than he could deal with in a limited time. He dodged another sword thrust, catching the ram's arm and swinging to the surprised soldier's shoulder. He took advantage of the momentary confusion as the ram and his compatriots tried to figure out how to hit him without hurting the man he was standing on, and delivered a punch that put a dent in the guard's helmet right between the curling horns. As the ram's eyes rolled back in his head and he began to slump to the ground, Monkey leaped clear, catching the edge of the gatehouse roof and swinging himself upward. A duet of alarmed yells made him glance toward the outer edge of the roof, as two armored forms shot out of the gatehouse and fell toward the waiting rhinos.
Mantis appeared on Monkey's shoulder as a few arrows arced up from below. "Yeah, I think Tai's in the gatehouse!" Monkey said, scrambling toward the courtyard side of the roof. A moment later, the snow leopard clawed his way onto the roof beside them, absently swatted an arrow aside, and turned toward the courtyard below.
"Got a plan for the gate?" Mantis asked.
"Yes," Tai Lung said shortly. The next moment he leaped straight up, almost disappearing against the dark sky, then hurtling down fists-first into the enemies massed in front of the gate. A tremor passed through the tiles beneath Monkey's feet. Bodies flew aside as dust rose from a shallow crater in the courtyard pavement.
Monkey gave his head a quick shake of amused approval. "Works for me!" he said to the insect on his shoulder, as he vaulted off the roof in a somersault that landed him just behind the snow leopard, guarding his back from the few foes who looked brave – or foolish – enough to close with him after his impact. Behind him, he could now hear a heavy, rhythmic pounding on the gate. "They're getting antsy out there!" he called over his shoulder.
A glare and a snarl from Tai Lung dissuaded the few soldiers between him and the gate from further resistance. They scattered, all but one shaking ram who was either holding his ground or too terrified to move. When the snow leopard lunged forward the holdout produced one pitiful, high-pitched bleat, and flung himself to the ground just in time. Monkey let Mantis deal with a trio of hyenas closing in on them, watching as Tai Lung hit the gate. The heavy bar didn't so much break under his blow as a section of it virtually exploded in splinters. A kick sent one half of the beam flying up, out of the sturdy brackets. Then Monkey bounded to one side of the gate, pulling it inward as Tai Lung wrenched the other side open. The quivering ram scrabbled out of the way as the mass of rhinos outside charged in.
"About damn time!" Vachir shouted at Tai Lung as he thundered past, then guffawed at the outraged glare the snow leopard gave him. Chuluun had peeled off to his left as they cleared the gate, Deshiyn to the right, the men fanning out behind the three of them. Po had joined up with Mantis and Monkey, he saw, and Tigress was surging forward beside him. He actually slowed a moment, watching her as she closed with a crocodile and dropped the reptile with a few quick, efficient blows. Hell of a fighter, he thought. She lacked Tai Lung's aggressive brutality, but was no less deadly; a sword compared to a war hammer. Then he had to turn his attention to a bear closing on his left, as well as a handful of hyenas who had singled him out as their target. He let out an annoyed snort. He supposed he'd have to deal with the rank and file before he caught up with Ushi or the tiger. He hefted his axe and lunged forward.
There were a hell of a lot of fighters in the courtyard, Chuluun thought, more than he had expected. Qorchi and his men had dashed up the stairs to the top of the wall, fighting with the rams and dhole archers there, and he had led his men further along the wall's base, in a tactic the Anvil had used numerous times before, flanking the enemy and containing them, driving them inward while more of the rhinos charged up the center, splitting their opponents like a wedge in a log. But the courtyard was packed tight already, and he abruptly found himself and the leading ranks of his men funneled into a side yard, and cut off as a determined contingent of rams, followed by a knot of Akshatha's warriors, split their ranks and pressed into the narrower space behind them. At Chuluun's order his men turned to face them, but he didn't like the area they had been forced into; he didn't have enough room to bring all their force to bear, and feared archers might appear at any moment on the high walls above. Trapped behind several ranks of his own men, he looked around, and found a gate at the back of the passage. At his order Chay and Bintang quickly wrestled the bar from the gate – why was an interior gate barred, he wondered – and he and his rhinos backed through it into a larger courtyard behind, spreading out and putting a row of outbuildings to their back.
They needed the cover, Chuluun thought. The rams were leading a large force of enemy soldiers into the yard, closing quickly with the rhinos. "This could be better," he said over his shoulder to Chay, then, to the rest of his men, "Get ready…" as the ram leading the enemy force gave a similar order.
He was vaguely aware of sounds behind him, a dull pounding and muffled voices, and scraping as Chay and a few others worked at the doors behind them, one rhino finally losing patience and bashing a door with his axe. Chuluun frowned, distracted. What were they doing? They couldn't take refuge in the buildings, they'd be in the same situation as the passage only more so, and that was if they weren't trapped inside and the buildings set alight as the town at the river had been.
Then a huge gorilla suddenly hulked up alongside him, almost gently pushing him out of the way before letting out a terrifying bellow and charging into the ranks ahead of them. The gorilla was followed by a motley collection of pigs, goats and geese in simple, serviceable armor, flowing around the rhinos and toward their enemies with grim determination. As Chuluun and his men joined the attack, he saw a macaque with a patch over one eye loose an arrow that caught the lead ram in the throat, dropping him neatly.
Akshatha staggered briefly as the unexpected tremor shook the courtyard, and turned back toward the gate. He knew his men hadn't set off an explosive – they'd used the few barrels of the stuff Ushi's friends had supposedly bought from a mad peacock nobleman years ago when they'd blown up the dam, for all the good that had done them. Perhaps the powder had spread more widely, because as the dust cleared he saw the gates were open again, and enemy troops were pushing into the courtyard. His own men had turned to confront them, joined by the armored rams Ushi had described as the Emperor's treacherous bodyguard. He spared them a glance as they moved into action; competent and well-disciplined fighters. Too bad he'd have to execute any who survived this night; but if they'd turn once, they couldn't be trusted not to turn again. He'd have to be careful not to turn his back on any of them until the matter was resolved.
As for whoever had followed them here, Ushi would have to deal with them. It would keep the ox occupied, he thought, while he took care of matters in the tower. He strode forward, reaching the few broad steps to the keep's door, and paused for one more glance back. He heard a shouted command in a surprisingly feminine voice. That fool girl they'd captured to the south hadn't made her way all the way up here, had she? He caught a glimpse of orange and black stripes in the press – she had. He shook his head, a little impressed despite himself. She certainly had more determination than brains. But there was no chance she'd make it through the pitched battle in the courtyard, even with the help of the black and white bear beside her. As far as he could see, they didn't even seem to armed. He put her out of his mind and was turning back to the doorway, when movement caught his eye. A large monkey had leapt out of the mass of fighting soldiers, and was scrambling over heads and backs directly toward him. Akshatha turned fully, ready for a fight. Monkeys could be formidable fighters, he knew from past experience. Still, this would only delay him briefly, before he went in search of this Emperor whose throne he would soon possess.
Shifu sped up the stairs to the upper reaches of the stronghold tower. The guards who had disappeared from the entry hall had been waiting at the top of the first flight of stairs, ready to ambush him, and he had spent precious minutes dealing with them when he needed to reach the Emperor. They had been good fighters, hand-picked from the best the army had to offer, and trained intensively for their vital duty. Neither his size nor speed had given him the edge he usually had over opponents, and it had been a hard fight, but at last he had defeated them and rushed on. He could only hope they had not delayed him too long, that there were not too many more between him and his goal.
He heard the sound of the enemy troops entering the fortress, the boom of the gate slamming shut, then felt the shockwave from the impact in the courtyard. He smiled grimly as the sound of fighting rose up the passages to him. If Tai Lung was outside, then he need only worry about what lay ahead of him.
He burst out of the stairway into a corridor. Two rams moved to block him, spears at the ready, but he didn't even slow, striking one in a high leaping kick and catching the other with a series of blows on the way down. He left them in a heap as he raced for the next stair.
There were no guards to be seen in the next cross corridor. Two more levels, and he would have reached the Emperor's quarters.
As he passed a door halfway down the corridor, it was suddenly flung open and a shadowy form lurched into him. Shifu caught himself just in time before his blow fell, and the other fell back with a squawk, wings raised in alarm.
"Master Shifu! What are you doing here? What is going on? There is a great deal of shouting coming from below, this is totally unacceptable, his Imperial Majesty will be wishing to rest –"
Shifu gasped for a moment, trying to catch his breath and mentally switch gears. He managed a quick sketch of a bow, and hoped it was sufficient; he dimly remembered that this courtier was very traditional and stood on ceremony. "Honored Minister," he said, his voice still tense and shaky with the adrenaline of the fight. He rushed on before the owl could begin a lecture. "I'm afraid the enemies we were warned about have broken into the fortress." How he hated trying to think of how to put this diplomatically when he needed to just lay out the facts and get on with his mission! But Oogway had trained him as thoroughly in the ways of protocol and courtesy as in the ways of kung fu, to properly represent the Jade Palace to all he might meet. He had no idea how he'd managed to raise a son who simply growled and hit things, but sometimes he truly wished he could do the same. "Further, the Imperial guardsmen have … been compromised in some manner, and cannot be trusted."
The owl was shaking his head. "No, no, no, that is impossible! The guardsmen have the Emperor's implicit trust, they could not possibly betray his Majesty! Surely there must be some mistake –"
Shifu lost all patience. "They opened the gates for our enemies! And those enemies have been led this far by a former guard captain! So there is no mistake, the Emperor is in grave danger –"
A clatter of hooves on the stairs heralded the arrival of a half dozen more blue-armored rams at the end of the corridor. Without a pause, they charged down the corridor at Shifu and the sputtering scholar. As one swung a wicked looking poleaxe at them, Shifu unceremoniously shoved the owl back into his room. The axe swept over Shifu's head, barely missed the squawking bird as he tripped over his robes, and embedded itself in the door. Shifu grabbed the shaft and yanked, slamming the door and pivoting the ram into one of his fellows and then into the wall. Swinging up onto the still quivering shaft of the weapon, he raced up it and leaped, kicking a ram full in the face while grabbing the curling horn of yet another. He let his momentum swing him around that guard's back, delivering a quick blow to the pressure point at the ram's jaw, then springing clear as that one crumpled to land another kick, inelegantly if effectively, to the fifth guard's "tenders", as Po put it. A sharp blow to the poleaxe shaft as he landed dislodged the weapon, aided by the door suddenly opening, and, with a shocked exclamation from inside, slamming shut again. Shifu twirled the oversized weapon expertly, knocking the sword from the remaining ram's grasp as it swung toward him. Creditably, the soldier leaped over the wooden shaft as it came back around at knee level, and was reaching for the dropped sword when Shifu changed the angle of the weapon once again and cracked the end of the shaft against the ram's helmeted head. The guard dropped into a heap on the floor.
"This is awful!" a muffled voice was screeching from behind the door. "This is treason! Master Shifu, go, please, you must defend the Emperor!"
The hallway was empty of all but the unmoving forms of the guards before Chongde had finished shouting his exhortation and begun piling furniture against the inside of the door.
The recruits had swelled in number from the seven survivors of the river to over a hundred with the newest additions to Deshiyn's half of the Anvil. They had been split into two groups between Deshiyn and Chuluun at their last rest stop, and had peeled off in opposite directions as they entered the courtyard, anxious to get into the battle and prove themselves. But now those who'd gone with Chuluun found themselves cut off from their lieutenant by a wall of blue-armored rams followed by crocodiles and hyenas, pressed into a knot by the fortress wall as Chuluun and the first few ranks disappeared through a gate into another part of the stronghold.
"Looks like we've lost the lieutenant again," Anguo said to Qiru.
"Well, damn," his friend answered. "Guess we'll just have to deal with these guys ourselves."
Anguo looked around at the other young men with him. The five who had come with them from the south looked pretty steady, though one, Yong, seemed a little anxious. He was younger than Anguo, and had only jumped into the river from the bluff when his older brother had. The new guys from Chang'an looked more nervous, but this was their first battle, Anguo thought with a sense of superiority.
"That guy right there," Qiru said, gesturing with his sword at a ram that seemed to be sizing them up with a sneer. "I'm taking him out."
Anguo nodded. "Right behind you."
The ram had noticed their exchange, and sneered even more, as if he thought they were hardly worth his effort. He seemed to be directing the foreign troops to deal with them, probably so he and two other rams beside him could follow their companions through the gate after Chuluun.
With a shout, Qiru charged him. Chuluun had told him that being left-handed gave him an advantage, since most fighters were used to right-handed opponents. But the ram barely seemed concerned, giving Qiru just enough attention to parry the blow and send the rhino's weapon flying from his hand.
Qiru's eyes widened, then narrowed, and with a sudden lunge forward he slammed both fists into the ram's chest. The guardsman flew back into the soldiers behind him, lying on the flagstones limp as they pushed him off and regained their feet.
Anguo stared in surprise. "Where'd you learn that?!"
Qiru grinned back. "Tai Lung!"
"Yeah? Well, watch this!" Anguo evaded the sword thrust of another ram, grabbing the guardsman's arm and pulling him into a series of blows with fists and elbows.
Their attack, and success, had gained them a few moments, but now the third ram was shouting at the soldiers ringing them to attack. At the same moment, one of the new guys behind Anguo, obviously encouraged by their feat, shouted, "Anvil of Heaven!", and the rhinos, as a mass, plowed forward. Anguo and Qiru were propelled headlong into their enemies by the weight from behind, punching, kicking, and, as someone shoved a sword into Qiru's hand, slashing at anything that came near. Even as he swung his own sword, it occurred to Anguo to wonder just why the hell he and Qiru were laughing like idiots.
"There!" Viper flicked the tip of her tail at the wooden shutter covering the tower window as Crane swung around the upper floors of the building. The bird had already seen the weak spot, and arced outward and up, coming back in what almost seemed a collision course with the stone wall. Viper spiraled up to his back, and shot forward over his shoulder, airborne for a moment before threading her lithe body through the hole she'd seen, a broken corner where the shutters met, barely big enough for her. She felt the rough edge scrape lightly along her back, then she was inside, coiling to strike if necessary. Instead, she shot forward and to one side as someone, with a startled yell, slammed a piece of crockery down on the spot where she'd been. Whipping around, she saw that her foe was an elderly and well-dressed porcupine who, having missed her, was retreating hastily back into a group of other elegant creatures. Courtiers, she guessed, staring at her in alarm.
"Wait!" she said quickly, before anyone else tried to defend themselves. "I'm here to help!"
From the knot of aristocrats, a slender form glided forward. The other snake, an older woman with dark brown markings on her tan scales, looked at her closely. "I know you, don't I?" she asked. "Aren't you one of Grandmaster Viper's girls?"
"Yes!" Viper was relieved. She ducked her head in a quick bow. "Lady Nuo, I'm glad to see you. Are you alright?"
Lady Nuo gave her a sardonic smile. "Aside from being trapped in a tower while a battle rages outside… yes, for now we are quite well."
Viper couldn't suppress a small laugh. "Of course, I'm sorry. Let me open the shutters so Master Crane can come in." She lifted the latch, and swung the wooden panel aside. As soon as there was enough space Crane arrowed into the room and landed, looking around quickly. Viper closed the shutters and secured them again.
"I'm Master Viper, and this is Master Crane, of the Jade Palace," she said to the group of aristocrats, who were beginning to relax after their sudden entrance. "The invaders you were warned of are inside the fortress walls, but the Anvil of Heaven has arrived and are battling them." She waited a moment until the courtiers' questions and exclamations, aimed both at her and Crane and at each other, died down. "We need to find Master Shifu and be sure the Emperor is defended from his enemies." That brought on a confused outcry, some claiming the Imperial guardsmen would protect the Emperor, others doubting the guards' reliability.
Lady Nuo's voice rose above the rest. "We have already discussed this!" she said. "We have already decided that the guards' loyalty is questionable." She turned to Viper and Crane. "I do not know where Master Shifu is. I believe he spent most of the day training in the courtyard, and I did not see him at dinner. We were enjoying a bit of music after dining." Viper noticed a binturong in the corner, clutching a lute and staring around nervously, his whiskers quivering. "Then, Captain Kuang appeared and… requested," Lady Nuo stressed the word with a good deal of irony, "that we remain in this room. It has been several hours, and the guards he left at the door will not let us leave."
Viper gave her a tight smile. "They'll let us leave!"
Tigress heard Po's anguished cry, and spared a glance in the direction he was already heading. She could see Monkey slumped by the door into the inner fortress; she could also see two dholes aiming arrows at the panda's back, and a hyena rising up from the shadows beside the short, broad steps to the heavy wooden doors, wielding a spear.
She ducked the mace blow a crocodile aimed at her, caught the reptile's arm, and flung him into the path of the arrows, spun and leaped for the hyena. She knocked the spear aside, and disabled the wielder with a blow and a kick. Then she was on the steps beside Po and Monkey.
"He's inside," Monkey was saying through gritted teeth. "I tried to stop him. Got in a few good ones, but he's fast. You have to go after him, but watch out!" He winced. "I'd go with you, but –"
"You're going nowhere!" Tigress snapped at him, paws pressed to the gash on the langur's arm. Blood still flowed around her fingers. "Where's Mantis? Wasn't he with you?"
"We got separated…"
Po looked around at the fighting in the courtyard. There were rhinos everywhere, among the invading army and the blue-armored rams, but in the moving mob he could see no one he recognized. He heard Vachir's unmistakable voice raised in a shout, but couldn't tell where the sound came from. He spotted Deshiyn - least he thought it was Deshiyn – far to one side, guarding the stairs to the wall from a throng of rams and bears, while the Anvil's archers fired down into the press. He thought a particularly tight knot of fighting, which seemed to be drawing in more and more enemy fighters, was likely where Tai was, but he couldn't see the snow leopard.
Po stood up, looked around once more, then sucked in a deep breath and yelled at the top of his voice. "MANTIS!"
"Po, get down!" Tigress snapped, just as the panda heard an answering shout. Mantis' small form shot straight up from a cluster of dholes who were staggering about almost comically, running into each other and impeding other fighters around them.
"What?" called the insect, then, "WHOA!" as he saw what was happening at the steps. He sprang toward them, bouncing off the heads of the dholes in front of him, stunning them further and sending them reeling in different directions. He disappeared from sight for a moment, as a group of rhinos pushed forward into their enemies, then reappeared with a rhino close behind him.
"What happened?" he demanded, dropping down on Monkey's arm. Tigress moved her hands and blood began to pour from the wound again. The rhino looked around quickly, tore a sleeve away from the downed hyena, and began wrapping it around the wound.
"This is Lanh, one of the medics," Mantis said distractedly, eyes on the injury and the rapidly reddening cloth.
"Have to stitch it," the rhino said. "Got time?"
"If you can cover me, I can do it fast."
The rhino turned to Tigress. "Hold this," he said, indicating the cloth he had unwrapped and had now pressed into the wound. As she applied pressure, he pulled a pouch off his belt and dumped medical supplies on the step.
Po tore his eyes, wide with shock, from his injured friend, and looked back at the courtyard. He still saw no one he knew. He dashed down the steps, and grabbed at a rhino that had just sent a hyena flying with a mace blow. "Hey, we need your help!" The rhino looked around, recognized Po, spotted Lanh, and joined the others on the steps.
"Thought I could stop him," Monkey was saying to Mantis. "If I could get in a good fast blow…"
"Stop who?" Mantis asked, threading a needle almost as long as his foreleg with silk thread.
"Akshatha. He was heading for the door…"
"Are you crazy?!" Mantis stopped just before the first stitch.
"There was no one else! I couldn't see you, and Tai Lung got stuck by the gate as the Anvil came in! I saw Tigress for a moment, but she couldn't hear me!"
"He could have killed you." Tigress stood up, mouth a tight line. There was no time. "Po, we have to go in."
Po looked once more at Monkey, gritting his teeth as Mantis stitched his arm, at the rhino standing guard, grimly slapping his mace into his free hand, and nodded. "Yeah. Let's go get him."
As they moved into the darkness inside the doors, Po heard Monkey once more, "Be careful!"
Shifu landed to the sound of two armored rams tumbling down the stairs behind him, and spun to confront four more gathered outside a door down the hall. They had seen his skirmish with the two at the stairs, or at least been alerted by the sound of armor crashing downwards, and were starting forward. Then the door behind them opened, and a blur of green shot out between the hooves of the soldiers. Viper wrapped herself around one ram, coiling around his chest and arm and directing the mace he held into the guard beside him. She pulled the arm back, nearly succeeding in making the sheep brain himself, but he saw the danger, dropped the weapon, and merely delivered a hard slap across his own muzzle as Crane swept out of the room in a tight arc, wings spreading out to catch the other two guards. Viper's opponent managed to grab her, pulling her from him, but his grip was near her head; the length of her body curled around him to strike between his helmet and armor. She silently thanked Mantis for teaching her where that pressure point was. One of the remaining guards fell as Crane's wing struck him from behind, but the last, sensing the attack, ducked and pivoted away at the last moment. As he straightened, Shifu closed the distance with a leap and dropped him with a series of blows to his side.
As Crane landed next to him and Viper joined them, the red panda caught his breath. "Good, you're here," he said. 'We must get to the Emperor's chambers at once. I only hope we're not already too late!"
Vachir's doubts were gone, dissipated as thoroughly as the river mist. He had been right. They had made it, in time, if not to stop the incursion into the fort – and there had already been traitors inside, hadn't there? – then at least to get the gates open and engage the enemy before they had free run of the place. He wished he could get to the main building, to the Emperor's side, but enemies kept getting in his way. No matter. Po and the Furious Five were all inside the walls, Crane and Viper should be in the upper fortress by now, and Shifu was there already. Annoying little rat, but an incomparable fighter. Monkey and Tai Lung were in the courtyard, somewhere; so was Mantis, he remembered. And Tigress had sounded like she was closer to the doors than he was a moment ago.
He had a moment when no one who needed killing was in reach, and took a deep breath, shaking sweat from his eyes. Where the hells had Tai Lung gotten to? He'd told the cat to stay close. He snorted. As though he had any delusions that idiot would ever listen to him. He just better turn up before the fight was over, was all, if he didn't manage to get himself killed. Then the battle closed in again.
He still had time to wonder, as his body attacked, parried, and evaded blows with a lifetime's training and experience that barely needed his conscious mind, where Akshatha and Ushi were. The tiger was the real problem. He was here, Vachir knew, though he hadn't yet laid eyes on him. Probably first in, and maybe inside the tower already. That was bad. But if Tai Lung was nowhere to be seen, maybe he'd gone after him. The start of a grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. Cat had called the tiger as his target anyway, hadn't he? Should be able to handle him. But Ushi had been right by the gate, looking stupid, when it slammed, and experience told Vachir the ox was still in the press somewhere. The trick was to find him before he got himself killed off by one of the recruits, or one of his own men, before Vachir had a shot at him.
A yak, several hyenas, two crocodiles and a large grey bear later, Vachir frowned as he found himself staring at one of the high outer walls. How had he got himself turned around? Now he was farther from the tower than ever. He'd just have to hack his way back through the press…
A weight like a battering ram slammed into his side, and he staggered several steps, trying to keep his feet and his grip on his weapon. To lose either, he knew, would be his death. He gasped at the air that had been driven from his lungs, and it returned with a blast of pain that made him grit his teeth to keep the groan he couldn't stifle from being a scream. Don't be broken, he thought at his ribs, don't be broken again, just be bruised. He forced himself to duck and reel back a step, reversing his direction, and sure enough, something large and heavy sped by so close to his head and shoulder that he felt the wind it made before it slammed into the ground, spraying stone fragments stinging into his shins. He made himself pivot to face his enemy, bringing the axe up in his right hand, his left arm pressed against his injured side. Gods, it hurt to breathe. He dragged his lips over his clenched teeth in what he hoped was more a smirk than a grimace.
"Still too slow," he grated, "you damn coward."
Ushi's smile was almost feral. "I don't know how you got here so fast," he panted. "I don't know how you even knew where to go. And you know what, Vachir? I don't care." He hefted his war hammer. "Because you and your pack of has-beens and never-will-bes are going down, right here."
He swung at the rhino, a wide stroke that Vachir was still hard pressed to parry one-handed and dodge. He fell back a step, keeping the wall at his back. Where were his men? Engaged with the enemy, he knew, but surely someone was near, could see what was happening. Chuluun he hadn't seen since they came in the gate. Po and Tigress had been heading for the tower doors, they were probably – hopefully – inside by now. Desh was somewhere to his right, but where? He was too close to the wall, he guessed, for the archers to notice his predicament. Off to one side he heard shouts as his men rallied, but he couldn't see who it was, or where they were headed. And he wouldn't give Ushi the satisfaction of calling for help, or even glancing around. He kept his eyes on the ox.
"We've already won, Ushi," he gasped, parrying another blow. This was bad, he knew. He was barely defending himself, and he needed to find some way to go on the offensive. At this rate, the ox could wear him down. "We're here. We're in." Somehow he found a reserve of strength for his arm and his voice, and shoved back against the shaft of the hammer. "We're the Anvil of Heaven! And we… don't… lose!"
Ushi laughed. "You don't lose? You have lost! You're nothing now, nothing but a reputation that was always overblown to begin with! What, you think people actually believed all your tavern talk, when you came back from some glorious battle?" The last words will filled with contempt. He swung the hammer down at Vachir's left shoulder. The rhino sidestepped, then, unwisely, grabbed at the shaft with his left hand. Ushi wrenched it free, drawing a grunt of pain as Vachir's injured side was wrenched.
Vachir managed to take advantage of the ox's backstep and slash at his chest, but he was slow and off balance, and Ushi brought up the shaft of the hammer and shoved him back. Vachir glared at him. "You don't deserve that weapon, Ushi," he snarled. "You don't deserve to touch it!"
The ox laughed again, feinted with the shaft toward the rhino's knees, then, as Vachir took another swing with the axe, reversed the weapon and struck at the rhino's right shoulder. This time he connected. Although Vachir evaded enough to make it a glancing blow, it spun him around, pain lancing down his arm in a shock that nearly took the axe from his grip. "That's the problem with you, Vachir," the ox jeered. "That's always been the problem with you. You truly believe your own hype, don't you?" The end of the hammer's shaft connected with his jaw. "I don't deserve a weapon because some great master held it, is that it?" The axe was almost jerked from the rhino's hand as it knocked back yet another blow. "Golden Rhino is dead, Vachir! And so are his son, and his grandson." Ushi pulled back his weapon, the bit of the axe hooked over it nearly yanking the rhino off his feet. He stumbled forward. Ushi freed the weapon and shoved Vachir back toward the wall. "All their reputation, and their training, and their honor, don't matter a damn now, do they?" He thrust the weapon forward, slamming the head into Vachir's stomach, nearly doubling him over. "And you," he sneered, "would memorialize them by putting their weapons on display in some dusty hall." He cracked the shaft against the rhino's head once more. "A shrine to failure. Just as you have failed!"
Breathing hard, Vachir brought up his axe once more. The words and hammer blows were hitting with almost equal force, he felt, and the thought skittered across his mind that he absolutely understood why Tai Lung would want to kill him. "Ushi," he growled, his voice shaking, "you talk too damn much!"
The ox raised the hammer. "I'm done talking. Goodbye, Vachir!"
Vachir eyes were fixed on his enemy's, staring pure fury into them, but he slowly let a smile widen across his bruised face. "Goodbye, Ushi." And he finally let his gaze drift away, to focus on something past the ox's shoulder. "Before you go… you remember Tai Lung, don't you?"
Poised to strike the final blow, Ushi was pulled up short by the question. He blinked, almost replied, then realized. For one last second he hesitated, suspecting a ruse, then quickly spun around.
With a snarl, Tai Lung's fist caught Ushi in the head at the same moment his kick connected with the ox's hip. Stunned, Ushi dropped to his knees, the hammer falling out of his slack hands. With all the strength he could muster, Vachir stepped forward and brought his axe down in a blow that embedded the weapon in the ox's skull. With one last gasp Ushi collapsed, dead before he hit the paving stones.
Vachir breathed heavily, his side hurting unbelievably. He closed his eyes a moment, wiped away the sweat running down his face, and looked up at Tai Lung. The snow leopard was shaking and flexing his paw.
"Ox had a hard head," he said.
"Always did, cat," Vachir gasped. "He always did." He began to reach down for the hammer, then grimaced and straightened up, leaning back on the wall.
Tai Lung left off rubbing his knuckles and cocked his head. "You alright?"
"Not that it's any of your damn business," Vachir grumbled, "But no, I'm not."
A truly evil grin spread over the snow leopard's face. Vachir instantly became alert. What the hell…? His weakness, his sudden understanding of Tai Lung's side of his abuse, sent a chill through him. He managed a strangled sound as the snow leopard abruptly lunged toward him, and he fought to raise an arm – gods, he didn't even have a weapon anymore – in a last hopeless defense…
Tai Lung's foot slapped down on the rhino's head as he launched himself at the top of the wall, his laugh turning Vachir's instant of terror to immediate anger as he realized what the snow leopard had done. "Tai Lung, you complete bastard!" he shouted up at the cat.
The snow leopard's smirking face appeared over the wall. "What can I say, Vachir, you bring out the best in me!" he called down. He disappeared again, but a moment later he was back, his expression one of astonishment. "Vachir! Reinforcements! Coming across the valley!"
Vachir's brow knotted in apprehension. "Theirs or ours?" he yelled back.
Vachir felt a new strength well up in him. He pushed himself off the wall. "Secure the gates," he said, almost to himself, then managed to get enough of a breath, despite the pain, to bellow. "Anvil! Reinforcements coming in! Secure the gates!"
Almost immediately, several dozen of his men, most looking younger than he could ever remember being, were forcing their way toward the still open gates, taking up position in the archway. Two he recognized as Chuluun's recruits, looking a little beat up and bloody but still eager, broke off and rushed to him.
"Commander!" the kid was obviously worried. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," he managed. "I'm fine. Cracked a rib, maybe. Find me a medic, will you?" Regretfully, he had to admit he was out of the fight, at least for the time being. What the hell, he'd done for Ushi, and from what he could see it looked like they were winning.
On the wall, Tai Lung took a last look at the troops on the far side of the valley. Not in any hurry, were they, he thought, rolling his eyes, but then had to admit that it was a fair distance and not everyone was as fast as he was, He turned back to the courtyard. To his right, Deshiyn was rallying his men and advancing into the courtyard. Qorchi and his archers had command of the walls, though most seemed to have run short of arrows and were guarding the stairs with hand weapons. A cluster of enemy fighters, mostly the traitorous ram bodyguards, were being pushed out of a side courtyard by someone he couldn't see, though he thought he heard the distinctive yell of a gorilla. He scanned the entire courtyard again, frowning. No sign of the Furious Five, and no sign of Akshatha, either, so his next move was the tower. He had to catch up to them before that fight started… and then his gaze fell on the small group by the tower door.
He launched himself from the wall, landing halfway across the huge courtyard and running full out. He pulled to a stop beside Monkey, registering the ugly gash Mantis was stitching up.
"Akshatha?" he demanded, asking as much about the source of the wound as the tiger's whereabouts.
"In there," Monkey replied, wincing. He didn't look good, Tai Lung thought. There was too much blood on the steps. He glanced at Mantis, who spared him a quick look and went back to his work. Bad, then, but not fatal. He relaxed a bit. Then Monkey went on. "Tigress and Po went after him."
Tai Lung felt his heart go still for a moment, then start up with a sickening thud. The tiger, the enemy that even he had to admit he feared, was in there. With the Emperor. And his father. And Po.
So this was it, he thought. Without another word, he stepped through the tower doors.
Author's Note: "Hit them hard! Tiānshàng de zhēn!" I checked two translation programs, and the translation for "Anvil of Heaven" was what you see above. As for the first part, I looked up Chinese battle cries. That is the first part of a battle cry recorded on a statue of Ming dynasty general Yuan Chonghuan. The rest was... rather obscene. While I can see the Anvil using the whole thing, I'll leave it as it is, so I don't have to bump up the rating on this fic!