Chapter VI

Are You With Me?

Shen drummed his fingers, or what passed for them, on the armrest of his throne, glaring at the goat courier who had decided he had the testicular fortitude to barge into the palace early in the morning, claiming to have important news, and wake his emperor.

"I should hope this is truly important," Shen said testily. "And not just an excuse to bask in my glory."

"Sir," the goat began, taking careful note of how close Shen's royal guards were. "Your lieutenants in the southern and eastern quarters are dead."

Shen shrugged. "And? They're easily replaced."

"The factory in the eastern quarter," the courier said, nervously eyeing the floor, knowing what Shen's reaction would be. "was destroyed."

"What?" Shen roared, launching himself from his seat. "Destroyed? How?"

"N-no one knows, sir," the goat responed, taking a step back from the seething peacock. "There was only a single witness, and he didn't see anyone in the vicinity."

"Bring him before me," Shen demanded. "I'll question him myself."

"Y-yes, milord," the goat stuttered, turning and running from the throne room, with Shen's blood red eyes watching him all the while.

Tigress sat silently in her cell, her home, waiting for the sun to drop behind the horizon. The crow had perched itself on the dessicated bedmat, and now pecked restlessly at the worn bamboo fibers. She understood how the creature felt. She longed to be on the move, but she longed to rest as well.

And, soon, she would have that, she thought. Soon.

She sighed, and leaned her head against the dank wall of what had come to be her home, and thought of what would soon be her home. She thought of the warmth, like that of a summer sun, and gentle, whispering breeze. She thought of the peach tree.

The crow cawed obnoxiously, drawing her out of her reverie. She looked at her surroundings bitterly. She hated them. She hated the cold, damp stone of the prison. She hated the rotting, moldy smell that permeated it. And was so familiar, despite the fact she had been there a grand total of once. It was the last place she had seen and spoken to Po. The last time she had seen the person who had become one of her greatest friends and confidants alive.

"It's just not right," she whispered, staring off into the gloom.

Down the corridor, something rattled, and there was a sound akin to that of someone stepping on a squeaky, loose floorboard.

Tigress tensed, watching her surroundings, almost expecting Shinu to fade into view.

The sound echoed through the dark halls of the derelict prison again, and Tigress cautiously stepped out into the hall, warily watching the other cells that could be hiding the intruder from her sight. She hesitantly made her way past each of the cells, glancing in each of them to determine that they were truly empty. The sound of something brushing against a chain echoed from the final cell on her right.

Tigress rounded the corner and entered the cell, intent on apprehending the interloper. Instead, she found an empty room, save for a single manacle dangling from a chain, which quaked as if recently disturbed.

Cautiously moving into the heart of the cell, Tigress glanced around, scanning the entirety of the cell. Thrice she thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye, only to whirl about and find nothing there.

Frustrated by what appeared to be naught but her imagination, Tigress went to leave the darkening cell. Then, as she neared the threshold, she took pause. The air around her warmed took on a shimmering countenance, and it weighed on her like lead weights. Like...

"...Po?" she wondered aloud, as the strange, albeit familiar presence gathered around her. "Is that you?"

Then, almost as immediately as it had come, the presence retreated. Tigress lashed out wildly, trying to grasp the intangible entity, to keep it close.

"Po? No, don't go! I'm sorry! It was my fault! I shouldn't have left you there! Please, don't leave me here!" she cried out, dropping to her knees as the presence withdrew entirely, leaving her alone in the cold and the dark.

Dismayed, frightened, and confused, Tigress stumbled to her feet, and ran from the cell, and the prison, and into the darkening streets of Gongmen City, running both blind, and with singular purpose. Perhaps there was no difference.

The crow, an passive observer as always, took flight, with a mission of it's own.

Mei Ling stood on her balcony, watching the sun go down in the west, contemplating the events of that night. The tigress had told her to look for her sign, but what was that sign?

Suddenly, there was a raucous caw behind her.

Whirling, Mei Ling saw the crow. It fluttered it's wings, and watched her expectantly for a moment, before nosediving off the balcony, and into the street below. Mei Ling watched as it perched above a lantern. Waiting.

Racing in from the balcony, she knelt down in front of Xuě lì. "Xuě, Mama has to go out for a little while. She has to go see a friend."

Xuě lì looked at her mistrustfully. "Is this friend like Lu?"

Mei ling shook her head. "No, nothing like Lu. She's a very different kind of friend."

Xuě lì looked at her, and a flicker of recognition raced through her eyes. "The lady who came here looking for Lu?"

Mei Ling looked at her almost surprised. Had she encountered this strange woman? When? "Yes, that lady. I have to go see her. I'll be back soon, okay?"

"Okay, Mama," Xuě lì said, leaning over to wrap her little arms around Mei Ling's neck. "You go do what you have to do. Come back safe."

Mei Ling froze. It had been so long since she had hugged her daughter, it was almost a foreign notion. Almost hesitantly, she wrapped her arms around the girl. "I will."

With that, Mei Ling untangled herself from her daughter's arms and raced out the door, and into the streets. She caught sight of the bird, which took flight. Looking up, she gave chase.

Zhenli sat outside of a noodle show watching with a vaguely amused expression as Huangyan used his chopsticks to doodle faces in his noodle. "Didn't your mother teach you not to play with your food?"

"I paid for 'em," Huangyan protested, smiling. "I'll do what I damn well like with 'em."

Zhenli shook his head, and looked out across the street, to spot a leopardess racing down the sidewalk, looking upwards. Following her eyes, he caught sight of the crow.

"That's the bird," Zhenli said, watching it go.

Huangyan paused in the middle of making his caricature of Shen. "The what?"

"Come on!" Zhenli said, grabbing him by the forearm, dragging him from his seat, and down the street. "If we hurry we can follow them!"

"But my noodles!"

"Forget the noodles! You weren't eating them anyway!"

Author's Note: And here it is! After months of being burned out, and unemotional, I AM BACK!

For the record, I was using Huangyan as a bit of a mouth piece there. I've always been of the firm belief that if I pay for something, I'm gonna have some fun with it. I'll do a friggin' ventriloquist act with my Sonic cheeseburger. I'll hold a conversation with it, darn you. Just because I'm playing with it doesn't mean I won't eat it.

While I'm here, I might as well answer some viewer mail. So let's start with that big important question from an anonymous reviewer (I love you guys):

Is this an update in October story or is it dead?

No on both accounts. I simply got burned out, and had to take a hiatus. I hate that word by the way. Hiatus. Sounds like a medical condition.

Well, that's all I've really got to say. So, I'll let you get to reviewing. Or doing whatever it is you do at the end of a new chapter. I don't know, smoke a cigarette?

Insanely Yours,