Despite the sun shining bright overhead, the ominous feel in the air could not be contained by any calming techniques that Oogway could think of.
On a day like this, he would have considered meditating beneath the Sacred Peach Tree near the Jade Palace, but he would find no such peace on this afternoon. The sky was painted a pleasant viridian tone, with not a single cloud in the sky to provide an augury of malignant weather. On either sides of the dirt path that the two figure trudged upon was an endless forest of verdant bamboo that seemed to soak in the rays of the ardent sun. It was a truly beautiful day, Oogway thought, but every rose is covered in thorns.
"Master Oogway," the young red panda said beside him. "Why are we going so far away from the Jade Palace?"
The young red panda- Shifu- had been under the tutelage of Grandmaster Oogway for only two years, but he already showed the signs of being a great Kung Fu Master. He learned some advanced techniques so quickly that he shocked even the old tortoise. But all that seemingly natural talent would do him no good now. What they were travelling to fight was perhaps even beyond Oogways capabilities of Kung Fu. He had insisted that Shifu stayed behind at the Palace, but of course the hotheaded youth didn't listen to him. As soon as the Grandmaster had left the palace, Shifu had followed him until Oogway had caught in the act. Unfortunately, they had been too far to turn back then, so he had no choice but to let his student come with him.
The old tortoise had hoped to spare Shifu of what they might find at the end of their journey. Yesterday, he received a grim message from the Guardians of the Urn, thirteen of the greatest Kung Fu masters ever to have lived. Oogway had trained most of them, but their talent had needed little encouragement to blossom. He had honestly expected that nothing would be able to get past them and their advanced techniques. As it turned out, he was wrong.
"There has been a situation at the Taiyang village," Oogway told him, hoping that Shifu would understand what a grave mistake he had made in coming with him. "The thirteen Kung Fu Masters who were guarding a powerful artifact requested that I make haste and travel to assist them. They said that there was a foe besieging them whose skills may outclass their own."
"Are you talking about the Guardians of the Urn? The greatest Kung Fu masters who were chosen to guard a magical jar that contained the dead souls of a madman's army?" Shifu inquired, looking up at his master.
Oogway sighed. Of course the red panda would have caught on to what he was talking about. Mentioning the number thirteen was all the youth needed to make a deduction. "Yes," Oogway said, knowing that Shifu would be able to interpret the cryptic messages that he often hid within his ramblings. There was no point being so enigmatic around this student; he was far too intelligent to be confused by such responses.
"But if they're so powerful, why did they ask for help? Surely they would be strong enough to deal with whatever threat comes their way."
"I know. Even an army couldn't get past them and their skills. That is why I ordered you to stay behind; whatever beleaguers them is surely more dangerous than anything you have faced before."
"I don't know what 'beleaguers' means," the young red panda admitted. "but why didn't you tell us the truth then? I would have listened to you and stayed behind if you hadn't been so mysterious."
They were nearing Taiyang village; Oogway could see the familiar dragon-embossed gate that guarded the entrance. It showed him the memories of the past, him wishing his thirteen best students luck in their endeavour. They had all been so young, confident that they could take whatever might try to break the seal of the tomb and steal the urn. He had also been quite confident in their abilities as well; and now here he was, gazing at the two mutilated corpses hanging from the archway like paper lanterns.
They hadn't been either of the thirteen Oogway had trained; he couldn't help but feel guilty when he breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like they were an ox and a rhino, their skin marred by horrific canyons and craters. Their stomachs had been torn open, intestines hanging out of the gaping black cavern and nailed to the sides of the gate in a spiderweb-like fashion. The elegant golden leaf that the twin dragons on the doors were forged of were stained in blood and other less pleasant bodily fluids. The once sweet-smelling air was now filled with the stench of death. At the sight of this, both master and student froze.
Oogway felt a great dread form in the pit of his belly, something he had never felt. He had felt fear before, when he was a child, but now every instinct in his body screamed at him to get the hell out of there. "What..." Shifu choked out "What?" He could tell that the child was struggling to not vomit at the sight of this atrocity. He was impressed at the child's inner strength; as he examined the corpse, he couldn't help but note- he swallowed the bile that almost rose up his throat- that the bodies looked as though someone had eaten part of them before stringing them up.
"We must go in," Oogway told Shifu. "You must be prepared for whatever horror awaits us within. I imagine that whatever did this is still here." His young student nodded rapidly, clearly afraid that if he responded in words, he would throw up. "Are you alright?" he added, but he realized what a stupid question it was to ask. If anyone was alright after seeing something like this, something was broken inside of him. It didn't take a genius to guess that it was only going to be worse inside the village.
Oogway slammed the ground with his staff, the shockwave causing the fleshy intestines to tear and the corpses to fall to the ground. "We have no time to give them a proper burial now," he said to the young red panda. "We must answer the Guardian's plea. We will lay them to rest afterwards." He stepped over the corpses, slightly pushing open the defiled gate and looking through the tiny crack. Though there was little he could see through the limited viewpoint, the stench was magnified a thousandfold. He was right; it was definitely worse inside the village. Steeling himself, he pushed open the gate.
Blood everywhere. It was unlike anything the Grandmaster had ever seen in all his years. Everyone in the village had been slaughtered, their corpses carelessly thrown into piles in the middle of the cobblestone street. Whoever did this hadn't just killed them; they had taken the time to personally mutilate every single body before or after death into an unrecognizable state. His vast wisdom almost failed him for an instant; his knees shook but he steadied them, refusing to show weakness in front of Shifu. The dread he felt was gradually replaced by a fury that did not befit one of his stature. These people were innocents; they had no combat training, no reason to have been massacred in such a terrible way.
"Master Oogway, I think-" Shifu started, coming up behind his mentor, before stopping suddenly, catching sight of the horror that lay beyond the elegant gateway. Oogway didn't want Shifu to come because he thought he would be in danger, but now he wished that he could have spared him this image that would surely haunt him for the rest of his life, as it surely would him. There were some retching sounds behind him as the child's strong stomach gave out and he vomited. He could hardly blame him. No child should ever have to bear witness to this.
Oogway broke into a run, knowing that this was probably the worst thing he could do, but he was terrified for the well-being of his former students. The wounds on the bodies didn't look like they were made by many different people with different weapons, they looked as though it had been committed by only one, with no weapon that he had ever seen before. He had to carefully manoeuvre around the mounds of corpses, but there was nothing he could do to avoid stepping in the blood and leaving footprints. Shifu tried to keep up with him, but he couldn't stop looking around at all of the corpses with a look of horror on his face,so he lagged behind a few paces.
The entrance to the temple where the urn was kept was at the end of the street, the lion-dog statues that stood sentinel on either side of the door splattered in blood. They had been constructed to act as guardians for the artifact that lay within, but they evidently hadn't served their purpose that well. The gates were thrown wide open, and as Oogway and Shifu looked through, his breath caught in his throat at what lay within.
All of his former students had been killed, in even more gruesome ways than the rest of his village. However, Oogway couldn't see how disfigured they were, because they had been arranged in a mound, and there was a tall, dark figure sitting on top of them like some kind of macabre throne.
He was hideous; similar to a mountain goat, but he looked far too tall and emaciated to be one. He had no cheeks or lips, so his rotting teeth were bared for the world to see. Two decrepit, curved horns jutted out the top of his forehead, in a very different way than a mountain goats should be. His fur was gray and strawlike, almost like a corpse's, and he wore heavy black robes that obfuscated his entire body save his head. He was skeletal thin; even his garb couldn't disguise that, but despite this he sat up straight, proud, on his throne of Oogway's slaughtered students.
"Why hello there," The monster's eyes widened and so did his cadaveric smile. One of his eyes bulged out alarmingly far, and then the black body of a segmented worm came out from beneath the eyelid, groping around blindly before disappearing back into his skull. He carried on like he didn't even notice it. "I knew you would come. The worms knew; they see, you understand. The worms told me you were coming." His voice was raspy and sounded full of phlegm. It reminded Oogway, for some reason, of a coffin filled with worms. The madness in his eyes could have turned a cutthroat's blood to ice.
"You monster," Oogway said, the burning fury in his heart mixing with cold fear. "Why would you do such a thing to these people?"
"They refused to return my army to me," The monster growled gutturally, "so I drowned them in a bloody deluge."
"Who are you?" Oogway tried to not allow a quaver to creep into his voice, but he was uncertain if he succeeded or not. The mere presence of this creature was terrifying, like being a mouse trapped with a dragon.
"Oh, I've been called so many different things over the centuries, one can hardly be expected to remember them all. Most people call me 'Ahhh! A monster!' And run away screaming." He chuckled darkly to himself.
"Your name!" Oogway roared, his patience gained through decades of conditioning falling away. He knew he shouldn't be acting like this in front of his student, but thirteen of the greatest masters in China shouldn't have been killed by this one... thing. "What is your name!?"
"Ah, yes, my name," he said. "You may call me Xiedu Dehua, god of the worms that feast on the dead. It is a pleasure to meet you, Grandmaster Oogway. Although I wasn't expecting you to have such an outburst when you came to visit. The worms told me your patience was so great that you could watch mountains grow and streams be formed.
"This urn," Xiedu Dehua raised it high in the air, interrupting Oogway as soon as he opened his mouth to speak again "contains the dead souls of my army, or rather, the army that this fragile body led when I was mortal. I will need them in the future."
Oogway felt a chill run down his spine. For the first time in his life, he was truly afraid. General Xiedu Dehua had died almost five hundred years ago, executed by the emperor at the time for the atrocities he committed in war. His strategic brilliance had made him one of the most feared generals in all of China. The men he ruled were notorious for being almost as cruel and sadistic as he. It was because of this they were mired in the urn, bound by seals similar to the ones he had built to contain the demons of the underworld. Nothing less was powerful enough to contain them.
"That urn was locked away in this temple for a reason," Oogway said. "You will doom this world if you smash it."
"Oh, will I?" A worm crept out from Xiedu Dehua's mouth and ran its length over his decaying teeth. Oogway realized that it served as a gruesome substitute for a tongue. "These men, when they lived, were my soldiers, loyal and steadfast. They will listen to me." He tossed the urn to Oogway, who desperately caught it before it could hit the ground and shatter. Suspecting a trap, he raised his staff threateningly and pointed it at Xiedu Dehua's heart.
"But I have no need of them now. I have waited five centuries to get them back, what's another century of plotting and scheming?" He stood up and shambled down to the ground, seemingly unsteady on his hooves. "Take good care of it for me, would you? If it breaks, the spirits within will rage across the world, destroying all life in their path. It will be troublesome for me to round them all up again," he said as he walked past Oogway and Shifu, who seemed paralysed. At the entrance to the temple, he turned around and met the old Grandmaster's eyes.
"Keep it safe and sound like good little slaves, until I come to collect what is mine."