Heavenly Light Ch. 2 – The Relentless One

Mulan used the tip of her spear to brush aside a branch. Around her, a forest of dead trees rose from the tussocky earth. A miasmatic fog issued from the hundreds of holes that dotted the ground at odd intervals. Ancient burial markers rose from the ravaged ground like broken teeth and she could not help but recall another burial ground, in another land, where she had been forced to fight the wrathful dead at the behest of a mad witch.

Try as she might, she could not recall all of the circumstances of that encounter. Guan Yu had been there, she was certain, though he himself recalled no such adventure. And there had been someone else – another goddess, from another pantheon. Someone she’d thought of as a friend. But that was all. It was as if it had happened to a different Hua Mulan.

She pushed the thought aside and deftly avoided a fallen tree. All in all, it was an unpleasant sort of place – even for a god.

“It stinks,” Sun Wukong muttered, from the branches above her head. The Monkey King had taken to the trees in an attempt to scout ahead, but the fog made it difficult, even for him. Not that he seemed likely to admit it.

“It is the smell of ancient death,” Zhong Kui said, loudly. His words echoed through the stillness. Mulan frowned and turned to the Demon Queller. He followed in their wake, his demon bag in one hand and his great brush-tipped staff in the other.

“I thought the plan was to approach silently,” she admonished, softly. Zhong Kui frowned and gestured to the Monkey King.

“He talked first.”

“I muttered,” Sun Wukong said as he leapt to another branch. “You bellowed.”

“That’s still talking,” Zhong Kui growled, glaring up at the Monkey King. He shook his head and looked at Mulan. “Besides, I doubt it matters. The dead already know we’re here. Can’t you hear them whispering?”

Mulan paused. She could, in fact. Like all gods, she could hear the voices of the living and the dead with equal ease. But the dead rarely spoke. Here, their voices were raised in an incessant murmuration. So many, in fact, that she could not clearly make out what they were saying. It was a name, she thought. But no name she recognized – or wished to recognize. Something told her it was a name not meant for the ears of the living, mortal and immortal alike. She looked at Zhong Kui and he nodded brusquely.

“They speak the name of the first to be buried here, far below the mournful earth. They say it not in prayer, but in warning. So that all may know the danger which sleeps here.” He gave his bag a shake. “Something more dangerous than any demon I have ever stuffed in my bag.”

“Sounds like my kind of guy – or girl,” Sun Wukong said, as he dropped to the ground ahead of them. He tapped his broad shoulder with his cudgel, his gaze fixed on the landscape ahead. “Trees thin out up ahead. More of this stinking fog, though. I can barely make out the trail our quarry has so thoughtfully left us.” He looked back at them. “They were in a hurry, whoever they are. They smashed through the trees and anything else that got in front of them.”

Mulan gestured with her spear. “That only makes it easier to follow them, whoever they are. The question is, what do they hope to find in such a place as this?”

Zhong Kui strode past her. “I thought I had made that clear. They seek the one buried here. The great demon whom the Jade Emperor cast down so many centuries ago. It has remained bound in this place through every turn of the wheel – but now, someone seeks to awaken it. To release it from its bindings so that it might make war on its old foe once more. Or so the King of Hell fears.”

“Hard to imagine him scared of anything,” Sun Wukong said.

Zhong Kui shook his head and stepped over a fallen tree. “This demon is beyond any you or I have ever fought. It was strong enough to humble the Heavenly Court, and to cast the world in shadow. Freeing it would upset the very order of the world. The sun would dwindle to an ember, and the land would burn.”

“Then we must prevent that from happening,” Mulan said, as she followed the Demon Queller. “And the more quickly we do so, the better.”

They continued in silence, pressing on through the fog. The trees gave way to mounds of mossy soil and broken stones – the remnants of an ancient crater, she realized. She knew something of that long ago battle; how the Jade Emperor had cast down his foe from a mountaintop. Apparently, the demon had landed here, and been buried where it had fallen. The stories claimed that the creature had nearly destroyed the world in its madness. Even the gods had been unable to defeat it. She could not imagine who would be foolish enough – or mad enough – to attempt to release such a thing back into the world.

The Jade Emperor had his share of enemies, of course. There were those who bristled beneath any authority, however lenient. Could one of them be behind this? But to what end? The Jade Emperor had already defeated the demon once. Surely, he could do so again.

Her ruminations were interrupted by the faint sound of metal on stone. She paused, and Sun Wukong glanced at her. “You hear that? I think we found him, whoever he is.” He whirled his cudgel in excitement and bounded away in the direction of the sound before she could stop him. There was nothing for it but to follow him.

“Impetuous fool,” Zhong Kui growled as they raced after their companion.

“Impulsiveness can be useful on occasion – especially if the foe isn’t expecting it,” Mulan said. Sun Wukong was a powerful warrior, and there were few creatures that could give him a fight worth the name. Even those that could soon found themselves surprised by his ferocity. She hefted her spear and leapt over a broken boulder, only to slide to a stop as the clangour of weapons echoed suddenly out of the fog.

The mist thinned and Mulan saw Sun Wukong leap towards the heavily muscled, but curiously proportioned, shape of their quarry. The being had no difficulty blocking Sun Wukong’s blow and responding in kind with the great, single-bladed axe they carried. Sun Wukong was forced to leap backwards to avoid a blow that would have split him in two if it had connected.

Mulan moved to aid the Monkey King, thrusting her spear towards their foe. A massive hand, the color of jade, clamped down on the haft of the weapon, halting her thrust at the last possible moment. Mulan stared up at the helmeted head of her opponent, and saw that there was no face within. Instead, a monstrous countenance was spread across the warrior’s wide torso. A fanged maw split in a grin. “Excellent. He has sent his lackeys to do battle with me at last. For a moment, I feared he would be too cowardly to do even that.”

“Xing Tian,” Mulan said, in equal parts wonder and horror. She had never met the headless warrior herself, but she had heard plenty of tales of his relentless refusal to surrender to either death or the authority of the Heavenly Court.

“Yes,” he rumbled. “That is my name. And who are you, girl?”

“The one who will defeat you, oh Relentless One!” Mulan said. She released her hold on her spear, catching Xing Tian by surprise. A moment later, she’d drawn her sword and leapt for him. He caught her blow on the edge of his axe and flung her back.

“The one who will defeat you, oh Relentless One!” Mulan said. She released her hold on her spear, catching Xing Tian by surprise. A moment later, she’d drawn her sword and leapt for him. He caught her blow on the edge of his axe and flung her back.

She landed in a crouch, shoulder aching. Xing Tian was strong; stronger, perhaps, than any god she’d ever faced. “Very good, child,” the headless warrior growled approvingly. “You have spirit. Perhaps you might provide some challenge after all.” He paused, the eyes on his chest narrowing. “Still, I pity you who must fight even when you cannot win.”

“Save your pity for someone else, belly-face,” Sun Wukong shouted. His cudgel slammed down, splitting the earth at Xing Tian’s feet. Stinking fog spurted up as the two fiercely traded blows, cudgel against axe.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Mulan said, as Zhong Kui joined her. “Xing Tian is behind this? The ghosts, the demons? Why?”

“We will question him afterwards,” the Demon Queller said as he advanced towards the fray. “For now, we must subdue him!”

But before he could make good on his statement, Xing Tian’s face twisted up and an earth-shaking roar burst from his stomach-mouth. Both Sun Wukong and Zhong Kui were bowled over by the force of it, and the two gods were sent flying like leaves caught in a wind. Mulan held her ground, but only just. As the echo of his cry faded, she squared off with their opponent. Xing Tian studied her.

“I am surprised he did not come himself. I was assured that he would.”

“Who are you talking about?” Mulan asked. “What are you doing here? Why are you trying to free the thing that is buried in this forsaken place?” She shook her head. “In all the stories I have heard of you, you are spoken of as a warrior of courage and honor.”

“It is my honor that compels me to do this thing,” Xing Tian growled. He swiped the air with his axe and indicated a nearby hole. Mist billowed slowly from its depths, and she could see the crooked ghosts of the hungry dead crouched watchfully about its circumference. “It is for my honor that I have come to this sad place and hacked through these stinking stones. And yet I still do not have what I was promised. Still, he hides from me.”


“Who do you think, child? He who calls himself emperor. He is no more fit to occupy the throne than the one before him. Only my lord was worthy.” Xing Tian gestured to the heavens. “I waged war in his name. I still do. I always will, until I achieve victory.”

“Your lord is dead,” Zhong Kui growled as he rose awkwardly to his feet. “Your war was lost long ago. There is no honor in this, headless one.” He reached down and helped Sun Wukong up. “What you hope to do here will destroy the world.”

“Or save it,” Xing Tian said.

“Enough talk,” Sun Wukong said, as he lunged towards Xing Tian once more. Axe and cudgel came together with a thunderous crash. Zhong Kui raced to join the Monkey King, while Mulan moved between the combatants and the hole. If Xing Tian got past her companions, it would be up to her to stop him.

The earth trembled beneath her feet, and the ghosts began to wail in what she suspected was equal parts fear and anticipation. More of the foul mist geysered from the ruptured ground, as if some immense, unseen form were shifting restlessly beneath the earth. She ducked aside as Sun Wukong hurtled past her. He slammed into the rocks, scattering ghosts, and tumbled into a groaning heap. A moment later, the Demon Queller was flung into the dust at her feet, insensate.

“Children and fools,” Xing Tian panted, his torso-face twisted into an expression of what she could only call resignation. “Where is he? Why does he refuse to face me?”

Mulan paused. Something in his voice caught her attention – not anger, but frustration. “You – you truly thought he would be here, didn’t you?” she asked, keeping her sword low. “That’s why you’re doing this. You don’t actually want to free this evil. If you did, you would have done so already. You are trying to draw out the Jade Emperor…”

Xing Tian laughed hoarsely. “Yes. I was told this place had special meaning for him. That he would not risk the demon being freed. That he would have no choice but to intervene.” He pointed his axe at her. “Instead, he sent you.” The great shoulders shrugged, and there was a hint of what might have been sadness in his voice. “Then, perhaps it was foolish of me to expect him to show such courage…”

“Courage does not have a single face, relentless one,” a calm, gentle voice interjected. “I’d hoped that you might have learned that, in all these sad years of strife.”

Xing Tian turned with a low snarl of triumph. “There you are. Yu Huang.”

Yu Huang, the Jade Emperor, spread his hands. “Here I am.” He had not come alone. Several other gods stood to either side of him – Hou Yi, with an arrow nocked and ready to loose; Erlang Shen, the Illustrious Sage, with his hound crouched at his feet, awaiting his command; the winged, youthful form of Jing Wei; and Guan Yu, the Saint of War himself and her mentor in the ways of godhood.

Jing Wei darted forward, wings thrumming. “Xing Tian, for the love you bore my father, I ask that you set your axe aside. Do not do this thing – please!”

Xing Tian hesitated. “It is in your father’s name that I do this. For his memory – the memory of a true emperor, one worthy of a warrior’s loyalty.” He turned so that his torso faced the Jade Emperor, leaving no doubt in Mulan’s mind who those words were intended for. He levelled his axe at the assembled gods. “The throne of heaven demands the strength of a true leader. One who is not afraid to wage war upon those who would break the earth.”

“Still your tongue, headless one,” Guan Yu growled. He fell silent as Yu Huang raised a hand.

“Xing Tian is free to speak,” he said, softly. “Indeed, I doubt any among us could stop him, if he believed that he was in the right.” He stepped forward, waving Guan Yu and the other gods back as he did so. “That is why I am here now. To see which of us is correct.” He raised a hand, and crooked a finger in a come hither gesture. “Come, relentless one – make your case to heaven, with all due fervour and righteousness.”

Xing Tian advanced with a roar, axe raised, and the Jade Emperor went to meet him.


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Written by Elu

Founder of Smite Hive | Gamer, TV/film lover, and everything else in between.


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