Xing Tian charged, axe raised, his torso-face twisted into a roar of fury – and not a little triumph. Yu Huang, the Jade Emperor, met him with a frown. “I say again, there is no need for this, revered warrior. Whatever our differences, let us settle them with words – not steel.” But Xing Tian kept coming heedless of his opponent’s words.
Yu Huang sighed and gestured. An instant later, the air before him erupted into a volley of fiery missiles that streaked towards Xing Tian. Mulan flinched back as the missiles struck their target, one after the next. She hesitated, uncertain as to whether to go to Yu Huang’s aid. But when she looked at Guan Yu and the other gods who had accompanied their sovereign, she saw that they were relaxed; certain, perhaps, of their sovereign’s ability to deal with one headless warrior. Even Hou Yi had placed his arrow back into its quiver.
Guan Yu met her gaze and gave a slight shake of his head. A duel, then – and one not to be interfered with. Instead, she turned her attentions to her companions, Sun Wukong and Zhong Kui. Both had been felled by Xing Tian earlier, and were only now stirring. “What hit me?” the Monkey King growled, rubbing his head.
“Xing Tian,” Mulan said, offering him her hand.
“Oh, yeah. I remember now.” Sun Wukong clambered upright with her help. His eyes were fixed on the clash between Xing Tian and Yu Huang. “Looks like someone decided to shift his celestial fundament and pitch in.”
“Given that his arrival is all that kept Xing Tian from chopping us to pieces, it might behove you to show a bit more respect,” Zhong Kui grumbled, as he made his way towards them. He looked at Mulan. “Something is wrong here. Xing Tian is relentless – arrogant – but not mad. He would not seek to release the demon king unless he was certain that it was the right thing to do…”
She nodded. “It was a trap. Meant to draw the Jade Emperor out – but why? Xing Tian is powerful, but even he cannot defeat Yu Huang…can he?” Her gaze strayed back to the duel. Xing Tian was becoming enraged. The Jade Emperor refused to meet him in combat; rather, he simply retreated, avoiding his opponent’s attacks.
“Fight me Yu Huang,” Xing Tian bellowed, pursuing Yu Huang across the broken ground. “Are you a coward? Is that why you flee? You are no emperor – where is your courage? Fight me!”
“One might ask the same of you,” Yu Huang replied, taking several quick steps back, out of reach of his opponent. “What do you fear, Xing Tian? Why do you desire my defeat? What has prompted this unseemly display?”
“You are not worthy of the throne you occupy,” Xing Tian snarled. “That is why you will lose it!” He raised his axe and sprang. As he did so, the beads on the Jade Emperor’s headdress blazed with light and Yu Huang gestured sharply. Four flickering cinders streaked from his fingers, searing the air as they encircled Xing Tian. The cinders came together with a roar of flame, engulfing the headless warrior in a blinding conflagration. Yu Huang made a fist, and the fires swirled upwards, tossing Xing Tian like a leaf on a hot wind.
He struck the ground with an earth-shaking crash, and lay smoldering. But only for a moment. True to his title, the headless warrior struggled to his hands and knees, smoke rising from his battered frame. He fumbled blindly for the haft of his axe.
“Is that – is that the best you can do?” he croaked. “Your predecessor struck me harder than that, and he was a weakling.” He rose unsteadily to his feet. “As you are weak. Look around you, Yu Huang – look at the faces of your servants. They see you now for what you are, a pretender to the celestial glories you so cunningly claimed.” He spread his arms. “You cannot even defeat me – how can you hope to lead us through the dangers that await us in this new world you and the others created?”
Mulan frowned and looked at Zhong Kui. “What is he talking about?” she murmured. “The world is always as it has been.” Zhong Kui shook his head, clearly as at a loss as she was. Guan Yu, Jing Wei and the others seemed equally confused.
Xing Tian took in their bewilderment and gave a hoarse chuckle. “They do not remember,” he continued. “But I do, now. I know that the world burned for your weakness. It went mad. And you sat and did nothing. I know …and I am not alone. Others know.” He gripped his axe in both hands. “They know you are weak, and they will expose it to all of heaven. The story of your fall will echo through the pantheons…a warning to those like you, who claim honours they do not deserve.”
The Jade Emperor smiled sadly. “I claimed nothing, Relentless One. I was given all that I have, by our fellow gods. In time, they may well give it to another – for who can predict the course of heaven? Empires rise and fall, even divine ones. No mandate is eternal.” He sat on the ground, arranging his robes about him. “I was a child and then an immortal, and then a god. Now I am the emperor of gods. In time, I will be something else.” He looked at Xing Tian. “Tell me, Xing Tian: are you content as you are?” Yu Huang closed his eyes. “You could be so much more than what I see before me.”
Xing Tian gave a low growl and took a step towards his opponent. “What are you doing? Open your eyes, fool. This is a duel!”
The Jade Emperor nodded serenely. “Yes, but who is my opponent?”
Yu Huang did not open his eyes. “No. By your own words, you are but a blade, wielded by another. Do you find comfort in service, Xing Tian? Is that why you demand purpose of others, rather than finding it within yourself?”
“Enough of this. I will take your head now.” Xing Tian took another step towards the seated form of Yu Huang, his axe raised menacingly. Guan Yu raised his guan dao and Hou Yi reached for an arrow, but before either of them could do more, Erlang Shen stretched out his arm in a silent signal to subside. Mulan watched in wonderment as the gods stepped back, even as Xing Tian drew perilously close to the Jade Emperor’s person.
“We can’t just stand here,” Sun Wukong muttered. He made to leap towards Xing Tian, but Mulan caught him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back.
“We can. We must trust in the Jade Emperor’s wisdom,” she said, though privately, she agreed with the Monkey King. Sitting with one’s eyes closed did not exactly seem a practical stratagem.
But as she watched, Yu Huang’s seated form rose slowly from the ground. Xing Tian stopped, perplexed by this new tactic. The Jade Emperor’s form was limned in silvery light, which pulsed and swelled, shaping itself into the outline of a coiled dragon. The dragon reared slowly, looking down at Xing Tian with eyes that flashed like lightning.
“What is this…?” Xing Tian asked, backing away. “Some new trick? It will not save you, Yu Huang. I will topple you – for the good of all!” He hunched forward, ready to strike. Mulan held her breath.
The Jade Emperor opened his eyes.
The dragon uncoiled and surged towards Xing Tian. It crashed into him and swooped upwards, carrying him in its maw. His axe clanged to the ground, forgotten. Mulan looked up and saw a second dragon, descending towards the first. The two serpentine forms met in mid-air, with an echoing thunderclap. Streamers of silver light radiated outwards across the sky as the limp, burning form of Xing Tian tumbled to the earth.
The headless warrior struck the ground with a dull boom – and did not rise again.
In the silence that followed, Mulan released the breath she’d been holding and took a hesitant step towards the fallen warrior. The Jade Emperor approached from the other side, his hands behind his back. “Is he -?” Mulan began.
“Dead? No. Merely unconscious. It would take more force than I am willing to bring to bear to put an end to Xing Tian. Even then, it would be no sure thing.” He sank to one knee, his hand hovering over Xing Tian’s broad back. “He will be angry, when he awakens. But perhaps not so angry that he will not listen to reason.”
“We should imprison him now – while we have the chance,” Sun Wukong said.
Yu Huang looked at him and smiled thinly. “And how well did that work with you, oh Great Sage, Equal of Heaven?”
Sun Wukong shrugged. “It’s not like I escaped,” he protested. He gave Xing Tian’s body a swift, surreptisious kick, yelped and hopped back, clutching his foot. “Even unconscious he’s as hard as stone!”
“Serves you right,” Mulan murmured, elbowing him in the ribs. She looked at Yu Huang. “I still don’t understand what he hoped to gain with this display. Surely he did not believe that he could actually defeat you?”
“Perhaps someone convinced him that it was necessary,” Jiang Wei said, sadly. She knelt beside the unconscious warrior. “Once he believes something, its impossible to convince him otherwise. My father used to say that he was as stubborn as a mountain.”
“Xing Tian was but a tool,” the Jade Emperor said, softly. “This was a test. Someone wished to know if my strength had waned. Or, perhaps simply whether I was paying attention or not.” His expression was remorseful as he examined the unconscious warrior. “Now they know. Only time will tell what they intend to do with that knowledge.”
“Who do you think it was?” Hou Yi asked. “Ao Kuang, perhaps? The Dragon King of the Eastern Seas has long chafed beneath your rule.” Jing Wei and several of the others nodded at this. Mulan thought it a likely possibility. Ao Kuang’s unhappiness was common knowledge, for he never failed to announce it to anyone who would listen.
“It could just as easily be someone from one of the other pantheons,” Guan Yu rumbled, stroking his beard. “They have long envied our prosperity.”
The Jade Emperor waved a hand dismissively. “Whoever they are, they will reveal themselves soon enough. Or not. Either way, it is best to make no assumptions.”
“What Xing Tian said – about the world…what did he mean?” Mulan asked. She hadn’t meant to voice the question aloud. Yu Huang looked at her, and for a moment, she feared she had overstepped. But instead of growing angry, the Jade Emperor rose slowly to his feet and folded his hands within his sleeves.
“The world is a story, with many beginnings and endings,” he said, after a moment. “It has been told forever, and each time it ends, it begins anew – each time a bit differently, sometimes inconsistently. Sometimes it does not go the way we might wish. But it is always the same story, at heart. And we all have our parts to play.” He looked down at Xing Tian. “Even the stubbornest soul has a place in the telling.”
“But –” Mulan began. The Jade Emperor gestured, and she fell silent.
“In past versions of the story, emperors and kings went into battle as eagerly as the warriors they led. And this resulted in much hardship for those caught in the middle of such conflicts. When I ascended to the throne of heaven, I resolved to be a different sort of leader. One who personally takes to the field only when there is no other option. That is my story.”
“Maybe it is time to change that,” Guan Yu said. Yu Huang smiled gently and nodded, as if in agreement. Mulan thought something passed between them in that moment. An acknowledgement of sorts, though about what, she could not say.
“Maybe,” Yu Huang said. “Or maybe the one who follows me will do so. Maybe that is why Xing Tian was here today – to force me into a new story. As I said before, none can predict the course of heaven, and it is a fool who tries. In the meantime, the throne of heaven is mine, and I will do as I think best.”
“And that is?” Erlang Shen asked, crossing his arms.
“I will wait. I will meditate, and gather my strength. For when the time comes, and our true foe reveals themselves, I must be ready.” The Jade Emperor bowed his head and turned away from his fellow gods.
“We must all be ready.”