Yang ran towards the center of the palace. He leapt over the high walls dividing the courtyards, spending his qi to hasten his run and enhance his leaps and bounds. Beside him the qirin flew, easily keeping pace with the monk-general. Another assailant jumped at them both on the rooftops, and though Yang blocked the would-be assassin’s sword with his halberd it cracked and was sundered. He kicked his attacker off the roof and threw down his broken weapon.
Within moments they reached the interior of the palace complex, using the rooftops to bypass all the closed gates that tried to stop the spread of fire and movements of the enemy troops. “At this rate the whole palace will burn,” Yang remarked to the qirin, the divine creature’s hooves barely touching down on ancient roof tiles. “If the barbarians of the northwest can’t seize the capital, they will be more than happy to destroy it.”
The qirin blinked. “Neither shall come to pass – we are here,” he said, and they entered a wide square courtyard. Yang had seen it before, as a place with five pedestals and four guardian statues, each as great as a horse. In the east, a blue-green wooden carving of a dragon; in the west, a white steel statue of a tiger; in the north, a turtle carved of black ice, sweating but not melting; and in the south a peacock-like phoenix endlessly aflame like a brazier lighting up the dark of night. Onto the central pedestal the qirin touched down, and turning around to face the northwest, turned to stone.
A golden light erupted from the statues, who had become flesh-and-blood creatures. The dragon spoke first, asking, “Where is His Majesty the Emperor, and why is his general here?”
The qirin turned to the east, replying, “His Majesty the Emperor Huangdi is secure, for now, underground, but we must make haste in securing Chang’an. I have brought General Yang to bear a weapon to drive out our enemies.”
“You would give him the power of metal?” the white tiger’s voice roared from behind, and then laughed. Her steely eyes glared at Yang, unwavering; Yang stared back, but not as hard, faltering for the surprise of seeing his own face, with unbroken but bent resolve, reflected in the mirror-like eyes of the enormous beast. The tiger scoffed. “The masterpiece of Metal Sage Jīnshǔ is not a weapon just anyone can wield. I doubt –”
“I place my trust in him,” the qirin said, glowing golden. The others were immediately silenced by his divine proclamation.
Head bowed reverently, the general stepped forward. “Thank you, master qirin, for your vote of confidence in this guardians’ court,” he said, holding his arms wide to indicate the assembly of protectors, “but, where is the weapon?”
The qirin smiled, the heavenly creature touching his single antler to the earth, and said, “Within.” The stonework floor parted, folding upon itself as a stack of columns rising up in twin angular mountains of tiles, revealing a staircase of steps that descended into a chamber lined with glowing stones. Yang walked down the steps with urgency, knowing the capital, and his Emperor, were in growing danger with each passing moment. When he reached the bottom, he found a mostly empty armory, the swords and spears and suits of armor that lined the walls minimal and clearly ceremonial to the general, even with a hasty casual glance. In the middle of the back wall, hanging by fine chain and hooks, was a vest. Its design was simple, with lines of yellow thread that reminded him of the curves of swords throughout its bronze- and brass-like fabric, but it did not seem to be any sort of armor. It was the only remarkable thing in the chamber, and he took it, ascending the stairs, hearing the shouts of fighting grow closer.
Only the qirin remained, the other beasts having leapt the walls to aid the defense of the capital, the dragon and phoenix swooping down to rout whole ranks of the enemy soldiers, and the tiger and tortoise shrugging off attacks from foes and plowing through their lines, each spreading out in a different cardinal direction.
“Put it on, quickly,” the qirin advised. He turned from the general, ears perked to listen to the sounds of battle beyond, and for the first time Yang though the saintly peace-bringer of Heaven seemed as skittish as a common doe listening for wolves.
“I didn’t see anything else of note,” the general said, donning the vest directly over his battered armor. “What was –” he began, until he noticed the armor glitter, not like bronze, but like gold. He felt a tingling in his hands, a pressure, as when one has a grasp on something made of solid steel, but his hands were empty.
“Okay, so it’s some kind of magic, but, where is the weapon?”
Smiling, the qirin touched his antler to the vest, and said, “Within.”
Just then from the northern door, having slipped past the ponderous defenses of the tortoise spirit, an enemy barbarian rushed into the courtyard where the qirin and the general were. The barbarian was covered in the blood of imperial soldiers, and the sight of the evidence of slaughter left the qirin, a being of pure peace, utterly paralyzed. As it hovered there, frightened, the barbarian hefted his throwing spear strait at him. General Yang ran to interpose himself there, to block the spear, hand outstretched, when the ground in front of them hollowed out and rose up, its material taking the form of a circular bronze shield. Surprised, Yang held his hand out, and as the spear bounced harmlessly off the floating sturdy shield, he felt a mild resonance in his hand, and felt the magic of the vest would control its movements. With a forceful wave of his hand he sent the floating shield flying into the barbarian, striking him true in the head and knocking him down.
“Oh,” Yang remarked, looking down at and feeling the vest. “That’s what this does.”
The qirin snapped from his trance, the danger past, shaking his head. Coming to his senses, he said, “The vest uses magic of metal to make any weapon the wearer desires, but it must draw its power from the earth,” he said, motioning over to the shield-sized hole in the ground where the bronze armament came from.
“I see,” the general said, taking it in seriously, looking down at the floor. He concentrated on the stonework, which transmuted and reshaped into the form of a bronze halberd, stronger than the broken one he had cast aside. Now satisfactorily armed, he leapt up to the wall, and followed the sounds of battle to a group of invaders in the western corridor. He dropped down, and as they turned to face him, he called upon the magic of the vest, turning the ground below them into a terrain of rising barbed metal spikes, impaling the men in the legs and sensitive areas and restricting their movement. Yang made a running jump at them, and running along the wall used in his new halberd to cut into the mass of stuck enemies, landing gracefully but heavily on the other side of them. The metal tiger was there, swiping furiously at more invaders, and, dispatching them, looked over.
“… Not bad,” she conceded. More enemies came towards them. The general’s vest glowed golden, and from the ground he commanded with his hand a storm of daggers to rise up and fly into the oncoming horde, cutting down most, the tiger and the general slashing down the rest.
The two parted to pursue other ranks of enemies, Yang leaping from rooftop to rooftop to find them and then dispatching them at a distance with hails of blades and storms of steel. He brought down squads of the invaders, when from behind him a gate that had been shut burst open.
A giant filled the gateway. His body was covered in heavy armor, and it wielded a mighty sword. The whole creature seemed almost as if a mountain had taken the form of a man and sided with the enemy. It roared, and charged at Yang, who, more agile, dodged the sword swing as it chopped into and cut a deep gouge into the surrounding estate corridor walls.
Landing back on the ground, Yang made great spikes rise from the earth. The giant stomped through them unimpeded. Yang pulled from the stone walls that where on either side of them razor-sharp daggers, which spun around and sliced at the giant from all sides, barely making even light scratches in the skin beneath the adamant armor; with a roar and a flurry of sword swings the giant parried the blades, sending them to fall useless to the ground. Yang dodged another charging rush, just barely this time, as the giant burst through a wall at the corridor’s end; when he landed he shaped great chains as thick as his arm to wrap around and restrain his attacker. For a while the giant seemed shackled, held firm, and Yang conjured from the earth a sharpened spear of immense size. As the giant thrashed, the general leapt into the air and thrust the spear down onto the bound giant’s neck, a vulnerable spot exposed between the armor plates. It struck true, and though the point was set to stab through, it splintered into harmless metal shards. In a furious struggle, the giant shouted, a roar like thunder, and broke his chains, emerging from the crumbling fetters unharmed.
Yang landed on the roof nearby the giant, who slashed at him with the sword. Ceramic roof tiles became a thick shield just in time, splintering and taking most of the blow, but the general was sent flying into a fountain. As he climbed out, he stood shakily to his feet, seeing the giant approach. He motioned for a new spear, but got only a crude shaft to emerge; when he looked down, he saw the vest had been cut and torn, sparks falling off its tattered threads and becoming stained with his blood.
“It looks like your magic falters,” the giant mocked loudly, “just like your people. Know that you fought valiantly: no human before has survived being struck by one of my sword-blows. However, your capital will be crushed, and your emperor as well, and of course, you!” The giant was before him, sword at the ready, vicious sharp tusks visible through his smirk. “I am curious, though: seeing as none of your tactics work, what weapon will you conjure next?”
The general stood there, leaning on the half-made spear under the gaze of the giant and holding his wound closed. Neither of them moved, the giant confident, patient; the general waning, faltering.
He remembered something then.
He clasped closed the hole in the vest, and created a great hammer from the stone work, misshapen but functional. The giant raised an eyebrow, and laughed. It was a loud, riotous guffawing, head rolled back, filled with pride and amusement. When he opened his eyes again from his revelry, the giant saw there was also now a gong beside the general.
He hammered on the gong with all his strength, and it sounded like the beating of thunder in the heavens. The giant remained amused; “Call all your little soldiers, general, no human army can defeat me!”
Just as the gong and hammer broke, shattering from the desperate ringing, the giant was upon him with a vigorous charge and a mighty swing that shook the earth. Yang dodged, but just barely, trying to keep his distance from the brute. Despite the giant’s ponderous speed its strides were great, and Yang’s wounds began to sap his speed. He had just found himself cornered when the giant was about to bring down his sword again to finish him off. “Enough of your games – now, die!”
At that moment the northern tortoise spirit landed on him, falling out of the sky from the clutches of the eastern dragon, his great weight bludgeoning and crushing down on the massive warrior. Just as he shrugged off the guardian reptile, he became engulfed in the fire breath of the southern phoenix. He screamed in pain, stomping over to the broken pool, and falling in dowsed himself. As he emerged from the water to breathe again, the tiger pounced from one side and the dragon descended on him from the other, flanking him and raking him with their terrible claws. He swung at the dragon and missed, then swung at the tiger, sword bouncing harmlessly off her adamant hide. He went to move, to re-position, and found himself shackled again in Yang’s massive bronze chains, scowling furious as the qirin emerged from overhead.
“Know in your last moment, barbarian,” the qirin said, “when your problem is too big, bring allies.” Yang smiled at the confirmation of their shared wisdom. The qirin descended onto the broken capital grounds, and what should have been a mere clack of his hooves on stone made instead a great sound, like a tremor in the earth and a rumbling in the sky. “The powers of Heaven and Earth protect this sacred sovereign land. For the crime of bringing harm to this land, you shall become as the land,” and with that a bolt of lightning descended from the clear sky and stuck the shackled giant in the heart. He roared in pain, but all that was heard was the thunder and a sound like cracking rocks, and when it was done, all beheld that the giant had been turned to harmless stone, which crumbled into fragments.
Chang’an burned in places, and men died as the invasion was pushed back by strength of mortal garrisons and heavenly boons. But the Emperor and capital were saved, and they rebuilt, with earth and metal, and court and country, set back to the way it was.