Then there was neither ‘what is not’
nor ‘what is’; there was
neither space, nor the sky beyond it.
What moved here, there, where?
Under whose protection? What was water,
deep and fathomless?
Then there was neither death,
nor immortality; there was no sign
to tell night from day;
that one breathed,
without wind, by its own power;
nothing else was there, beyond It.
In the beginning
darkness was swathed in darkness,
all this was water all around
without any distinction:
the life-principle to be born,
hitherto concealed in the void,
arose as One through the power of heat.
In the beginning,
there was Kāma, desire which arose
above all, which was the first
seed of mind; wise men, searching
by the force of mind, found
the bond of being in non-being.
extended their dividing line.
Was there a below, was there an above?
There were the planters of seed,
there were powers;
there was self-will, below;
active force, above.
Who indeed knows it,
who will proclaim it?
Whence has this world come,
whence is this creation?
The gods came later, after the creation,
who knows, then,
from where it has arisen.
from where it came,
whether it was made,
whether it was not made,
the one who oversees this
in the highest heaven,
perhaps he knows,
or he too does not.
[The Rig Veda. 10:129. Nasadiya Sukta.
The Ancient Indian Literature, Vol. I. Sahitya Akademi. 2014].
The cracks on the window are stained red from the falling sun.
His room has a sea view – the horizon stretching out long beyond the water, now as red as the sun drowning in them. The circular wooden window is large, allowing both wind and sight to filter in freely with the fading light.
Nothing like the small rectangular windows that he has grown up with, that stays shut more often than not, trying to keep the cold out. Childe used to press his cheeks against the glass, watching his breath fog over the surface, blurring it more than the snow outside. Hardly anything could be seen even in the less cold months – the glass nearly always drenched from rain, the water often leaking in through cracks between the glass and the pane, wetting the walls till they smelled of damp and moss.
Liyuean rain comes with wind as fierce, but not with the chill. Here rain comes in swift showers and thunder, soothing the dust and mixing the scent of wet grass, soil and the promise of a brighter sun with the salty sea wind.
Here rainstorms are moments when children run out to feel the water on their skin, when even the oldest ill-tempered shopkeeper comes out to breathe in the wind – nothing like the bitter cold of his ice clad valley where the storms and rains meant an worse winter than the usual.
Childe leans against the window, watching. Liyue has faced perhaps one of the worst storms in their memory only a day ago, but the harbour was still bustling, hurried but practiced movements around the wreckage – the same vitality of children running out to breathe in the scent of storms.
The only difference lies in the increased numbers of millieths in the streets.
Perhaps they are watching out for any further fatui plots.
Childe does not have anything more to give – not to the land he sought to destroy, and not to the one he served.
And not to – him – either.
But the last one is the most expected – he never had anything for that person in the first place. Just wisps of a fool’s dream. And –
He has wiped away those wisps himself.
And that person has told him – with his actions, with his silence, with his complete lack of – of anything – to show his awareness of Childe’s presence in his – life? Moments ? – has told him, shown him, the impossibility of those wisps, the futility of –
The last one… is the least… expected. Even though it should not be. Even though – Childe should know, has known, that he has always been only a pawn, just a pawn, to be moved around by the player’s will, and yet –
That person – is the least expected.
The sun has fallen beyond the waters. The sky is darker now, though still with gold and red –
It reminds him of those eyes.
Childe covers his own eyes – for only the space of a breath in which moment his own breathes feels lumped up, lost somewhere below his ribs, unable to come out.
He tries not to laugh too loudly.
He still does not know why.
He cannot stop thinking – why.
Childe watches the darkened end of the ocean. And he wonders – why?
Was it planned from the beginning? Has that person been – been laughing at him – all this time when Childe has thought they were laughing together, with each other – has he – was that person –
Laughing at Childe all these time?
Did you? Childe wants to ask and cannot voice, cannot shape the words. His tongue feels frozen, twisted and raw in the back of his throat.
Even in this empty room, with no one to laugh at him, he cannot shape the words.
Tartaglia the stutterer.
Tartaglia the fool. Tartaglia the clown.
He has finally fulfilled the name bestowed on him.
Did she know? Childe wonders. Did she know this moment when she gave me that name?
Is this why she gave me this name?
Did she tell him? Tell him she was sending her clown for him to play with? Is that why he –
What have you gained? He wants to ask him. What have you won?
But perhaps there is no specific answer – after all, a clown is only a side show – just something to keep the spectators amused for a break between the main acts.
Nothing important enough to have any reason, nor necessity.
Childe is used to being unimportant. He knows the taste of being thrown away, of being pushed away, of being judged and found wanting.
And yet. And yet.
Why do this? He asks the wind, words still lost somewhere beneath his throat, tongue still frozen.
But it does not matter. The wind of Liyue will not answer the one scorned by their god, the one who has destroyed her shores.
And Childe knows, has known since the moment he had stopped being Ajax – the wind of Snezhnaya too, has only the chilling cold for him.
What was the point of it all? He thinks, for one more time, one more time when his stomach twists and rolls at the familiar knowledge of how – utterly unnecessary, meaningless – his presence has been, always was in this grand game, and how pointlessly – how easily – they have all – all – played him, used him – but even that use –
Amusement? Childe lets his eyes close, lets his head lean against the last of the sun burning over his eyelids.
Because what else can it be? His presence or absence – none of it has had any meaning in this masterful game.
Useless. Being laughed at is probably the only use there was –
Has he laughed too? All these time?
The times they have eaten together, the times they have stood on the harbour – looking at the waves, the times they have browsed through every shop in the meandering alleys of Liyue, the times they have –
The times he has spent speaking to Childe, each words thoughtful and shaped carefully, like he wanted to Childe to know him –
Has he been laughing inside all that time? Wondering when the stupid fatui spy will catch on, waiting for Childe to realise what a fool –
But I didn’t realise. You saw that I didn’t realise. Childe’s bones ache, cracks with pins and needles pricking through him at each breath.
Why – then? Why not – why not stop?
Stop the walks at evenings, the lunch and dinners at the restaurants every noon and night? Stop the words and the smiles and watching the waves and –
Is it because Childe came as his enemy? Because he wanted to punish Childe for –
With that contract in place – what enmity was left?
Childe stands up, dizziness weakening his spine, his form stumbling in the darkness of a late dusk. He grabs at the window, tries to steady his breathe.
He should light the lamp. Or go to bed – preferably go to bed, they, the rest of the fatui will probably be deported soon, perhaps the qixings will call for punishment – Signora has mentioned, snarled, something about diplomatic relations before putting all of the eleventh harbinger’ troop along with Childe in house arrest.
Either way, he should sleep, rest for the eventuality of whatever further use he has left.
Childe can not sleep.
Since the day before when – when he has learnt his place. He can not sleep. His head throbs, and his ribs ache, as does the rest of his body, still tired from his transformation.
But he cannot sleep.
He wants to, by the Seven, he wants to –
The Seven… are probably not listening. Childe has known, after all, as early as the day he bowed before her Majesty, as early as the day he was given the task of – that he thought he has been given the task of – of taking another of the Seven’s gnosis –
The heart of a god.
And Childe has known even earlier – that even the one he has offered his fealty to, even that god is not on his side.
He has thought – Childe has believed that he was on her side, but now –
Childe cannot sleep.
He tries to, has been trying to -
He thought if he could calculate, figure out, just understand a bit of – of why – of everything – then perhaps.
Perhaps he can sleep.
But Childe cannot.
He has been remembering, running through his memories with a comb made of shattered bones and broken glass, trying to figure out what it was – what was it – that needed him here, like this.
Childe has run through all his missions immediately prior to this one, then further back, and further yet, till the moment when he has first sworn his loyalty to her –
He nearly always fulfilled his mission, and when ones he failed, the very early ones –
She had always punished him immediately, swiftly, before he could even beg for mercy.
None of his failures are left unserved, and he has not failed at all in the last five years, at the least.
Then why send him here? If not a punishment then –
If it’s a punishment – then for what?
And Zhongli –
The room swirls for a moment, the name, even in his mind, leaving him short of breath.
Childe has been avoiding – has not been able to – think of that name.
Why has he done this?
The easy answer is, Childe knows, that it was for nothing.
A god’s whim.
But he spoke to Childe. Carefully, sincerely –
Childe’s head throbs again. He moves towards the bed blankly, blindly, trying to push away the gentle cor lapis, warm like sun, and the smile –
His pillow chokes him. Childe tries to curl up, tries to fill in the gaps between his ribs, and the needling pain in the edges of his fingernails, right where it touches skin. He tries to gather warmth on his palm by sticking them to his stomach, tries to hide, disappear, stop existing –
His father looks tired. Ajax’s mother is crying in the kitchen.
He sits silently at the table, knuckles still bleeding from the last fight.
His ribs hurt. One of them had kicked him.
“You will go to the army next week.” His father doesn’t look at him, doesn’t ask if it hurts.
Ajax watches his father sigh and look away, like he wishes Ajax was not there. His mother refuses to look at him either, when she comes out from the kitchen – Teucer is crying, needs to be fed perhaps.
She pulls Teucer away when Ajax moves to pick him up. Leaves. He hears her telling Tonia to go back to her room when she comes down –
And Ajax should stay in his room too. She tells him after dinner, without looking at him, her eyes still red.
Rest of the week Ajax is not allowed to see his siblings – only the last day, when he is about to leave with a neighbour whose son is in the army, does he get to wave at them.
Teucer iscrying again.
Mother takes him away – Ajax does not get to see either her or Teucer before leaving.
Across the table Zhongli smiles at him.
Wanmin restaurant is buzzing with guests this afternoon – Xiangling’s new dish, Childe has been hearing the promotion for last two days.
Zhongli reaches out, correcting his grip on the chopsticks.
His fingers are cold, made of stone. They tighten on Childe’s hands, pressing down, down, down, till Childe’s knuckles and fingers are breaking from the grip, and the stone fingers sink in his flesh, blood spurting out.
Childe does not, cannot, pull away.
He looks up, watches the cor lapis eyes smiling. He is standing before a tall statue of Rex Lapis, high aboveground, on the floating island, and the morning sun is bright on the stony planes of the god’s face.
Childe stands still and watched the god sink his fingers in his heart, pulling the organ out, still beating, in his fist.
He is sitting at his table, glue and thin paper sticking on his fingers. Childe watches from afar, silent and blank as another him begins a new attempt of building a lantern once again.
He is going to give it to Zhongli, Childe knows.
He is not going to give it to Zhongli, Childe knows.
The lantern sits before his eyes, at first on the table, then carefully placed in the trunk, above the toys he has been collecting for home.
For the afterwards – Childe remembers himself thinking. For the afterwards of everything, because this was before Exuvia has crashed down and everything has started falling to place – in the sun-drenched noon that is before of everything, he places the lantern in the safest spot of the trunk, and remembers thinking of seeing the festival those cor lapis eyes smiled at when mentioning.
The waves crashes upon their feet, Zhongli picks up a starconch and places it in Childe’s hand.
When he pulls away the starconch is in pieces on Childe’s palm, the pieces digging in like ice shards and Childe looks up and sees his liege, high on her ice throne.
He is kneeling in front of her, on his knees.
He feels her fingers, the cold burning in his marrow, curl around his rib, inside the bones.
He feels her digging at the crack in him, digging in the dark crevice that he has been carrying inside since that day.
He feels her peeling away the last of Ajax, leaving behind only a husk, wasted skin –
“Tartaglia.” She names him, and he becomes her clown, still only a mass of bones and flesh, half rotten, and –
Childe sits up on his bed, nearly falls down trying to breathe, and even the darkness hurts his temples.
Ah. He realises after a moment. The pounding is in fact the door, and not his head, not only from his head, that is – someone seems to have been knocking for a while. It is another confused mess of movement, half-stumbling, nausea rising in his chest, before he manages get to the lamp on the table, and lights it.
“One moment.” He calls out, the words having to be pushed out beyond his fumbling tongue, and his throat hurts. Absently he wonders if he, and rest of his troops, will finally be allowed out from the house arrest Signora has forced on them.
Childe breathes, forces the air in, then out, and in again. Pulls up his shoulders.
He is still her majesty’s harbinger, useless clown or not.
Childe is presentable when he opens the door.
He is, still, her harbinger.
He should be gripping the letter tighter. Like this the paper could fall any moment, Childe thinks absently, but cannot find any strength in his fingers.
He hears himself say, as though from far away – “This is?”
“Her Majesty’s orders.” The letter-bearer is not a fatui, but a guard of a noble – the Tyoskiviers, Childe recognises the insignia, not bothering to look at the guard’s irritation at being questioned by a – a criminal.
Traitor to land and liege. Childe sees the words floating before him, watches blankly, silently, as the guard finally loses patience, snapping at someone outside to drag Childe out. Acts of terrorism. Blasphemy of deicide. Exiled. Punished publicly to remind the rest of Teyvat that Snezhnaya still knows honour –
The phrases and words float around him, Childe floating himself amongst them as the guards put chains on his hands, tears away his vision and delusion from him, his mask, pulls him out, out, downstairs, Ekaterina and Nadia and Felix and – ah. Childe thinks. Don’t cry.
Not Childe. He remembers the addressment of the letter. No longer a fatui, no longer a Snezhnayan – not, not Childe –
Then…Ajax? The letter has been addressed to Ajax but –
Was he… still…Ajax?
He cannot remember.
They are pushing him to a – a cell – he sees, and watches another figure –
“Ajax.” She smiles, teeth bared, and the name sounds garbled and twisted in her mouth. “If you could give us a moment?” She smiles at the guards, and for all their aristocratic insignias on their chests, none dares to deny a harbinger of her Majesty.
A true harbinger of her Majesty.
She watches him. He returns her gaze.
Perhaps she knows that he does not know his name anymore because her smile widens, curling at the corners.
“Ajax.” She rolls the name in her mouth, watches him mirthfully. “You know what to do?”
He knows. But his tongue won’t move.
She doesn’t wait for him to answer. “Snezhnaya will not lose a trade route as lucrative as Liyue just because of an useless clown.” And yes, he can see it, her glee at knowing and seeing how the words peel away his skin, taking bits and pieces of his flesh with them. “You will be making a public apology to their god for your insult and offence to him – and”, she grins sharper, making sure he listens, “the point is not to be apologetic. The point is that you will show how undeserving of forgiveness you are, and that Snezhnaya is willing and capable of meting out due justice.”
A spectacle. He translates. Where he is forced to apologise by the officials of Snezhnaya, but refuses, and then is punished – killed? – for his lack of remorse.
He wants to laugh a little, because who will believe such a joke?
Like before, he realises. He is once again placed in a pointless pantomime.
Perhaps his eyes give away his disdain, because Signora’s smile turns colder, crueller, eyes narrowing.
“Your family knows you are a traitor.” And he closes his eyes, wants to stop listening – “but they are, at present, to be compensated – a condolence for being related to one like you.”
“Your performance will decide”, she says, “whether this compensation remains a condolence, or becomes – a retribution – for housing a traitor.”
She walks away, heels clacking on wooden floor. Childe – Ajax – watches her back, till he is being pushed inside the room – his cell – by the guards.
He keeps standing, still floating, watching the damp walls and cracked floors blankly, the letter still in his finger.
He keeps standing till he is not anymore, perhaps from his knees giving way, and he finds himself sitting on the floor, still watching the walls.
The letter is still in his fingers.
He walks though the black mud.
No – its smoke – or perhaps, water? He doesn’t know – only that it sticks to his clothes and fingers and skin – till he is covered with the stains.
They burns. When Ajax tries to rub at them, the skin comes off, sometime with enough flesh to bare the bones underneath.
He looks up. The cell is without a lamp, but there is the light of nightsky from the tiny window – Ajax cannot remember the names of the stars.
His father used to tell him the names. Liyue has different names from back – back there – but the stars are same.
Zhongli told him some of the names – the rest, he was going to tell Ajax another time –
Perhaps he was never going tell Ajax.
The cell is in the basement, silent of everything but the occasional skittering – rodents perhaps. Ajax can pull up his legs, press his hands on his ears, close his eyes and pretend – pretend he is back –
Back home. Playing hide and seek with Anthon and Teucer and Tonia –
His eyes burn. Ajax shuts them tighter, refuses to let the lump inside come out.
He thinks of the toys he has been collecting, has been storing in his room to take them back – back –
Will Ekaterina remember to send them?
Will they be allowed to be sent back at all? Or because it is from him –
And the lantern he has been keeping with those toys –
Will that be thrown away? Will someone realise who it is for –
Who will realise?
Who is there, whether down the crack, or aboveground, who knew Ajax enough, wanted to know Ajax enough, to guess, to realise, his foolish dreams?
The only person Ajax has thought of sharing his foolish hopes with – that person…
He probably doesn’t even remember.
And Ajax lets himself fall to the ground, curls up, because all he can feels is exhaustion running through his veins, the sheer tiredness dragging him down as surely as that endless chasm once had.
Doesn’t remember that there was such a person as Ajax, doesn’t remember that – that there is anything to remember. Tomorrow, perhaps, when that public spectacle is staged, he will remember a bit –
Will he come to watch? It is often believed that the statues, or any images of gods, really, are vehicles to carry the worshipper’s thoughts to the god – the letter has said a ‘public apology to the god’, so they likely means a statue?
Will he hear? But Ajax is not of the land he has blessed, Ajax is – he is not of any land anymore.
He presses his hand over his eyes, refuses to acknowledge the wetness burning over his palm.
Nearly a decade of service – diligent, loyal – even at the moments when his body has pleaded to give up, he has fulfilled every order, and taken as much punishment as dealt out for the ones he failed – over two decades of memories, roots, kin, and –
Placed in a game that had no use for him at his god’s whim – and still, still, thrown away.
Perhaps she had decided already – he thinks. Perhaps it was because she wanted him to have this ending that –
But that was giving himself too much credit. Ajax has learnt his true value too well in these few days to think of the possibility that his god – ex-god, you are excommunicated, he reminds himself – would have actually planned so much just to get rid of him – no, no, the truth was simpler, was – was crueller – he simply has not been useful enough, and has been placed here as a possible stopgap should things go sour despite the contract – and now he was being used for that purpose, to ensure the relations between the two nations remain, at least in a façade, polite – since spectacle or not, this will, at the least, put moral pressure on Liyue to forgive Snezhnaya before the rest of Teyvat.
Though this too, perhaps, is, Ajax consoling himself, is making him more valuable than he is but – but, he still has to, has to keep going till – at least, till – tomorrow.
Tomorrow – tomorrow, he can rest. And that thought feels more comfortable than Ajax has ever thought possible of himself – because even at the abyss he has fought, tooth and nail, to live.
Now – now he only wanted to rest.
He watches the night sky through the window, and thinks – this is it.
Finally, finally – there is no one on his side.
Except, no – that is not correct – Ajax has always known that no one is on his side – rather –
He is not on any side anymore.
The one place he has thought, has believed, to have accepted him on their side, has pushed him out.
He should be used to this feeling. Of being part of nothing, of being unwanted by all, but Ajax has forgotten and –
He has trusted that he was useful enough, has been serving her majesty well enough.
He has trusted that Zhongli –
That I meant as much to him, or at least, a little bit of as much, as what he meant to me. In the dark, Ajax can hide the shame burning his skin, can ignore the pain behind his eyes. In the dark he can admit that he has gotten attached, in a long time, perhaps for the first time since learning better.
In the dark he can allow himself to grieve, because soon there won’t be a him to grieve anymore, for not being good enough, again, to be more than a joke.
In the dark, even with the shame of hoping clawing at his chest, Ajax can – he can ask –
Why? He remembers the cor lapis eyes, bites down on his palm to keep the sob down. Why do this?
I wanted to belong. He tells the figure walking away from him, watching the shadows pool around himself, knows he will never be able to ask the man, the god, should they be face to face once again.
All the myths – he thinks, looking at the darkness where the figure has seemed to stand only moment ago – none of said you were so cruel.
It hurts, Zhongli. He closes his eyes. You – even you – want me to hurt like this?
The earth – is everyone’s home – everyone’s, right?
I wanted to belong.
He sees his grandmother.
“We come from the earth.” She mumbles, tobacco in her mouth. “We return to earth.”
Do we all? Ajax asks her, voiceless. Do we all – all – come from the earth?
Can we – all of us – return to earth?
Can I? Return to earth?
But she is walking down the line of pine trees, back bent with age, still mumbling tales from a time before Ajax’s skin started to rot. Her voice carries the scent of snow, and she tells him the tale of the Seven beside firelight, her wrinkles creasing with shadows.
“Before there was seven, there was one.” She mutters, fingers and eyes on her knitting. “And before the one became everything, the one was nothing – and the possibility of everything.”
“His hair is ice and snow.” Her voice echoes in the warmth of the fire, like a lighthouse far away that Ajax can not feel, only watch. “He carries thunder on his forehead. His eyes are storms.”
“His bones are of molten lava, and skin and flesh of rocks, soil and stones – life growing and dying infinite in their cracks. And his veins are rivers, all returning to the ocean of his heart.”
“From that one comes seven.” She tells Ajax, thin and tired on her bed. “From that one comes all.”
“We all come of earth, from earth.” Her eyes looks away, beyond what the living can see, and her voice echoes.
“We all return to earth.”
“What about one who has tried to kill earth?” He asks her, tongue still too tangled to shape the sounds.
She does not answer him, cannot answer him, her body falling in dust.
“What about one who had fallen down the crack on earth?” He asks, and no one answers.
“Can I return to earth?”
Tomorrow, Ajax thinks, I will find out.
But the fear wraps around his stomach, claws at his lungs – the possibility that he could, perhaps, return to – to there – in that darkness, that abyss –
His land and god has exiled him. And even back when he was fourteen, before he has known himself that this was what he was going to turn into – the earth has known, no?
Otherwise – otherwise, why did that crack open up then and there, like this world itself could not wait to get rid of him –
Ajax claws at his throat for a long breathless moment, counts back from a hundred. Like playing hide and seek, the thought fleets through him, and he loses the count.
Its at thirty-seven, and gasping breath wrecking through his body, and burning eyes, that Ajax can see again.
If I pray hard enough. He thinks, knows he is being a fool yet again, knows the trembling of another breathless hysterical moment about to tear through him. If I pray hard enough, will, will he listen?
After all, Rex lapis, was, as every Liyuean will tell anyone asking, and even to those not asking, a kind god – one who cared for humans.
I am human too, right? And the thought is panic inducing in a way Ajax could not remember ever feeling, because he really does not know, can not answer, even in his own head, if he is, still, human.
He smiled at me. He tries to stave off the burning in his eyes. If I prayed enough, if I beg him – won’t he let me die in him?
A dead body was bones and blood and flesh, and everything, even the bones that lasts longest will eventually turn to dust.
He will not know. Ajax consoles himself, thinks of how he should word his prayer. From one dead body to another – the earth holds so many of the dead. One more – what can it matter?
Perhaps even the fourteen years old him has been too much of – of whatever was wrong with him – to be of earth, to remain on earth, but at least in death –
If I pray hard enough. Ajax has to believe it, he has to. Surely he will let me die in him.
Everything come of earth and return to earth.
I came of earth too, right?
But like the question if he was human, in this too, Ajax can not be sure anymore.
He does not close his eyes rest of the night either, the shadows leaping at him with claws and fangs like the things from Below at every other breath. When the sky lightens, all Ajax has left is the exhaustion in his ribs and marrows, and a muted hope, the last bit that he needs to finish this last duty to his once-god, that perhaps, surely, the god he will be kneeling to today, will give him this small mercy of a human death.
For one wild moment he thinks – if I tell him about the lantern for him, will it increase my chances of that mercy?
But that is impossible, of course – the lantern holds no meaning but his foolishness, and perhaps a reminder to Zhongli that this was the person who destroyed his city despite Zhongli sharing so many bits of it –
Ajax manages to wipe his eyes dry, and get his breathes in control by the time the guards are opening the door, mind falling to a numb, empty calm. He knows his eyes probably gives away his weakness, but he is tired, he is tired –
He is tired.
The guards drag him to the largest statue on the harbour – and Ajax’s heart sinks a little because it is not one of the statues with teleportals and healing abilities, but one that is prayed to by the Liyueans often, but Ajax is not of Liyue, not of any land, and perhaps the statues with teleportals would have had better chances of letting the god hear him, if he was listening at all, and Ajax knows no one was ever listening to him –
Baron Tyoskivier – the youngest son, Ajax recognises, has come himself.
And with him – half of them are not from Snezhnaya, right? Even in exhausted numbness that is permeating his body, Ajax is left with an incredulous sense of shame at what his country – once-country – is doing, at the turn this spectacle was going to be –
Archons. He wishes he never realised what a humiliating plan the nobles – it has to be the nobles, surely her majesty will not – have cooked up.
With the baron are a number of nobles and aristocrats of other nations, the rich and high of Teyvat – Ajax recognises nearly all of them, thanks to his years of spying in various lands. Obviously the majority were the baron’s friends – and it was seeing this clique that brings the realisation to Ajax that this is how Snezhnaya plans to pressure Liyue into accepting this spectacle of an apology, which may actually be more insulting than the crime itself.
Because the baron’s friends – much like the baron himself – are not the truly powerful ones of Teyvat, if anything their only fame lies in being rich and useless.
And these people are going to be the representatives to witness this – this –
Well, it is certainly a good match – Ajax has to admit that much – an useless spectacle with equally useless spectators, Ah, no – he notes a few figures he knows to have quite a bit of significance in their lands – namely, the ones from Mondstadt – Ajax recognises their cavalry captain and Lord Ragnvindr, standing aside with – is that the traveller? – Ajax almost pities them, looking at their stony faces that are obviously and thoroughly discomfited, and more than a little disgusted at the proceedings.
He wonders absently, as the guard behind him pushes him to kneel at the statue’s feet, knees banging painfully on the stone, how did Tyoskivier get those two here. From what he knows of the Mondstadt lord, that man is notorious among the fatui for his grudge against anyone wearing their symbolic mask, and the cavalry captain, while less known to Ajax, is one of Mondstadt’s best – certainly, neither are people Tyoskivier and his likes will be able to befriend easily.
Not to mention, that knight obviously has Khaenri’ahese blood – doesn’t the man knows to stay the hell away from everything to do with the tsaritsa?
“– has no place for entertaining your mockery!”
That’s… Yuheng? Ajax can not be sure, of course, nor can he turn his head, with how the guard is pushing down on his nape, but the sharp voice seems recognisable.
“Snezhnaya only seeks to right the wrongs done to your land, fair lady.” Tyoskivier is suitably flattering, trying to play at it, at any rate, though Ajax doubts his oily tone carries the intention well. “Surely, even the worst of criminals may have the right to offer an apology – not to mention”, a kick hits Ajax’s ribs, and he bites down on his lips to keep the gasp down, “this was the crime of one man, and not the entirety of Snezhnaya.”
“Surely you will give her majesty the chance of compensating you –”
“The only compensation you can offer is in mora.” The Tianquan’s voice cuts in. “And this public spectacle only serves to insult our god further –”
“I am afraid this beast –” another kick, and Ajax thinks he can hear Paimon’s voice shrieking something. “do not have enough mora to make up for your losses – and besides”, the baron audibly grins, “for the insult he had done to the esteemed geo-archon, for such blasphemy, only a sincere apology can make for a suitable compensation, won’t you say, fair lady?”
The Tianquan seems to start to say something further, but other voices, the baron’s lackeys, probably, starts yelling out agreements, apparently having received the signal of doing so.
And Ajax can not hear any of it, because a sharp yell of “Apologise!” comes above him, along with a sharp slam that bangs his face down on the statues feet.
So that’s it.
His forehead throbs. His nose – probably broken. His lips too –
Ajax pushes up against the grip holding his head down, remembers Signora’s words and whispers – “No.”
Screams sound around him, along with another yell and slam that blackens his eyes for a moment.
He pushes up and says, “No.”
I pray. His eyes darken and blurs in the next slam.
Let me die in you.
Let me rest.
He pushes up. Whispers. “No.”
He cannot feel his face, nor his mouth – all of it twisted in one throbbing mess that seems to echo the nausea pushing at his chest. Another slam comes, and he pulls from the crevice inside where he has hidden the scars from below, from where he has once fuelled his Foul Legacy, to croak out a blubbered “No.”
His eyes cannot see much anymore, but he thinks he feels blood from his mouth falling at the statue and –
I pray. He begs, floating half outside himself, a muted fear coming back because he did not mean to desecrate the statue, please, please –
Let me die in you.
He feels himself drowning.
Zhongli. He begs, in the darkness where everything seems to sink silent and voiceless.
Let me die in you.
It has been nearly three days.
It has been two days and ten hours and thirty minutes and twenty – now twenty five seconds –
The hawker he is standing in front of, Zhongli realises, is selling candied hawthorns.
Childe likes the taste. One of the few dishes in Liyue that his friend can eat easily, and while Zhongli has always enjoyed helping him to correct his grip on the chopsticks – he cannot disregard the amount of effort Childe has to put in the dinners due to those utensils.
He…has not seen Childe since … since then.
It is only to be expected, Zhongli understands, of course, that Childe would be angry with him, probably felt that Zhongli has been wasting his time – perhaps, though Zhongli was apprehensive of this possibility as he had seldom been before, in his very long life – that the man has stopped considering him a friend altogether.
A possibility, if true, then one that he will strive to change as soon as – as soon as –
As soon as he meets Childe again.
Its been over two days, almost three, and –
This is where they usually met up, previously, in the mornings. Zhongli has visited the fatui quarters, but was told that he could not enter – which he understands, with the present political mess between the two countries, the rules are much stricter than before.
But he has not seen Childe in three days.
Childe may have been the one who refused him entry – Zhongli understands this too, and knows in that case he will have to wait for the man to calm down. Admittedly, he has been waiting for the man to challenge him to a fight – he knows how his friend responds to anger, and has been…disappointed…when Childe never turned up at all, nor any challenge of battle came –
Zhongli has already decided to let Childe get at least three, if not more, hits in.
Perhaps, that will calm the man down? Of course, Zhongli will fight him properly too, to do anything else would be a dishonour that none, lest of all, an warrior like Childe, deserves, not to mention, one that the human will definitely refuse to forgive him for.
But he has not seen Childe at all.
For three days.
His contract is placed such that the Tsaritsa will pay later – more specifically, she has promised Zhongli three wishes as long as they were not directly opposing her plans regarding Celestia, nor asked for the gnosis to be returned. One wish – Zhongli has already asked for – namely asking her to signify her inheritor in case of her removal as archon, and the candidate he has selected is the last hair of Khaenri’ah’s blood – it was little, if anything at all, to even start to address the wrongs done to that land, but one he has had to try for, nonetheless.
He can, if he so wishes, ask tsaritsa to use another wish and give Childe to him but friendship can not be forced, Zhongli knows, and what he seeks is the affection among companions from Childe, not – not the travesty that such an insulting wish will bring about.
He has not seen Childe in three days.
Perhaps he can break into Childe’s room, just for a glance – but no, Zhongli admonishes himself the moment the desire appears. Humans holds their privacy precious, and disrespecting Childe’s personal space is a sure way to be pushed away by him.
But he has not seen his Childe. For three days.
“Mr. Zhongli.” The hawker sounds irritated. “Even if you are not going to buy the candies, could you not stand and sigh here? People will think something’s wrong with my food –”
“Terribly sorry.” He apologises quickly, moving away. At another time he may have bought some as a better apology, but Childe is not here, not with him, and –
He had not seen his dear friend for three days. His friend who perhaps did not think of Zhongli as a friend anymore.
I am not archon anymore. He consoles himself, pushing down the worry of what if Childe doesn’t want a god as his friend. Now he is only Zhongli, and non-human heritage aside, Childe will not, should not have any reason, political or otherwise, to refuse friendship with him.
Someone nearly barrels into him, the man looking frazzled as he apologises. Zhongli is more concerned that the man may have hurt himself – though the time with Childe has taught him to remember retaining a human body, sometime he still forgets.
“I am alright – of course – I am alright”, the man looks flabbergasted at Zhongli’s concern, and seems to slow down a bit, suggesting, “Sir, you may want to vacate this place – more millieths will be passing by soon – we are in a hurry so –”
The man is, Zhongli notes, indeed a millieth, albeit one that is rather young.
“Is anything the matter?” He asks, a faint hope that he cannot bother to be guilty about that perhaps Childe has decide to take the anger out on the city – danger to Liyue aside, this will let Zhongli see his friend again.
“Its those damned Snezhnayans!!” The little millieth loses his temper at the question, though Zhongli understands its not addressed to him. “Not one ounce of civility – they are going to make some kind of –”
Grief. Blood, Painpainpain.
Fear. A plea –
“ – human sacrifice –”
Let me die in you.
“ – Rex Lapis’ statue –”
Let me die in you.
“ – Sir? Sir? What –”
He is shifting.
Body pushing beyond the human bindings, back to his eseence, to the rumbling echoes of mountains, and the hunger of chasms, and the dominion of gravity –
All Rex Lapis can feel is rage.
Has he felt like this before?
He doesn’t remember.
All he known is the fury, and the grief and the pain –
His friend is – is –
Praying to die.
I did this.
I did this.
He needs to see his human.
Rex Lapis can rip away the city to go there, can tear open a gorge through Liyue and reach his Ajax –
But his form is morphing still beyond human knowledge, to his primordial form and – and it is time his parts remembered their origin, remembered where they came from and will return to.
Remembered who he is.
And it is the quickest path to his Ajax.
Morax lets the last of the seals on himself fall away, like dusts of light falling, spilling away from a dying star, lets himself awaken, for the first time since he has become a him, a person, a selfhood of singularity from the chaos that was non-existence of both existence and non-existence alike, since the everything has come form his nothingness, and the seven were formed from one.
And with the last of star dusts falling away he shifts through space to reach his heart.
Aether has not even managed to cover Paimon’s eyes, much less his own, when the sudden and brutal slam rings through the place, for a moment freezing everybody, even the qixings, at the unexpected cruelty, and the resulting blood – even Diluc, whom Aether knew for a fact hated all fatui with a wrath burning hotter than his element, has flinched in surprise, and moving forward as quickly as Aether and Kaeya at the sight.
Except there ahs not been enough time – and before any of them, millieths, qixings or civilians alike could do much – that damned baron’s guards stepping forward to stop them – another three, four slams had sounded, and –
Paimon is crying.
There is so much blood –
Punching a guard with his anemo – and moving beyond another – the milleith are moving too, and Aether sees Diluc grabbing one of the noble’s throat, that baron, Kaeya’s ice shooting forward to freeze the guard who has been slamming Childe –
And Childe crumples soundlessly at the statue’s feet.
Aether does not particularly like him either, does not trust him – but this, this –
And what will Rex Lapis say – the one he has called friend – Aether has seen the ex-archon walking around listlessly around all the places he has been to with Childe and –
The statue cracks.
Perhaps. Aether thinks, wanting to cry like Paimon is, because there is so much blood.
Even Rex Lapis’ statue can not bear this injustice.
The stone falls and shatters. And Aether, along with rest of the people in the place, falls silent, watching wide eyes as underneath the stone a figure stands, larger than life, not only in material dimensions, but rather –
Greater, larger, beyond anything humans can conceive of, yet familiar, in both the feeling of being the origin tying all them together and –
Aether knows that face. As does all of Liyue.
The god bends his knees, kneels to the human at his feet. Picks him up, small and unmoving in his palm, and the sheer, unspeakable tenderness curling around his very being at the act –
He is crying, Aether realises.
The figure brings the silent human closer to his sight, cups his fingers around the still form as though to shield it away from all, and a sound echoes through the sky, the ocean, from horizon to horizon, a long, unending fury, and grief, and rage, and pain, and –
Dragonroar. Aether thinks, dazed from the sound and the power pressing down on all of his existence –
No. His mind provides absently, strangely curling in on itself as the sound increases on intensity, the sky above darkening with cracks running on then.
This is beyond anything any conceivable creature can produce – perhaps, only the one beyond creation itself –
The sky cracks and Aether is looking at familiar pillars through the cracks. The sky cracks and half of it is a chasm of darkness, and he recognises it somewhere deep in himself.
The edges of the world, Aether thinks, seems to be pressing in. He watches the figure look at the cracked sky, and the sound rings greater yet, a clear fury that darkens Aether’s sight at its tidal fierceness.
I have made you. The sound rings with words, though Aether can not tell the tongue. It rings inside his being, with a sense that is beyond the shape of words.
I will unmake you.
The skies shudder, and Aether watches, curled up on the ground, Paimon trembling in his arms, starlight from the pillars spreading towards the cupped palm of the god, and the darker half trying to pull away, reducing itself.
Good wishes. He thinks, but cannot remember how he knows this. Prayers and blessings. And the good will of the world itself.
But the form in the god’s palm lies still, unmoving.
And the figure cradling the human in his palm screams again – the sound ripping away the fabric of the world around them, and Aether sees stars dying and living around him, feels the worlds trembling as the god’s fury presses down on their existence –
He is standing on red.
Zhongli’s throat aches. He feels himself cracking, pieces of stone falling off as he becomes one with this statue, the silent idol, his idol, his image at whose feet Ajax has – Ajax has –
His feet are stained red, the vermillion paining his stone skin in a bright vibrancy that claws something out from inside Zhongli.
Ajax. He wants to call, tries to shape the words, because surely, surely his friend will answer him, as soon as Zhongli calls him, his Ajax has never refused him ever, no matter what Zhongli has asked for, his Ajax –
All his throat can produce is a keen.
Ajax is not answering.
Ajax is not moving.
With every moment of silence Zhongli morphs, further and further away from all humanity, from all and any conceivability binding him, and he knows, with an apathy he has not allowed himself to entertain in eons, that he is breaking everything he has made, is unmaking everything back to the nothingness that is his truest form.
Ajax does not move.
He kneels, cups his friend, his dear friend, in his palms.
Mortals are frail. He knows this, has known this.
But his Ajax has never been so silent, so unmoving, so lifele –
His scream is tearing through his self. His cry is shattering the divides between his worlds –
Not his. Not his. Without Ajax nothing of these held any meaning, any value.
Pleas ring in his ears. Zhongli – or, what has once been Zhongli, for he did not know if he was anything anymore – watches the mortals curl up, trying to hide away, while the immortals –
They are begging him to stop. He looks at the trembling pillars of Celestia, the shadowy chasms of the abyss, and thinks of tearing them all down.
Return him. He snarls at the dark chasm who has dared to place a claim on his friend’s soul, to the bright halls who has not seen it fit to share their light with his friend.
Return him. He screams, pleads, begs. I will unmake you. I will give you anything, everything.
The tall pillars offer their starlight, their fatelines, good karma, blessings and good wishes that make the very core of their existence. The dark chasm tries to shrink back on itself, tries to separate the threads binding Ajax’s – his Ajax’s – soul to itself.
The light sinks in his friend’s body – unmoving – without ripple, without warmth. And as the darkness tries to pull back, Zhongli watches, aches in his every bit, his friend’s soul following it – as though there is no other recourse, no other home he can find.
He watches his Ajax fade, bit by bit, moment by moment.
There are broken toys.
Zhongli looks for his Ajax, searches for the last bit of consciousness that must be there, must, must, surely he too will cease to be if his Ajax is truly –
There are broken toys in his Ajax’s soul. Some he remembers as what Ajax had bought while walking the streets of Liyue. Others, he recognises, are from different parts of Teyvat.
He follows the trail of toys, floating in mid-air, strewn all over the black emptiness that claims to be his Ajax’s soul, and he doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand, how could this be his bright friend, how, how, why –
He follows the toys, and realises – thrown away. Left behind. Unwanted.
The trail ends with a lantern.
Zhongli nears the lantern. It is unlit, but whole, and placed carefully upright. Hand-made – by an amateur, obviously.
Ajax made this.
He looks at the lantern, and doesn’t dare to touch it. The paper is fragile, painfully so – and Zhongli fears the slightest carelessness could tear it.
“I don’t want to go.”
Zhongli looks up, heart twisting in a moment of fearful joy, because he knows this voice, and sees –
So young. He holds still, in the same fear that has kept him from touching the lantern, and watches the child.
Fourteen? Fifteen? The figure before him is thinner and smaller that Zhongli has ever known his friend as, and those eyes –
The blue eyes that have always sparkled in mischief and amused warmth are now gaunt, shadowy, blurry with exhaustion in a way that makes Zhongli want to cradle the child close to himself.
“I don’t want to go.” The boy – Ajax, his Ajax – speaks again, not to Zhongli but to the direction that only he can see till Zhongli follows his eyes, and sees what his friend is looking at.
It is a dinner table. Three children, three young adults, two middle aged man and woman.
His friend’s family.
His Ajax stands away, watches the people sitting in firelight while shadows clad him and whispers again, “I don’t want to leave.”
None of them seems to hear.
None of them looks at his Ajax.
Zhongli watches Ajax turn away, with a wary sigh that seems to wreck through his bones, and the firelight goes out.
“Ajax.” He calls out, or perhaps he only tries to make the sound.
But Ajax does not hear. He is walking – walking through a snow covered path, Zhongli sees, follows after him, pine and fir growing tall to loom over them.
There is an old woman ahead of them.
“We all come from earth.” Her voice echoes with the cold wind. “We all return to earth.”
Ajax stops. Watches her walking away.
“All of us?” He asks to the sky darkening above them, cracking as more darkness seeps in.
“Even the ones earth does not want?”
Ajax. Zhongli tries to touch his hand, his shoulder, his face. Please. Please.
“Even the ones who tries to hurt earth?” Ajax murmurs to the void around them.
You haven’t. Zhongli begs, futility slicing through him as Ajax looks at the darkness, blank and numb, and Zhongli’s fingers pass through him rippleless.
Please. Come back. Come back.
They are standing on the seashore. Waves crashing on their feet.
“I wanted to stay.” Ajax murmurs.
His hands are open, outstretched before him. Zhongli shudder at the sight of blood spilling from open wounds on them, tries futilely to wipe them away.
There are shards of starconch piercing Ajax’s palm.
Zhongli watches, feels more of him breaking as another hand wraps around Ajax’s wrist.
His own – he recognises the shape, the form of his human image.
Except it is not, it is not. The figure Zhongli sees is made of stone, eyes unfeeling as they looks at Ajax, his Ajax, is this how his friend sees him –
The hand tightens around Ajax’s wrist, and Zhongli wants Ajax to break away, to pull away, and instead sees his friend standing silent, unprotesting, defenceless, unguarded, looking at the figure that wears Zhongli’s face.
He watches Ajax’s wrist breaking audibly, white bone peeking out of bloodied flesh and he screams, cries, begs.
“I wanted to stay.” Ajax whispers.
He still doesn’t fight, doesn’t try to pull away, doesn’t refuse as the stone figure pushes its fingers inside his blue eyes, in his throat, tears open his chest cavity – No. No. Please – pulls out his – Ajax’s, his Ajax’s – heart and –
“Why can I never stay?” Ajax murmurs, blinded and bleeding too much for Zhongli to wipe it away.
“Why doesn’t anyone want me to stay?”
I want. I want. Please.
The fingers tighten around the beating organ, tears it from veins and arteries.
The fingers squelches it to shapeless mass of bleeding flesh, throws it away on the sand, the red staining the waves.
The waves are red
red red red red red red
“We come from earth.”
The old woman sits by the fire. Zhongli sinks to his knees beside Ajax, who stands at a distance, watching, listening, never nearing the light.
He rests his head against Ajax’s thighs, bends down to rest his forehead on his feet when he cannot, still, still, cannot touch his –
Please. He whispers. Please.
“We all return to earth.”
Ajax sits down, and for a moment Zhongli hopes, pleads, that he has felt Zhongli’s touch, has heard –
Ajax looks at the fire. “Does everyone really come from earth?” He asks.
Yes. Zhongli tries to touch his face, tries to hold him. You are from me. You are mine.
Stay. Please. Stay.
“Ice and snow is his hair.” The woman intones, and a part of Zhongli, a distant, far away part that he can not feel right now, is surprised at this tale, a lore from a time he had thought forgotten by all.
“Thunder on his forehead. Storms are his eyes.”
“His skin and flesh are of soil, stones, rocks.” Ajax murmurs along, eyes falling close, shadows pooling where the eyelids caress his cheeks, his lips chapped, throat raw. “Life and death infinite on his being. Bones of lava. Veins of rivers and –”
“Ocean in my heart.” Zhongli whispers. “Please come back.”
“But nannan”, Ajax opens his eyes, and the blue in his iris is faded, tired. He looks at where the old woman has been only a moment ago, now only a stone statue of Rex Lapis sits – “what about the abyss?”
“What about the ones who fall through the crack?”
“I didn’t know.” Zhongli begs. “I didn’t – Ajax, I didn’t know.”
He watches Ajax walking to the statue, kneeling at its feet. He wants to break the stone in pieces.
“Flesh and blood and bones.” Ajax looks up, exhaustion in his breath. “The body is only that – and from one to another, they are all same.”
“You won’t know its me.”
I will always know you. Zhongli tears at his hair, claws through his ribs, because he has heard these words, heard this prayer, knows what his Ajax is asking –
“I don’t want to go back there.” Ajax says, and Zhongli sees the despairing fear in his every whisper, wants to tear himself down because why has he not known –
“Please.” Ajax presses his forehead down at the statue’s feet. “I don’t want to go back – back to the abyss.”
“So many dead sleep in you.” His voice breaks, and Zhongli breaks a bit more with him every moment.
“You won’t know its me.”
“Let me die in you.” Ajax murmurs, curling up, shivering at the memory of a time and place Zhongli has not been by his side, has not known to protect him –
“Not good enough to – to belong.” Ajax whispers, in a dark expanse where everything has fallen away, and Zhongli watches the dark tendrils curl up his ankles.
It doesn’t matter if the darkness pulls away. Not unless his Ajax realises –
But I didn’t tell him. Zhongli thinks. When I could, when he could still hear me – I didn’t tell him.
“Can’t I at least have this much?” Ajax is watching the tendrils too. Watching the blistering burns underneath the darkness, watching his skin and flesh peeling back –
“Why – why do this?” Ajax whispers, and Zhongli thinks that perhaps he has seen him, because Ajax is looking at him, in his eyes –
Or perhaps he is looking at another him, the one only Ajax can see.
“If you knew”, Ajax tells him, voice small in a way Zhongli never heard. “If you knew what I came for – why – why smile at me?”
“If you knew”, Ajax asks, shoulders crumpled, “why punish me like this?”
“You made the contract.” Ajax says. His voice breaks at places, tongue caught at words like he is forgetting how to shape the sounds. “What was the point of – what was I there for?”
Zhongli doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what it was specifically the tsaritsa sent Childe for – because all the letter said was that the eleventh harbinger would be there for chaos, a way for Zhongli to carry out his plan of testing Liyue – but Zhongli knows. He knows he could have, would have, should have, found another way if necessary – and the tsaritsa –
She has only wanted to hurry the contract along.
“Your game never needed my presence.” Ajax says. “Just to throw me away –”
“Just a collateral, right? Not even a necessary one. Then – for what?” Ajax laughs like he is crying, and Zhongli feels himself shattering.
“Why doesn’t anyone want to keep me?” Ajax’s lips are colourless, his face haggard.
“What is so wrong with me?” He asks, begs.
“Even at the end –” Ajax looks at the darkness crawlilng up his limbs, voice crumbling in an exhausted terror.
“Can’t I at least end in you?”
“The abyss – it really hurts.”
“Please.” Ajax closes his eyes, blood dripping down his cheeks.
“I will go with you.” Zhongli tells him.
He feels hollowed out, emptied of all but the sorrow, the pain welling up in this small human’s entirety, but that is only as it should be, for the one who is his heart is fading away –
He has done this. Has curved these scars in Ajax’s marrow, has broken away every stone Ajax has tried to hold onto, torn and shredded every rope Ajax has tried to grasp trying to climb to safety.
And now Ajax cannot stay. Because Zhongli has told him, told him in everything but the words themselves, that he has no place by his side, no one to trust –
“I will go with you.” Zhongli presses his palms on Ajax’s hands, corroded from the abyss Ajax cannot escape. He watches his own hands, bloodstained stone fingers, burning, bleeding finally, finally, from the darkness creeping over them, and smiles because he can feel Ajax’s skin.
“I will stay.” He whispers to the human who still does not seem to feel his presence, nor see, but that is alright, because soon, soon, Zhongli too will be covered by the darkness and –
The abyss is his loneliness, the world’s despair, earth’s mourning. Once he gives in to the sorrow he had once locked away for existence to flourish, he – and with him all of his existence – will return to the nothingness.
‘You won’t be alone.” He tells his dear friend, cries because his Ajax is too tired to cry himself.
“All of me will be with you.”
It is only a matter of time.
Ajax watches the darkness crawling up his limbs. His bones feel heavier than the first sword he had held, in a time so long ago that he cannot remember if it was snowing that day.
He can still stand up, can try to run. But Ajax knows, with a numbing familiarity, that he cannot outrun himself.
The earth knew. He thinks. That is why it cracked open all those years ago. Sending me back to where I came from.
He should not have fought, should never have come out of the chasm.
Part of him screams, begs for mercy, for redemption, because it hurts, please, please, not again, not again.
Part of him feels too numb to try anymore.
Most of him feel… relieved.
At least, he thinks, at least Zhongli did not hear, did not have to see – see – see how much – how much of a monster I am.
Because he knows. Has that statue been one that could carry his prayer –
At the least, he believes, because what else does he have left, that has Zhongli known, at the least –
He would have given Ajax a quick death.
A small part of him wishes Zhongli knew.
It’s a part that is torn and burnt down quickly, because Ajax has done enough, has destroyed Zhongli’s home, tried to kill him, has – has –
Has already proven how unworthy he was.
So useless that the god has not even heard his last prayer.
A tinier part, almost a whisper that won’t disappear, begs to see those cor lapis eyes.
Ajax wonders how long it will take in the chasm for him to forget how Zhongli smiled.
He wishes the darkness will hurry up in swallowing him.
That way he won’t have to remember anymore.
Ajax fears he will not be able to remember ever again.
The darkness slows even further, as though in a mockery of Ajax’s fears, and he knows, he knows, this is his eventuality, till he forgets who he is, and even then, this cruel mockery will be the only thing in store for him, the most suitable ending for a clown –
There is water dripping down his form. And that sensation, the presence of any sensation at all, is so surprising, that Ajax pushes away the darkness clinging to his eyes, heaves and claws at the tendril breathlessly till he can sit up again, can see –
A figure kneels by him.
Ajax looks. And looks.
He should know this person, he thinks. But the name is lost before he can form them, and Ajax –
Who is –
Who is he?
A figure kneels by him
An echo comes – he listens –
The echo comes – his lips shape the words with it.
“Ice and snow are his tresses.”
An old woman – who is she?
“Ice and snow.” She says, and he repeats.
“Ice and snow. His tresses. Pure and unchanging.”
“Thunder on his forehead. The eternal ambition.”
“His eyes are storms. Singing of freedom.”
The figure’s eyes – they have cracks underneath, he sees.
Trying to cry. He thinks, and then wonders how he knew.
“Skin of stone. Flesh of soil.” The echo rings in him, around him again, and he follows, grasping at the sound, pulling away from the dark tendrils burning through his ankles.
“Tolerance and patience.” His lips murmur.
“Life and death.”
Flowers. He thinks, watching the figure, blooming and dying.
“Impossibility of possibilities.”
“Bones of lava. Strength, desire, passion.”
The figure’s chest – he watches – pain, is this pain? – welling up inside – torn open asunder, ribs and veins torn out.
“His veins are rivers.” He murmurs along the dying echo, drags his body forward to reach the figure, fights away the darkness pulling at his feet with a ferocity that he has never known, or perhaps forgotten, to have possessed.
“Carrying his dreams, hopes, memories. Love.” He tries to press his hands over the figure’s heart. “To the ocean in his heart.”
Ajax? Is he Ajax
The figure’s chest is torn open
Bones broken, veins torn
He is Ajax
Fire drips down the broken bones. Water crashes down from the torn open heart.
Ajax pressed his hands over the heart, tries to stop the cascading water.
“His grief he carries in himself.” The echo murmurs. “His mourning, his sorrow, his despair.”
“The abyss is what he has lost.”
“The abyss is what he cannot accept.”
“The abyss is what he cannot let go.”
Water spills out from between Ajax’s fingers, flowing down endlessly, his blood, his love, flowing down Ajax’s body, flowing around him, flowing through him –
He looks at the cracks below the figure’s eyes, recognises the light gleaming inside the cracks.
Cor Lapis. He thinks.
He is underwater.
Ajax knows this with the same certainty of knowing that he is, still, surprisingly, existing.
He can feel the water, can feel that he is completely submerged, and yet, he is breathing.
This surprise, greater than realising that he was not dead yet, is what pushes him to open his eyes, trying to sit up, and then floundering as he realises that he is, indeed, floating mid water.
Ajax can not see end to the water, in any direction at all. Stranger still is the light – at times it seems like the sun shining through the water, at times the water seems to glisten with a galaxy in it – though Ajax is well aware, that at night time underwater ought to be completely dark, void of any light at all.
Has it not been for his innate awareness of the element, perhaps even with being submerged in the liquid, he would have questioned if it was truly water.
He tries to remember – and remembers pain.
He also remembers, from far away, darkness curling around him, trying to drag him down, and – and –
A figure. Starlight.
Ajax remembers following that light to move out of the darkness, though he also remembers, with painful clarity, how hard each step has been.
But no pain is greater than returning to the abyss.
He looks around again, wondering if this was – some sort – of death.
Because Ajax cannot remember the last time his body has felt so light, so painless.
He is thinking of trying to swim, since breathing is not a problem, and see if the height was really as endless as his instinct is saying it is when, he stills from surprise, a large – island? – comes up beneath him, the ground soft and mossy underneath his touch, and – and – curving up?
The island seems to move, with Ajax seated on it still, and he watches wide eyes as somehow it moves beyond the water that has seemed endless –
The island is attached to – a larger – long – what in the name of the seven –
There are stars around him. If Ajax stares at the light a moment longer he can see – tall structures in mid-air – he whips around to another one and – strange beasts that he has not seen –
The island is – trembling? – earthquake?
Am I on Teyvat still?
The island is – shrinking – Ajax decides after a moment of grabbing on to the shrub right beside him just perfect for grabbing on and has definitely not existed a minute ago what the hell –
The islands continues to shrink – as does whatever it is that the island is attached to and –
And Ajax sees. Blank and dazed, first because the sheer existence of this – this being – is – is –
And then because he remembers a tale his grandmother used to tell him.
Ajax sees ranges of frozen expanse, white and sharp, ice and snow falling like a fountain, or a mane. The figure – and he can recognise it now, that it is a figure, and he trembles before the enormity, the infinity – Ajax sees a cacophony of furious thunder on the stony planes of his forehead, and lower, lower – stormy whirlpools – his eyes, Ajax thinks. His eyes are of storms.
The figure nears yet more, and Ajax knows now, can recognise, that the island – it is his palm, curled around him, cupping him in its midst.
His skin, Ajax recognises, thinks of the names – is made of stones and rocks and ores and soils – granite, marble, scarlet quartz , diamond, sandstone, feldspar, basalt, limestone. It is the rocky ground of mountains, the soft silt of plains, the sand of desert – all over the figure, in cracks and ridges over his skin, Ajax watches, breathless with awe, trees blooming and carrying fruit, dying to empty wood again and again.
He sees cor lapis gleaming through the cracks at places and sees it turn in to starlight – watches a star being born and burning to its death with only a dark hole left in its stead till another star glows inside the darkness anew.
Ajax knows he is crying. But for the first time in his life, or perhaps death for how else can this sight be possible, he feels no shame for his tears, will not have even realised their presence if not for his sight blurring.
His eyes tries to take in more of this magnificence, and he shudders as his sight falls on what should be the figure’s torso.
It is cracked open, and Ajax feels a drowning grief welling up inside at the sight. The crack runs from throat down to the stomach – the stone darkened like ash as ribs and spines made of lava stands naked before Ajax’s eyes, and he trembles at the sight of the bones being broken too.
All of the covers of flesh and bone have been pulled wide open to create this gaping chasm though which –
Ajax sees long strands of water – streams and rivers are his veins, he thinks hysterically – running all down to the throbbing – heart, his heart – body of roiling waves – an ocean of unknown depths.
I was there. He knows it with a certainty that makes him shake from inside.
And it comes with the same fierce grief as before, because before Ajax’s eyes, this figure, this god, is –
The lava from his broken bones is dripping down, turning the life on his skin in to ashes before time. And at the same time, the torn apart veins, and the heart – the ocean – is bleeding out, in tides and waves of cascading water crashing down his form.
Ajax wants to cover up that broken, torn open part, wants to, wants to – to heal, protect, shield –
But he is only human, infinitesimally small before this – this god – he can not even reach that heart so how –
Then he feels.
Everything. Everything. It wraps around him, drowns him, and Ajax – Ajax feels.
And he tries to press his heart towards the vastness, tries without knowing how, to tear his heart out for the one who has placed Ajax in his own heart.
He floats for a long moment, feels the – presence – wrapped around him, filling him from inside, curl closer, in something more conceivable, more –
Ajax presses himself against the – still not human shaped, but infinitely closer to one even in the form curved on the statues – god, god, trying to steady his breathing, trying not to pass out.
Perhaps. He thinks, and that he can think at all is the greatest proof of his getting himself back. I will wake up and –
The firmness wrapping him closer puts a stop on the thought and is he sitting on the statue of Rex Lapis?
The heart still attached to his own thrums with affirmation, and Ajax nearly passes out again, as much from the shock of his present perch, as from the now nameable, but still overwhelming, tide of joy, fear, backbackback, minemine, dearest, minemine, pain,sorrow,remorse, sorrysorrysorrystay pleaseplease staydont leave, mine, joy, joy, lovelovelovelovelo –
Ajax presses his face against what he realises moments later to be wider, firmer than a human’s chest, stiffening and straightening because they are still in midst of Liyue harbour and why was everyone curled up on the ground what is happening –
He feels his mind being pulled along to share the god’s vision, and Ajax feels his bones weakening, because this sight is not one meant for finite beings – because he sees, feels how the horizon, no, the edges of the world are pressing inwards, under unshaking hold of the one cradling him.
What I make, he hears inside, a promise and an offer, I can unmake.
Ajax watches the lands flashing before his eyes, as though his sight has no limit of either direction nor distance – and sees both the familiar and the unfamiliar.
He watches figures, greater than humans, yet smaller than the being holding him, looking back – in supplication, he realises.
Among the tall cliffs and windy fields, an young boy in green tilts his head towards the sky – no – to the being looming over all of existence. The boy is smiling, Ajax sees, recognising the anemo god faintly, sees that his eyes and cheeks are wet. He looks again, his sight beyond his own control, and sees mountains with red trees and – the adepti, he knows them – kneeling, head lowered in respect. Another land flashes by, and a blue clad figure kneels on one knee, a silent offering despite the proud arch of her back. Underneath a blazing volcano a woman – goddess – stands, her face hard, yet her eyes too, are lowered. Another land – another goddess, thunder trembling around her, stands with bowed head – and another god, flowers in his hair, flowers in place of hair, kneels with lowered head.
The last goddess, Ajax feels the limits of the world pressing in further, the lands trembling, as he cannot stop the flinch running though him at the familiar sight of her fractured eyes made of ice crystals, carrying bottomless, endless grief frozen in time, and the god wrapped inside his heart thrums with heightened fury.
He sees, or seems to see, for Ajax does not knee the directions any more – a cracked sky, one side showing tall, trembling pillars, and the other –
He knows that darkness well.
At this recognition the god’s wrath tides out once more, and Ajax sees the abyss shuddering into itself and hears a scream –
Aether’s voice, he thinks, half delirious from the sights and confused because why, but the god seems to pause at the scream, the high tide of fury ebbing down to a tighter control.
The Archons of Teyvat. The words spread around them, formless in shape yet carrying the intense presence of their maker. Celestia. Abyss.
I call upon you to hold witness.
A contract was made and kept – partial payment still left on the payer’s side – between the Cryo Archon, and myself, in the form of Geo Archon.
Ajax feels him pressing the memories into all his audience.
Today’s cruelty– his fury burns through the world, threatens to turn all to dust – had neither reason nor right, none beyond some mortal’s greed to power, an archon’s failure of her duties in leading them, a god’s ignorance of their origin.
The mortals shall end their fate of this life.
Pillars of cor lapis shoots up from the ground, spearing through each noble who has participated in support of the baron, the stone bleeding them dry before they could even wake up.
You. Ajax watches his archon – ex-archon – finally collapse to her knees, cracks running up her cheeks as the pressure bears down upon her.
You have failed your worshippers once before. And now once again, you fail one who trusts in you.
Each of your actions shall have their dues. The voice snarls. The earth does not forget. And on that hour I shall call forth these witnesses once again, to bear proof of my oath of retribution.
Ajax watches her trembling silently, eyes cracking with broken light, and feels grief digging in inside him. In response the god cradling his heart stills, and pulls away the pressure threatening to break the world.
For now – I will ask you of the second part of payment. His voice, now, is infinitely closer to what Ajax has known.
This human who has once knelt to you. Rex Lapis intones. You will release all hold from his entirety, for this moment and eternity.
Ajax feels a chill, like frozen fingers, pulling away from his self. He closes his eyes, not letting himself watch.
He feels the body around him to be much more – human sized – and being cradled as the god moves down from his throne.
And then, to his horror and rising consternation, Zhongli – he is, undeniably, Zhongli now – turns and places Ajax on the throne where the statue once had been, himself kneeling down before Ajax’s feet, in full view of all of the worlds.
Has it not for Zhongli pinning him with both his eyes – and Ajax can not look away from those eyes, cannot breathe when he remembers the figure he has seen – and his palms pressing down on Ajax’s knees to keep him from jumping off – Ajax would have, in fact, jumped off this – throne, its Rex Lapis’ throne – immediately and promptly.
To even greater horror, Ajax sees, Zhongli’s eyes – his cor lapis eyes – filling with tears.
“Ajax.” The god says, not bothering to hide voice, words, or his tears from all of the existing universes. “I hurt you.”
“All the causes of your pain.” Zhongli promises him. “Shall have due retribution.”
He doesn’t, Ajax notes, voice the apology, though Ajax can feel the litany of I am sorry I am sorry I am sorry inside him, the vastness of the god’s heart only barely less overwhelming than it has been at first touch, and from the same touch he recognises Zhongli’s hope of letting the world know that he, and not Ajax, has been at fault, and an equally great worry that he is forcing Ajax to accept the apology like this.
Another time, Ajax thinks, he may have tried to explain, that it was in fact, Ajax’s fault, very much so, that Zhongli cannot simply wipe everything away just because – because –
As it is – Ajax tries to open his mouth, finds his tongue unable to form coherent words out of the – everything – he is feeling, and he does not even know where his heart begins and Zhongli’s ends – and he closes his mouth, breathes, once, twice, before pressing his hand over his eyes.
With his other hand he tries to grasp at the god’s palm, tries to say everything that his mouth can not shape, not through the breathes stuttering out of rhythm, and the lump that has been weighing inside his ribs these last three days, clawing at his lungs – it seems to roll up, all at once, and he can not stop trembling even within the hold tightening around him –
He feels, somewhere inside him, the last of the pressure on the world’s limits falling away.
Ajax passes out sometime between Zhongli wrapping him back up in his arms, the god’s panic and worry soothing away the tidal waves wrecking through him, and the god disappearing in a whirling mess of teleportation.
not a flesh wound – sleeping –
– do you –
– call Barbara –
– checked – calm down –
– safe –
safe safe safe safe
The gleaming – eyes – he realises – are peering in to his own, reflecting sunlight. He blinks blearily at them, till his vision clears enough and there is a palm, fingers running through his hair –
The eyes tremble, and Ajax trembles along with them because –
Because Zhongli presses his face over Ajax’s chest, murmuring his name incoherent in muted, but obvious choked sobs.
“Zhongli. Zhongli.” He whispers, tries to pet at the – the head, the shoulders pressed over himself, and feels his own eyes burning, both from the grief in the god’s voice and his own panic.
His voice must have given his heart away, for Zhongli stills, breathing in against Ajax’s chest for a long moment, and when he raises his head, his eyes, Ajax feels his heart twisting at the sight, is redder than usual despite being dry.
“I thought.” Zhongli pulls back slightly, picks one of Ajax’s hand up, and presses in to his own forehead, like it was, Ajax was, precious. “I feared. That you – that you were lost to me.”
There’s sunlight from the open window falling on Zhongli’s face, on Ajax’s fingers where it rests against Zhongli’s skin, caught in a tight, and ever so tender, grasp within the god’s fingers.
Ajax remembers the ocean. The figure of starlight. And his cracked open heart –
“I didn’t know I could stay.” He whispers, admits, apologises, because he never wanted this, never wanted to cause his Zhongli this, this sheer grief.
“I am sorr –”
“Ajax.” Zhongli presses his free hand over Ajax’s mouth before he can finish the words.
“You do not owe me any apology.”
Ajax wants to refuse him, wants to tell him, to remind him that Ajax came here for –
The god, infinity in his eyes, for all that he binds himself in human shape, looks at Ajax like he knows what Ajax is trying to say, and perhaps he does, because what Ajax sees in those eyes made of bottomless light is an endless vastness, an expanse, a tsunami –
“I always knew.” Zhongli tells him, presses kisses, soft whispers of warmth, over Ajax’s fingertips. “What you came here for. I knew it was loyalty and not enemity.”
“I should have told you.” Zhongli says, presses his lips over the centre of Ajax’s palm still in his grasp. “That I knew. That I wanted you to stay regardless.”
“I should have told you.” Zhongli breathes over Ajax’s knuckles, eyes wet once more, and Ajax can feel his own eyes burning, his breathes shuddering.
“What you mean to me.”
Ajax keeps his eyes open, watches Zhongli lean down, feels warm lips pressing over the corner of his eyes. “My ocean.” The god tells him, murmurs the words like a prayer over Ajax’s forehead.
“I will like to light that lantern with you.” Zhongli pulls back, looks at him like Ajax is the only one in his world.
There is sunlight pooling over Zhongli’s skin, his eyes, his voice. Ajax breathes in, in, in, in, breathing home, and belonging and love and
Ajax leans up, lets his weight fall in the arms that are looping around him in a moment.
Rests his forehead against Zhongli’s.
From this close, his eyes are suns themselves, like light seen from underwater.
“Zhongli.” He says. Prays. Zhongli.
And the light wraps around him, warmth pressing over his mouth.
Zhongli. He says, thinks, prays.
I am home.
The sanskrit verses of the epithet -
नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् | किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ १॥
न मृत्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत्प्रकेतः | आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास ॥२॥
तम आसीत्तमसा गूहळमग्रे प्रकेतं सलिलं सर्वाऽइदम् | तुच्छ्येनाभ्वपिहितं यदासीत्तपसस्तन्महिनाजायतैकम् ॥३॥
कामस्तदग्रे समवर्तताधि मनसो रेतः प्रथमं यदासीत् | सतो बन्धुमसति निरविन्दन्हृदि प्रतीष्या कवयो मनीषा ॥४॥
तिरश्चीनो विततो रश्मिरेषामधः स्विदासीदुपरि स्विदासीत् | रेतोधा आसन्महिमान आसन्त्स्वधा अवस्तात्प्रयतिः परस्तात् ॥५॥
को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः | अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥६॥
इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न | यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥७॥
[Rig Veda. 10:129]
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