Xiao has guarded the Guili Plains for hundreds of years.
The remnants of the fallen gods manifest in grotesque, yet powerful ways. In the years immediately following the war, such manifestations were overwhelming in number—undead armies of fire and dust, strange horned beasts, dark spirits of the abyss—and they were enough to overcome two of the Yakshas.
The decades after that seemed pale in comparison, long periods of eerie calmness before chaos. Xiao and the other two Yakshas grew complacent. When the second wave came—some three hundred years after the first—it swept over them like a tide, and after Xiao emerged from the rubble, he was the only guardian left.
Time passes quickly now. The beings that Xiao defeats collapse onto the ground among the rocks and rot to become soil, returning to the cycle of elements that Xiao oversees, year after year. The heavy rainfall of monsoon season becomes the only real marker of the passing of time.
To the south of the plains is the bountiful harbor of Liyue. Its mountains protect it from the threat of evil beings, and its people bask in an intricate webbing of sea routes and traders.
In contrast, to the north of the plains, the people of Qingce Village lead small and simple lives, only peripherally aware of Xiao’s presence, but much more exposed to the harsh climate without a mountain range to protect them. During a fruitful season, the terraced fields are dotted with farmers tending to their crop and children wander around the outskirts of the village. During a poor season, the wind carries the scent of burning incense and flowers, a desperate cry for help to the Guardian Yaksha of the plains and the archons beyond.
Xiao watches as their prayers—for the most part—go unanswered. Morax, the dragon king of the south and the Archon of Geo, has been dormant since the war and answers to no one, absent even from the Rite of Descension.
But the mortals endure, season after season.
Nothing seems amiss for several decades: Xiao continues to protect the plains, striking down the monsters that appear; the villagers live out their small and simple lives; and the Archon of Geo presumably watches from the mountains, his absence as imposing as his presence.
The first peculiar thing is a severe drought. Rain refuses to fall for two harvests, and the crops that survive are withered and dry.
After the second year without rain, Xiao realizes that something must be awry. He’s slain more demons in the past few months than he has in the past few years. It feels like he’s been fighting every waking moment.
As he stabs a slithering, writhing, dying creature, he smells the smoke of a bonfire. Before him, across the plains, a ring of villagers have gathered outside their homes, Xiao guesses performing some kind of ancient ritual.
Xiao wades through the nest of flailing limbs and snapping teeth; he hacks a path through them, in the same way one would hack through a forest, until he reaches a knoll overlooking the village. A few hissing creatures trail him, scratching at his ankles and legs.
Absently, he sends a blast of anemo to scatter them away. He peers down at the village and its neighboring land.
What seems at first to be a dark storm cloud in the north quickly proves to be anything but. It descends down the hills north of the village like something out of a nightmare, ravenous and swarming.
A plague of locusts, Xiao realizes. In all his centuries of defending the plains and its people, he’s only seen a swarm this large four times before. From what he remembers, the locusts will rove through the croplands, devouring anything in sight. If Xiao were to guess, he thinks that the villagers’ terraced fields, which had been carefully—lovingly, even—tended to, will be gone before nightfall. No ritual will change that.
A stray claw gashes into Xiao’s leg, and Xiao turns his attention away from the village. The people will have to fend for themselves for now; Xiao has enough in his hands at the moment.
Even though Xiao makes it a point to seclude himself from the mortals he protects, it strikes a chord in him when he sees the people suffering from such misfortune. He has been watching this little village, has folded it into his care, for centuries without misgivings. Why now? What has upset Morax?
After the locusts comes a spell of heat. The scorching sun proves to be unbearable; Xiao seeks refuge under a sparse cropping of trees. But at least with the heat, there are fewer beasts to slay.
After the third day of burning, the villagers become desperate enough to cross the plains and ask Xiao to appease Morax himself.
The old man leading them cries out as they draw near. “Vigilant Yaksha,” he says. “Please. The villagers are suffering. Please—”
Xiao steps out from under the shade of his tree. The group of villagers tense fearfully at the sight of him. “What would you have me do?” he asks. It’s almost strange to be so close to them. His words are unfamiliar in his mouth from disuse.
A woman bravely speaks up. “Morax must be angry with us. But we’ve done all we can to appease him.”
Xiao shakes his head. “The Archon hasn’t spoken to me in centuries. I know as little as you.”
“Can’t you find him?” the woman asks. The lines of her face are gaunt. “It’s been almost three years since we’ve had proper rain. We won’t survive another harvest.”
Xiao weighs his options. “And if the evil beings return? Who will protect you from them then?”
“It won’t matter if there’s no one left to protect,” a young man interjects. “We have nothing to lose. I’ll gather the young men of the village. We’ll fend for ourselves if they cross the plain.”
The tenacity of the mortals is something Xiao always underestimates. They always find a way to live.
Xiao hefts his polearm in his hand. The calamities plaguing the villagers seem to know no end. Xiao might as well take advantage of this respite from evil and visit the Archon of Geo himself. No human would be able to cover the distance and scale the mountains in time.
“I’ll go,” he agrees.
The villagers look surprised, and Xiao wonders if he should’ve been kinder, all those years ago. “I’ll be quick,” he adds, and since there’s nothing else to say, he sets off.
Getting out of the Guili Plains takes two days’ worth of travel.
Xiao doesn’t stop until he reaches Cuijue Slope. There, he passes the nine pillars of peace and pauses to wash his face in a shallow pool and quench his thirst. He settles down to sleep in the shadow of one of the pillars.
Nightmares wake him well before dawn. Xiao straps his polearm to his back and begins to climb out of the deep valley. He slows down only once to slay a mitachurl in his path before he sees Jueyun Karst in the distance.
From then on, it takes another four days to reach the foot of Qingyun mountain. Next to the base of the steps spiraling upwards, a stone tablet sits with some writing scratched onto its surface. Before Xiao can read it, hoofsteps clop softly.
Xiao turns to see an enormous stag emerge from the shadows, its horns and hooves glowing amber. “Xiao,” the adeptus thunders.
“Moon Carver,” Xiao greets. Of all the adepti who serve Morax, Moon Carver is considered by many to be the kindest. Xiao’s lucky to come across him guarding the mountain today.
“You have traveled far,” Moon Carver intones. The great stag tilts its head consideringly. “You wish to see the dragon king.”
“I do,” Xiao says.
“What business have you with him?”
“Business?” Xiao asks dryly. It would be wiser to keep calm, but the journey to Qingyun has been more draining than Xiao expected it to be and his temper’s worn thin. “Hasn’t our master seen the people of the villages? Doesn’t he know of the drought and the plague?”
Moon Carver shakes his head. The white and gold and amber furs of his chest ripple as he huffs out a gust of air. “You have spent too much time alone, Xiao. You forget your place. Morax has his ways and it would do you good to remember that.”
Xiao opens his mouth to reply. He wants to say he’s only here to help the villagers—it was for Morax that Xiao shouldered the burden of protecting Liyue to begin with—but doesn’t have a chance to speak. Moon Carver stomps one of his glowing hooves into the earth and a great gust of adeptal energy sweeps over both of them. Whatever Xiao wanted to say is lost to the wind.
Xiao opens his eyes.
He blinks back darkness. When his vision clears, he sees that he’s no longer at the foot of the mountain. Instead, he is in what must be the inside of Qingyun mountain, the heart of the dragon king’s lair.
During the chaos of the Archon War, Xiao had no time and no purpose to ever visit Morax’s domain. After his liberation, Xiao was barely able to promise to repay his debt of gratitude to the Geo Archon before fighting broke out on the plains.
Now, he stands in the middle of it all.
Above him, the rocky ceiling stretches hundreds of meters upwards, leaving the cavern expansive enough for a dragon to fit through. A polished cobblestone path winds up in front of him, meandering past rich outcrops of ore, before stopping at a gaping entrance to another enormous corridor, nearly ten arm-spans across and four or five times as high. Walls emerge naturally halfway out of the mountainside, as if the earth decided to morph to please its master, and form the base of an enormous stone palace.
The earth seems to hum around him. Xiao’s never felt geo power like this before.
“Many a season has passed since an adepti other than the Mighty and Illuminated stood here,” comes a thundering voice behind him. Moon Carver approaches.
“Has Morax not been holding dinner parties?” Xiao asks dryly.
Moon Carver ignores him. “We digress. Morax is eager to speak with you. Follow me.”
Xiao follows Moon Carver up the winding cobblestone. From the corridor branch out several other paths. Moon Carver takes the one farthest to the right and leads them to a well-lit hall with a long stone table running down the center. A human stands near the elevated dais at the head of the table.
The human is tall, taller than Xiao, but still exudes the same aura he had centuries ago when they first met. He dons a simple tunic—a hood pools around his collarbone and robes wrap around his legs—and stands barefoot. Glowing vein-like markings travel up his arm. In his hand, he holds his stone cube.
“Xiao,” the Geo Archon says. He sounds pleased.
“Master,” Xiao says. Moon Carver ducks out of the hall, leaving Xiao and Morax in this strange, new form. “You’ve taken a new vessel.”
“In this body, I am Zhongli,” Morax says. He holds up a bare hand and examines it. “It has served me well.”
“Zhongli,” Xiao repeats, testing the name. He frowns. He has always known Morax in his dragon form, a powerful being of coiling muscles and glowing antlers. He’d fought alongside that form in the Archon War and had expected to see it now. “But why? What could a human vessel give you that you didn’t have before?”
Zhongli smiles. “I don’t think you trekked all the way here to ask me about that, did you?”
Xiao scowls. That paternal kind of patience translates better in this human form than previously; it’s especially annoying since Zhongli is irritatingly handsome now.
Zhongli places his Geo cube onto the stone table. “Walk with me,” he says. Instead of heading deeper into the mountain fortress, Zhongli leads them up a wide set of stairs. Even as a warrior god, Zhongli’s patience knows no bounds, and Xiao’s sure that pestering Zhongli won’t give him any answers.
As they walk, it becomes evident that the stone seems to love Zhongli, even in his human form. They pass rich outcrops of Cor Lapis and Noctilucous Jade; the rare crystals glimmer as Zhongli walks by, like they’re trying to impress him. Underfoot, the ground hums with excitement.
The stairs wander up what must be the height of the mountain. After nearly twenty minutes of climbing, they lead through a narrow passageway that opens to a peak overlooking the land below them.
A lone crane sweeps across the night sky. In the distance, Xiao can make out the cragged peak of Dragonspine.
“I suffered from the war,” Zhongli begins slowly. He stares down at his kingdom unseeingly. “My dragon form was severely wounded when I sent you to protect the Guili Plains. I still have not fully healed.”
“Still?” Xiao asks, shocked. He knows that the Geo Archon’s dragon was wasted by the war, but centuries of rest seem sufficient, even by godly standards, to recover.
“The injuries inflicted by the other gods were not kind to me,” Zhongli admits. “And the efforts of war take their toll.”
“Is that why you isolate yourself here?” Xiao asks. “The mortals haven’t seen you for centuries.”
“I was prideful,” Zhongli agrees wryly. “Can you blame me? I didn’t want others to see me in my weakened state, adepti or humans alike. You of all people, Xiao, should know that the gods have their faults.”
Xiao resists the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s hardly a fault to be wounded after battle.” He glances up at Zhongli.
Zhongli’s gaze flickers. Xiao’s never been good at reading human emotions, but he thinks that Zhongli must be hiding something.
“The demons of the Guili Plains,” Xiao starts. “They began coming in hordes a few years ago. They came with the plague and the pestilence.”
“That is no coincidence,” Zhongli agrees. “The angry souls of the war take to flesh, and with their anger comes miasma. The devastations you saw were because of those creatures’ renewed presence.”
“And why did they come? What changed?”
Zhongli shifts his weight between his feet lightly. The wind ripples by them noiselessly, ruffling the soft ends of his brown hair. Xiao looks away.
“My control over my Gnosis fades,” Zhongli says quietly.
“Because of the injuries you suffer from? Why can’t you heal yourself?”
“Enough,” Zhongli sighs. He turns his watchful gaze to Xiao. “I grow weary of this conversation, and I’m afraid your questions won’t be answered tonight, Xiao.” He straightens himself up to his—irritatingly—full height. “Besides. You’ve come a long way. We should gather the other adepti. It’s been a long time since we’ve been together.”
“How dare you,” Xiao snaps. He crosses his arms and feels the anger beginning to bubble up within him. “You won’t help your people. You won’t even answer my questions. And now—you wish to celebrate?”
“Xiao,” Zhongli says, “Who do you think held off the demons for you to come here? You really think I’d abandon my people?”
Xiao splutters and Zhongli takes advantage of that. “Come,” he clasps Xiao’s shoulder warmly. The touch sends an electric shiver down Xiao’s spine. He hasn’t been touched like that in centuries.
Zhongli’s smile widens. “We ought to celebrate.”
Celebration for the adepti means osmanthus wine. Zhongli sends Xiao to an enormous underground cavern resembling a wine cellar and instructs him to bring as many bottles as he can carry back to the room with the stone table.
Zhongli meets him halfway up the rocky steps in the middle of Xiao’s fifth trip up and down the stairs. Xiao, adeptal energy aside, is tired.
“Don’t you think this is a bit much?” he demands as Zhongli appears before him. The words come out a bit whinier than Xiao would like, but something about this human form makes Morax less intimidating than a scaly beast. Perhaps that was its purpose.
“It’s a good reason to bring the others together,” Zhongli reasons. Glass clinks as he reaches out and takes two bottles from Xiao’s arms. “Besides, I’ve already told Cloud Retainer to fly and send word to the others.”
“And what of their work?” Xiao grumbles. “I’m guessing you used the Gnosis to relieve them of their tasks as well?”
“I believe it’s worth it,” Zhongli says, and falls in step with Xiao. Their shoulders brush, and all of Xiao’s complaints fade away.
Cloud Retainer the crane returns just as the sun begins to peek over Qingyun mountain. With her, she brings adepti from all over Liyue. The seats at the table quickly fill.
Zhongli procures three clay teapots and begins to mingle. The pop of a cork suggests that someone has opened the osmanthus wine. An epergne in the middle of the stone table—where it came from, Xiao hasn’t the faintest idea—carries glistening fruits and other delicacies.
Years of seclusion keep Xiao at the back of the crowd. He ducks behind a stone pillar and watches, fascinated, as Zhongli moves across the room. He’s known these adepti for much longer than he’s known Xiao, Xiao realizes, and it shows in the way that he speaks, the way that he carries himself. Xiao never would’ve guessed that the god still suffered from the Archon War.
From behind Xiao, Cloud Retainer approaches, her pale blue head bobbing gently as she carefully treads around the pillar. “One often finds those who are not partial to social interaction lingering here,” she greets. “This is my typical corner for some peace and quiet.”
“Why the festivities?” Xiao asks, because Zhongli will never give him a straightforward answer. “Moon Carver said I was the first adeptus here other than you and Mountain Shaper in ages.”
“Our Master has his ways,” Cloud Retainer says mysteriously. She ruffles her wings slightly. “Now, let me enjoy my peace and quiet.”
Zhongli chooses that moment to break away from the crowd. “Come, Xiao,” he says, his cheeks pink with osmanthus wine. He holds out a hand. “Join us.”
Xiao, against his better judgement, takes it.
Morax’s stone citadel teems with celebration for three days and three nights.
Zhongli, Xiao grudgingly realizes, was right to bring all of the adepti together.
First, the Archon War had no quick ending; and many adepti continued fighting for many long dark years. These festivities have been long-awaited. Second, the adepti’s energy resonating through the long corridors is noticeably invigorating. Whatever injuries ail Zhongli must be soothed with the presence of the adepti.
Zhongli sits at the head of the stone table for three days and three nights. As the adepti around him recite tales of the Archon War, he materializes jade drinking horns for each one, praising each soldier for their deeds. Their table grows crowded with food and drink and Xiao bumps elbows with adepti he thought he’d never see again.
Unlike the others, he does not eat nor drink, but simply feeds off the energy thrumming in the room. For Xiao, being in the presence of his fellow adepti sates him enough.
Sometime between the first feast and the second, Zhongli invites Xiao to take the seat to his very right. If Xiao were a lesser being, he would be red from both satisfaction and embarrassment.
“I shouldn’t, Master,” Xiao mumbles.
“Come, Conqueror of Demons,” Zhongli cajoles lightly. “Let your fellow adepti sing songs in your honor.”
Under any other conditions, Xiao would glare at him. But Zhongli takes that moment to place a hand on Xiao’s arm, steady and deliberate. “Sit,” Zhongli says. He must know that Xiao can’t refuse. Touch-starved as he is, Xiao remains seated, and Zhongli leaves his hand where it is.
The spell cast by the adeptal energy seems to bring out the best in Zhongli’s guests. They present elaborate poems, works of art, and decorations with which to adorn the dragon king’s home. Xiao loses himself in the frenzy of it all.
By the time he manages to extract himself from Zhongli’s side, he realizes more than a day has passed. He waves off attempts to engage in conversation and excuses himself from the celebration halfway through the second night.
Xiao’s temporary chambers are across the mountain palace. Moon Carver had mentioned the room to Xiao the day he arrived, and it only takes two wrong turns for Xiao to find.
Like everything else here, the chamber is far too large for any human or humanoid. Its enormous stone door and towering polished walls were obviously built for beastal adepti or colossal dragons. A glowing Cor Lapis crystal sits in the corner, throwing soft amber light across the room. Xiao strips off his shoes and stumbles into his bed.
When he wakes, the mountain fortress is empty. He must’ve slept through the final day of festivities, but he feels strangely well-rested.
The Jueyun adepti are nowhere to be found. When Xiao peers into the main hall with the stone table, everything is clean and cleared—save for a pile of gifts in the corner of the room—like the celebration was a hazy fever dream. Moonlight filters in through squares in the high walls, letting in the evening breeze.
Xiao retraces his steps and follows the winding stairway up the mountainside. When he reaches the narrow passageway, Zhongli waits on the other side, sitting on the ledge of the peak.
“Good evening,” Zhongli says, as Xiao begins to take a seat next to him. “Did you dream?”
Xiao almost loses his balance in shock. “No,” he realizes slowly. “I didn’t. I haven’t slept without nightmares in…” he trails off, then corrects himself. “Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever slept so fitfully before.”
Zhongli’s face softens in sympathy. “What ails you?”
“I could ask you the same,” Xiao mutters.
“I know your dreams are formidable, Xiao. I only wish I exerted the energy to halt the demons before, so that you could have come to Qingyun sooner.”
Xiao looks at Zhongli. This human vessel seems more exhausted than it was two evenings ago; his face is long and his mouth is pressed into a thin, tired line. He looks feverish.
“So you could be like this?” Xiao gestures to him. “You’re obviously ill. Whatever’s happening is happening faster now that the adepti are gone. You should’ve just let me suffer.”
“After you’d been on your own for all those years?” Zhongli sighs. “You don’t deserve that, Xiao.”
“Don’t I?” Xiao snaps. “Isn’t this your punishment for me?”
“It was never meant to be punishment,” Zhongli says quietly. After a pause, he continues. “The truth is, you are correct. My condition ails me. I had not healed after the war like I thought I would. And my true form weakens. It cost me to bring you and the other adepti here.”
“Condition,” Xiao repeats mockingly. “Why do you speak in riddles? You and all the other adepti. No one speaks their mind. Just say what you mean for once.”
Zhongli remains quiet. He leans back, planting his palms into the earth behind him, and tilts his head up, looking up into the annihilating sky.
No matter the outcome of Xiao’s journey to Qingyun, deep down, Xiao knows that he’s afraid he won’t see Zhongli again. Xiao rakes his gaze over Zhongli’s face, almost greedily, like he could commit every detail to memory if he tried. This close, it’s easy to make out the gold flecks in Zhongli’s eyes, the same amber in Xiao’s eyes, too. They feel closer, like this—more alike, like this.
A long while passes before Zhongli speaks again. “You wish to know what ails me?” he asks finally.
“Of course,” Xiao says, exasperated.
“Very well.” Zhongli straightens uncomfortably, and Xiao wonders what the hell he got himself into. “The energy that I used as the God of War melded me closer to my dragon than I anticipated. It unleashed the innate, bodily functionings of the beast.” He stiffens, then says, “The dragon—it needs to copulate.”
“Do you see why I attempted to be subtle?” Zhongli asks.
“I—” Xiao says, truly stunned into silence.
Zhongli waits until Xiao is coherent again.
“So,” Xiao says slowly, “You found a human vessel—because if you’d remained in your dragon form, you’d fuck anything in your vicinity?”
Zhongli actually frowns at that. “I have more self-control than that.”
“Is that—” Xiao starts. Suddenly, he can’t stop thinking about his master’s dragon form, the writhing muscles of its powerful body. It needs to copulate. To breed. “Is this why you’ve brought me here?”
Zhongli pulls away abruptly and stands. “Never,” he says tightly. “I would never force you to endure something like that. I wanted to see you—and the rest of the adepti—if things worsened.”
Xiao stands as well. Zhongli tenses, but doesn’t move away as Xiao moves closer to him. “If?”
Zhongli shrugs, a strangely human gesture. “There are ways to avoid having the desire consume me.”
“You don’t mean—separating yourself from that form entirely?”
“I’ve grown quite fond of this human vessel. I’m not any less powerful than I was before. Only in different ways.”
“It’s late,” Zhongli ends their conversation there. “I think I’ll retire to my chambers now.”
Zhongli and Xiao descend the stairs, back down to the stone palace, together. Xiao trails after his master while processing their conversation.
The seemingly random events of the previous decade suddenly make sense. The villagers of Qingce Village hadn’t angered the dragon king; he’d come down with a natural kind of fever, poisoned by his need to find a suitable mate to, presumably, plant his seed and—whatever that entailed.
Yet, if what Zhongli said were true, then that must mean that his dragon had been in rut for several years already—that was when the demons of the Guili Plains began to return fervently. Why hadn’t the Archon asked one of his adepti to assist? Of course, Xiao muses, Morax in his dragon form would be too much for even the most powerful of adepti to survive. Would the coupling be too violent? Xiao begins to wonder. Was Zhongli holding himself back?
Xiao, lost in thought, doesn’t realize he’s followed Zhongli to his room until the ornate carvings on his doors stare down at him. A pair of imperial guardian lions stands watch outside the royal chambers, amber crystals sunk deep in their stone faces.
“I hope I haven’t troubled you,” Zhongli says.
“No,” Xiao says, a bit too quickly. “I should apologize, Master. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You did,” Zhongli says wryly. “Mean to pry, that is. But I expected nothing less when I summoned you.”
Under Zhongli’s touch, his two archway doors shudder and creak open.
Inside, the royal chamber looks similar to Xiao’s: shrouded in shadows from lofty marble walls, lit only with crystals glowing gently on either side of the room. In the center of the room is a stone hollow, set deep within the floor, where Zhongli presumably sleeps. The nest is as deep as Xiao is tall, with gently sloping sides wide enough to comfortably quarter a dragon. The furs and blankets piled in the stone hollow are the only signs of comfort for Morax’s human vessel.
“Will you be alright?” Xiao can’t help himself from asking. When he tears his gaze away from Zhongli’s nest, he finds Zhongli staring at him.
Zhongli makes a rumbling noise from deep in his chest, more beast than man. “I’ve lived many millennia on my own,” Zhongli says. “I’ll be fine, little one.”
Xiao scowls at the pet name. “You’ve become complacent,” he crosses his arms. “No god is invincible.”
“No,” Zhongli agrees. He touches a strand of Xiao’s hair. “Nor any adeptus.”
Xiao resists the urge to push his face into Zhongli’s palm and nuzzle his hand like an overgrown cat. Instead, he pulls himself back. “Good night, master,” he says.
Zhongli takes his hand back slowly. “Good night, Xiao.”
Xiao crosses polished stone floors, climbs two sets of marble stairs, and tugs the heavy door to his room open with a not inconsiderable amount of force. He climbs into his bed and twists and turns, before falling into an eerie and unfitful sleep.
His dreams are plagued with death and demons and dragons. Xiao wakes with his polearm in his hand and feels as though the war has never been closer to him than it is at this moment. Xiao would never want to return to that time, but it refuses to let him go.
A stone basin stands in the corner of his chamber, filled with cool mountain water. Xiao dips his hands in and tries to wash the dreams from his face, as best he can.
When he eventually wanders out of his room, the mountain is still empty. Xiao wonders if Zhongli ever is lonely, living here by himself.
He finds Zhongli in the main hall, sitting on his dais and staring down at a hand-drawn map of Liyue.
“Ah,” Zhongli looks up when Xiao enters. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Xiao says stiffly. He takes a seat next to the head of the table.
“The seas have been tumultuous,” Zhongli explains, tilting the map slightly so Xiao can read it more easily. “This is the normal sea route that traders have been taking.”
“But storms hound after the travelers.” Zhongli pinches the bridge of his nose. “Liyue Harbor will soon feel the effects of missing these trading ships.”
Xiao watches Zhongli work. He scratches at his map and turns his Gnosis over and over in his hands absently, acting perfectly normal, as though he hadn’t confessed the previous night that he’d die without fucking something soon.
When it becomes clear that Zhongli isn’t bothered by Xiao’s presence, Xiao entertains himself by rifling through the gifts left by the adepti. He finds a long vine of bewitched glaze lilies that unfurl under his touch. He brushes his pinky finger against the green stem and the throats of a thousand flowers open up for him.
“The adepti were pleasantly surprised to see you,” Zhongli says. He’s staring again; Xiao can feel the weight of his gaze. “They hadn’t expected you to come.”
“I didn’t come for them,” Xiao says.
“No,” Zhongli agrees. “You never were very fond of them.”
“Were you injured at all?” Xiao asks, now that it seems that Zhongli’s in the mood for conversation. “Or was that a farce?”
“I was injured. The energy I expended and the time I spent in my dragon form awoke something in me. I felt the pull several decades ago, but it has worsened considerably since then.”
“Decades ago,” Xiao repeats. “That’s why the demons flooded the plains? You were too distracted because you needed to fu—”
“Xiao,” Zhongli says tightly. His map crinkles under his grip. “I would appreciate it if you did not stoke the fire any more than necessary.”
“Hm,” Xiao says.
Several days pass. Zhongli grows visibly tired, but insists on seeing Xiao each day. He brings Xiao to different parts of his palace, and they spend hours in each other’s company. It doesn’t feel like a bad decision.
One night, Xiao takes a trip down the underground cavern and returns with a bottle of osmanthus wine. The two archway doors creak open before Xiao even has the chance to knock.
“Pilfering your master’s things?” Zhongli asks. He’s leaning back against the gentle slope of the hollow in the floor. The Gnosis in his hand glows.
“Is it pilfering if I just bring it back to you?” Xiao retorts and slides into the hollow next to Zhongli. A perverse kind of thrill jolts up Xiao’s spine when he adjusts the furs underneath him: this is where his master sleeps.
In answer, Zhongli takes the bottle and uncorks the wine.
Despite his human vessel, Zhongli still has the abilities of a god, and, as such, remains relatively unphased, even as they make their way through the bottle.
“So,” Xiao slurs, “What does that really mean?”
“What does what really mean,” Zhongli asks. He gently pries the wine bottle from Xiao’s grip. The folds of his tunic slip and reveal a perfectly chiseled chest.
Xiao forces himself to look at Zhongli’s face. “You know exactly what I mean.”
Zhongli sighs. “Do you really wish to humiliate me like this, Xiao?”
“Why humiliating?” Xiao cocks his head. The alcohol is warm in his veins. He hasn’t drank in a very, very long time. “I only want to know.”
Zhongli replies after a long moment. “What do you want to know?” he says cautiously.
Xiao hiccups. “Why haven’t you asked any other adepti to help you?”
“I told you, I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to suffer for me.”
Xiao sneers. “Suffer for you? What do you think I’ve been doing?”
“And what would the alternative be?” Zhongli demands. “Bring you here? Hold you prisoner in this stone cell? I’d be no better than your previous master.”
Xiao gnashes his teeth. The alcohol makes him bold.
He pushes himself to all fours and crawls across the stone hollow. “Master,” he says, when he’s close enough to touch.
“Xiao,” Zhongli frowns disapprovingly when he realizes Xiao’s intentions. “Did you get yourself drunk for this?”
Xiao pulls himself up and tips himself into Zhongli’s lap. The man is warm and solid. “Xiao,” Zhongli begins.
“Why haven’t you asked any other adepti to help you?” Xiao asks again, resettling himself so that he ends up seated on Zhongli’s thighs, his hands bunched up in the material of Zhongli’s tunic.
His expression hardens, amber eyes going dark. He looks like the God of War that led them into battle, like the Archon who slaughtered all those who opposed him, feverish with bloodlust.
“Do you think they’d able to withstand it?” Zhongli asks darkly. He grabs Xiao’s hips, his big hands nearly circling Xiao’s narrow waist, and pulls Xiao closer. “Do you think they’d be able to withstand being fucked by a god? I’d break you apart, Xiao. You think you’ve suffered? You know nothing, little one.”
Xiao gasps, hands bracing themselves on Zhongli’s shoulders. “Master—”
“Gods,” Zhongli growls, pressing his hips up into Xiao’s ass, “Do you know what happens when I can’t control myself any longer?”
Xiao can’t control himself; his pants are pulled tight, his cock warm and stiff, and the hard lines of Zhongli’s body underneath him feel too good.
“I said,” Zhongli slides a hand around to the small of Xiao’s back, pressing him down against the planes of his abdomen, urging him to continue moving, “Do you know what happens?”
“I—” Xiao slurs. His hips move of their own accord now. Everything’s warm and solid. It smells like osmanthus wine and glaze lilies and Xiao can’t stop—
A sharp tug on Xiao’s hair forces him to cry out. “Answer me, Xiao,” Zhongli rasps. Morax’s dragon feels close, ravenous and burning.
“N-no,” Xiao pants, “I don’t—ah, ah!—”
Zhongli lets out a low noise of satisfaction when Xiao finally releases, coming in his pants and slumping down against Zhongli’s chest.
“That’s what happens,” Xiao hears Zhongli murmurs quietly. The words sound far away, like Xiao’s halfway in another dimension.
He feels the warm brush of lips against his forehead before the tide becomes too much to resist, and Xiao closes his eyes.
Sunlight wakes Xiao from a dreamless sleep.
He cracks his eyes open. Above him, light streams in through the unglazed windows of the dragon king’s chambers. Xiao’s covered in a thin blanket, and his typical white shirt and purple pants are gone. Instead, he’s wearing a brown pair of trousers and tunic, identical to the ones that Zhongli has.
“You’re awake,” Zhongli says.
Xiao turns his head too quickly and winces when his head throbs.
“Careful,” Zhongli says. The corner of his mouth twitches with amusement. He pads over from across the room, carrying a stone cup of water. He’s bare-chested, and for some reason, that makes Xiao’s cheeks heat. “Here.”
Xiao takes the water and downs it in three large gulps.
“How much do you remember?” Zhongli asks.
Xiao considers lying, but then admits, “All of it.”
“Hm.” Zhongli waves a hand when Xiao returns the empty cup, and it crumbles into thin air. “I did warn you.”
Xiao tugs on the collar of his tunic. He watches Zhongli for a moment before speaking. “Will you let me help you?”
“Do you even know what you’re offering?” Zhongli counters. He folds his legs in and takes a seat at the lip of the stone divot, the outside of his right knee brushing Xiao’s left shoulder.
“You need something to fuck,” Xiao says. “I’m offering myself.”
Zhongli tucks a stray lock of Xiao’s hair behind his ear. Xiao glares at him but Zhongli remains unaffected. Xiao decides that one or both of them might not walk away from this alive and, in an action he will furiously deny later on, hooks his chin over Zhongli’s knee.
Zhongli smiles. That alone is worth the humiliation.
Zhongli flattens his hand across Xiao’s head and pets his hair gently. It feels nice. Xiao feels himself melting into Zhongli’s touch. For a moment, he forgets everything.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Zhongli says, which makes Xiao think that Zhongli is considering it.
“You summoned me first. Before all the other adepti. You know I’m stronger. Stronger than all the other Yaksha combined.”
“You are,” Zhongli agrees.
“And I’ve served gods much crueler than you.”
“You have,” Zhongli agrees.
“Then what,” Xiao sits up to look at Zhongli. “What holds you back?”
Zhongli takes Xiao’s face into his hands, cupping both cheeks with his palms. He looks at him with such tenderness it feels stolen from a place deep within him, a look much too gentle for a destroyer of gods.
“Master,” Xiao frowns. He has half a mind to pull away. “I can take it.”
Zhongli leans back. “Come here,” he says. Xiao doesn’t wait for the command to come twice.
Xiao rises and takes his seat in Zhongli’s lap like a throne. Zhongli kisses him tenderly, as delicate as a silk flower unfurling under the moonlight.
“Don’t coddle me,” Xiao says lowly, when Zhongli wraps his arms around his waist and presses his mouth quietly against Xiao’s throat.
“Let me indulge myself,” Zhongli murmurs. His lips brush underneath Xiao’s jaw. “I won’t be this gentle later.” That makes Xiao physically shiver with anticipation.
Zhongli pushes them into the stone hollow. Zhongli’s long torso ends up pressed against Xiao’s chest, Xiao’s back padded by the furs and blankets beneath them. With a low rumble, Zhongli coaxes Xiao’s mouth open.
Karmic burdens and Xiao’s general dislike of other adepti and mortals keep him away from any pleasures of the flesh. Zhongli, however, seems to have no reservations, and swallows the quiet noises Xiao makes.
“I—” Xiao startles when Zhongli’s hand wanders under his tunic.
“I’ve grown rather greedy with age,” Zhongli says. He circles one of Xiao’s nipples with a rough thumb, before sliding his huge palm over the soft skin of Xiao’s belly. Xiao can almost feel the phantom claws of a dragon. If it were anyone else, Xiao thinks he would’ve beheaded them already. “Greedy enough that I won’t ask you again after this.”
“Yes,” Xiao breathes, even as that hand slides under his trousers, cupping the entirety of his bulge in one hand, “Please.”
“Please?” Zhongli purrs. “Please what?”
Xiao bites his lip. “Curse you,” he manages.
Zhongli pinches Xiao’s other nipple with his free hand. “That isn’t a polite way to speak to your Archon, Xiao.” Then he squeezes Xiao’s cock mercilessly.
“Please!” Xiao gasps, “Please, master.”
Zhongli works Xiao slowly, kissing him deeply all the while, until he shudders and spills into Zhongli’s palm. “Good,” Zhongli says. “Good, Xiao.”
And then Zhongli’s pulling off Xiao’s tunic, tugging off his trousers with inhuman speed, giving Xiao barely a second to squawk in protest before Zhongli smears Xiao’s come over his hole and presses two fingers in.
Xiao claps a hand over his mouth. The intrusion is—solid. His body instinctively squirms away from the unexpected touch, but Zhongli’s grip on his thigh is stronger than iron. “Stay,” Zhongli commands, that dark raspiness creeping into his voice again. His face, too, has turned dark with desire, which is how Xiao knows he’s beginning to lose control.
Zhongli slips in a third finger and Xiao—he doesn’t mean to, but—automatically tries to close his legs. Zhongli growls in displeasure and forces his torso between Xiao’s legs, pushing his fingers in deeper. “Don’t,” he warns.
“I’m sorry,” Xiao breathes, “I didn’t mean to—”
Zhongli’s fingers meet their target and Xiao yelps.
“Relax,” Zhongli says, a little more gently.
Xiao nods and lets his head tilt back. He can’t bear to watch himself being opened like this. He fists his hands into the furs beneath him, trying to concentrate on the feeling of the soft texture to distract himself from the pleasure-cum-pain, as he stares up at the imposing mountainsides above him. He feels impossibly small.
Zhongli leans in to kiss him, bringing him away from those thoughts. When Xiao opens his mouth to let Zhongli in, he feels the sharp imprint of fangs against his lips.
Instincts honed from centuries of fighting save Xiao before he even realizes it. His eyes snap open and he shoves Zhongli’s arm away, scrambling back and away just in time to see a crown of horns emerge from Zhongli’s skull. This, Xiao thinks, this is what his body is meant for, fighting and fucking together, using his body like a weapon.
Xiao recoils when Zhongli reaches forward with two clawed hands. Somewhere, in the back of Xiao’s mind, he realizes that if he were a second later, those talons would’ve ripped him from the inside out.
Another rumble emanates from Zhongli’s body. He rears back, half transformed. Aside from the horns growing out of the tufts of his hair, his face looks the same, save for the twisted expression it dons. When he snarls, his lips curl over pearly fangs.
A diamond patterning of scales ripples down his human forearms, condensing and darkening until they turn into hardened amber claws, serrated on the inside curve. Zhongli’s trousers, ripped during the transformation, sit in a tattered pile behind him. The muscles of his human thighs become reptilian as Xiao drags his gaze down. His feet, like his hands, have grown scaly and boast enormous serrated claws. And there, swishing across the bottom of the stone hollow, curled up on his left side, is Zhongli’s tail, a thick sweep of muscle, dotted with a spiky ridge of amber that continues up his human back.
“Xiao,” the dragon king calls as he crawls forward. His voice has gotten impossibly deeper, as dark and as smooth as obsidian. “Are you afraid of me, little one?”
Of all the beasts—of all the demons and mages and spirits—Xiao has faced, nothing compares to a Prime of Adepti. Some primal fear within Xiao freezes him; for the first time in a long time, Xiao feels truly outclassed, as though he stares into the face of his own extinction.
And then—Zhongli slithers his enormous body over Xiao, scale against skin, until their hips have aligned and Zhongli’s cock rests heavily on Xiao’s stomach and chest.
“It—” he whispers, staring. “How will it fit?”
Zhongli’s chest shakes with laughter. Against Xiao’s small frame, it almost feels like an earthquake. “You are strong,” Zhongli says, and he begins to move.
From base to tip, it stretches from Xiao’s groin to somewhere halfway up his stomach, and looks too thick for Xiao to hold even with both hands. Zhongli grunts and thrusts shallowly against Xiao’s chest. It can’t be enough pressure for anything, but the look of it is obscene: it’s dark and solid and veiny against Xiao’s pale belly, the bulbous head of it pushing against into the meat of Xiao’s stomach, spreading slickness all over his chest, his nipples.
“Open your mouth,” Zhongli commands, and Xiao has half a second to stare stupidly, before Zhongli uses the blunt back of one of his claws to pry Xiao’s mouth open.
For the first several moments, Xiao can’t taste anything. All he can think is that it barely fucking fits, the girth of Zhongli’s cock stretching his lips open, and if that’s so, how the hell will it go into his ass?
Then Zhongli thrusts.
Xiao gags. His eyes immediately well up with tears, vision going blurry, as the head of Zhongli’s cock hits the back of his throat.
The next stroke goes even deeper, and Xiao jerks. He is intimately familiar with pain, but this is an intrusion, and his body doesn’t—
“Open up,” Zhongli rasps. “Get me wet.” The stickiness is forced down Xiao’s throat as Zhongli fucks down again; it’s bitter and viscous, clogging up Xiao’s airway. His body, out of some sense of deeply ingrained self-preservation, moves: he instinctively tries to push Zhongli’s hips away before he can stop himself, but it’s like trying to move a mountain.
Zhongli thrusts two, then three more times. Xiao digs his nails into the scaly arms holding down his skull. After the third thrust, Zhongli finally lets up, pulling his cock back far enough that Xiao can hack out a spluttering cough and gasp for breath.
Xiao’s too busy sucking in gulps of air, he doesn’t realize Zhongli’s slithered down his body until Zhongli pries his legs apart with—thankfully—the backs of his hands.
“Master,” Xiao croaks.
“You can take it,” Zhongli says, commanding. The spit-slick head of his cock presses against Xiao’s hole. It resists at first, then Zhongli pushes harder, and the ring of muscle gives, letting Zhongli slide in.
Xiao has had more karmic burdens and suffering in his lifetime than he can remember, and yet, this is the strangest kind of pain he’s ever felt, burning hot, and yet somehow perversely pleasurable.
“Please,” he hears himself begging, “Please—Zhongli—”
“Look at you,” Zhongli mutters, when he’s slid in all the way. Xiao stares unseeing at the ceiling, gasping for air. Zhongli’s cock feels slick and heavy, pressing firmly against every ridge inside of him. “Look at you taking me.”
Faintly, Xiao registers the brush of something scaly against his thighs. He realizes his legs are shaking violently.
“So tight,” Zhongli continues. He pulls out a few inches, then slides back in, as if testing the waters. Xiao shudders. “Like you were waiting to be bred.”
When Zhongli begins thrusting properly, Xiao’s whole body moves, his spine slipping and sliding up and down the smooth curve of the stone hollow on which he lays. Xiao can hear the scratching of nail against rock as Zhongli digs his claws into the stone on either side of Xiao’s face, as he anchors himself enough to slam himself into Xiao, over and over and over again.
The spittle and slick on Xiao’s face mixes with his tears as he begins to cry, unbidden. Zhongli’s nostrils flare as he scents the air. “You little thing,” he says, “I’ll fuck you until you’re full of my seed. I’m going to breed you, Xiao, until you know nothing else.”
Xiao tries to open his mouth, but nothing comes out other than a wet sob. Zhongli plunges in again and again, each time pushing his cock in so deep, Xiao feels it in his stomach, the bulging head distending the skin of Xiao’s belly.
“You’re mine,” Zhongli says. He ducks his head down to press his open mouth against Xiao’s neck. “Mine to fill. Mine to fuck.”
Xiao makes a weak noise of agreement, too delirious to attempt anything else. All the warning he gets is a low throaty growl before Zhongli slams in one last time. His cock convulses, swelling, suddenly, and Xiao cries out.
Zhongli makes a reassuring, possessive noise that calms Xiao enough to stop him from writhing. Then his insides are flooded as Zhongli comes.
“It—” Xiao hiccups, “It’s too much, I can’t—”
“You can,” Zhongli says, and presses in closer, until all Xiao can feel is Zhongli around him, the virility and power he exudes thick in the air like a drug. His cock pulses inside of Xiao, continuing to pump him full.
“I would have you bear my young, if you could,” Zhongli says. At that, Xiao physically shudders, clenching down on Zhongli inside him. “They would be strong. Like you. Like me.”
“Gods,” Xiao bites out hoarsely, through his tears, “Please—”
Zhongli huffs once, then stills, hunkering his enormous scaly body down around Xiao’s, as if to protect and shield him from the outside world. Xiao feels unbelievably full, stuffed with Zhongli’s cock and his come, sticky and sweaty all over.
Zhongli hooks onto something behind Xiao, and Xiao feels his head being carefully lifted with a claw. When it’s placed back down, Xiao realizes that Zhongli pushed several furs under his head for comfort. “You did well, little one,” Zhongli says. He brushes the back of his hand over the soft bulge of Xiao’s stomach. “Sleep, now.” And Xiao closes his eyes and takes relief in the soothing darkness.
When he awakens, Zhongli’s body—half dragon, half man—curls around his back possessively.
Xiao groans. His body aches.
It takes a second for him to recognize what the hardness pressing behind him is. Zhongli makes a thundering noise, and the heavy mass behind Xiao begins to move.
Xiao gasps when Zhongli noses at him, then rolls him over swiftly. Facedown, Xiao can feel the smooth slide of Zhongli’s scales against his legs, soft like the underbelly of a lizard. Xiao groans into the blankets. “Like this?” he asks, unsure of what Zhongli wants him to do.
Zhongli drapes himself over Xiao without pause. His cock’s already hard and slick, pressing insistently at the fat of Xiao’s thighs, pushing the meat there. Zhongli makes a rough noise, then repositions and thrusts, jabbing forward mindlessly.
“Wait,” Xiao says hurriedly, “Let me—” he uses the last of his strength to haul himself to all fours, then Zhongli’s sliding his cock through the mess of spit and seed from the previous night, driving deep like they never stopped.
Zhongli—there’s no other way to describe—mounts Xiao like that, slapping into him from behind, hooking one elbow around Xiao’s collarbone and another around his waist, tugging him deep and forcing him down with his grip while simultaneously fucking up, drilling in and in until Xiao’s mouth goes slack, until he’s positively drooling over himself, hazy with lust.
And then Zhongli hauls him up with unnatural power, all but hoisting Xiao into the air like a limp doll. Xiao yelps, grabbing onto Zhongli’s arm. If it weren’t for his scales, Xiao’s sure he’d have drawn blood by now.
Xiao knows—has known—that even as an Archon, Zhongli’s powers were always unparalleled. But now, after witnessing the raw force of him, all Xiao can do is let his head loll onto Zhongli’s shoulder, riding out the waves of Zhongli’s movements.
One minute, Zhongli’s holding Xiao up, and then the next, he’s biting into Xiao’s shoulder, fangs digging at skin as he releases into Xiao’s limp body.
After that, it’s hard for Xiao to keep track of time. He feels his body slipping in and out of consciousness. There’s no human that could withstand this, Xiao thinks feverishly, and he’s not sure any other adeptus could, either.
The copious amounts of slick and seed splattered all over Xiao’s thighs and hole ease the way each time Zhongli shifts them to his liking. He takes Xiao from behind two or three times—Xiao loses track—more, pulling his head back and trailing his forked tongue down Xiao’s spine; and then once with Zhongli on his back and Xiao clinging on weakly to his chest.
The very last time, all the energy has left Xiao’s body, and he simply lays sprawled out over Zhongli’s chest, eyes fluttering, as he lets Zhongli pound into him.
Xiao doesn’t realize he’s unconscious until sudden heat wakes him; he blinks his eyes open and feels swelling, larger than before, deep within him like Zhongli’s entire cock is growing—
“Xiao,” the dragon underneath him rumbles, the syllables careful around enormous fangs and scaly lips.
“Oh Gods,” Xiao says faintly. On one hand, it’s alarmingly reassuring to hear Zhongli speak, to know that he still has retained some part of his human brain; and yet, on the other hand, Xiao stares down now at the entirely scale-covered body beneath him. He remembers feeling like he’s being split in half, before the pain and the exhaustion smother him like a fog.
When he opens his eyes, Xiao’s demons feel far away. Everything aches.
Sunlight streams into the stone chamber. Xiao winces at the light and holds up a hand half-heartedly to block his eyes. It surprises him that even that small action drains his energy.
“How do you feel?” the dragon asks.
Zhongli’s dragon form curls around the large stone hollow perfectly, his head perched on his scaly legs as he peers at Xiao’s prone form. Two pearly fangs protrude from his top lip. His eyes are still the same amber color, but set on either side of his scaly snout. This is the being that Xiao remembers from the war.
“Tired,” Xiao says. His throat is parched. When he looks down at himself, he’s covered with a thin blanket, but nude underneath. His face and body feel sticky. “Dirtied.”
Zhongli blinks his huge amber eyes with an audible click. His pupils dilate and retract. “You may wash yourself,” he rumbles. “In the basin.”
By sheer force of will, Xiao pulls himself from the dragon’s nest. Zhongli watches him struggle for a second to scale the stone slope, then huffs once in amusement, and nudges Xiao’s legs forward with his snout, pushing Xiao over the edge and onto the floor.
“Silence,” Xiao hisses, when he hears Zhongli make a low chuckling noise with his throat.
Once Xiao has safely escaped the hollow, Zhongli hisses and pulls his neck up, drawing his body up to its full height. He rears his head up and lets out a throaty, growling sound, before shaking his muscled body once, like a dog. The amber parts of him glow: his claws, his eyes, the stiff ridges up the spine of his back and at the tips of his ears.
Xiao makes his way across the chamber on shaky legs. A smooth, stone basin filled with mountain water stretches across the far corner. Xiao’s tired expression stares back at him, mirrored on the clear pool.
When Xiao dips his legs in the cool water, he lets out a small sigh of relief. The pool immediately begins to cloud as the layers of seed and sweat slough off him. Xiao scrubs his face and chest to clean himself, and feels as though he’s shedding a layer of skin, as snakes do.
As he reaches below his waist, Xiao winces. The skin of his thighs are pink and raw, chafed from Zhongli’s body. He leans against the edge of the base to spread his legs when he hears nail clacking against stone.
“Voyeur,” Xiao mutters, as Zhongli slithers over. The great dragon settles on the rock next to the pool.
Xiao parts his legs. The ring of muscle there is swollen and crusted with slick. He grimaces when he reaches down and hears Zhongli purr lowly in satisfaction.
It feels obscene to be clenching his stomach before the Geo Archon, expelling the last of his seed from inside him. After Xiao pushes one last time, he looks down and sees his hole gape, hungry still after being fucked with Zhongli’s dragon cock, after pushing out the globs of his secretion.
“Zhongli,” Xiao bites out, half shocked, half worried. “It’s still—I’m still—”
“I won’t mount you again until you rest, if that worries you,” Zhongli blinks, “Even if your body still aches for me.”
Xiao groans. His head suddenly feels impossibly heavy, dizzy now that he’s been presented with—and currently sits stewing in—the physical evidence of his coupling with an ancient beast nearly ten times his size. His strength gives out.
Zhongli reaches out with one huge claw, and lifts Xiao carefully from the pool. Xiao feels himself being settled into the soft furs of the nest and loses consciousness once more.
After the war, the surviving gods and adepti slept for decades while the Yaksha protected them. Time could heal even the most grievous of wounds, for any being willing to wait.
In this case, Xiao sleeps for four days. When he wakes on the fifth morning, Zhongli stands vigil by his bedside, dressed again in his tunic and trousers. The fever must have burned itself away. Zhongli seems perfectly in control again.
Xiao lifts his head. They’re in Xiao’s chambers. A stone stool and a stack of papers suggest Zhongli has been waiting for him.
“When you summoned me,” Xiao rasps slowly, “When I came, did you know I would help you? Did you realize it would come to this?”
Zhongli takes a seat on the edge of Xiao’s bed. “I had hoped.”
Xiao takes a moment to look at Zhongli. The human vessel seems well-rested, rosy-cheeked and warm. Zhongli reaches out and touches Xiao’s chin gently.
Xiao pulls back when he sees a series of scratches across Zhongli’s hands and arms and the purpling skin of a bite mark peeking out from under his tunic. “I did this to you?” he asks in disbelief.
“Your little teeth are sharp,” Zhongli smiles. “I should’ve been more careful when I brought you back to your bed to rest.”
Xiao bares his fangs and Zhongli laughs. He grips Xiao’s chin and kisses him firmly.
“I should return to the plains,” Xiao says, when Zhongli finally lets him breathe.
“You are very strong.” Zhongli continues as if Xiao hadn’t spoken, brushing his thumb over Xiao’s cheek, touching him as though he revels in the soft skin. “Of body and of mind.”
“Is your praise supposed to sway me from duty?”
“No,” Zhongli says. “I only hope you know that whatever you desire within my power, you only need to ask.”
That declaration shouldn’t surprise Xiao as much as it does. “Truly?” he asks.
Xiao straightens. “Then let me return to my post. Let me protect the mortals, as you intended. That’s my purpose.” Xiao’s not sure what he would do without the toils of war to dictate his days; and as tempting as it sounds to wither away in this stone castle, the thought of that kind of freedom seems too much.
“You’ve served your time, Xiao. You’ve paid your dues.”
Xiao harrumphs. “I ought to be the judge of that. But either way, you’ve regained your powers. You’ll watch over me, I’m sure.”
“That I will.” Zhongli traces a finger over one of Xiao’s shoulder tattoos. “The people will rejoice once they realize that you’ve returned. That you’ve pleased the dragon king.”
That’s a little too much for Xiao to resist. He growls, reaching out to ensnare Zhongli’s tunic in his grip, tugging Zhongli close. “Did I?” Xiao asks. “Did I please you, master?”
Zhongli braces himself with one hand on either side of Xiao’s lithe frame. Even in this human body, Zhongli still is so much bigger than Xiao. “Why don’t you refresh my memory?” he smirks, and pushes Xiao back into the sheets.
Much later, after Xiao finally drags both of them out of his chambers, they stand at the base of Qingyun mountain. “It would do both you and the villagers good if you were more amicable toward them,” Zhongli says casually. “They won’t respect you any less if they don’t fear you.”
Xiao blinks. “Isn’t it amicable enough for me to protect them from the demons that threaten to overrun their village?”
Zhongli adjusts the strap of Xiao’s polearm minutely. “Think about it,” he says. Zhongli waits for Xiao to nod in acknowledgment, then retrieves his Gnosis from within his tunic. “May your travels be swift and your feet be light.”
Xiao feels a familiar hum of energy emanate from his chest as the Archon casts a protective shield. Zhongli touches his temple once, tenderly, then turns away.
The trip from Qingyun mountain back to Guili Plains takes half the time it did to get there. After Xiao travels without rest for four days, the familiar brown plains swim into view.
There are no demons for nearly two months. It seems as though Zhongli has kept his word, and, when the people of Qingce Village approach him, Xiao tries to keep his as well. Normally, all Xiao needs to do is wield his polearm, and the village people flee in fear. Now, though, if they pass by from a distance, he’ll acknowledge their fervent bows.
Ten weeks after Xiao returns from Qingyun mountain, the evil spirits that he fights are few and far in between. The villagers have built him a stone wall, which provides shade on sunny days, and a stone well, from which he drinks water when he needs to quench his thirst. Surprisingly, he’s even had the patience to hold conversations with one or two of them, though he can never stand to be in their presence—or vice versa, for that matter—for too long. He draws the line at explicit reverence, and refuses to let them erect a statue in his honor.
Cloud Retainer comes to the plains that winter, riding the southern wind current all the way down to the lone tree that Xiao rests under.
Before the other adeptus’s feet can touch the grass, Xiao has his polearm in hand and readies himself in a defensive stance, bracing himself for the worst.
But instead of delivering grim news, Cloud Retainer only elegantly spreads her white wings and lands on a low-hanging branch of Xiao’s tree.
“One must seek water in a forest fire, and shade in a lifeless desert,” Cloud Retainer begins, in that cryptic way that so many of the adepti use and that Xiao despises, “And one must seek respite when battling demons.” She flaps one white wing and sends a gust of adeptal energy at Xiao. A jar of strange-looking seeds materializes in Xiao’s hand.
Xiao holds it up to the sunlight and turns the container this way and that, but fails to determine what the seeds are. “What’s this?”
“The Geo Archon sends a gift to you, Vigilant Yaksha. Before you is only his messenger.”
“So you don’t know what it is either,” Xiao mutters.
“Morax has his ways,” Cloud Retainer says, before she spreads her wings and takes to the sky once more.
The seeds seem edible, and Xiao doesn’t think the Warrior God would stoop so low as to poison him, so he swallows a few of them. He doesn’t realize their purpose until, a few days later, a stray demon slices his arm and Xiao barely even flinches.
As an adeptus—and a powerful one, at that—Xiao has supernatural abilities to fight and endure and heal at a greater level than any mortal. The pain he feels, however, is commensurate with that skill. The seeds that Zhongli gives him kill his pain quite effectively.
The months go by, more painlessly and more easily than before.
With spring comes the melting of mountain caps and the flooding of rivers. Merchants and traders take to the road and Xiao sees more humans than he has in weeks. The villagers pass through the plains often as well, moving as much as they can in the mild climate.
Xiao’s just finished slaying a pathetic excuse of a demon when a pair of mortals approach. One is old and hunched and the other is tall and handsome.
“—daughter is of marriageable age now. It’s just been on my mind, and well, we can't simply leave her with those layabout thugs, can we…?”
Xiao clears his throat.
The elderly man looks up and squints at Xiao. It’s Jiangcheng, an old villager. “Ah,” he points a gnarled knuckle at Xiao, “Adeptus. This young man is a traveler on his way to Liyue.”
“Is that so,” Xiao says.
“A fine young man,” Jiangcheng nods, the wrinkled lines of his face solemn. “A good match for my daughter. Ah, she's not a little girl anymore. She's emerged as a beautiful young woman…”
“I think that Guardian Yaksha can help me find my way from here,” Zhongli says to Jiangcheng. “Will you be alright finding your way back to the village?”
Jiangcheng huffs irritably and shakes his knobbly hand at the Geo Archon. “You young people,” he scolds, “Think I can’t find my way back? I’ve been walking this land since before you were born…” he tsks and turns around slowly, leaning heavily on his cane. “I haven’t been out in the fields for a while now,” he mutters to himself. “I wonder how the harvest is going…”
They watch Jiangcheng hobble back to the village.
“A traveler?” Xiao asks Zhongli. “Really?”
“I am traveling,” Zhongli says diplomatically. “That makes me a traveler.”
Xiao stabs the blunt end of his polearm into the ground and leans across its shaft. “You wish to head to Liyue, traveler?”
Zhongli’s eyes twinkle. “Among other places. I believe I’ll be passing through the plains quite often. I hope you don’t mind.”
Xiao scoffs. “It’s my duty to guard this land. You’re lucky I’m here to protect you.”
“I am lucky,” Zhongli smiles and leans in to steal a kiss, “Very lucky indeed.”