Aether is tired.
It’s been years since the second time he woke on Teyvat, Paimon by his side. He’s been to every nation, solved every problem this world had, no matter how small. He’s toppled governments and found lost cats a hundred times over in the last half a decade.
He sits alone on the top of Wangshu Inn, shielded from view by the thick branches and flowering leaves. Long ago, he wouldn’t have considered this spot private, but Xiao, of course, no longer lives here.
Aether has been to so very many places and lost so very many people. Kaeya has long been a limp body in Diluc’s arms, slain by his brother as punishment for attempting to destroy Mondstadt. Albedo had crumbled back into chalk dust with him. Aether had watched as the last vestiges of Kheanri’ah were snuffed out like a light.
Xiao had followed them to the grave, defending Liyue against the mechanized god until his final breath. Before he’d succumbed to his demons at Aether’s side, Xiao had whispered that he could hear Osial screaming, and when the mechanical god finally lay still, Aether thought he might be able to hear a whispered “thank you.”
The list goes on: Ayaka, liberating her nation at the cost of a million volts of electricity coursing through her veins; Scaramouche and Mona, tearing each other apart in the Raiden Shogun’s empty throne room; Tartaglia, speared through the heart by his own Tsaritsa’s icy blade, his blood splattering upon the face of the little brother he’d died to protect; Lynette, throwing herself upon the stand to testify against her own god and paying the price.
Even Paimon, in the end. When the Abyss Order had attacked after Snezhnaya’s fall, she had saved Aether by pushing her space-warping powers beyond their feasible limits and sending him careening back in time, to when Kheanri’ah ruled Teyvat. He watched again as the great nation fell, wanting desperately to save them but knowing there was nothing he could do. When a meteor almost crushed him to death and he barely survived the wrath of a vortex of air, he finally knew what role Zhongli and Venti played in the nation’s destruction.
He has seen everything there is to see, done everything that must be done. He has seen Liyue’s final contract, has watched the Library of Sumeru burn to the ground, has played a court game of chess against the Hydro God and won. He has defeated it all and saved what he could.
And he’s so fucking tired .
He’s tired of this world that takes everything and never gives anything back. He’s tired of playing fetch with people’s everyday problems and savior with their big ones. He’s tired of climbing the ranks of the gods-damned Adventurer’s Guild with the hope they’ll throw him some leftover materials. He’s just… he’s just tired.
He wishes the swaying noises of the branches were soothing, but they just agitate him. After half an hour of increasing anger building up, he sighs and activates his glider, heading for the farthest corner of Liyue, where the old Abyss Order hideout had been.
When he lands, he presses his hand to the stone where the door had one been. The domain has long since been destroyed, having exploded when the mechanized god escaped and began its rampage. Still, though, he leans his forehead against the stone. There’s something comforting about this place, even after all of the atrocities that had been committed here; it was, after all, the place where he’d found her.
The sound of footsteps behind him. He doesn’t turn around. It’s probably a hilichurl, which he doesn’t even have to think to kill anymore, or perhaps someone coming to ask him to do their dry-cleaning or something equally trite.
The footsteps come closer, lighter than a feather. They stop when they must only be a few feet away from him.
“You’ve finished your journey, brother,” she says. Aether doesn’t turn around. He just laughs, wet and watery and defeated.
“Lumine,” he responds. “Wonderful of you to show up.”
She pauses. “You’re mad at me,” she says.
“Not at all,” he says, fingers clenching against the stone. “You leaving me alone to go through years of struggling through this entire fucking continent and solving everyone’s problems instead of, I don’t know, just coming home with me or letting me go with you has left me feeling nothing but joy. I’m thrilled.”
“It was a necessity,” Lumine sighs. “You had to experience this world in all of it’s broken glory to understand what I’m doing.”
“I don’t care what you’re doing!” Aether whips around, glaring at his sister. She blinks. “I never have, Lumine! I only went through all of this to find you again!”
“This world is bigger than us, Aether,” Lumine says. “I know you wanted to be together, but you needed to see it. You needed to see the Archons’ corruption. You needed to see my side before you could join or oppose me.”
“ Fuck this world! ” Aether screams. Lumine starts, stepping backwards a few paces at the manic light in her brother’s eyes. “We’ve seen ten thousand just like it! We’re older than this world could even fathom! Everyone I cared about in this world is dead. No one in this stupid, selfish world has ever helped me. I don’t care what happens to it, Lumine, I just- I just want to go home.”
Lumine stares at him. There was a time when they knew each other better than they knew themselves, but the hundreds of years of separation has changed them. Lumine is too attached to this world, Aether sees that now- she truly believes that rescuing it from the Archons’ tyranny is what must be done.
Lumine wants to save this world, in her own twisted way. Aether? He’d burn it down without a care.
“Home is wherever we are together,” she murmurs. “Very well. I suppose your motives don’t particularly matter. Aether,” she holds out a white-gloved hand, the silk still just as pristine as he remembers it, “Will you destroy Teyvat with me?”
Aether grasps her clean hand with his, war-torn and dirty and black. “I thought you’d never ask.”
With a flick of his wrist, Diluc sends a clean flourish of ink across the paperwork. He stares at his signature, blinking away the tears that push at his eyes. He’s never liked being the tycoon of Mondstadt’s wine industry, but these days it feels even worse than before.
Unbidden, his eyes wander towards the vase in the corner of the room. Given to him by his late brother in jest, Kaeya’s ashes now reside inside of it. He’d burned his body himself.
Forgiveness hurt so, so much. Diluc had spent so much of his life despising his little brother, pushing him out of his life no matter how much pain flickered through Kaeya’s eyes. And then he’d watched as Kaeya went off the deep end, him and Albedo nearly bringing Mondstadt to its knees.
It was when his own sword pierced through Kaeya, when he went cold and pale in his arms, that he finally thought, “this is my little brother.” His little brother, who he’d neglected and hurt and killed.
There’s a gust of wind and the scent of dandelions, and Venti appears next to him. He has grown used to the Anemo God’s presence in the years following Kaeya’s death, so he barely glances up at the bard’s unexpected entrance. When he did, however, he is met with a face more grave than he’s ever seen upon the god’s youthful visage.
“Master Diluc,” Barbatos says, “I am afraid a problem has arisen.”
Diluc tumbles over to this window, eyes widening in shock at the sight before him: hundreds of thousands of abyss mages, ruin guards, and hilichurls line the sparkling green landscape of the nation of freedom. Abyss Heralds march between them, and ruin hunters fly above, the sounds of their twirling blades deafening.
Stormterror was nothing. Kaeya was nothing. This- this is Armageddon.
“Oh my gods,” he whispers.
“See to it that this mislabeling is corrected,” Ningguang directed to one of her servants. The woman nods and hurries out of the room.
The reconstructed Jade Chamber is hardly the thing of wonder and glory it had once been- more closer to its humble roots, it is currently hardly more than a few rooms. Still, the building once again gracing the sky is a mark of the changing of the times in Liyue, of the era of the gods coming to an end and the era of mankind beginning.
Ningguang glances over the balcony. From her vantage point, she can see the entire harbor: Beidou, directing her crew down at the harbor; Xinyan, giving an… explosive concert; even Master Hu Tao of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor chasing around what appears to be a small child.
“Quite serene, isn’t it?” Ningguang turns to her uninvited conversion partner. Rex Lapis comes and goes when he pleases- he may be a god no longer, but she does appreciate his many years of wisdom, and he has proven remarkably amicable company.
“Indeed.” She takes a sip of tea. “Is this the future you had hoped for, when you first built Liyue?”
Rex Lapis gave her a small, genial smile. “Not even I could have had the foresight to predict something nearly 4,000 years to come,” he says, “but I admit I had hoped for a place of peace.”
His gaze turned out upon the harbor. “I had initially only wished to bring Guizhong’s dream to fruition, but I admit that over the years the harbor has become more of a dream of mine than hers. I hope she…”
Ningguang watches as his brilliant amber gaze focus on something on the horizon, then as color drains from his already plaid complexion. He stands up abruptly, causing her to do the same.
“What is it?” She says, but she needed have. As soon as she looks back at Liyue, she can see the tremors wrecking through the ground, the spikes pulling their way up through the millennia-old stone. A deafening roar tears through the air.
“Qin,” The God of Geo hisses. “And Azdaha- the primo geovishap- how? How have my seals been broken? There is no stronger being than me. I don’t-”
Ningguang, for the first time, feels completely lost. She had been so convinced in the Qixing’s power, in mankind’s might, but she knows now that it was all a ruse. Next to her, Morax shifts into the Exuvia, poising himself atop the Jade Chamber.
Liyue was the land of dragons, and the dragons would reclaim the land.
She laughs until she hides her face in her hands and cries.
“The emissaries have arrived from Liyue,” Sayu tells her. As always, Ayaka finds it difficult not to laugh at the serious voice coming from the tiny girl. “Should Kazuha direct them to their assigned rooms?”
“Yes, that would be lovely,” she tells Sayu. The girl nods, her comically large hood bobbing with her, and heads out of the throne room.
Ayaka’s gaze traces over the room. Having sole dominion over the Tenshukaku of Inazuma City still feels strange, even several years after Baal’s fall. A new Electro Archon has yet to rise from her ashes, but Ayaka feels the remnants of the eternity god’s tyranny every time she breathes.
Literally. Ayaka, former princess and now Empress of Inazuma, has not been able to move a single limb for years, not since Baal had sent a thousand arcs of lightning through her body. Her nerves have never recovered, nor has her mobility- she only remains alive through the constant supervision of the Tenshukaku’s wonderful healers.
Next to her, Tohama clears his throat. “Are you okay, Ayaka?” he asks. “It’s been a long day. I thought that meeting would never end.”
“Now, Tohama, be courteous,” Ayaka chides. “Mondstadt is an invaluable ally of ours. It would be poor of us to disrespect them.”
Tohama rolls his eyes. “Sure, once they can get their own nation together,” he mutters, and, when Ayaka glares at him, he yelps like she’d slapped him. A soft smile graces her lips. She adores her nation and her people, of course, but in truth, Tohama holds a special place in her heart. As her right hand, he has never once treated her as lesser because of her disability.
“What of the Fatui?” she asks. After all that had happened with the Sixth Harbinger, she has never been able to bring herself to rekindle their diplomatic relationship with Snezhnaya, even after the Tsarista’s death.
“Still laying low. No sign of any of Scaramouche’s supporters, which is good news for us. Not to speak ill of the dead, but I’ll sleep happily if I never have to see any remnant of that tiny bastard again.”
“Tohama!” Ayaka chastises, even if she internally agrees. The Sixth Harbinger’s deranged grin still haunts her nightmares, his gleeful smile as Inazuma crumbled around him. She’s not sure what her nation did to him that caused him to turn against his homeland, but she knows she never wishes to meet the man again. She must remember to visit the shrine dedicated to Mona Megistus, the woman who had sacrificed her life killing him.
Tohama helps her out of her throne and into her wheelchair. It’s a marvelous invention from Fontaine, allowing her to easily be moved about the Tenshukaku even without any ability to move on her own.
Just as Tohama begins pushing her out of the room, the door bursts open, and Sayu and Kazuha sprint in. Ayaka immediately tenses at the expressions on their faces- she has not seen them look so scared since Baal had discovered them stealing visions from the thousand-eyed god statue.
“What is it? What’s happening?” she frantically asks. Kazuha shakes his head, eyes wide and glassy with terror. Sayu is shaking, but she answers, “Something horrible, Your Majesty.”
Tohama quickly pushes her out of the throne room. They end up at the front of the palace, and Ayaka understands what has inspired such fear in her guards. She feels her stomach drop in a fell swoop.
The sky is dark with purple electricity. Abyss Heralds and former Fatui agents tear through the sprawling city before her, and she watches as an electrohammer vanguard smashes through the ceremonial statues lining the Tenshukaku’s entrance.
Atop it all, though, standing tall and proud under the Sacred Sakura atop the peaks of Narukami Island, is a mechanical replica of the Raiden Shogun. Her limbs poke out at strange angles and her mouth is twisted into a metal-fanged sneer, but Ayaka can tell that she is looking directly at her.
“Didn’t I tell you?” She can almost hear Baal’s voice, tearing through her skull like the lightning in her veins.
“I am eternal.”
Cyno places another scroll into the “salvageable” box. Three years since the Library’s burning, and they’re still trying to fish out all of the scrolls that can be repaired, all the knowledge that hasn’t been lost forever.
Next to him, Lisa hums a Mondstadtian tune under her breath. He was never particularly fond of the woman, but the Headmaster had requested that she return to help with the repairs and she had obliged. There’s no denying her genius, especially in the field of literature.
“You know,” she says, “I was worried I had judged Sumeru too harshly, but I really do prefer the culture of Mondstadt. At least my library has never burned down.”
“Keep your musings to yourself and work,” Cyno responds. “It’s bad enough how much knowledge we’ve lost without you rubbing salt in the wound.”
Lisa sighs. “It just goes to show what a nation of unrestrained erudition is capable of. Has your god gotten any less… inept?”
“Hmph.” Lisa turns back to her scrolls.
Sumeru is a barren desert land of oppressive heat, but the smell of smoke is familiar to Cyno. It creeps in through the windows of the spare room in the Academy, filling both the room and heart with oppressive dread.
He and Lisa glance at each other, then run out of the room.
The Academy burns that day. Cyno has seen the great Library go up in flames, but there’s something even worse, even more oppressive and hopeless, about Sumeru’s centuries-old crowning achievement going up in flames. Screams echo through the halls as flames lick through the window, and this time Cyno knows there will be no surviving knowledge.
“Come one, come all!” Lyney’s voice echoes across the bustling crowds as he stands before the Tribunal, Fontaine’s largest and most famed courthouse. He waves his top hat in the air and tries not to think about when his sister would have been the one finishing his sentence with “come all.”
Everyone who can pushes their way into the Tribunal. The Traveler’s famous trial against the Hydro Archon has only served to make courthouses even more of the social hubs of Fontaine. In the nation of justice, trials are the bread and circuses which feed the happy populace.
No one cares about the people who get hurt, about the innocent who are condemned for the sake of an entertaining trial.
No one cares about Lynette.
“Bonjour, Monsieur!” Lyney greets one of the aristocrats as he exits his carriage and heads for the entrance of the Tribunal reserved for nobility. “Ça va?”
“I’m well, thank you,” the nobel says blithely. He’s a pudgy man, clearly wealthy off of the suffering of the poor. Lyney’s nails bite into his palm, but he continues smiling. “What’s the entertainment today?”
“A famous serial killer suspect has been captured,” Lyney says theatrically, dropping his voice low to induce suspense. It works, of course: the man’s eyes light up with excitement.
“How intriguing! You never do fail to present a show, Lyney, even without that sister of yours.”
Lyney’s smile tightens further. “Yes. I’m afraid my performance simply isn’t the same without her.”
“Nonsense!” The noble slaps him on the back, clearly thinking he’s being supportive, but he is only succeeding in making Lyney want to throw up. “You’re more than enough on your own. That’s why you’re our best courtmaster!”
“Thank you, sir,” Lyney says. “Would you like to me to show you-”
There’s a strange whirring sound behind him, and the shell-shocked face of the noble is all the warning he gets before he ducks and a missile shoots directly over his head. When he looks up, the top half of the noble’s body is gone.
It’s silent, and then someone screams.
Everywhere, all over the streets of Fontaine, the machinery begins to light up. Fontaine is a nation of progress, but, in less than a second, everything they’ve built, every technological wonder they’ve created, turns on them. Lyney barely manages to create a hydro shield with his Vision before the street becomes flooded with gunfire and blood.
“Lynette,” he whimpers as he rushes through the streets, shedding his long cape when it gets caught on a falling body. “Lynette, Lynette, Lynette, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry-”
“Lyney,” Lynette had whispered to him as she was dragged to the guillotine, “live on without me. Give them a show like they’ve never seen before.”
He tried. He tried but it was never the same without her, and now he’s going to die without fulfilling her dying wish.
“Lynette, I’m so sorry,” he sobs. “I’ll see you soon.”
“And the winner of round 4 is Iansan!” The crowd cheers as Iansan raises her fist. Her opponent staggers out of the ring, defeated and bloody under Iansan’s relentless fury.
From her place on the sidelines, Murata gives Iansan an approving nod. Iansan’s relationship with the Pyro Archon is a little strange these days, but, even after the war that had ravaged Natlan, Iansan can never view her as anything less than a mother. She had, after all, raised her from birth.
“You did well today,” Murata tells her later, as Iansan unwraps the bandages around her fists. “You’ve improved a lot.”
“Of course. I’m the strongest, aren’t I?” Iansan gives a grin missing a couple of teeth (them having been knocked out over the years of fighting), which Murata returns with a nod.
They don’t exactly start when the ground begins shaking- the volcano causes this, sometimes, and they’ve been living in its shadow for too long to not know how to safely circumvent their deaths should it erupt. Murata’s brow furrows, though, and she sticks her head outside of Iansan’s tent.
Iansan hears as her breath catches (are gods even supposed to breath?), and when Murata looks back at her, her face is pale.
“Iansan, my child,” she says, “run.”
“What?” Iansan says, standing up. “What’s going on? Why would I run? I can stay and fight whatever it is.”
“No,” Murata says, and, for the first time, the god of war’s eyes go dim with surrender. “This is a war we will not win.”
Snezhnaya is a shell of what it was.
Pulcinella stares at Tartaglia’s body, frozen in a coffin-shaped block of ice. As long as the ice stays, he will never rot, but eternally remain just beyond sleep.
He remembers discovering the boy, fourteen and already broken beyond belief. He’d been the one to bring him to the Tsaritsa, watched as he climbed the ranks and dirtied his hands with the blood of any who opposed their god’s will. And he’d watched as he threw it all away, the Tsaritsa’s blade freezing him from the inside out.
“Ajax,” he’d been called, back when Pulcinella first found him. It’s not the name anyone who knew him called him, and it’s not the name carved onto the front of his icy coffin, but Pulcinella whittled it into the back.
He died so young. Pulcinella was cruel- they all were, all with their frozen hearts and dried-up love- but there was something particularly cruel about the fate of the youngest harbinger. He had barely experienced life before his hands were tainted.
After the Tsaritsa’s death, Snezhnaya has largely fallen apart. Now without a ruler to unite under, the snowy wasteland has become a no-man’s land, where villages band together and no outsiders are welcome. The remains of the Fatui live in the capital, but it is largely because they are not welcome anywhere else.
Tartaglia is dead. Scaramouche is dead. Dottore is barely alive, only hanging onto a thread of his life by repairing his shattered body with prosthetics. Signora disappeared into the snow three weeks ago and no one has seen her since. The others fair no better.
And Pulcinella is here, watching Tartaglia’s corpse the same way he used to watch his favorite ballets.
He wonders, often, if Snezhnaya was ever a warm place. It must have been- they were called the nation of love, so surely at some point love must have been felt here. Maybe it was the cold that stole it, the same cold that crept into their hearts and distorted their eyes. Maybe they were just naturally cruel.
A vibration sweeps across the burial chamber. Pulcinella watches as Tartaglia’s coffin vibrates, sending a steady thumping sound throughout the room. A warm breeze seeps through the walls, accompanied by the smell of smoke.
Pulcinella glances out the window and sees hellfire.
He smiles. Perhaps, once all of the snow has been burned away, Snezhnaya will once again be able to let love into their hearts.
“The seals on the dragons of Liyue have been released,” Aether says, “Fires are sweeping across the nations, and our troops have been deployed to destroy what remains. Is that everything?”
“Yes,” Lumine affirms. “The strength of the Abyss is unmatched, and the nations are still in recovery. There’s no one who can stand against us.”
Aether nods. Lumine continues, “Once this is over, we may again have to face the Unknown God. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to gather any more information on her. It doesn’t seem like she exists to the people of this world.”
“Hmm…” Aether hums, leaning back against the cool material of the throne. For all that Lumine claimed she didn’t want him to join her, she’d already prepared a throne for him ahead of time. “Still, we’ll be more familiar with her attacks this time, and I have access to all seven elements now.”
“That is true.”
An Abyss Mage entered the room, rubbing his hands together. Even now, as a ruler of the Abyss, Aether found himself possessed with the urge to whip his sword out and thrust it through the monster’s chest.
“Your highnesses,” the Abyss Mage says, “The attacks on the nations have been going well. Mondstadt has already fallen, as has Sumeru, Natlan, Fontaine, and Snezhnaya. Liyue and Inazuma are expected to follow suit very shortly.”
“Excellent,” Aether says, leaning his head on his palm.
The Abyss Mage rubs his hands faster. “Yes, well, there has been… a slight complication.”
“Oh?” Lumine leans forward. “And what would that be?”
The Abyss Mage glances frantically back and forth. “There has been an… intruder, into the Black Palace.”
“An intruder?” Aether’s hand creeps towards his sword. “Who?”
“That would be me.”
Aether and Lumine both shoot to their feet. Aether’s sword is in his hand faster than he can blink, a mix of electro and pyro encasing it. Next to him, Lumine hisses. The Abyss Mage glances down at the blue-veined hand plunged through its chest. It’s dead before it hits the floor.
Dainsleif regards them with an unreadable expression. Aether’s opinion of the man is pretty neutral, but Lumine is practically spitting acid.
“Lumine,” he greets. His gaze turns to Aether. “...and Traveler.”
“Don’t call me that,” Aether snarls. “I’m not some plaything who exists to solve everyone’s problems anymore.”
“My apologies.” Dainsleif’s stare bores into him. “I simply hadn’t realized your animosity extended so far as to destroying the continent you had worked so hard to save.”
“You don’t know anything,” Lumine says, twirling her rapier with a glare that could bring the bravest of men to their knees. “Why are you here, Dainsleif?”
“I’m not fond of the gods, but I can’t simply stand idly while you do exactly what they did to Kheanri’ah,” Dainsleif says.
“This has nothing to do with Kheanri’ah,” Lumine responds. “I’m saving the world from the Archons.”
“Oh? And what of your brother?”
Aether stares at him, any emotion leaving his expression. “I don’t particularly care either way, but if it’s what Lumine wants, then I’ll destroy it all.”
Dainsleif nods. “Very well.”
“Aether,” Lumine says occasionally, “Do you remember Teyvat?”
Every time she asks, Aether will tilt his head for a moment, then nod. “Yeah, and you still owe me for being a total dick on there, asshole.” She’ll roll her eyes and slap the back of his head, and they’ll continue through the world of pillars and light to their next location, nowhere to call home except each other.
And somewhere, far behind them, a world burns.