The frigid wind of Dragonspine is almost homesickening. It is relentless as it bites at Kazuha’s skin, its message one he is all too familiar with: you are not welcome here.
He shivers, pulling his soaked travelling cloak closer to himself. He had lost altitude while flying north from Guyun Stone Forest’s windmill mechanism, landed in the freezing waters, and had had to swim the last stretch to shore. Thank goodness for the tricks he’d picked up on board the Alcor, or he might well have drowned right there and then.
Freezing though his clothes might be, it would be an act of sheer folly for him to discard them now. The wind nips at him through the dampness as he clambers up a pillar half-buried under snow, its wordless threat ringing in his ears. He doesn’t have much time to find a fire to warm himself up; already the smell of the ocean has vanished, swallowed by the cold.
Fortunately, he’s found himself at a ruin of some sort. He almost sighs in relief at the sight of a small hilichurl camp a short distance away, surrounding an open stove.
He makes short work of them, and even finds supplies in the crates around the camp — flint, wheat, carrots and tomatoes. Melting some snow over the abandoned cooking pot, he reaches for the jerky stored in his hebao, both gifts from anegimi and the crew, and tosses it in with some of the carrots and tomatoes. The flint and wheat, he tucks away into his hebao for good measure.
Imperfect though the ingredients may be, the goulash is hot and hearty, and he cleans it off far quicker than he would like. Alas, there is no time for him to tarry or rest. He had set out from the Alcor just past sunrise, taking advantage of the windmill mechanism near the ruin guard encampment to glide across the small archipelago, but already the sun is dipping past its zenith. It would be dangerous for him to be sighted out in the open, and an open fire is an easy target in the dull landscape of Dragonspine.
The mountain itself
Seeks to swallow any life
That dares scale its peaks
With a stray tree branch Kazuha scrawls the lines out on some of the fresh snow, then gets to his feet. If the maps he had perused on the Alcor are to be trusted, then Mondstadt lies on the opposite end of where he is. Anegimi had warned him against going into the mountain and its deep caverns, advice that he plans to heed, so he has to find a way around its rugged exterior.
He puts out the fire with a pile of snow and immediately misses its heat. While his clothes are a little drier than they were when he arrived, they are still clammy to the touch and stick to his skin. But the goulash is warm in his stomach, a firm reminder of the kindness he has been given time and time again by the crew he travelled with. He hopes they will be able to meet again, that he can thank them once more for their kindness up to the very end.
Studying the cliff, he begins carefully scaling it. The winds, while unrelentingly brutal, still listen to his command and lift him up from crevice to crevice.
He isn’t sure how high he should climb, until he catches a whiff of smoke and glimpses two burning torches on an opening to his right. Even with the goulash in his stomach, the cold is making itself known; warmth in any form would be most welcome. He’s about to launch himself up towards it when he sees a hulking shadow move by the nearest torch, and immediately changes his mind.
But it’s hard to change directions on a whim, airborne as he already is. He ends up grabbing the nearest cliff face, but it is a smooth plane of rock with no solid ledge for him to set both feet down and recover his bearings. Below, he can see the stove he’d been sitting at just a while ago. It would be a straight drop if he were to fall now.
He grits his teeth, and weighing his lack of options, decides to edge to the left. Too far up, and he might have trouble breathing.
The climb can only be described as painful. Besides the smoothness of the rock making it hard to keep a strong grip, his fingers are beginning to freeze with the cold. His right arm hurts. The air is thin and lightheadedness is starting to sink in. The goulash has worn off by now for sure.
The wind is rushing in his ears. It is mourning and mocking, all at once. It smells like nothing at all.
He thinks of the Crux. Of anegimi. Of Tomo. Of the faded Vision sitting safely in the rough leather hebao tied to his belt. Huixing had woven it, from what the crew had told him at his farewell dinner last night. Juza and Furong had bought the leather from Liyue Harbour, on the crew’s dime — and even Qianyaner had approved the purchase. He had been so grateful he had no words to express himself.
“There you go with your poetics again,” he can hear anegimi saying. She’d said it the day he told her he had to leave. But she’s not here. He’s scaling an endless cliff face on Dragonspine, and he’s started to grow so, so tired. His right hand is protesting at him, a chill creeping into its burned nerves. The sensation reminds him of when he was fleeing the Shogun’s army and seeking out the Resistance on Watatsumi Island. There had been so much lightning and thunder then. Here, there is only snow and ice and howling winds.
The cliff face comes to a sudden stop, and he almost loses his footing. It’s a small nook in the cliff, with just enough space for him to catch a little breath.
He looks up to see an empty cave around the bend with two unlit torches, and some shelves. He cannot bring himself to care who it might belong to, as he summons his last dredges of energy with the wind and propels himself the short distance across, sinking down between the two torches.
If only he could rest, now. But even though he can’t feel them, his numb, bloodied fingers are trembling as he struggles to open the hebao, reaching for the flint he had salvaged earlier. He hadn’t even noticed he was shivering. He manages to light the torches with shaking hands, and moves further into the cave, dazedly taking in its surroundings.
There’s a shelf with a blue-covered book, with a title written in loopy Mondstadtian calligraphy. Investigation Journal III, it reads. On the other shelf, he finds to his surprise some wheat, potatoes and smoked ham, a small box of medical supplies, and a few dry towels and blankets. Someone must keep this place stocked, at the very least — the rations smell fairly fresh.
Offering a grateful prayer to whoever it is whose rations he is helping himself to, he begins ridding himself of his garments, which are soaked through once more to the skin. The heat of the torches and the surprise of the find have cleared his head somewhat, and he needs to get himself dry before he attempts to even heal himself or make something to eat.
By the time he’s done laying out his clothes to dry and bandaging his hands, clawed raw from his climbing, he’s too tired to do much else. With no stove and crockery in sight, he settles for eating some of the jerky and the smoked ham instead, and stares out at the sun beginning to set. He will have to stay here overnight, and he will have to stay awake. Not for fear that he be attacked, exposed though this place is, but for fear that he might sleep and not wake up.
His gaze falls to the Investigation Journal on the shelf, and he decides that it will do.
Starglow Cavern is quiet in the early hours. Today, Albedo has set up his easel at the top of the cavern, where a ruin grader once sat before Aether came and got rid of it, in the same mysterious way that he had thawed out the entire mountain.
Research has been unproductive lately, and he has deemed it necessary to take a breather. It does appear to be the right decision — the cavern is well-ventilated, and the air crisp and clean, though the winds blow too strongly for them to be termed refreshing.
From here, the view down the vast cavern is splendid. The various hilichurl camps slumber away by their fires, unaware of their audience. The winding pathways lined with shimmering ice and starglow seem luminous in the cold mist, at once enticing and intimidating in their vastness and the depths they lead down to.
Drawing is relaxing, and Albedo almost forgets that he came out of his lab with a secondary purpose: to check on the emergency supplies he’d left at the small camp on the cliffside. The Knights maintain emergency supply points closer to the base of the mountain, but have deemed it part of his job scope to manage this particular one due to its inaccessibility. It’s a tedious task, though one Albedo does not mind too much. He has grown familiar enough with the mountain.
It does feel unnecessary, though — there are only a few paths up the mountain, and most adventurers who wander in take the Mondstadt entrance. There are geovishap hatchlings along the Liyue path, which most travelers, adventurer or not, prefer to avoid. This, and the cave being halfway up the cliffside, simply means that the odds of stray adventurers coming across it in times of need are close to zero. Albedo reckons they are more likely to die than to find it. The mountain is unforgiving like that.
He notices that something is different right before he ducks under the fallen pillar that half-covers the back entrance of the cave. There is someone inside leaning against one of the shelves, their back to Albedo. They are wrapped in the fabrics Albedo had stored away in the camp, what must be their own clothes neatly laid out on the ground. Albedo would have thought them frozen to death if not for the burning torches in front of them and the slight rise and fall of their shoulders.
It would not do for him to startle them awake, so Albedo opts to do a visual check instead — the food rations appear to have been taken, hopefully consumed. The first aid kit is out of its position, and there is a roll of bandages on the shelf. And spread out on the floor, presumably to dry under the heat from the torches: a rugged hemp cloak, and what Albedo recognises as a Inazuma-style kimono and haori set with bright orange maple motifs.
He’s about to leave, when he notices the hilt of the weapon just barely visible over the person’s left shoulder. They’re hugging a katana.
Albedo is not one to enforce his position in the Ordo (and this is a concern more suited for Eula’s company, rather than his own) but it is curious that an Inazuman is in Dragonspine, with seemingly nothing on their person but their weapon and their clothes. Quietly, he retreats to where he’d left his easel by the waypoint outside Starglow Cavern. The research he’d been planning to work on will have to wait.
Kazuha can’t help his exhale of relief as the presence behind the cave leaves. They had stopped at the entrance for so long, but had not made any move to attack or approach him. Were they friend or foe? They had smelled like graphite, a very distinct tone within the icy blandness of Dragonspine.
He had been careless, very much so. He must have dozed off reading the journal still cradled in his lap now, leaving his back wide open to potential enemies. And in his exhaustion, he had not even been awake to sense their approach, not until he heard the soft rustle of fabric and a foot coming to rest on the ground mere metres from himself.
They had left him alone, but his presence is now known. Kazuha needs to move. To his relief, the torches had remained lit through the night, and both his clothes and his body feel a little more comfortable than they had last night, though his right arm is still aching from the cold. He will have to try and avoid combat today, he muses as he dresses himself. There will still be climbing to do, but hopefully he will be able to get off the mountain soon.
He unwraps the bandages he’d put on yesterday, then grabs the small jar of shiunko ointment Yinxing had given him for his burns. The first time he revealed to Yinxing that his medication from the Resistance had run out, he had been astounded when she had produced another jar of the exact same product from her supplies cupboard. Ziyungao, they call it in Liyue. Yesterday, before he left, she had pressed the jar into his hands and told him to keep it.
“I can get it from Bubu the next time we head into the Harbour,” she’d said, her voice mild but firm, when he tried to turn it down. “You’ll need it for the road.”
The herbal smell of it is familiar, almost homely. Kazuha slathers it onto his right hand with practised ease, and wraps his arm back up tightly with fresh bandages from the medical supplies box. There’s not a lot left of those, so he decides to keep them just in case.
His hebao can only store so many supplies, so he only takes the remaining smoked ham from the food rations after he has a quick breakfast. Then he folds the blankets and towels, corner to corner, end to end, and places them back where he’d taken them from. It is the least he can do, in lieu of leaving a message to the stranger whose resources have kept him alive. The journal, he sets back into its position on its shelf. It had probably been mistakenly left behind by whoever maintained this camp.
A stranger’s kindness
Offers one the sight of dawn
Sunlight through the mist
Once the camp is as neat as he can make it, he stands up and looks down from the cave mouth to the mountain below. He hadn’t noticed yesterday, hanging on for dear life as he had been, but he’s high up on the cliffside. With all the mist in the air, he can just barely make out the ruins he’d made camp at, yesterday afternoon — it is a steep, craggy and long way down, and there is no clear path in sight. He could, perhaps, glide along the mountain's perimeter, but it seems unnecessarily dangerous after yesterday’s experience.
He turns his attention to the back entrance to the camp, which is half-hidden by an old, collapsed pillar. It has to lead to a working path, since the presence earlier had seemed to be breathing steadily, as though they were merely on a casual stroll. It will mean he has to go into the mountain, but hopefully he can find a way out of it quickly.
Mind made up, he gathers his hebao and katana. Wrapping his travelling cloak closer to himself, he takes another look around the camp that saved his life, then ducks under the fallen pillar.
Just as he had thought, it opens into a cavernous pathway. Snow covers it, even though it is fully underground. Glowing blue flowers tint the place in a strange luminous light, and jagged icicles protrude like spears from the roof and stakes in the ground.
There’s a fork in the road just ahead, and to his relief he sees immediately a patch of grey, lifeless sky to his left. The path leads him past a circular pool walled by a ruin of some sort, and it’s not long before he finds himself back out on blessedly solid ground. There’s a path that leads in what must be the approximate direction of Mondstadt, and he’s about to follow it when he sights a hulking Fatui soldier a ways ahead.
It’s too dangerous. He has no idea how much intel the Fatui have of Inazuma, or how big a danger they might pose to him. There were Fatui members stationed around Inazuma when he left, and he is still a wanted man in his homeland; the bounty on his head grows by the day. He left the Crux because of it. He's not going to take the risk — he’ll stick to the mountainside and follow the path from a distance. After all, gone are the sharp cliffs from earlier; here, the slopes are gentle and pine trees provide him cover, as long as he keeps quiet.
It’s when he has made it past the Fatui soldier that he grows conscious of someone’s eyes on him, though with the wind and snow it’s a futile effort to figure out who or where they are. Picking out distinct smells is difficult through the strong winds and the pine thickets he is making his way through. He has to save his energy. He’s probably not even halfway around the mountain yet.
All he can do is hope that whoever or whatever they are, they mean no harm.
He plucks a mint leaf off a nearby stalk and chews on it as he continues to pick his way through the snowy slopes, following the path. The taste is refreshing, helping him keep his focus and his head clear. The cold has started to creep up on him; he hopes he can find a heat source soon.
As he climbs up a ledge, he stops short at the sight of a huge frostarm lawachurl sitting out in the open, a few white weasels around it. The mountain path extends behind it, but there is hardly any tree cover on the rocky slope he will have to sneak through. Kazuha will have to try to make it fast.
It’s going fine, until it isn’t. His foot catches on a pinecone hidden in the snow, crushing it against the rock with an audible crack. The weasels around the lawachurl scatter at the sound, and Kazuha can hear the lawachurl rising to its feet.
The earth itself seems to tremble under the lawachurl’s steps.
Albedo frowns from where he is perched on one of the cliffs overlooking Ukko’s territory.
Ukko is idly watching the snow weasels play around it. Aether had told him that this particular frostarm lawachurl had a name, and that it had perhaps been part of the lost civilisation that lived on this mountain. A piece of living history. Albedo has come here to sketch it many times. He has never noticed anything that set it apart from the other frostarm lawachurls that lived on the mountain, though it does appear to have a fondness for the snow weasels.
In any case, today he is here not to sketch Ukko, but for the good vantage this cliff offers. He had reasoned that the Inazuman would make his way to the mountain path. If he followed the mountain path down south, that would lead him towards Liyue and out of Albedo’s scope of interest. But the man had headed north, towards Mondstadt, picking his way carefully through the snow-covered sides of the mountain.
The man’s hold on his katana is a little looser than one would expect. An injury on his sword arm, perhaps — he had actively avoided any interaction with the Fatui soldier along the path as well. It stands to reason that he will try to avoid provoking Ukko, if that is the case.
But Ukko roars suddenly, the snow weasels scuttering off into the foliage, and the Inazuman stands frozen in place where he had been hidden behind a dead tree. Then Ukko rushes him, and the man draws his blade.
Curious to see the man’s combat abilities, Albedo observes.
He draws pause when the man seemingly summons the wind, leaping up and dodging a heavy strike from Ukko, then uses the momentum to plunge down. A Vision bearer? There is no Vision to be seen on his person, but it is probably hidden under the man’s travelling cloak. It would certainly explain how he had managed to get to the cliffside camp, despite its altitude.
A potential Vision wielder from Inazuma, whose ruler has enacted the infamous Vision Hunt Decree…
Caught up in his musings, Albedo almost misses the man stumbling in the thick snow. His movements have become sluggish, too, and his slowed reflexes earn the man a brutal hit to the chest from Ukko. The cold must be sinking in. He had been travelling off of the mountain path, and so had not been near any of the torches along it. The last ruin brazier he must have passed would be the one at the exit of Starglow Cavern, which Albedo had activated earlier today. The nearest ruin brazier to him now is the inactive one behind Ukko. It is unlikely a traveller to the region would know how to activate it, in any case.
Drawing his sword, Albedo makes his decision. Perceived threat or not, a life in danger is a life to save. That is the principle on which the Ordo operates.
He plunges down in front of Ukko right as it swipes at the Inazuman, sending him flying. Albedo slams down a solar isotoma, which promptly crystallises a few elemental shards off of Ukko’s ice shield. Ukko, enraged at his appearance, promptly shifts its attention to him. Albedo focuses on keeping it occupied, drawing it away from the Inazuman while keeping an eye on the other man.
The Inazuman meets eyes with him for the first time, and Albedo notes immediately the pallor of his skin, made all the more evident by his wide scarlet eyes and the red streak in his light hair. Fortunately, he seems to understand Albedo’s intentions, and stumbling shakily to his feet, manages to grab the closest elemental shard to shield himself. He has not let go of his katana, though his arm is visibly trembling even from Albedo’s distance.
Albedo frowns, distracting Ukko as he tries to appraise the Inazuman’s condition. He is clearly in bad shape; the sheer cold of the mountain creeps up on one without notice, and once it grabs hold, it sets in fast. He isn’t interested in killing Ukko, only to get the Inazuman out of here with minimal injury to both of them.
The man is close to the inactive ruin brazier now, but Albedo cannot afford to lure Ukko’s attention there just so he can activate it for some warmth. It’s too dangerous.
Instead, he summons forth a bloom of transient blossoms, and in the same movement charges at Ukko to knock it off balance. Ukko falls onto its back, stunned, and Albedo takes the chance to run for it.
One arm under the Inazuman’s shoulders and the other under his knees, he picks up the other man, who looks dazedly up at him without protest. The man’s cloak is soaked through from the snow, and he’s shivering in Albedo’s hold.
Taking a backward glance at Ukko still regaining its bearings, Albedo runs at the two hilichurls along the path, ignoring their yells as he kicks off the ledge and releases his glider. He knows this area like the back of his hand; his camp is straight up ahead.
When he’s shaken off the hilichurls, he looks down at the man in his arms. He appears to have fallen unconscious, either from his injuries or from shock. Albedo sets his jaw as he glides downslope toward his camp; he has to act fast.
There’s a warm weight pressing down on Kazuha’s chest as he stirs. He pushes it away absently, murmuring at Tama to move, but something else wraps around his hand, staying his movement. His eyelids flutter open, bewildered.
“That is a warming bottle,” a quiet voice says in Teyvat Common Tongue.
That jolts Kazuha back to wakefulness; he attempts to sit up, but a firm hand on his shoulder forces him to stay in place. The sensation draws his attention to the tightness of bandages around his arms and chest, and the ghost of cold at his fingertips. “Please stay still,” the same voice says. “I am almost done treating your injuries.”
There is silence for a while as the bandage on his arm is tied up firmly, and the owner of the voice comes into view. He is a young man with bright teal eyes and light sandy hair. There is a Geo Vision pinned prominently to his neck, and he smells like graphite. Kazuha recognises him, all at once: this is the person who had appeared with a sword plunge and rescued him from the lawachurl. He is also the person who had been at the cliffside camp, early this morning. Some faraway part of his mind wonders at the coincidence, that he should be saved from certain death on unforgiving lands by two separate Geo Vision wielders.
“Thank you,” Kazuha manages. Even through his fatigue and the protests of his leaden limbs, his instincts are on high alert as he tries to get his bearings. The ceiling is mountainous rock, and he can hear the crackling of a fire and the winds of Dragonspine outside. He is wrapped in unfamiliar fabric in a swathe of blankets, on what feels like a thin bedroll. They must be in a camp of some sort, then. Who is this? Is he a hermit who dwells up here?
He attempts to sit up, and this time the man does not stop him. A quick glance around him reveals that they are, indeed, in a cave. It is lined with shelves and tables and alchemical apparatus, with a stove and two torches close to the entrance. Next to his bedroll he finds his hebao and katana untouched, and by one of the walls he sees his own clothes hung out to dry.
“I’m Albedo, chief alchemist of the Ordo Favonius, and you are in my research camp.” He peers at Kazuha’s face keenly, as though studying it. “How do you feel? Are you cold?”
Kazuha blinks, trying his extremities, then shakes his head no. “There’s a little lingering chill on my fingers, but the warming bottle has been of much help.” The bandages on his arms and chest are tied a little tighter than he is used to. He tries not to think about how this means Albedo, a complete stranger, has seen the uneven burn marks running up his right arm.
“That is good,” Albedo says, the little notch between his brows visibly easing. “Your injuries looked worse than they were, and fortunately the cold has not seemed to affect you as much as I feared. You might see some bruising in the next few days, but it should not be severe.”
“I am indebted to you for saving me,” Kazuha says, attempting a stiff dip of his neck.
“It is but a small matter. I put some radish veggie soup on to cook earlier. Do you think you can stomach some?”
Kazuha finds that yes, he is hungry, and manages to stand up, albeit shakily. Albedo has set out two low stools by the campfire, and he helps Kazuha to the one closer to the wall of the small cave, so that he can lean back against it.
The soup is simple, but Kazuha basks in its welcoming warmth and sweetness. Albedo, between sips from his own bowl, watches him eat quietly. While he does not pry, and Kazuha loathes to reveal too much about himself, it is ill manners to keep his saviour in the dark.
So he tells Albedo the bare minimum — his name, that he had set out from Guyun yesterday, about his journey through Dragonspine that had brought him to come across the cliffside camp. Albedo looks faintly impressed at the tale.
“Had you gone right towards the lighted lamps despite that shadow you saw, you would have found yourself face to face with another frostarm lawachurl, and on the edge of a cliff no less,” Albedo says. “It is most fortunate that you did not.”
Kazuha nods in quiet relief. “You seem… familiar with the mountain and its inhabitants,” he says.
“I stay here for extended periods and do a fair bit of exploring and investigation between my research,” Albedo says, gesturing at a blackboard and easel at the back of the cave. A detailed drawing of a group of slumbering hilichurls is on the easel, and the blackboard is covered with notes, diagrams and charts. “I would say I am better acquainted with the area than the average Mondstadtian.”
Albedo smells like graphite and chalk, Kazuha notes as he takes a deep breath. It reminds him of this morning. “You were watching me this morning,” he says, hoping it doesn’t come off as too accusatory.
“Oh, at the camp?” Albedo asks with a tilt of his head. Kazuha’s eyes fall to the diamond at the base of his neck, watching the skin shift under his words. “I did not realise you were awake.”
“Do you maintain the camp?”
“I suppose you could say so,” Albedo nods. “The Ordo Favonius maintains emergency supply points around the mountain for lost travelers. That particular camp happens to be under my purview, though I must say it is rare that it is chanced upon. And after that… I was in the area sketching, when I heard the lawachurl’s roar.”
In spite of what the alchemist says, Kazuha is certain that he had been tailed, or watched at least. When he was attacked earlier, Albedo had plunged straight down from the rock above his own position, the timing almost too perfect to be called coincidence. Despite the hospitality Albedo has shown him so far, there has been a detached undercurrent of distrust in his demeanour. Not that Kazuha can blame him; a lone, armed traveller going by an unorthodox path through this deadly mountain is bound to draw concern, and Albedo is a member of the Ordo, after all.
Before Kazuha can say anything else, Albedo sets his bowl down with a clink. “Are you headed for Mondstadt?”
“Yes,” Kazuha says honestly. “Going through Dragonspine was my best option, since I was leaving from Guyun, instead of crossing the shared border at the Stone Gate.”
Albedo hums, but seems to find the answer satisfactory.
“I will be heading down the mountain the day after next,” Albedo says after a yawning silence. “If you would like, I can escort you to Mondstadt. I do not think it is ideal for you to be traversing this mountain alone in your current state, even though you seem well now.”
“Would that be alright?” Kazuha doesn’t mind, but Albedo carries an air of solitude around him. He does not seem the type to enjoy being in the presence of others.
That draws a bland smile from Albedo. “If you do not mind the sparseness of my camp. I am not accustomed to having visitors, but I would not turn an injured traveller away on purpose.”
“I am used to having far less,” Kazuha says. He has spent thunderstorms in abandoned shacks and in the crevices of cliffs, nursing injuries worse than the ones he has now. “I would be most grateful.”
“I must warn you that I am not quite one for making conversation,” Albedo says.
Kazuha smiles at that. “That suits me just fine. I am used to being in my own company. I’ll be in your care then, Albedo.”
Truth be told, Albedo has less than altruistic reasons for the offer he has extended to the wandering samurai, Kaedehara Kazuha. On the one hand, it is true that he cannot in good faith let anyone with such injuries attempt to travel the mountain alone. Had Kazuha desired to continue downwards, he would have had to summon a Knight or Adventurer to come retrieve Kazuha. An unnecessary bother which he would much prefer to avoid.
On the other hand, Albedo has questions he would like answered. Fatigue had caught up with Kazuha soon after their meal earlier, and he had deemed it unwise to press his questions after what the man had experienced earlier.
He is asleep on Albedo’s spare bedroll now, hopefully deep in slumber. Beyond his injuries, he had had rings of exhaustion under his eyes, and had seemed distressed by the raging snowstorm outside. From Albedo’s observations, Kazuha seemed unusually attuned to the elements; one had to wonder how he had rested out in the open on his travels prior.
He had offered him some of the sleeping draught he made for Kaeya on occasion. If he had made it stronger than usual, it was only to ensure that Kazuha would sleep through the night.
As he works on analysing the crystalline bloom Aether had presented him with from the cryo hypostasis west of the mountain, Albedo’s mind wanders.
A Vision wielder from Inazuma, coming to Mondstadt via Liyue and Dragonspine. He is housing a fugitive, no doubt about it. Will it draw the ire of the Shogun to Mondstadt? How had Kazuha made it to Liyue in the first place? He had arrived from Guyun, an island archipelago separated from the Liyuean mainland. Had he sailed through the stormy seas from Inazuma, somehow?
Not to mention… the Masterless Inazuman Vision he had come across in Kazuha’s belt pouch when he was ensuring that its contents were unaffected by the melted snow. Could it be a spoil of war? Kazuha has, after all, exhibited a fair bit of combat prowess, from what Albedo witnessed earlier. How big of a threat does he actually pose, with all of these factors taken into consideration? He would like to think that he isn’t harbouring a murderer in his spare bedroll.
That said, it is hard to think of Kazuha as a murderer. The man is mild-mannered and quiet, and talking to him does not feel exhausting the way it sometimes does with other people. Albedo does hope his suspicions are unfounded.
He’s halfway through comparing the crystalline bloom’s organic makeup to that of the cryo regisvine’s hoarfrost core, the cover of night heavy over Mondstadt and a snowstorm raging outside, when he hears Kazuha stir and whimper.
Albedo stills, sets down the vial and his lab gloves, and crosses the distance to put a hand on Kazuha’s forehead. He might be running a fever, from all that cold exposure earlier. Even though he finds Kazuha’s skin cool to the touch, the man’s brow is furrowed, distress clear on his face. Albedo recognises it; it is similar to the one that Klee wears when she has nightmares.
“Tomo,” Kazuha hisses suddenly, the sound wretched and broken. Albedo recognises it as an Inazuman name. His arm — his right arm, the one with the teardrop-shaped burn scar extending from the heart of his palm — shifts, blindly grasping for something. “No, no— Tomo—”
Albedo knows what to do when Klee has nightmares. A cup of warm milk, a bedtime story, and to stay by her side until she falls back asleep.
He has absolutely no clue what to do with a stranger having a nightmare. So he shakes Kazuha’s shoulder, careful not to jostle his injuries. “Kazuha,” he tries. “Kazuha, you’re having a nightmare.”
Kazuha startles awake at that, his right hand immediately moving to shove Albedo away from himself. The action is surprisingly rough, but Kazuha’s movements are clumsy with sleep and Albedo is fully awake. He catches Kazuha’s hand in his own, stopping the momentum entirely.
“It’s me, Albedo,” he says, studying Kazuha’s face. Under the flickering firelight, Kazuha’s eyes are wide as they blink up at him, his breathing loud and unsteady in the silence. Gone is the composed countenance he had held earlier in the evening; panic and fear shines clear enough for even Albedo to identify. “You’re safe,” he says, not letting go of Kazuha’s hand. “You’re not in Inazuma anymore.”
He lets go immediately when Kazuha’s arm relaxes in his grip, and takes a step back to put distance between them. Kazuha sits up a moment later, hand falling limply to his side. “My apologies, Albedo,” he says. The shadows are heavy in his eyes, and he looks… lost. “Thank you for waking me up. I hope I didn’t hurt you?”
“Not at all,” Albedo reassures him. “Would you like something hot to drink? I can put some snow on to boil.”
Kazuha seems like he’s about to reject the offer, but he nods. “That would be nice, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Albedo does just that, settling himself a short distance between the stove and Kazuha’s bedroll. Kazuha, staring at the rock wall in front of him, appears to have calmed down at last. He’s pulled out his belt pouch, clutching something tightly in his right hand. Albedo knows what it is.
“I must apologise,” he says at length. Kazuha jumps. “I opened your belt pouch earlier when I brought you here. That Masterless Vision...”
To his surprise, the tension melts away from Kazuha’s features into a placid smile. “I know,” he says. “I felt the traces of your person on it. Would you like to look at it?”
Albedo pauses, against his better judgment. This would be a rare chance to analyse a Masterless Vision, something he has yet to acquire for his research into Visions and the manipulation of elements by the common folk. But he has yet to know how it came to be in Kazuha’s possession...
“It belonged to a dear friend of mine,” Kazuha says, as though sensing his unvoiced question. “You must know about the Vision Hunt Decree in my homeland. My friend lost a duel to the Vision Hunters, and was executed by the Raiden Shogun. I stole his Vision from before her eyes and fled.”
He looks up at Albedo, the small smile back on his face. “I am a fugitive on the run from the Decree, and also a wanted man with a bounty on my head. And here I am, sitting in your camp, Knight of Favonius.”
There is expectation in his tone. What of, Albedo does not understand. He pours out the boiled water into two mugs, and hands one to Kazuha, which the other accepts.
“Do you wish for me to ask you to leave?” he asks.
Kazuha’s expression is serene. “If that is what you desire, Sir Albedo. I am but a wanderer.”
“What brings you to Mondstadt, then?” Albedo counters in lieu of answering.
“I was in Liyue for some time, with a crew of sailors,” Kazuha says slowly. “My captain is an Electro Vision holder. The unrest in Inazuma grows stronger by the day, and I feared my presence would put her and the crew in danger, as they trade with Inazuma on the regular.”
He looks at the Masterless Vision in his hand, running his thumb over its curved surface. “My captain said it was stupid for me to leave,” he laughs. “She said she’d beat down the Shogun if she tried anything against them, that she would be happy to fight alongside me and the resistance troops. I know she would have. She is that kind of person. But I… I wanted to try reawakening my friend’s Vision here, in the land of freedom. Your archon gives what mine has taken away from her people.”
Albedo hums. Reawakening a Masterless Vision… it is no easy feat, but it is not unheard of. He has heard tales of Visions being reawakened in unexpected places, like the marketplace, but not of anyone trying to do so intentionally.
“Why do you seek to reawaken it? Would it not be enough for you to keep it on your person, as a memento of your friend?”
The thin smile on Kazuha’s face is shaped like sadness. “I much prefer to think of it as his legacy, than a memory I cannot get back,” Kazuha says. “It is proof of the strength of his dreams. Even when we humans are left with nothing, we carry dreams with us. I suppose it is a selfish desire of mine, for someone else to carry on the dreams that my friend did in life. Just like snuffed torches can be relit, we are, after all, but beacons who light each other’s ways through this world.”
Albedo considers the words. In the time he has borne his Vision, he has only ever wondered how it came to be and of its intended purpose. A subject of his learning, not something significant to his person. Are dreams and ambition such things that can be passed from person to person, like pollen upon a bee flying from flower to flower?
What then of the Vision’s journey? Is it dictated by fate or a higher being, or merely coincidence, that it should find a new owner and be reawakened? And is such a deliberate search for an owner, like the one Kazuha is attempting, one that seeks to control the forces that distribute Visions to the people? It is fascinating to consider.
“I’m afraid I am not in a position to assist you in your search, but I will not obstruct your movement around Mondstadt,” he says instead. His gaze drifts back from the Masterless Vision to Kazuha, who looks surprised. “You are welcome to stay. My offer of bringing you down the mountain to Mondstadt still stands.”
In the morning when Kazuha stirs from sleep, it is no longer storming outside. The snowfall is surprisingly gentle for how loud the wind was whistling last night; such is the whim and fancy of nature.
Albedo is nowhere to be seen, though there is a cheery bubbling from the stove by the entrance. He has put some carrots, potatoes and onions on to boil. Carried by the winds from outside, the sweet fragrance wafts in towards Kazuha.
Kazuha sets about his morning routine, changing out of the spare set of Ordo-issued garments Albedo had lent him and retrieving his own garb from where it has been drying near one of the torches. His clothes are warm and toasty, with a comforting smell of pine.
Last night was the first time in a long while that he had dreamt about Tomo. The last time was on board the Alcor, when they were docked in Ritou. He had woken up alone in his quarters with his heart racing and the vision of the Raiden Shogun’s sword pointed at his own chest. It had been storming that night, too.
He had told Albedo a surprising lot about himself, last night. He had not been able to help it. Perhaps he had been shaken by the dream. Perhaps he had been feeling lonely. Perhaps it was the way Albedo had not pried, even though Kazuha had seen the way his teal eyes shone when he looked at Tomo’s empty Vision. Albedo’s evident inquisitivity does not seem to extend to the affairs of others; in the short time they have known each other, Albedo has been most respectful of leaving both of them space.
Kazuha appreciates it. The distance between people is not something so easily crossed.
He’s applying shiunko ointment to the burns on his arm when Albedo returns.
“Welcome back,” Kazuha says.
Albedo offers him a quiet smile in answer, setting down his sketchbook on one of the tables before walking over to Kazuha. “How are your injuries?”
“They are bruised, but recovering well,” Kazuha says, returning his attention to his arm. “This is an old one. I suppose it will stay with me forever.”
“Does it hurt?” Albedo asks, unadulterated curiousity in his voice. Kazuha glances up to find him observing the raised scar that extends down his wrist. “I do not suppose it was… gained in a normal fashion.”
At Kazuha’s wordless nod, Albedo lifts his eyes, and asks, “May I touch it?”
The request takes Kazuha by surprise, but he stretches his hand out to Albedo anyway. In their short acquaintanceship he has found that Albedo, while aloof, is earnest and careful. His touch on Kazuha’s hand is light, his fingers tracing the scar’s rough edges from the palm and coming to rest on Kazuha’s pulse point.
“Tomo— My friend’s Vision,” Kazuha says haltingly. Albedo doesn’t respond, but Kazuha knows from the way he stills that he is listening. “It burned me, as I was fleeing from the… the place where he was executed. It scorched me like I was sticking my hand into naked flame, but I couldn’t let go. It might have been at the moment of his actual death.”
Talking about Tomo is easier now than it was when he first met anegimi and the rest of the crew. Perhaps it is a sign that he has come to accept the loss. Perhaps it is a sign of his certainty, now, that he will carry Tomo’s tale with him to all the lands he wanders.
Albedo lets go of his hand, and takes a step back from him. “I apologise for this… insensitive question,” Albedo says, looking a little sheepish. “But do you mind if I take some notes?”
Kazuha laughs. It is rather endearing to see Albedo fluster. “Perhaps we should eat and speak,” he suggests. The pot is singing now; the broth must be ready.
It is Barbatos ratatouille that he is preparing, Albedo says. A traditional Mondstadtian specialty, said to be a favourite of the Anemo Archon himself. He doles out a bowl for Kazuha, and they take their places by the stove. It is only as Kazuha raises his first spoonful to his mouth that he realises he had not bandaged his arm back up.
“As thanks for you providing me shelter and food,” Kazuha says, “Would you like to do some research on my friend’s Vision?”
Albedo hopes his eagerness does not show, but Kazuha must see something in his expression, because he laughs a little. The sound rings off the walls of Albedo’s lab. “You seem very interested in Visions,” he remarks, pulling the Vision out of his pouch and offering it to Albedo on an outstretched palm.
“I merely wish to understand how they work, as I do all the unknowns in this world. Though I am told that such sentiments are… inappropriate, perhaps, for something of such emotional value,” Albedo says, pressing his lips together petulantly. Kazuha seems to find that amusing, because he laughs again.
“I think I can understand,” Kazuha says. “I have been met by more questions than answers in the course of my journey with it. What are the conditions that can bring about a reawakening? If it were to be reawakened, what element would it take? Would it only be an Inazuman who can reawaken it?”
The questions are familiar, ones that Albedo has wondered to himself. He nods, studying the empty paleness of the Vision and its rounded copper borders. “You must have attempted it many times,” he remarks.
“That I have.” Kazuha’s eyes crinkle. “I can share with you some of the things I’ve learned while journeying with it, if you would like? Though I’m afraid it would not be as scientific as you would like.”
“All knowledge is worth possessing,” Albedo reassures him, and rushes to pick up his notebook, which is already covered with scribbles from their conversation earlier.
Albedo has buried himself in the studying of Tomo’s Vision, so Kazuha takes the chance to wander around the area surrounding the camp. There isn’t much, really, but there’s a small watchtower ruin a ways down the path. When he climbs up, rousing a few cryo crystalflies from their relaxed fluttering, he can see the faint silhouette of a walled city in the distance. That must be Mondstadt.
The wind carries through green lands
And never leaves
The land of freedom, with its walled heart. There is a kind of poeticism to it, Kazuha thinks.
He stays there for some time, until the wind starts to pick back up. The winds on Dragonspine, Kazuha has noticed, do not sing. In Liyue, they carried the songs of rocks and mountains through the valleys. Here, they are harsh and forbidding, laments riddled with grief. He wonders how the winds of Mondstadt down the mountain will sound.
When he returns to the camp, guarded by its flaming sentinels, Albedo has already started on dinner. He has just finished his observations of Tomo’s Vision, he tells Kazuha, pointing to a sketch of the Vision that he’s made on his sketchbook, and thought it would be good for them to have a meal before he continues on his work, despite the early hour.
Kazuha is not sure what he should find more surprising: that Albedo, despite all appearances, seems to keep relatively regular mealtimes; or that—
“You’re cooking fish,” he says, the words feeling silly in his mouth. Where had Albedo gotten fish from, in the middle of Dragonspine?
Albedo hums, keeping his eyes trained on the fish he is carefully gutting. “My little sister brought me frozen fish the last time she visited. And I theorised that you might have missed eating fish, since you’ve spent so much time out at sea...” Kazuha looks up from admiring his graceful knifework to realise the tips of Albedo’s ears are pink.
Kazuha gulps, unsure how to react to the surge of warmth bursting in his chest. “Your theory was right,” he admits. He misses the taste of brine and the chorus of seagulls and the feeling of ocean wind in his hair. Then, awkwardly, he adds, “You have a little sister?”
The smile that blooms on Albedo’s face at the question is so affectionate and soft, Kazuha almost forgets to breathe. It is a startling departure from the neutral, almost passive manner he has primarily conducted himself with thus far. “Yes. She’s a real handful and likes to blow up fish in the lakes around Mondstadt. She brings her catch along when she comes to visit me here.”
“...Blow up?” Kazuha manages. This sounds dangerous.
“She is an explosives expert,” Albedo clarifies, a note of pride in the way he pronounces the word. “She has a range of self-designed bombs, which I sometimes help her with for different purposes, including blasting fish. They can get rather flashy at times.” He taps his chin consideringly, scanning the shelves around the camp. “I believe I have a prototype from the last time she was here in one of my cupboards. I can show it to you later, if you would like?”
Kazuha tries not to balk too visibly at the offer. He thought Yoimiya with her love for dangerously huge fireworks was intimidating enough. Albedo is an older brother to an explosives expert. No wonder he had no qualms about hosting Kazuha.
“One of my friends back home would probably love to meet her,” he tells Albedo instead. “She’s a Pyro Vision holder who builds the grandest fireworks in all of Inazuma.”
“Oh?” Albedo says, raising a brow. “My sister bears a Pyro Vision as well. Do tell me more.”
So Kazuha does — he tells Albedo about Inazuma, about the people he had left behind. He tells Albedo about the Crux, about the storms they had run into on the Alcor.
And Albedo listens.
Kazuha has many tales of his adventures, and the way he tells them is neither exaggerated nor boastful. It makes him quite the pleasant storyteller, and Albedo finds he does not mind listening to him speak.
As he continues to put the Masterless Vision through various tests, he hears the rustle of paper from where Kazuha is seated at his other work desk. Albedo had cleared a small area for him to settle down earlier, after the wanderer came back from some meditation on the rock outside his camp, asking for some paper and a brush to use.
He wonders if it is the mettle of a wanderer, that should drive one to wander right back into the place that has hurt them before. The winds of Dragonspine, the storm-ridden oceans; despite all the dangers in his homeland, Albedo is gripped with a firm conviction that Kazuha will return to Inazuma before long.
“Kazuha,” he says, setting down the Vision on his table. Brush stilling, Kazuha looks up from whatever he is doing, cocking his head in silent question. The study can wait; right now, he wants to—
“May I draw you?”
Kazuha blinks slowly, eyes flicking between the easel by his side and Albedo himself. Albedo runs his gaze over the gentle slope of his shoulders and the way the firelight shines off the soft curls of his hair. “I have never been a model for a drawing before,” Kazuha says. “But if I may be of service, please go ahead.”
“You can continue whatever it is you are working on,” Albedo says. He was asking more for formality’s sake, really, after a lecture from Aether the last time about drawing a person at close quarters without permission. “That alone is enough.”
“Hmm,” Kazuha hums, and Albedo catches a twinkle in his eye before he bobs his head, and resumes his writing. “Alright.”
One might say Dragonspine is most unforgiving, and unwelcoming indeed. Strong winds, endless snow, steep cliffs, hostile enemies.
It is not a place most would make a home of. Surely others would say the same of Inazuma.
Across the deep snow
A stop by the fireplace
My sandals have dried
When the ink has dried, he folds the paper up carefully. The camp smells of pine and graphite.
Nothing extraordinary happens when they descend the mountain the next day. The adventurers and researchers at base camp greet Albedo when they see him, and he excuses himself quickly before they can ask too much of himself and his newfound companion. Inazumans are rarely seen in Mondstadt; Kazuha will be drawing enough attention to himself once he steps foot within the city borders.
It is a warm day, the grass rippling with heat waves and wind as they make their way down the road that leads to the city.
“The wind sings here,” Kazuha says. He seems especially cheerful today, and his steps are light on the earth.
“Oh? What does it sing about?”
“Life and courage,” Kazuha says. He doesn’t elaborate, and Albedo doesn’t ask.
They take a longer route than usual: Albedo leads them on a detour to the great Windrise oak at Kazuha’s request, and Kazuha offers a prayer to Barbatos, wherever he may be. Apparently delighted at the sight of actual water after so long, Kazuha splashes in the shallow waters in Windrise. Albedo watches him, a foreign sensation welling in his chest.
“The river here leads out to the coast,” he tells Kazuha after the other has emerged from the small river. “If you should ever miss the ocean while you are here, you need only follow the water.”
Kazuha has picked a leaf from off the oak. He folds it gently along its spine, the movement careful. His eyes crinkle as he places it to his lips. “Every sailor worth their salt knows that, Albedo,” he says, then plays a soft, trembling note.
Once again, Albedo listens.
The rest of the walk to Mondstadt passes quickly. Kazuha occasionally asks Albedo about the wildlife they see along the way, and the pigeons on the bridge rush off in a flurry of feathers as they approach.
Albedo greets Swan and Lawrence at the gates, and brings Kazuha into the city. People are milling around the market district; to avoid attention, he leads Kazuha through a side alley to the statue plaza overlooking the city.
“Welcome to Mondstadt,” Albedo tells Kazuha. The skies are blue and clear, the flags of the city vibrant. The wind carries the voices of people up to them. He hadn’t noticed it on Dragonspine, but Kazuha suits the sun so much more.
“It’s a beautiful city,” Kazuha says. He’s smiling again, and under the full light of the sun he looks radiant. “Thank you for all the kindness, Albedo.”
“Don’t mention it,” Albedo says. Their eyes meet, an unspoken understanding between them: this is where they part ways. Surprisingly, Albedo has not been looking forward to it, but he doesn’t know what he should be doing, or saying for that matter.
“Here,” Kazuha says, reaching into his haori and pulling out a small folded slip of paper. “I do not have much, so please accept my humble gratitude.”
The formal tone makes Albedo smile, and he accepts it.
“The winds of fate are curious in their intertwining,” Kazuha says. “I am sure we will meet again.” His scarf is a little lopsided, and Albedo reaches up to fix it without thinking.
“Then I will look forward to that day,” he offers, and finds that he means it. “I wish you well on your travels, wanderer.”
The smell of graphite lingers on Kazuha’s scarf long after Albedo has vanished out of sight.