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Pain Comes in Many Forms (and so does Comfort): Whumptober 2021

Chapter Text

The first time Razor’s wrists were trapped, one of the abyss creatures was dragging him away and his lupical died.

The second time Razor found his wrists trapped, he panicked.

He woke up slowly, struggling to see past the black spots in his eyes. Why was it so hard to wake up? His head hurt too. Razor tried to figure out what was wrong—to bring his hand to his head and hold it steady—but his hand was stuck. He froze, before tugging frantically at his wrists again.

Something—it wasn’t cold metal this time—was wrapped around his wrists tightly behind his back, keeping them in place. It was different but— He was trapped—dragged away—and he couldn’t… Not again…

No. No it wouldn’t be like last time. Razor could fight. With a fierce howl, Razor called the lightning, ready to break out of the trap and hurry to the aid of his lupical.

Nothing happened.

“Looking for this?” a bored voice asked. Razor stopped himself with a gasp and looked towards it.

It wasn’t one of the floating Abyss creatures—he could hear the creature laughing—but instead it was a tall human (he thought) with a red coat and white mask. It was holding a stick that wasn’t a sword, and in the other hand, his purple Vision.

The human tossed the Vision to another human, farther away. The lightning that was already gone from his grasp faded farther away.

He didn’t have his vision, his sword, his hands…but Razor still had his teeth. Feeling his feet free, Razor forewent the use of his hands altogether and scrambled upwards to rush the red-clothed human, teeth bared.

The human he aimed for startled, shouting a few curses, but Razor never made it to him. A heavy force rammed into his shoulder, and Razor hit the ground, face crashing into the dirt. A foot stepped on him, and he saw glimpses of a large purple human in the corner of his dizzy eyes.

“Damn,” the first human grumbled. “Figures that this kid would be trouble, but we need him in one piece to get close to Boreas.”

What—?

“Get his legs, too.”

Razor thrashed. He tried to kick out, to scream, to bite—anything—but the heavy human on top of him was not deterred. He just smashed Razor head further into the dirt—mud, there was mud everywhere and it smelled like blood—and wrapped tight ropes around his ankles.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t call lightning, couldn’t fight, couldn’t do anything. His lupical were going to die. He couldn’t help them, and they were going to die—they were already dead—and he was going to get dragged away, through the mud and the storm—sunshine bore into his back—and his lupical were dead and it was his fault and—

“Let him go!”

Razor couldn’t see, but he heard the crashes. (The sounds of his lupical dying.) He struggled again, helplessly, to try and break the bindings—

And then they did. Arms free, Razor didn’t hesitate to lunge forward, clawing at the first person in front of him.

“H-Hey! Razor, wait!”

He stopped short—somebody was holding him back to—but he blinked and it was just the Clumsy One in front of him. Bennett—his name was Bennett. The boy held up his hands in a show of vulnerability, and the arms holding him back loosened, and Razor realized now that it was just the Traveler’s hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Razor. It’s over, and your lupical is safe. We got you.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

If you don't want any sneak-peaks, just scroll back up and press next chapter. But if you're only here for some content and/or characters and not others, peruse at your pleasure.

//first person listed is POV character

 

 

1. [prompt: bound] // [Razor; Razor & Aether & Bennett] // Razor has a run-in with the Fatui. 

2. [prompt: choking] // [Albedo & Klee] // Albedo learns an unpleasant limitation of the human experience.

3. [prompt: taunting, insults, "who did this to you?"] // [Morax & Guizhong; implied Morax/Guizhong] // Morax was a god of war, but not every battle was without...emotional investment. Certainly not this one.

4. [prompt: taken hostage, "do you trust me?"] // [Xingqiu & Chongyun] // Xingqiu had always been confident in his silver tongue, but confidence falters when the stakes are high and not his own.

5. [prompt: betrayal] // [Aether & Lumine] // Before reuniting, the twins have a choice to make.

6. [prompt: touch starved] // [Fischl; Fischl & Oz] // Fischl chose a lonely path. She wonders if she can bear it.

7. [prompt: helplessness, numbness] // [Diluc & Kaeya] // Diluc gets stranded on Dragonspine.

8. [prompt: "definitely just a cold"] // [Noelle & Lisa] // Noelle may not be feeling well, but she isn't going to let that stop her.

9. [prompt: presumed dead, tears] // [Ganyu] // Ganyu sees the body of Rex Lapis fall from the sky. She's not okay.

10. [prompt: flare-up] // [Kaeya & Jean] // Kaeya knew it was going to be a rough day.

11. [prompt: drowning] // [Childe; Childe & Aether & Paimon & Zhongli] // Childe was very familiar with death, but this was a little too close, even for his tastes.

12. [prompt: torture, made to watch, begging] // [Kazuha & Beidou] // Kazuha was already in a hopeless situation; he never wanted Beidou to join him there.

13. [prompt: cauterization] // [Yoimiya & Ayaka] // Yoimiya and Ayaka get caught by surprise.

14. [prompt: beaten] // [Eula; Eula & Amber & Jean & Kaeya] // Eula had always known that Mondstadt wouldn't welcome her as a knight, but it was worse in the beginning.

15. [prompt: delirium] // [Zhongli & Hu Tao] // Zhongli nurses Hu Tao when she has a brush with a malignant spirit.

16. [prompt: aftermath] // [Rosaria & Jilliana] // Rosaria is finally free of the bandits that took her, but she doesn't know what that actually means.

17. [prompt: dread] // [Diona] // Diona doesn't like uncertainty.

18. [prompt: doctor's visit] // [Bennett & Barbara] // Bennett goes to the church's infirmary. Again.

19. [prompt: bleeding, stabbing] // [Keqing & Ningguang] // Keqing intercepts an assassination attempt.

20. [prompt: trunk] // [Xiangling & Guoba] // Xiangling and Guoba have a bad run-in with Treasure Hoarders.

21. [prompt: bleeding through the bandages] // [Raiden Shogun & Sara] // The Raiden Shogun aids her General.

22. [prompt: cursed, demon] // [Chongyun & Xiao] // Chongyun sees his first demon.

23. [prompt: auction] // [Albedo; Albedo & Alice] // Homunculi are, incidentally, considered valuable.

24. [prompt: flashback] // [Yae; Yae & Ei; Yae & Kitsune Saiguu] // Yae Miko mourns for a second time.

25. [prompt: flight, hiding] // [Sayu] // Sayu gets spotted on the job.

26. [prompt: fallen] // [Amber; Amber & Eula] // Amber has an accident on the job.

27. [prompt: collapse] // [Beidou & Kazuha] // Beidou helps her newest crewmate.

28. [prompt: "Good. You're finally awake," panic] // [Dainslief & Venti] // Dainsleif wakes up in an unfamiliar place.

29. [prompt: too weak to move, "You're still not dead?"] // [Jean; Jean & Kaeya] // Jean gets ambushed.

30. [prompt: left for dead] // [Xiao; Xiao & Morax] // Xiao is left on the battlefield.

31. [prompt: disaster zone, trauma, prisoner] // [~ehe~] // Mondstadt has fallen. (Long one-shot)

Chapter Text

Albedo knew humans needed to breathe. All complex organisms did, in some way. Oxygen was pulled in through the lungs, and the carbon dioxide was pushed out through the lungs. In the ways of alchemy, it was equivalent exchange, but also, it was just life.

Rhinedottir explained this to him in great detail, in the same breath that she told him that he was different. It was one of the first times, in his young waking life, that Albedo realized that he was not human, or a normal organism of any kind. His blood needed the power of leylines, not the gases of the air; the formation of lungs within his chest was simply an object of replication—one necessary only for trivial things like talking, and not for living.

Sometimes, the importance of breathing was… not lost to him entirely, but forgotten. It was not on the forefront of his mind. Until, suddenly, it is.

It was just a meal. Albedo learned that the majority of people ate three times a day. It was supposedly the standard for health reasons. Alice, however, did not adhere to this schedule, though if she did, albeit at different times on some days, he wouldn’t know. Her daughter—his sister?—did, and Klee often persuaded him to join her. Albedo did eat, but he quickly discovered that he had no need for as much food as regular humans did, so he merely took a few bites each time to be polite. It made Klee happy, at least, and he found that…preferable…to her worrying over him.

He had already taken his few obligated bites, and he was deciding whether he wanted to try for one more, when he heard the sharp sound. Albedo looked up, and he immediately grew rigid at the sight of Klee. Her mouth was open, unchewed food spilling out, and she was grasping at her throat. Her face was growing red, tears were gathering in her eyes, and only strangled sounds escaped her, even though her mouth was open to scream. It was wrong. Very wrong.

“Klee?” he called as he moved toward her, desperate to know where the problem was. She looked at him with teary eyes, unable to say anything.

It was her throat. Something was wrong with it, or lodged in it—

Oh. She wasn’t breathing.

She couldn’t breathe.

Think, Albedo, think. She was eating, so… So the food must be stuck. The throat was used to breathe. But how to dislodge the obstacle from the windpipe? The lungs should still contain air; perhaps, with enough force, the lungs could dispel it like a gust of anemo.

Albedo took the choking Klee around the waist and, keeping in mind where the diaphragm was, and where best to apply leverage, he squeezed. In that moment, he didn’t pay much heed to what the force applied would do to her ribs, but what was important was getting her to breathe. The procedure was successful, because a chunk of food came flying out and hit the side of the table. Klee drew in a shuddering breath.

“Are you alright now?” he asked, unsure why his voice was shaking too.

Klee responded by throwing herself in his arms, burying her face into his coat, and sobbing. He wasn’t sure what else to do, so he merely held her, his chest feeling tight. At least she could breathe now, otherwise, she would not be able to cry the way she was now.

He understood why she would be distressed. Without the ability to breathe… Well, she wouldn’t have been able to continue living. It was a very distressing notion, indeed. He found himself disturbed by it as well. Life…was complex, but it was also fragile.

Albedo, ever so slightly, tightened his grip on Klee, and he continued to hold her, listening to her sob and breathe.

Chapter Text

“You did this to yourself.”

The words were spoken in tandem with a claw pressing him into the dirt, cracking the stone beneath him.

Morax took in a shuddering breath unabated, and he found that he could not overpower the arm that held him down. He never could. Once, he thought he had. He had slain the Great Dragon of the Summit, the ruler of the lands, in a declaration of war. War now followed Morax, wherever he hid, and not even the shedding of that name could stop it.

At least, Morax had thought that he had killed him.

The Great Dragon’s serpentine body stretched over the plains of his new home—of Guili—and blacked out the sky with the coal of his scales. The air was thick with ash and blood, and it choked him and their people alike.

Morax was unsure if the Great Dragon’s attack on the neutral Guili was just part of his retribution against Morax, for dethroning him from the mountains of Liyue, or if it was simply a necessary step in retaking the land he desired. Either way, the old god of geo was merciless in his assault. Guili was smoldering and terraformed. It had taken all of his and Guizhong’s power to stave him off long enough for the people to escape. He hoped they escaped, at least.

He struggled to focus on the dragon, and not the strangled gasps of Guizhong, draped over the jagged waves of stone.

Morax gripped the ground beneath him, tearing it from the grasp of the Great Dragon and dragging the geo up out of the depths, reforming the ground into a sharp spear that pierced the arm holding him down.

With a short growl, the arm loosened, just enough for Morax to roll out from underneath it. His first spear already cracked in two, he shaped a crude one from geo and lunged, striking the blade into the Great Dragon’s elbow. He wasted no time in moving to leap up to his neck and aiming for the throat.

A column of geo crashed into him midair and pinned him into a like column. He gasped for breath as his form cracked.

“Pathetic,” the Great Dragon sneered. “You are dare think you can kill me after you failed the first time? In a puny form, no less. What a useless spawn you are.”

He cried out as the columns squeezed him between them. His sire watched with amusement. “Assume your true form,” the Great Dragon taunted. “I’ll allow you one more chance to best me, only because you came so close the first time. I want to see if that was luck or prowess.”

Morax gripped the columns even as his sight flickered. The Great Dragon’s control over geo was great, and it was hard to overpower.

“Geo is the realization of dust, and dust is the final form of geo, just as it is the final form of life. As it is the beginning, when plants spring out of it. If you think about it that way, even rocks themselves are alive.”

But not impossible. Morax always had resonance with the element of geo, but it had only grown since he left the mountains and dwelled in the low plains. Geo was not only the strong and mighty peaks, but it was also the foundation on which the world formed. Rigid. Changing.

Morax struggled to overturn the columns, but it was far from the only geo around. If his sire wanted a dragon, then he would get a dragon.

Dragons were creatures of flesh, blood, and elemental energy. And as the adepti knew, elemental energy could be manipulated in more ways than one. Morax let the geo inside of him grow once more, his human form giving way to that of a dragon. But it didn’t stop there. As the Great Dragon tried to leverage his larger form against him, he grew spines of geo to split the columns in two. Once in the air, Morax bared his teeth and lunged.

“That’s more like it. Come at me with your full strength!”

The two dragons fought, twisting through the sky and tearing at each other with claws and teeth. Morax found himself reverting to the basest of his instincts, the taste of his sire’s blood on his tongue and the scent of his own in his nose. A set of claws would rake into his scales, and Morax would meet them with his own; teeth gnashed; spires of geo would crash into the battle at the bid of their god, and Morax’s spines of geo would twist and grow as a living spear and shield to meet them. The Great Dragon was much larger than he was, nearly twice his size, but that at least gave Morax the advantage of speed.

Not that speed was everything. There was a gash torn into his side now, deeper than the gashes he inflicted on his sire, and it was starting to burn. Morax needed to be faster, stronger. Better. He dipped underneath the Great Dragon’s gnashing teeth and dove for his throat.

Just as he got a grip on it, the Great Dragon dug his claws into Morax’s side, ripping the smaller dragon off of him. “What a waste,” he remarked, taking his grip on Morax and using it to batter the dragon into the ground. “You’ve only gotten weaker. Protecting this backwards race has made you like them.”

“You’re wrong,” he gasped, and those were the first words he managed since he saw Guizhong go down. (No, focus. She was still breathing. He had to finish the battle first, and to keep attention off of her. Focus.) “There are…different kinds…of strength.”

His sire dug his claws in deeper into his side, and Morax tasted blood in the back of his throat. His vision threatened to leave him. “You’re doing a terrible job proving that to me, Morax.”

He had never heard his sire once utter his chosen name, but it felt like an insult when he spoke it. It likely was. The Great Dragon had sired many spawn, but those spawn were insignificant. Mere tools of his expansion. The fact that many of them were dissatisfied with their role in the Great Dragon’s rule of the mountains was inconsequential to him. As soon as they became obstacles, they would be treated as such.

Morax did not rebel for any altruistic reason. It wasn’t compassion for the people in the warpath, or in honor of his fallen littermates. No, when he first dared to bare his fangs at his god, it was because of a broken agreement. The word of dragons was law, but it was only binding to those outside of power. When the Great Dragon agreed to allow Morax and his littermate time to recover, he had not meant it, and sent them immediately to the next battle upon their return; his littermate not surviving this reneged word was only the catalyst for his intervention.

It wasn’t a formal challenge, or a verbal intervention. Perhaps, in hindsight, Morax might have tried those first. (It wouldn’t have worked, he knew.) Morax simply tried to kill him, because death was the only permanence of the world of gods. For a while, Morax thought he succeeded. Liyue had been fractured, but it was no longer under the claw of one who dishonored his own contracts. If power struggles happened between sects, it was not Morax’s problem.

He realized now how much of a fool he had been. To think he could eliminate the Great Dragon. To think that doing so would even help.

“Hmph. Nothing more to say?” his sire sneered. “Good. Then I will savor felling the last of my ungrateful spawn.”

The…the last?

Did he…?

Morax felt cold, and he wasn’t sure if that was because of the blood loss. He was never particularly…close…to any of them. Not in ways that he now knew he was capable of. However, it was a fate he never wanted for them. It made sense that the Great Dragon would assert his reign by removing all other mountain dragons from the region, but for him to have already…

“…‘li…”

The noise was quiet, and Morax nearly missed the sound over the pounding in his ears, but he latched onto the whisper all the same. Out of the corner of his eye, behind the form of the jeering black dragon, Guizhong was reaching out to him. Her face was pale—too pale—but there was steely determination in her eyes. Determination and…perhaps something else. Her mouth moved in the shape of his name—his other name, birthed from the mind of the god of dust and used only by her and their people—even though he could not hear it. Slowly, she reached her arm out from her prone position, and brought something closer.

Zhongli saw a glint of green. Even though he was slow—not as quick-witted as she—he knew her, and he found that he knew her plan even without needing to hear it.

He still couldn’t move, slowly crushed underneath the older dragon, but he could stretch out his tail just enough to grasp the jade sword in its tip. He hadn’t realized that Guizhong still had the sword he gifted her on her, for when the battle began, she had had her cor lapis blade, though she had been disarmed from it when things went awry.

The Great Dragon was enjoying slowly crushing his ribs, but his focus was to Zhongli’s advantage. Carefully maneuvering his tail, he positioned it under where the dragon’s heart would be.

And he pierced it.

A dragon’s claws would have to break the extremely durable ribs to get to the heart, but a human’s sword did not have the same limitations. A goddess’s sword could do even more, and the blade grew to the length it needed to be in his grip.

The Great Dragon sputtered.

His claws loosened, and it was all the opportunity Zhongli needed to break free. He lunged for the throat again, and this time, he had the strength to follow through. Fury was strong, but fury on behalf of others was another thing entirely.

He had not lied when he told his sire that humans taught him more than one type of strength.

He held on, to both the sword and the throat, even as the Great Dragon thrashed. Geo constructs rose and fell, the two dragons fighting for control of the earth to overpower the other. While Zhongli could not always contend with the geo god’s power, he could construct a geo shield around himself, capable of stopping the other constructs from attempting to interrupt him.

Eventually, the thrashing stilled. Zhongli still did not let go. It wasn’t until the stench of death rose, the body began to dissolve, and the odd feeling of abandoned geo elemental energy crept into him that he dared to believe that the Great Dragon was truly dead.

It was ironic, in a way. As Zhongli, the insignificant partner of the ruler of the Guili Plains, he had succeeded in doing what the god of war Morax could not. He well and truly defeated the god of geo, the Great Dragon of the Summit, and now that power was his own.

He wasn’t sure it was worth the cost, however.

He threw the dissolving body to the ground and hurried to Guizhong. His body protested and he could feel it shaking. The dragon shrunk down to a man, and he used geo to patch up his wounds as best he could. It did nothing to stop the shaking. “Stop it,” he pleaded with her, sensing her power at work. “Suppressing his death is only hurting you.”

The deed was done, however. Guizhong smiled weakly. “If I… If I stop the land… and its people from suffering from his anguish, it’s…the least I could…do,” she wheezed, still smiling.

Zhongli found a laugh bubbling in his throat at her usual antics—so caring and thoughtful—but it only came out as a bitter sob.

Gods were tough. They were durable, and they could heal, but gods could still die. He had trouble imagining Guizhong dying—the goddess that could stop the deaths of gods from poisoning the land, the goddess that had a plan for everything, the goddess that always smiled in the face of everything… The goddess that he loved. However, he also had a hard time imagining her doing anything but die with her in a pool of her own blood and half of her torso…gone.

He couldn’t do anything but kneel beside her and hope that Guizhong had one more solution.

He hoped for too much, of course. But she did have one request. He would have done so much more, if could.

“Could you… take me to… to the flowers,” she pleaded. “I don’t…”

I don’t want to die here.

He obliged. In the wake of battle, after the defeat of an old god and a birth of a new Lord of Geo, he didn’t celebrate. He couldn’t. He cradled Guizhong in his arms, and he took her to the glaze lilies.

There were different types of strengths in this world.

There were different types of pain, too.

Chapter Text

In that moment, Xingqiu realized with creeping dread and cold clarity that not everything was like how it was in books.

He lost count of how many times he had read about situations when the hero was met with a group of scoundrels that dared to use their demure companion against them, as leverage or otherwise. The hero would be stricken at first, realizing that they could not use their sword to rectify the dilemma, but rather, they would have to use their words to deescalate the situation to give them opportunity for a rescue. Xingqiu used to enjoy such moments. They were the perfect example of chivalry—proof that the art of the blade was only half of the premise.

Now, he found himself not nearly as confident as he once was that he, too, could make his way out of this.

“We don’t have all day, rich boy,” the bandit sneered. “Give us the money or the kid gets it.”

Xingqiu wasn’t even sure how it happened. One moment, they were doing fine; the next, some Treasure Hoarders got the drop on them. Now, they had Chongyun. It was up to Xingqiu to do something but… but he was frozen in place.

The man had a knife to Chongyun’s throat—practically in Chongyun’s throat now. The edge had already broke skin, and there was blood dripping down his throat and onto his shirt. He was so pale. Or, no, Chongyun had always been of the pale sort—and he wore white and light blue as well—so that really wasn’t an accurate statement about his health. There was just…so much blood already… It really was the fault of Chongyun’s complexion for making it appear as more than what was really there…right?

Chongyun remained impassive through it all. Xingqiu prided himself in being able to read his friend like an open book, despite his lack of emotional range. The skill felt a bit burdensome. Chongyun was scowling slightly, clearly upset, but Xingqiu also thought he saw the exorcist’s knees shaking—unless that was because the goon that had wrenched his arm behind him was also taller, practically pulling him off of the ground. What was more startling, however, was the way that Chongyun looked straight at him—coolly, calmly, maybe pleadingly.

Chongyun trusted him. For better or for worse, he trusted Xingqiu to help him and… And Xingqiu couldn’t let him down. He wasn’t allowed to.

He had to figure something out, and that meant making his leaden tongue move.

Chapter Text

“Just… Just put your sword down, Aether,” Lumine pleaded—or maybe it was a command.

Aether wasn’t sure anymore; arms shaking, he held on. She continued. “This has nothing to do with you. I’m sorry—I’m sorry that you ever thought it did. I wanted to leave you out of it so bad.”

Lumine was shaking too. His heart squeezed, and under any other circumstance, he wouldn’t have hesitated to wrap his arms around those shaking shoulders and hold her until she stopped—or teased her until she laughed. But he couldn’t. Shouldn’t. Not right now. He was frozen in place, because he knew that the second he moved—the second he made a decision—somebody could die.

“I—I didn’t think it would take this long, but— but I had made a promise. Aether, I’m so glad you didn’t have to see it—what happened, all those years ago—but you have to understand that it was horrible. That’s why I have to see this through. I’m not asking you to fight. I know you don’t have a stake in this war, and that’s fine. Better, even. Just… Just leave it to me, and I’ll come join you afterwards, okay? I won’t— I won’t turn away this time. I’ll come straight back, and we can finally leave and be together again.”

She was crying now. Lumine had always been a better liar than he was, but not when it came to the core of her emotions. When the dam broke, it broke. He knew without a doubt that every ounce of desperation on her face was true. Yet, he still couldn’t move.

There was a part of him that wanted nothing more than to accept her offer and drop his sword. He could leave. They could finally leave this world, just as they left countless worlds before this one. Once, she would have been correct—that Aether had no stake in this conflict. He was asleep for five hundred years, and he wasn’t there to witness the fall of Khaenri’ah. He wasn’t there to understand their suffering. It had only been a year since he woke up to walk the lands of Teyvat.

But…it had been a year. Aether used to be able to go decades and maybe even centuries without another connection other than his sister. It was just them, and they were content with that. Worlds were just sights to see and maybe adventures to be had. At first… At first Teyvat had been no different. Yet somehow, in just a year, Aether found himself growing closer to the locals than he ever thought possible. Maybe it was because he had been alone, without his sister; maybe it was because he realized for the first time that he had just been…lonely.

Though no matter how many friends he made, and how close he got to them, he couldn’t just leave his sister. Worst yet, he couldn’t turn his sword against his sister. He couldn’t. But if he left… If he accepted Lumine’s offer, and he walked away and he got his sister back, then he would be dooming the others to die at the hand of the Abyss.

Even now, from beyond the bubble of stillness that he and his sister were caught in, he could hear it—the cries of battle. The crackle of electro. The burning of flames. He heard a sharp scream that sounded like the Pyro Archon; enraging shouting from Ei; the crumbling of geo, and somebody yelling Zhongli’s name.

The Abyss wanted war with Celestia, but all they would accomplish by razing through the Archons in this battleground was free reign to take their warpath to Teyvat. They would destroy everything if it meant even just denting Celestia’s might.

Aether didn’t care if Celestia stayed or fell. He knew, after all his time seeking them out to find Celestia’s Queen, that the Archons didn’t either. They fought to protect what would become the Abyss’s battlefield.

No, Aether didn’t care about Celestia, but Teyvat… Teyvat was a different story.

“It’s…okay,” a strained voice said behind him. Aether remembered why he had not dared move from that spot. “You… you can l-leave.”

Venti was laying prone on the ground behind him, his side flared open to reveal hazy anemo as the dark corruption of the Abyss tried to bare into him. It was impressive that the bard hadn’t succumbed to it yet. Aether maybe could… He could help. He could purify it, and Venti could focus his energy on stitching himself back together.

But Aether couldn’t. He couldn’t take the time to do it, because there was a battle raging and… and he couldn’t turn his back on Lumine. That was the part that hurt the worst. He couldn’t trust himself to, because it had been her sword to strike Venti in the first place.

It didn’t help that from the corner of his eye, Venti offered him a shaky, knowing smile. “It’s o-okay,” he stuttered again, forgiveness evident in his gaze.

Aether’s eyes were already blurred, but now he felt the tears burning his cheeks. Venti, who tricked him into stealing his own damn lyre and often convinced him to run around half of Mondstadt; Venti, who hovered over him and made sure Aether was okay after his gnosis had been ripped from his chest, who did silly things to cheer him and sat with him in silence for hours whenever Aether couldn’t bring himself to talk. Venti, who was his friend, who would certainly die if Aether didn’t do anything about it.

Aether realized how… how easy his life had been, up until now. When it was just him and his sister, traveling the universe, there had been no choices. No goodbyes, no betrayals. They never stayed long enough to grow too involved in the world they visited—no, that wasn’t it. He had done more in the past year than he had in the past twenty. They simply never chose to get involved—to hear the stories of people’s homelands, or people’s ambitions.

If he never stopped to spend time with the people of Teyvat—to befriend them—then he wouldn’t have to betray anyone now. Because, he realized with dawning clarity, that he had to betray somebody. He had to turn his back on Teyvat, full of people who called him their friend, or his sister, his one and only family.

It should have been an easy decision: no one could be more important than family. At least, that’s what Aether always believed—at least when it came to him and Lumine. It should have been easy, but in that moment, the fact that Aether tried so hard to ignore came crawling back and it lodged itself in his throat.

“You said…” Aether swallowed thickly. “What do you mean… you won’t turn away… ‘this time’?”

The problem was, Aether had found Lumine so long ago. He found her in that cave, protecting the Abyss Herald that tried to kill him and Dainsleif both. He found her, laid eyes on her, spoke to her, and… And she left. Lumine walked into that starry portal, and she turned her back on Aether.

He had been a fool. He was so stupid and so certain that she would come back and find him and explain to him what had happened. Tell him about why she couldn’t stay in that cave, and she could have told him anything and he would have believed it. But she didn’t. Aether kept traveling, kept searching, and kept hoping. And, he kept fighting the Abyss. He wanted to hesitate every time, to watch for signs of ambiguity, but it was always so clear that they didn’t care about the collateral, and every time… Aether cared about the collateral.

Because the collateral were his friends.

Aether…had friends.

Lumine sputtered, physically pained by his words. He almost took them back when he saw the pain in the corner of her mouth. Almost. “I— I’m so sorry,” she cried. “I know I should have told you, but… But you’re so sentimental. It was… It was better if you didn’t get involved. If you just wandered and fished and did all the things you liked to do, and then when it was over… I was always going to come get you.”

The cold weight of loss settled deep into his chest. He didn’t doubt that Lumine was telling the truth, but… But he knew her. He knew how to read in-between the lines. She didn’t reach out to Aether, because he would have stopped her. They used to do everything together, but when Lumine decided something…

Well, maybe they hadn’t done everything together after all.

The weight churned, and the cold sensation steeled into resolve. Aether shifted his stance, resuming his defensive position. His sword was heavy with the weight of his sister—his family—and what was meant to be. He lifted it all the same, the weight bearable under the knowledge that he had so many people help him along the way.

Sword pointed and ready for a fight, Aether made his decision.

“I’m sorry, Lumine. But it’s too late for that.”

Chapter Text

The library was as empty as it always was. Nay—it was emptier. The realm of knowledge was devoid of those who seek to obtain from it, leaving the tomes empty in the blackness of mitternacht, alone in their forgotten state.

(Like Amy.)

Fischl von Luftschloss Narfidort, the Prinzessin der Verurteilung, was the sole protector of this anguished and forlorn realm. Even the guardian of the tomes, the Maiden of the Scwarzerosen, had succumbed to the temptation of a thousand slumbers. The Prinzessin, aware of the weight of her duties, swore to stand vigil over the tomes of secret treasures.

She would cast her gaze through the darkness for as long as it took. She would dedicate a hundred lifetimes, if that was what it took. She would… She would…

Amy cracked as the first sob lodged itself in her throat, unbidden. A traitorous emotion for the Prinzessin to show. But… Well, in this realm devoid of living souls, she could indulge herself.

She sat against the bookshelf and brought her knees to her chest, hugging herself in a vain attempt at comfort. She had always known that the road of the Prinzessin der Verurteilung would be a lonely one, but she had falsely assumed that she was fit to bear it. Yet… Yet she faltered. Amy wanted nothing more than to be Fischl, the brave and bold dame of herodom, but it was just… hard. Fischl was the master of realms, and though she deigned not to burden herself with the affairs of mortal worlds, she could still…talk to people. People respected her. (They didn’t like Amy.)

Though that wasn’t entirely accurate. The Prinzessin’s path was a narrow one, fit only for a sole pair of feet, yet that did not exclude those who could fly above it. The Prinzession had Ozvaldo, her trusted compatriot to devour the sins of worlds with her. Who understood her. Who could keep her company on cold nights. Who cared for the Prinzessin for who she was.

Amy pulled her legs closer.

She couldn’t be Fischl, because Amy had nobody.

And it wasn’t fair. She wanted to be better—to be Fischl—so badly. Yet, alas, her fatal foe was fate itself; not a soul in this world understood the path she chose to walk, and it was such a treacherous path. If she could make herself a worthy companion, she would, but even she knew that the stars could only be manipulated so much by even immortal hands. Fate was not hers to weave, and neither were the hearts of her compatriots.

There had been a brief moment, when Fischl dared to hope that she had found a kindred spirit. When her peer had laid her hand on Fischl’s shoulders, and regarded her thusly…

Until she told Amy that she was crazy and needed to ‘grow up,’ subsequently pushing her away.

She still felt the vengeful ghost of that hand on her shoulder. It mocked her with absence.

It was a low moment for the Prinzessin der Verurteilung, but she couldn’t help but to relish in the cold phantom of that hand, if only to pretend that it could be her very own Ozvaldo, pledging undying loyalty.

Oh, how she wished it could be.

The air grew thick with static. Fischl looked up, above her lonesome shoulder, and a new presence appeared in a shimmering light of darkness.

She reached out, unafraid, and her hand met feathers.

The ghost of uncaring hands fled as she laid her hands on the bowed head of Oz, and Fischl smiled.

Wishes could come true after all.

Chapter Text

So, this was it. This was how he died.

Diluc knew it was going to happen eventually, but he couldn’t help but to buck at the thralls of his fateful end. At least, he tried. He tried to do anything, to keep fighting—to keep going. But this was the moment his body gave out, so no amount of mental fortitude could make his muscles cooperate. His skin went numb with cold, and he was lucky if he could get his foot to twitch, much less move.

In a delirious moment of clarity, Diluc felt sour about the whole thing. He always assumed that when he would finally meet his match, it would be with a blade through his heart. He never thought…he would die to Dragonspine.

Dragonspine and a hammer, he amended to himself. He was in this mess mostly because that damn Fatui vanguard got a lucky hit on him right when Diluc almost finished wiping their camp. He blamed the cold, which had started to slow his movements despite his best efforts, because he hadn’t been able to dodge the blow. Instead, he was knocked over the cliff and sent tumbling down half the damn mountain.

He was lying on some sort of snowbank, and Diluc heard nothing but wind. No Fatui, no hilichurls. He couldn’t even hope that a monster would come by and end him before the cold. He was battered and bruised from his fall, only having been able to help himself enough to slow his descent, not stop it, and the sheer cold of the mountain had accumulated far past the point where he could handle it. Diluc couldn’t even feel his Vision anymore. He wasn’t even sure if it was still on him, or if it somehow unclipped during his fall.

It figured that his Vision would be of no use in his dying moments. He hoped the gods got a kick out of it. He tried to abandon his Vision, once, and now it abandoned him.

Oh. He was going to die from the cold. From freezing to death.

…that was fitting too.

Diluc lied there, unable to move, and he accepted his death. He didn’t like it, but he accepted it. He hated not being able to fight back, but… But he deserved this, didn’t he?

He closed his eyes and gave into the numbness.

Or at he least he tried to. The one time Diluc accepted that he was going to die, and the universe tapped him on the shoulder and tempted him. Almost literally.

Diluc couldn’t actually feel the tug at his shoulders, at first, but even in his lethargic and half-frozen state, he realized when he was being dragged, something mumbling indistinguishable words over him.

It was one thing if the damn mountain killed him, but being dragged off to be eaten by hilichurls or taken captive by grunts? Hell no. Diluc resumed his struggling, forcing his lifeless limbs to move. To fight. It worked even less the second time around, but it was successful in one thing. Apparently, he did have his Vision, because his arms couldn’t move to summon a sword, but they could light themselves on fire.

The sounds behind him got louder. So much so that Diluc’s numbed brain could finally register the foe behind him.

“Shit, Diluc, what the hell?!”

Nevermind. He wasn’t going to be eaten by hilichurls.

It was just Kaeya.

The flames died as he calmed down. He had no idea why his estranged brother was also on Dragonspine in the middle of the night, but it figured that this mountain had one more way to serve him penance. It was one thing to be helpless; it was another to be so in front of Kaeya. He should have been more bothered by it, but… But he was too tired.

Diluc also should have attempted to be more grateful. Kaeya could have left him in the snowbank where he belonged, but he didn’t. Now Diluc had to let Kaeya see him this pathetic. Maybe that’s what Kaeya got out of it. Yeah, that was it.

Maybe that’s why, when it was miracle that he was still alive at all, that all Diluc managed to say was a quiet “screw you” before he finally gave in and passed out completely.

Chapter Text

Noelle coughed yet again, having to pause to dip her head into her elbow, and she grew a little worried. If the dust was that bad, then she must have done an awful job at cleaning the library last time. How embarrassing. Even though her lungs were straining from the dust, her resolve to do better strengthened, and it propelled her.

It was solely her dedication to be thorough that slowed her down. Nothing else. Noelle banished the memories from that morning, groggy and hot, and simply refused to acknowledge the implications of what it could mean. She was simply tired, and that was a simple obstacle. It was all very simple. Really. And nothing simple could get in the way of her duties. Even if it took longer, Noelle would get it done.

“Dear, you look awful.”

“Huh?” Noelle turned around to see Lisa frowning. Was she doing a bad job again? She should ask for more clarification, but the action of turning made her dizzy, for some reason.

Lisa was beside her faster than Noelle could catch her bearings, and the librarian’s hand was pressed against her forehead. “You’re burning up, too.”

That…didn’t sound right. It was rather frigid in the library. Perhaps Lisa was mistaken, since the librarian was often cold-natured herself. “I’m fine,” Noelle assured. “I can continue my duties.”

Lisa frowned, and it caught Noelle off guard. She rarely ever looked so serious; had Noelle done something wrong? “Really, it’s just the dust. I can fix it.”

“No, dear, you’re sick,” Lisa pressed, and before Noelle knew it, Lisa was removing the cleaning supplies from her hands.

Noelle watched as she set the duster on a table out of her reach, and the heaviness in her limbs trickled back when just the sight of the table looked so…far. Okay, so she might be sick, but Noelle didn’t want that to stop her. She wouldn’t let that stop her. “A knight should…persevere through any…struggle,” Noelle insisted, trying to hold back the cough that was sitting on her throat. How could she pass her trials if something as trivial as a cold stopped her in her tracks? She could admit to feeling worse as the minutes ticked by, but a few coughs and some achiness was nothing compared to the aftermath of battle. She could endure it.

“A knight should go home when they’re sick,” Lisa countered. She shook her head with an amused tut. “Jean and Kaeya are bad examples, you know. Just because you see them do it doesn’t mean it’s right. Or healthy. Come on, dear, let’s get you some tea and rest.”

The cough that she was holding came out, and it went on for an embarrassingly long time. Perhaps a quick break for a remedy was in order. Then, she would have better stamina to complete her duties. “Tea is…good. I’ll go—”

“Nu-uh,” Lisa tutted once more. “Dear, your tea is wonderful, but I’ll have you know that you’re not the only one who can make a fine brew. Come now. Let me show you what proper rest looks like.”

Chapter Text

Ganyu felt numb. Cold. It wasn’t a new feeling—it shouldn’t have been—yet… Yet Ganyu was blindsided by it. She couldn’t move. She could hardly breathe. She couldn’t take her blurring eyes off of the scene in front of her. Even when she should have moved or done anything but just stand there while the people panicked.

Rex Lapis was dead.

The Rite of Descension had gone exactly like how it should have, up until this moment. Everything was on schedule, the weather was clear, the venue was immaculate…and none of that mattered.

The Millelith scrambled. People shouted. Some people screamed. Ganyu stood there, numb and frozen in the midst of it all. She should have done something, or helped, o-or… Helped with the body, but… As soon as Ganyu found some sliver of control, she fled. She didn’t know where she was going—she wasn’t even aware she was running—until she wasn’t in the city anymore.

Rex Lapis was dead. That… It shouldn’t have been possible. He was an Archon. He was there long before Ganyu, and he would be there after. Like a stalwart mountain over the city. What would they do without his guidance? Without his spear protecting them, and without his steady devotion to every detail?

What would… What would she do? Ganyu had served Rex Lapis for three thousand years. First—at the very beginning—as a warrior. The war still raged over Liyue, even after Rex Lapis had claimed the divine seat of the Archon, leading him to protect Liyue against all those who continued to encroach. Even the peaceful hills where the Qilin resided were affected. That’s when Ganyu decided to join the war, even though she had never dwelled among the Qilin. Even though Cloud Retainer tried to insist that she was still too young.

Because she was young, she was a good learner, and she took to a bow better than most, so she fought. She really hadn’t been…the best at it, but every time she faltered, Rex Lapis was somehow there, and he encouraged her and gave her pointers. When it was obvious that the front lines weren’t her strength, he supported her request to oversee internal affairs instead. He even recommended her to be the secretary for the Qixing when the war ended. He picked up her slack when she was still trying to get the hang of it, even when he was much too busy to be bothered with her. He forgave her whenever she blundered. He thanked her for tasks that weren’t even worth mentioning. He recommended vegetarian dishes for her. He…

He was gone.

Ganyu felt like a hole was ripped through her chest, and she wasn’t sure if it was because the Geo Archon, the god of Liyue was dead or…

Or if because Rex Lapis was dead.

Three thousand years had passed in a blink. Ganyu was confident that three thousand more could have passed just the same, except now… Now three thousand years seemed like it was an eternity, because Rex Lapis wouldn’t be there as a constant.

It was incredibly selfish to think in such a way—Rex Lapis belonged to all of Liyue, and Liyue would mourn him more than she should. She was an adeptus, and the adepti all signed a contract with Rex Lapis with the understanding that they would protect Liyue when he couldn’t, because they understood that gods were not immortal in the ways humans thought them to be.

…but Rex Lapis had made it so easy to forget that.

Ganyu hadn’t realized that she sunk to her knees until she heard the cracking. With a startled blink, she realized that she had frozen grass and flower alike in a radius around her.

(Qilin were supposed to be gentle. They weren’t supposed to break even a blade of grass underfoot as they traveled.)

(Ganyu had always been bad at being a Qilin.)

(Rex Lapis once assured her that her blood didn’t matter, so long as her heart was content.)

(He would never say that again.)

Grass and flowers and gentleness be damned. Ganyu screamed. She screamed and she cried and she wailed, millennia of loss stacking on itself and cracking under the one she never thought she would lose. She screamed until her voice was raw, tucking herself into the grass and unleashing her sorrow onto the ground. Adepti did not cry. They shouldn’t. They should be composed and grateful, steady and reasonable, but Ganyu was human too, so maybe that’s why she had so many tears.

She was alone, having already abandoned the city, and she couldn’t pick the breaking pieces of herself up, so she let them fall. The brokenness deep in her heart, a familiar yet terribly foreign, awful feeling, erupted until she could hardly breathe around the sobs strangling her. She curled over herself as if it would contain the pieces any better, but she only succeeded in tearing up the ground more. Cryo spread around her until it grew into jagged pieces, as sharp and thick as her cries.

Nobody could hear her wailing, and that was good, but it only made the loneliness that assaulted more overwhelming. Was this how the people of Liyue felt? The humans? Abandoned and left alone by forces they couldn’t control? It hurt. If this was only half of her, then she couldn’t imagine how bad it was for the rest of them. She had to get back. She had to put herself back together and help the people of Liyue.

(For a moment, she fantasized running the other direction, towards Cloud Retainer. But she banished the thought from her mind, because it wouldn’t help anything.)

Ganyu stood on shaky feet, the ground slick beneath her. Her breathing was ragged from the crying, but she could probably reign that in long before she returned, so long as she controlled her breaths now. She reached up to wipe her face, only to find that her tears had frozen as well.

Chapter Text

As soon as Kaeya woke up, he knew it was going to be one of those days. Which was very unfortunate, because it was the last Friday of the month, which meant that today would be rife with meetings.

The headache behind his right eye pulsed mockingly. Nothing like pouring over tedious reports in too-bright office lighting when the curse of your people raged angrily against its cage. It made it hard to focus on…whatever Albedo was saying. (Kaeya only pretended to understand half of the Investigation Captain’s reports anyway, because at least Albedo knew what he was doing.)

Kaeya subtly rested his forehead on his free hand, hopeful that it would just look like he was very focused on writing notes. If anyone would notice, it would be Jean, but she was going cross-eyed trying to keep up with Albedo, so the situation was in his favor.

It did this, from time to time, and Kaeya simply had to deal with it. The curse of Khaenri’ah came to all, even if it came to some sooner than others. It was just part of the gig of being a fallen people, losers to some war that Kaeya didn’t know or care much about. Down in the underground city, it was a blessing if you made it to fifty before the body transformed. With the transformation, memories were lost, and the Khaenri’ahns had to shove out the victims to the overworld before damage was done. It was just the cycle that they lived by. Some accepted it better than others.

However, there were a few—a cursed few—who were immune. Well, somewhat immune. Those lucky children who were born under the gaze of stars could stave it off. Khaenri’ahns had a different sky than the rest of Teyvat, so for the most part, the Teyvat sky did not bless them; when it did, it was a merely a fluke, and it showed. Those with foreign constellations could not internalize them like the people of Teyvat could, so the image of stars sat in their right eye. Coincidentally, the curse always began in the right eye. However, for those with the blessing of stars, the curse could not surpass the eye, so it stayed there.

It didn’t spread, but it didn’t die. Sometimes, this meant that the curse would make attempts, despite the futility of it. Kaeya was the only one who suffered from these attempts, and it felt like a curse of its own.

The pain pulsed again, stabbing needles into his brain. The vision in his good eye faltered for a moment. If that damned star-blessed eye wasn’t the only thing keeping him from life as a memoryless hilichurl, he would have cut it out a long time ago.

He registered just enough of the conversation, hearing some conclusion about the weather on Dragonspine (he didn’t know what that conclusion was, but Albedo wrote good reports—better than he gave them verbally—so he would look at that later) and Kaeya knew that he was next. Solely because he had Eula’s reports as well as his own, since Eula thought it unwise to leave Dadaupa Gorge since spotting Fatui there as well.

Here went nothing. Kaeya was no stranger to pain, though the sharp throbbing was admittedly worse than normal. He just hoped he didn’t black out. That normally wasn’t an issue, but the way his vision swam was…concerning.

“Eula, as Captain of Reconnaissance, regrets that she cannot be here—” (She didn’t, but Kaeya wouldn’t give up an opportunity to mess with her and make sure that people greeted her upon her return) “—but I have her report from this month here. Hilichurl activity is decreasing near Mond, but—”

Another pang hit him, and it felt like he took a sledgehammer to the head. His vision went white and his ears were ringing. Everything felt numb and like it was on fire at the same time. Shit.

“…ya. Kaeya.”

Kaeya pried his good eye open, blinking away the harsh glare of the ceiling lights.

Wait. Why was he staring at the ceiling?

It took an embarrassingly long time for Kaeya to realize that he was on the floor. Jean was crouched over him, one hand behind his head and the other prepped with her dandelion breeze. She was speaking to him, but past the ringing, he could only hear some of it. Oh, he had passed out, hadn’t he?

It’s been years since he had an episode this bad, and Kaeya should have been more concerned about being laid out in front of the other captains, but he could only lament the timing. The last time it had been this bad, back when he was just a squire and a teenager, he had been able to blame a hilichurl knocking him in the head for it. Diluc was so trustful back then; he bought it hook, line, and sinker. (Diluc had been so easy to lie to. Kaeya wished that he hadn’t been.) Now, however, he hadn’t even been outside Mond’s walls all day, and it was already evening. He couldn’t conveniently blame unseen injuries so readily.

“…m’fine,” he managed, because he was sure that that was something that Jean asked. Kaeya blinked a few more times, until the room wasn’t blurry anymore. The healing from Jean’s Vision was helping to curb it down, but the throbbing remained. “Jus’ a headache.”

Kaeya,” Jean admonished, and he heard that one clearly.

“A migraine,” he allowed. With some effort, Kaeya pushed himself into a sitting position. “It happens, sometimes.”

Despite his attempt to make the situation seem as normal and as natural as it was, Jean’s brow creased even more than it already was, worry and doubt clear in her features. Kaeya wasn’t squirming under her gaze—he just took the opportunity to survey the room. Only to find it empty, except for him and Jean.

“You were out for five minutes,” Jean explained. Oh. It was a bad episode, at that. “I sent Amber to go fetch Barbara. Hertha and Nymph went to get some compresses and water, and Albedo left to get…something that he said might help.” She scrutinized him carefully, and it was hard to evade when it was just the two of them in the room; being aloof was only confirmation, at this point. “You should have told me if you were sick. I would have given your reports for you.”

“I didn’t think it would be this bad,” he admitted. “It was just a headache when we started.”

Jean continued to frown. What could he tell her that would make her worry less? Kaeya didn’t want her to be worried over something nobody could control.

“You know I won’t judge you for being sick,” Jean said finally, softening. “You can tell me these things. About anything.”

Kaeya didn’t immediately respond. He blamed the headache, but he couldn’t formulate a good response to that. Deep down, he knew that out of anyone, Jean would understand. But deeper down, he feared losing the one other person he dared to call close over a heritage he couldn’t control. Not the for the first time, he wrestled over it, wanting to get it over with but also wanting to run from the conversation for as long as possible. Her earnest eyes were cracking his paranoia, however, and Kaeya didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing.

“Thanks, Jean,” he replied with a small but genuine smile. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Some would consider this fate ironic, but a part of Childe has always known that if he were to be taken down, it would be by the Abyss or by the sea. The first, because it had already taken so much, and the second, because it was vast and unstoppable.

It seemed he would be correct on both accounts, but the fact that it was just a lowly abyss mage and a lake that got the lucky shot was a bit upsetting. Granted, he had never seen an electro abyss mage, so he just had to fight it.

He didn’t particularly regret it, either. Electro abyss mages generally never appeared in Liyue, so it was an anomaly worth checking out. The mage had been violent and tricky, and the constant electro-charge reactions he inflicted on himself between his vision and the nearby lake had been unfortunate, but Childe had been sure he could handle it. Even though hydro wasn’t suited to break electro shields, anything was possible with enough force and willpower; however, the cryo abyss mage that came out of nowhere to help… Now, that’s when things got more… difficult.

Childe had been herded closer to the lake, bombarded by electro-charge and superconduct reactions alike. It battered at his body, and even when Childe knew he was starting to lose, he couldn’t command his body to push past the spasms and use his Foul Legacy.

There had probably been more to the battle, but he couldn’t recall it now. Childe just remembered that moment when the ice cracked beneath him and he realized he was falling into watery depths. The abyss mage probably refroze the surface above him. Or maybe the electro one had gotten a hit on him, and he couldn’t swim upwards.

“Remember, Ajax,” his father said, grabbing him by his skinny shoulders and moving him out of the way. “The ice is steady, but if you ever see a crack, you should be wary of it. No amount of swimming prowess will help you if you get trapped beneath the ice in frigid waters. Only the fish can withstand that.”

“But I’m a narwhal too!” Ajax protested with a giggle.

His father ruffled his hair. “A very thin one. Put on some blubber, and then try that again.”

It wasn’t cold. He wished it was, because then, he could pretend that he was just Ajax, drowning in his hometown. Childe couldn’t be the one drowning, and certainly not Tartaglia. He didn’t mind if they drowned, but they couldn’t. Shouldn’t. He wasn’t sure.

What would his fellow Harbingers say if they knew he died like this?

What would his father say? His family?

Skirk would laugh at him. He was certain of that much.

Ajax had already run out of air, hadn’t he? His body felt heavy, and his limbs refused to move. There was just fuzzy blue in front of him.

He had never stopped to consider that drowning was not an instantaneous death. It was a slow struggle. Too slow. Ajax always struggled, but he couldn’t struggle any faster.

Why would he struggle?

He didn’t want to let his queen down—he wanted to see her war come to fruition, to see her dominate the Abyss and Celestia alike—but the loss of Tartaglia didn’t bother him. Nobody would miss him.

(People would miss Ajax however.)

He thought of his family—his parents, his older siblings, his little siblings—and his struggles renewed in fervor. He didn’t want to leave them. He didn’t want them to be sad because he left.

In the Abyss, Ajax craved death. He just wanted it to end. But in the Abyss, he also wanted to see his family. He hadn’t been able to bear the thought that he would never see them again. That the last they would have seen of him was him running away.

“Don’t die. Fight,” Skirk told him, eyes hard. “Every time you fight, you’re on the brink of life and death. It’s the only way you get to have both, and it’s the only way you won’t lose your mind down here. Got it?”

What was true of the Abyss was also true in the depths of the water. Ajax wanted to fight. He wanted to keep going.

The water mocked him. Where’s your blubber, little narwhal?

(Drowning was too slow of a death. He had too much time to regret.)

.

.

.

.

Ajax sputtered. His eyes flew open only to shut painfully when he coughed and sputtered some more. Water dripped down his chin, but it was a little hard to tell because he was soaked to the bone anyway.

“What…?” he croaked. What had he been doing?

Drowning. Fighting.

Dying.

(How exhilarating. How close.)

The circumstances of his battle flooding back to him (ha), Ajax looked around almost frantically, even though his chest screamed bloody murder when he tried to do so. But there were no abyss mages. Just a shore, and…

“Childe! You’re alive!”

Tiny fingers were waved in front of his face, and Childe gathered himself just enough to be able to recognize Paimon. “How many fingers am I holding up? Can you hear Paimon?”

“I can—” He coughed again. “I can hear you,” he managed, too embarrassed to reveal that he could not, in fact, ascertain how many fingers were being waved two inches from his nose.

“Paimon, give him some room,” another voice said, and Aether was pulling Paimon backwards. The traveler was kneeling in front of Childe, concern etched into his features. “How are you feeling?”

Childe laughed. He couldn’t help it. It’s been a while since he had been that close to death, but it was the first time that he snapped back to the other side with people so immediately worried. The laughter turned to more coughing pretty quickly. Damn waterlogged lungs. (Who got most of it out, anyway?) “Like shit,” Ajax answered truthfully.

He flexed his fingers. They still felt twitchy after all the electro-charge he endured. His eyes were still full of water and blurry, no matter how many times he blinked, but at least his sense of touch was starting to return.

He tried to sit up more, only to come to two conclusions. One, his chest hurt a lot, and two, he wasn’t laying down. He was propped against something.

Hands supported his arms and slowly maneuvered him into a position that hurt slightly less. “Easy there,” a deeper voice warned. “You had to receive many compressions.”

Oh. Not something. Someone.

(Who else besides Aether and Paimon were dumb enough to stop a Harbinger from dying?)

“Is that more comfortable?” Zhongli questioned.

“Paimon bets he’s cold. And hungry! He’s soaking wet!”

“I can start a fire,” Aether added.

Ajax closed his eyes and stopped trying to get up, sagging backwards. The fight was over. He had come too close to dying this time, so for this one moment—while it was safe—he let himself just live.

Chapter Text

“Don’t look. You don’t have to look.”

“Aw, the captain’s embarrassed.” Rough hands grabbed his hair and yanked Kazuha’s head upwards, just in case he heeded the captain’s call. Not that Kazuha was able to. He couldn’t pull his eyes away if he tried. Especially since the only reason Captain Beidou was in this situation was because of him.

“Keep going,” the man above him commanded. Said man, hand still firm on his head, bent down to his ear. “We’ll stop when you tell us where it is,” he promised cruelly.

And that was precisely the problem. “It doesn’t exist,” Kazuha answered yet again, struggling fruitlessly against his bonds. “Please. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The man scoffed, shoving his head until Kazuha crashed into the stone floor. His hands, cuffed behind his back, were still tethered to the wall, so he didn’t have the leverage to right himself. Not with his own body as battered as it was. Now, he couldn’t see Beidou as well, but that was what she wanted, anyway.

The leader seemed to realize this, because he yanked him up by the hair again, back to a kneeling position. “Fine, be that way, rich brat. But the longer you keep that Kaedehara treasure from us, the rougher shape ‘yer cap’n’s gonna’ be in.”

They almost left Inazuma unscathed. Almost. Kazuha hated that his homeland brought him so much trepidation, and he hated that the stormy winds proved him correct, yet again. Long after the Vision Hunt Decree had been reneged, and long after the Crux had left those war-filled waters behind, they came back to what Kazuha had hoped would be a more peaceful Inazuma. This time, it was purely for legal trade. No smuggled people, no mercenary ventures—just honest trade. Kazuha almost didn’t come, but the warrant for his arrest had been dropped by the Shogun herself, and he had been…curious. Hopeful. Even if Kazuha knew that he could never return to the way things were, he could at least step on Inazuman soil and be at peace.

The problem this time was not the Shogunate, however. It was the ronin.

Kazuha had been alone at the time, just to the side of the port, when they got the jump on him. He had sensed them coming, just in the nick of time to keep from being completely ambushed, but he had been overpowered all the same. The cause became quickly apparent. The ronin weren’t aiming for a lonesome traveler they assumed had worthwhile possessions: they wanted him.

The leader—the shaggy-headed man that smelled like burnt otogi—made his aims clear from the moment Kazuha woke up bound in a cellar of their possession, his Vision nowhere near his grasp. They searched for the so-called “Kaedehara treasure,” which the leader was sure existed despite Kazuha’s insistence to the contrary. His clan had lost everything, and if they hadn’t, his aunt wouldn’t have been as…cross…as she had been. Nevertheless, the ronin attempted to beat the answer out of him, unwilling to believe his words as truth.

He wished some sliver of his family fortune did exist, solely so he could use it to appease them. It was bad enough when they beat Kazuha for information he did not have, but now, they had the captain too.

At some point in between his blackouts, he had been moved to the corner of the room and Beidou had taken his place. He had no idea how they managed to get her, because not only had she been in the thick of Ritou’s harbor, but Beidou was a paramount of battle.

Unless… because they did their research for combating him, perhaps they did research on her as well.

He could try to contrive reason from the predicament, but it would change nothing. The ronin determined that Kazuha could not be broken himself, so they forced him to watch Beidou receive their treatment on his behalf.

Beidou’s arms hung from chains attached to the ceiling, and by now, she was on her knees and completely at the mercy of the chain’s length. He could hear her teeth grinding as she took the lashes with as little noise as possible. Just like for him, she could do nothing against the torture but to bear it—but even that, she did better. Beidou caught his eye and gave a shaky smile, before turning her neck and spitting at the leader. As always, her aim was impeccable.

“You grunts want money, yeah?” she panted, blood in her grin. “Well, the Crux doesn’t do ransoms. They do do revenge, though, so I’d keep that in mind.”

The leader punched her in the jaw, clearly angered by her goading. “Don’t be too sure about that, missy. There’s more than just your fleet that’ll be willing to pay for ya’.” He glared over his shoulder at Kazuha. “You too, brat, if you don’t start fessin’ up.”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

The leader just huffed angrily. “Still so stubborn. Boys.”

At the command, there was a clinking. Kazuha dared to look, and if he wasn’t already dehydrated, he might have vomited at the notion.

The ronin wore thick gloves, and in his hands was a red-hot stake.

Beidou stilled, her single fuchsia eye locking onto him. “Kid, don’t look,” she whispered, and this time, it truly sounded like a plea. He wasn’t sure for whose sake it was, but knowing Beidou’s lack of shame, he suspected it was for him.

He knew why.

He knew why even as he screwed his eyes shut before the bar made contact with her back. Not looking helped nothing, however. This time, Beidou screamed, and even through it he heard the sizzling of flesh.

Smelled the burning of flesh.

Lightning hummed through the air. Burnt skin and blood hung heavy. He grabbed the Vision in spite of it.

They kept going, and Kazuha was completely helpless to it. Again. (He always could only watch.) Flesh kept burning. Beidou kept screaming, though the cadence rose and fell with the shortness of her breath.

Physical eyes shut tightly, his mind’s eye betrayed him instead. He saw Tomo die, over and over again, and he heard Beidou’s pain. Eventually it switched. Imagined images of Beidou underneath the Shogun’s sword and the sounds of Tomo’s last, dying laugh.

Somehow, he was grateful when the ronin leader noticed his lack of present awareness, yanking his head back up. “If you hate watching so much, then tell me where the damn thing is!”

Beidou was covered in blood and burns. Marred by black and red. Kazuha focused only for a moment, but the image inscribed itself into his mind, nonetheless.

(Kazuha had a good memory.)

“Well?” the ronin asked, impatience rising.

“I-if it exists, I don’t know about it. I can’t help you,” he responded, just as he had before. But his desperation rose with the man’s impatience. He pushed words past the catch in his throat. “But you have me. Just… Just do what you want with me. S-sell my sword, my Vision—sell me, just let her go.”

The ronin grabbed him by the jaw. “You have to do better than that, brat. You’re jus’ offering stuff we already have.”

His head was dropped roughly, and Kazuha made no move to correct it. He let it hang, the culmination of his feebleness and hopelessness settling into his bones. He had no ideas. No solutions. The wind was stale in the cellar, and there was no sun or moon to witness. It was just Kazuha—not even a Kaedehara—wishing desperately that Beidou wouldn’t be dragged down with him.

He couldn’t lose anybody else. He couldn’t watch anybody else leave.

But he was going to.

As always, there was nothing he could do. Nothing but watch.

“They’re down here!”

Next came a cacophony of shouting and clanging, and for the first time, Kazuha could not follow it. Everything sounded like screaming. Like swinging metal chains and burning stakes. Sizzling flesh. Cracked swords. Fading Visions.

Hands grabbed him, messing with he chains and digging into his wrists, and he felt some relief. It was his turn, again.

“Kazuha— Kid, twinkle toes, you gotta’ look at me, ‘kay?”

He wasn’t being dragged. Did they change their mind?

Small hands held the side of his head. “Come on, leaflet, you can’t die on me, ya’ hear? Not when Yin’s busy. The Cap’n will kill me for sure.”

Slowly, Kazuha became aware, though he wished to remain ignorant. The air still smelt like stagnant burnt flesh. He leaned over on reflex and vomited, but it was only bile. Everything else was already gone.

“Shit, twinkle toes,” she breathed, and Kazuha finally placed the figure holding onto him. It was Furong.

With a gasp, his eyes flew open. Had more of the Crux’s fleet been taken? However, the sight did not match his fears. Instead, the ronin were on the ground, and a combination of Crux crew members and Shogunate officers crowded the cellar instead. Yinxing, their surgeon, was huddled over Beidou with an emergency kit.

He sagged against Furong, aware now that his hands were free. Not that he could find the strength to use them.

Somebody cleared their throat. A Shogunate officer stood over him—threateningly, resolutely—awkwardly, holding out his anemo Vision. “This is yours, correct?”

Kazuha couldn’t answer. He couldn’t find the words.

“It is,” Furong answered for him, taking the proffered item. She pressed it into his hand, and he felt the cool breeze once more. The relief it provided was nothing, however, compared to what he felt when he saw the same officer gently place an electro Vision next to Beidou. To his surprise, her hand reached forward, and she grasped it. The sight of a shimmering purple Vision, firmly held by the hand it belonged to, filled him with more relief than he had felt when the Kaedehara estate finally fell.

The officer moving out of the way, he saw a glimpse of Beidou’s head turning toward him. “H-hey kid, it’s okay,” she assured with a smile. “It’s over.”

That’s when the relief swelled and rose within him until it burst. Kazuha rarely cried—he rarely could afford to, and even then, he knew it changed nothing. There were tears, of course, like those stinging ones he lost to the wind that he shed for Tomo, or the tight ones that pricked the corner of his eyes when he was in pain. This was different. Without warning, it broke all at once, unfettered and uncontained. It tore at his battered throat and it made it hard to breathe, but the feeling was overwhelming, and the sensation stopped the intake of burnt or the memory of screams.

Furong helped him move, and soon, he was within Beidou’s reach. Her other arm was in Yinxing’s grasp. She dropped the Vision, letting it clink to the floor, and she grabbed Kazuha’s arm instead, pulling him in until he was sobbing into her less-injured shoulder. He held onto her grip as tightly as he once clasped a dead Vision. Tighter, even, because she squeezed back.

“It’s okay, kid. We’re okay.”

Chapter Text

Yoimiya sucked in a shaky breath. It… It didn’t even look real—there was so much. So much blood. She could only stare numbly, wondering what she did to make her nightmares conjure this.

“It’s b-bad…isn’t it?” a quiet voice strained, and it was enough to make Yoimiya claw her way to the present. This was real. This was very, very real, and she wished it wasn’t—but that didn’t change the fact that it was happening and that Yoimiya needed to do something. Fast.

Somehow, Kamisato Ayaka looked every bit as poised and regal as she always did, even when she was bleeding out on the beach. Maybe it was because, somehow, she wasn’t panicking. Yoimiya, however, very much was panicking—or she would be, if she wasn’t shocked still. (Maybe Ayaka was in shock too.)

Weakly, Yoimiya nodded. Then she realized that face-down in the sand, Kamisato-san had no way of seeing her. “Yeah,” she managed to reply, voice coming out in a croak.

It shouldn’t have turned out like this. Yoimiya and Kamisato-san had only been walking the shores below Inazuma City to discuss firework locations. Apparently, the Yashiro Commission had received worry from Konda village about some potential debris, and then it couldn’t be too close to Chinju Forest, of course, so… It was scouting time.

Yoimiya normally did the grunt work of it herself—her dad was getting a little old to run around half of Narukami, nowadays—so she was surprised when the Heron of the Yashiro Commission herself offered to join her. Yoimiya was thrilled, of course, because even though she had interacted with Kamisato-san pleeenty of times before, because it was Yoimiya’s job to be in constant communication with the Yashiro Commission, practically, but that was just for business. This was still business, of course, but Yoimiya couldn’t help but to think that Ayaka looked so lonely even though she was in charge of festivals. Maybe if they had a chance to just chat, they could become friends! Well, even if they couldn’t hang out all of the time, because Kamisato-san was busy and important, but she dreamed of at least being on first-name basis with the girl and being able to invite her for tea. Or snacks. Yoimiya bet that she probably drank a lot of fancy tea, so Yoimiya doubted she could do any better.

Instead of tea and snacks, or even good firework locations, they got bandits instead. Yoimiya was certainly no stranger to people or monsters picking fights with her while she was out and about—she was pretty good with a bow, after all—but this was the first time she was with somebody super important like the Heiress of the Kamisato Clan. However, to her surprise—not that Yoimiya was sure why she was surprised because apparently Ayaka could do everything—Kamisato-san drew a blade and began to fight with her.

They laid waste to the bandits. There was cryo and pyro everywhere and the melt reactions messed them up real good. They were definitely surrounded and out-numbered at the start of it, but it should have been an easy battle.

It was just that the last one got a lucky hit in, right before he smoke-bombed away.

He threw a knife.

Kamisato-san’s back took the brunt of it.

“Help,” Yoimiya realized. Oh geez, she was such an idiot. “I’ll go get help—”

“No!” Kamisato-san sounded every bit her age when she cried out. “There’s…there’s no time. I— I’m losing… too m-much.”

The blood was soaking into the sand now. Of course she could see it too.

(Yoimiya loved red, but she was beginning to think she needed a new favorite color.)

“Right! First aid.” Yoimiya was losing her wits, and she needed to get herself together. Fast. She knelt down and tore her sleeve with a loose arrow, which she immediately used to try and put pressure on the wound. It…wasn’t super successful. It helped, but…

“Close it,” she said, voice strained. “Please.”

“I— I-I’m trying.” Yoimiya applied more pressure, but Ayaka’s hand brushed against her knee.

“No… Your… your V-vision.”

Yoimiya couldn’t heal with her Vision. Surely she knew that. There wasn’t anything else she could—

Like with everything else since this nightmare began, it dawned on her a little late. “Kamisato-san, you can’t mean…”

“Please.”

Yoimiya drew in another shaky breath, for her benefit as well as the heiress’s. She… she needed steadier hands for this.

She knew that cauterizing was only supposed to be used in dire situations, so honestly, Yoimiya has rarely thought about it. All of her own bumps, bruises, and scrapes had never been threatening enough to stop her from making it back to the city, but… But she understood what Kamisato-san meant. She couldn’t move, and she couldn’t be left alone.

“This’ll hurt,” Yoimiya warned, like the other girl didn’t already know it. Kamisato-san squeezed her eyes shut and curled her fingers into the sand, and Yoimiya refrained from doing the same thing.

She took the loose arrow in her hand and applied pyro to it until the arrowhead glowed.

Yoimiya cauterized the wound.

Ayaka screamed. Yoimiya didn’t blame her in the slightest, because as soon as the gaping gash turned into a puffy red mess of less blood, Yoimiya turned her head to hurl.

She never, ever wanted to do that again.

Ever.

“Th-thank you…” Kamisato-san managed.

Yoimiya tried to give her a smile. “Don’t thank me yet, Kamisato-san. We need to get you back.”

“A-ayaka,” she said. “Just… Ayaka…please.”

If she had the energy or the sanity for it, Yoimiya would have laughed. She got her wish in her goal of friendship, but this was not the way she wanted it to happen. She wanted to make friends without them almost dying, thank you very much. Aether and Paimon had already tested that method enough for her tastes, and she didn’t need that much more excitement.

“Do you think you can walk, Ka— Ayaka?”

Ayaka hesitated before nodded slightly, using her arms and knees to roll herself to her side with a pained groan. “Slowly, probably.”

Slowly. She could do that. “Then let’s go slowly.”

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Eula reached to her belt, just to trace the Knights of Favonius badge and remind herself that it was real. That it was different, marked with the wings of the Favonius emblem. On her lapel, where the Glacial Seal was supposed to rest, was her Vision, pinned with feathers.

It was almost enough to convince Eula that she was simply a Mondstadtian. Not a Lawrence.

Almost.

After Gramps disappeared, Eula tried to look for him. Amber did too, but she had just turned fourteen and just became a junior Outrider, so she didn’t have the freedom to chase after him. (It was ironic, truly, that Eula did.) But she would have her vengeance for his vanishing act, one way or another, so Eula looked. It was to no avail, however, and his ominous parting words—before anybody realized what they were—made it clear that it was intentional, and he didn’t need to be followed or rescued.

The transgression still hurt, however. Eula would remember it.

Since she had since turned sixteen, Amber urged her to join the Knights of Favonius. It was a ridiculous notion, but not a new one—Gramps had alluded to such a thing himself, once. Eula thought it was absurd. No respecting Mondstadtian would be caught with the likes of her, and much less would the nation’s esteemed protectors ever let her in her ranks. Perhaps… she would have once attempted an Outrider position, but with the leader gone and the Outriders scrambling to recover, they weren’t accepting any new positions.

Eula applied, just to ease Amber. She was very surprised when Grandmaster Varka accepted her without any hesitation; his newly christened—and more sensible—lieutenant had no objects either.

“I’ve had my eye on you,” Varka had started, and those words made sense, until they didn’t. “You’re a good lass. You’ll do great.”

Just like that, she had a badge and was made a squire. Eula still found it hard to believe.

It had been several months since then, and while Eula had more or less found a routine in the Fourth Company, where she had been assigned, her new position as a knight did little to change her circumstance within Mond’s walls. In fact, dare she say, it made it worse.

Whispers followed her, wondering why she was there. How she was there. What she was going to do. Was her Vision real? Was it part of her ploy? As always, whenever Eula had to walk through the city, she kept her head low, walked quickly, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

It didn’t work. Especially not that night.

“Are you mocking us? Is that it?”

“I thinks’ she is.”

“Walkin’ ‘round like you own the place, huh? Just like you Lawrence trash.”

Eula was just trying to go home. She was tired from her few days out in the hills, fighting off hilichurls and climbing cliffs, and it was her weekend off. She split from the rest of her squad to collect some wild fruit before entering Mond, because she was tired, and she didn’t feel like fighting the vendors. Being alone had never been a problem before, because she was often alone.

However, she wished she wasn’t when three drunk men cornered her in the street. Walking into the dead end between the stores and the wall was her mistake, sure, but she ducked in trying to escape the gaze of the jeering drunkards, too inebriated to be quiet about their displeasure over her knighthood. Though Eula didn’t think they would follow her.

“You think you can waltz around with some stolen badge like that?” the tallest growled. Before she could even respond, he shoved her shoulder and pinned her to the wall. Eula swallowed.

Even as the man roughly yanked her knight badge off of her belt and threw it to the side, Eula did not move.

“Do not fraternize with the common folk,” her father said. “They will not understand you, and they’ll only drag you down.”

Eula tried not to bother with people, but for more selfish reasons than even that of her clan’s. She just didn’t want to give them reason to be more cross with her than they already were. She just wanted to be left alone.

Especially now that Eula had goals—something she wanted in life—she would not be goaded easily. She knew that her position as a knight was a thin one. Half of the force didn’t like her, and even only some of her company trusted her. The fact that she was assigned to the Reconnaissance Company was telling enough; they spent more time outside the walls than even the Outriders, and they hardly had anything to do with the citizens of Mondstadt. She wasn’t to be trusted around them, and that was fine. She knew that her presence upset them. It would upset them more if she antagonized them—like her uncle would do—so she didn’t. Eula couldn’t bear the thought of losing this position in the knights either. Not when she finally enjoyed the tasks assigned to her.

“Get that damn fake Vision, too!” the second said.

It was a little harder to stomach that getting thrown to the side. She could feel the gentle chill of it fade from her grasp, and it made the hot breath on her face more unbearable. But she could endure it.

“Not gonna’ say anything punk? You too good for that?”

She thought of the steps to that old dance, the one she secretly enjoyed even when it was just part of her training. The movements, even when just in her head, calmed her a bit.

“Damn shitty brat!”

One of them punched her in the stomach. He was large enough and strong enough to give Eula cause for pain, but she only needed to clench her jaw, hunching over slightly. The second was a bit harder to ignore, but it was nothing compared to a rod, or to hilichurl clubs. She could endure it.

Someone grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. A small cry escaped unbidden, so she wasn’t surprised when the noise was accompanied by the harsh kick to the head. Her vision blacked out and pain exploded in the back of her skull. She nearly had to grind her teeth together to keep from crying out again.

A rod slapped her resolutely across the shoulders, and eight-year-old Eula whimpered. Her aunt frowned, and hit her again, even when the tenth lash was usually the final one. Though she had forgotten an entire ingredient in her cooking lesson this time, so it was supposed to be worse.

“A lady never shows weakness,” her aunt said. “For every pitiful response you utter, you’ll receive only more opportunity to quiet yourself.” And she brought it down again.

They kicked her more. The shoulders, the back, the stomach. Eula couldn’t help but to curl slightly, bringing her arms in front of her head, just so her face wouldn’t get the brunt of it. Every time she bruised from a slap, it was her fault. A lady should be without (visible) blemish.

The rest she could cover. She could endure it.

Another scream escaped when they stepped on her ankle. That would be harder to hide, and it hurt like hell. A particularly harsh kick to her ribs, and she might have whimpered at that as well. It would only prolong the beating. Tears pricked at her eyes because of it, but she squeezed them shut so nothing would escape. Crying was weakness too.

What did she do this time? It was tough to remember. It was also worse. Why was she on the floor? No, don’t question it. Just endure. Eula should endure it. She had to.

“What in Barbatos—?!”

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?!”

“W-wait, it’s not—!”

“Freeze!”

The beating stopped, but now there was shouting over her. Eula did not move. That happened, sometimes. Her aunt and her mother especially fought a lot. Perhaps because her aunt should have been the Lady of the clan, but she had no children. Eula learned early on that it was best not to get involved. It was even better if they forgot she existed, even just for a moment.

There was a hand on her shoulder. So much for being invisible.

A sensation ran across her body, and the pain eased. That…wasn’t normal. Was she passing out? No, that would be worse! She had to be strong. She had to endure everything.

“Eula, it’s alright. You’re safe.”

“How is she? Is it healing? Archons, that looks bad…”

“Amber, calm down. She’s out of it. We need to remain calm.”

“They’ve been detained. Huffman is finishing the logs. How is she?”

“…Eula?”

The murmur of voices around her remained, but it was quieter now. That was weird. They never whispered. Nobility never doubted their words.

Something was touching her shoulders. She braced herself; she could endure it. It was probably the rod, hovering again, but… No, wait…

She was being massaged?

Slowly, Eula became aware of the present, and she placed the voices. It wasn’t her uncles, or her aunt and mother, or the men that hounded her. It was Amber, the lieutenant Grandmaster, and the new Calvary Captain.

“Hey kiddo, are you with us?” Captain Kaeya asked, and she realized that he was behind her. On the ground. She was on the ground.

Oh.

“Eula!” That was definitely Amber. “Oh my goodness, I was so worried! I thought I would surprise you when you got back, but I didn’t see you, a-and then—”

“Amber, slow down.”

Lieutenant Grandmaster Jean said that. She was in front of Eula, also by her head. The cool feeling around her was anemo. Right. The daughter of the Gunnhildr Clan was a renowned swordswoman, and she recently received a Vision as well. Could she heal? Of course she could. She could do everything.

Eula wasn’t sure how, but she messed up. “My apologies,” she said, but it came out as a mumble instead.

“What on earth are you apologizing for?” Jean asked.

Eula didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure.

“Can you sit up?”

That was the Calvary Captain. She wasn’t sure what he was doing here, but he was often with Jean, so maybe that was why.

In response, Eula hauled herself into a sitting position. Kaeya helped her, even though he was the one to ask if she could do it. Hmph. How double-sided. After…whatever Jean did, the soreness in her body was only distant and lingering. Her ankle, however, was still in disarray. Walking on that before getting it splinted would be…unpleasant.

“Eula, what happened?” Amber asked, taking her by the hand. “We found those guys beating you up, and… a-and…”

She was suddenly aware that in addition to Amber—who was likely confused and worried about her—she had two superior officers awaiting an explanation.

“I did not lay a hand on them,” Eula stated, willing them to believe her. “They were merely… displeased with my presence in the Knights of Favonius.”

The Calvary Captain stiffened behind her. She could not tell what he was thinking, but she braced herself for the inevitable doubt. However, he said nothing—it was the Lieutenant Grandmaster that spoke. “Eula,” she started, looking her in the eye. Eula looked back. Always look superiors in the eye—that was a family rule, but it was a military one as well. She braced herself, careful to keep her face neutral.

“That was not your fault. Just because they’re upset with your heritage does not give them a right to brutality.” Briefly, Jean broke eye contact to look behind her, but she returned her gaze quickly. “That was assault. As a Knight, you are allowed to use force to stop them, even when you yourself is the target. Tell me, if it was another young girl being kicked by three grown men, you would have stopped them, correct?”

Eula nodded slowly, though the lieutenant’s use of ‘another’ confused her. There was no one else in Eula’s type of position; this, she knew all too well. However, if it were a Mondstadt citizen… Yes, the persecutors should be administered due vengeance. Though she wasn’t sure that was her place to do so.

Jean accepted her answer like it was correct, however. “So there’s absolutely no reason for you to endure that treatment. But we’ll discuss that later. Let’s get that ankle wrapped up, okay?”

Without a word, Kaeya and Jean positioned themselves on either side to support her, while Amber flitted around and tried to do anything that would help. Even after they delivered her to the infirmary, they lingered, but with no verbal repercussions even when the opportunity was there.

It was bizarre. Their behavior made no sense. Amber’s, perhaps, was to be expected, but every knight—higher ranking or otherwise—and nurse who came into contact with her thereafter never pointed out her fault in the matter. The closest was Jean, telling her that she should have…fought back? The whole thing was inane. Eula didn’t understand any of it.

But she would remember.

Chapter Text

“Waaaaalnut. Why are you— Why are you in the ceiling?” A giggle. “Silly Walnut. There’s no stars up there. Stars twinkle down below. Dooooowwnn deep below. Like earthworms. You’re not an earworm, Walnuuut.”

Zhongli sighed, deep and heavy. This was a regrettably expected outcome, considering Hu Tao’s unique disposition, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t have cause for concern. It had been hours now, and Hu Tao was no closer to present awareness than she had been when she first came into contact with the corrupted spirit.

Well, she could focus on…Walnut, as she called it. The pryo phantom was otherwise a nameless one, likely drawn to Hu Tao for her Vision. The young lady had somehow attached it to herself some time ago. The phantom, in turn, behaved with a degree of sentience. It used that sentience to fly over Hu Tao as if it were pacing back and forth, while she watched it with unfocused flower-shaped eyes, giggling all the while.

No mortal should be able to see phantoms. Mortals could rarely see spirits at all, usually only being able to note them when their presence was strong and sure, or if they trained themselves to be able to catch glimpses, as exorcists tended to do. Unless that mortal was like Hu Tao, born with eyes that could pierce the veil with ease, as a spirit that teetered on the boundary. Every Wangsheng Funeral Parlor director wavered in the balance, to a degree, but it was a condition earned with time and experience. Hu Tao was like this ever since she was toddler. He knew because he kept tabs on the parlor ever since it was founded, as they executed tasks that—while vital for the sanctity of Liyue—were dangerous. It was not fair for mortals to have to shoulder such things, but everyone died. Especially them. He respected that they took it upon themselves and made do, nevertheless.

Though he feared that Hu Tao never appreciated how precarious her position was. The child understood the importance of proper rites, yes, but the way she conducted her own personal endeavors… Well, for one who could see both realms simultaneously, but without the constitution to handle such energies, it made life dangerous.

Zhongli himself wasn’t sure exactly what Hu Tao came into contact with. It had been the ferrylady who alerted him that she was on the rooftops, shouting nonsense—well, more nonsensical things than Hu Tao was already apt to say. Sure enough, when he retrieved her, her spirit was weak. Closer to death than it already was, but in a way that had nothing to do with physical condition.

If Zhongli had to guess, she tried to subdue an Abyssal spirit that was too strong. He tried to warn her against laying to rest those who were unwilling to come—that was a job for yaksha and exorcists—but she was a stubborn child and refused to see the difference. Now, her spirit wavering rapidly and her mind frayed, she teetered on the edge of sanity in a state of delirium.

“Mr. Zhongli, sir?” The ferrylady knocked on the door gently. “I have the tea you requested.”

“Yes, thank you, bring it in.”

Hu Tao sat up abruptly from her makeshift bed that was the couch. “The butterflies are the culprit!” she shouted. Then she collapsed back downward, arms dramatically falling to the side. “But Walnut ate them.”

The ferrylady hurried out after handing him the platter, though he didn’t miss her flash of curious concern.

“Drink this, Hu Tao,” he said, coaxing her into a sitting position again.

She looked past it. “OoooOOOoo, the stars are playing!”

“Hu Tao,” he said again, frowning. Yes, it was likely an Abyssal spirit. She was seeing through the veil of more than just two realities, but he knew how toxic the Abyss had become. He had seen even adepti and yaksha fall to those corruptions.

She giggled some more. Miraculously, she managed to look at him—or, close enough, at least. “You’re a dragon,” she faux-whispered. “Waaaaay bigger than Walnut.”

He exhaled slowly, through the nostrils. Yes, she was truly seeing everything now. Living, dead, and in-between. “I am,” he replied. “Would you like a dragon’s tea?”

The moon-rose steeped tea would help. It could settle the spirit itself, and it would calm her into sleep. Hopefully. Then, perhaps the dregs of the experience would wear off. He had already performed the purifying ritual, but it was hard to tell whether he was dealing with the time needed for it to take effect, or if it had already been too late to begin with.

“Gold-en tea, jas-mine tea,” she sang. “Tea a ser-pent gave to me.”

He brought it to her lips, and she did drink a mouthful. Then— “Walnut wants to fight a god.”

Zhongli glanced warily at the pyro phantom. It cowered back into the veil. “Walnut does not,” he replied coolly, feeling odd about discussing the hypothetical desires of a non-verbal spirit.

“The gods are idiots. The nice lady said so.”

“Yes, they are,” he agreed, heart heavy. He coaxed her into another sip.

“That’s funny,” she giggled. Hu Tao flexed her fingers in front of her, entranced. “I’m on fire.”

“No, you’re not.” She ignored the cup this time, still focused on her fingers—likely, on her elemental residue.

“Pigeons can’t die. They keep coming back.”

He hummed. Another sip.

Hu Tao looked at him, gaze locked onto his. Her eyes were still too wide, but they were strangely steady. “The nice marsh lady punched a star. One of the upside-down ones.”

Zhongli was glad that she would likely forget all of this when she woke up, more alive than she was right now, because he was sure he visibly reacted. “Did she now?”

He was getting a better idea of what happened. Hu Tao had likely been in Guili, but somehow, she encountered a remnant of the Cataclysm—some vengeful spirit borne of the corruption. Knowing that child, she engaged it; the only reason she was in this good of a condition was because the goddess’s spirit that interceded on her behalf. Zhongli hated that Guizhong could not properly rest, despite all of his efforts, but knowing her, this was probably by her will and nothing less.

“Weeeeeeeeee!” Hu Tao threw her head back, laughing. Zhongli had to quickly move the cup into the air so it would not spill. “The yellow goes fast, yeah? Yeah?”

Zhongli waited until she was in between giggling fits, before he coaxed her into drinking once again. She drank three sips this time. It was relieving.

“Walnut left without me,” she sniffled. “But I wanted watermelon tooooo.”

He hummed in acknowledgement. He had no idea if she was referring to some apparition, or if she was merely hungry. Or purely delirious. She did take another sip, however, as he guided it to her.

“Silly-churl, billy-churl, silly-billy hiiiiilll-lichurl…” Hu Tao sang.

That was remarkably…normal of her. Zhongli wasn’t sure lucid was the correct term, but it was heartening all the same. She began to blink slowly.

“Get some rest,” he told her, hoping she would understand. He laid her back down on the couch, and her half-lidded eyes didn’t look around as much anymore.

Hu Tao was almost asleep when she pried her eyes open to look at him. “You’re cracked.”

Her eyes were more focused, but still staring past him. Or rather, past his physical form. Zhongli placed a hand on her head, easing back into a state of rest.

“I know.”

Chapter Text

“You’re a hard girl to find, you know.”

Rosaria nearly jumped out of her skin. She scrambled for the knife she slipped into her sleeve, cursing the dumb church garments for their lack of pockets. At least the sleeves were doable.

However, the girl recognized the woman before she threw the knife, so she faltered, staying her hand with a deep breath.

Well, ‘recognize’ was a strong term. Rosaria did not know who the brunette was, but she saw her before. Plus, she was wearing the tell-tale clothes of a nun.

It had only been a week since…then. Less time since the Favonius Grandmaster administered her punishment—

Serving the church.

She still wasn’t sure why she wasn’t arrested. Or killed. Was it because of the Vision? She was sure that was why her cohort hadn’t killed her, back when she killed her… the leader. It figured since the people of the city were obviously more interested in the gods than bandits were. It was Archon this, and ‘Barabas’ that, everywhere she went. Maybe that was because she was stuck between the Grandmaster and the church all this time. Who knew?

“I assume I’ve overstepped my bounds?” Rosaria asked, trying not to sound too bitter. The assignment to ‘go outside and journal’ had been vague, so she took full advantage of it. They probably meant for her to sit on a bench by the church, but she ran as far as she dared. She ran, and she climbed.

For a moment—several, if Rosaria was being honest with herself—she intended to run straight out of the walls. However, as much as she fantasized about freedom, it was pointless. She would never make it out of the city unspotted, and she doubted she could evade the knights in a land she barely knew. Just like she couldn’t make it out of snow-covered mountains without being followed. Or starving to death.

Rosaria had no intentions of dying, and there were always too many unknowns out there, alone.

So, she stayed inside the mocking gray walls. Though she was in a particularly spiteful mood, consequences be damned, so she climbed the rooftops. The balcony-laced buildings were tricky, but child’s play to a daughter of the harsh mountains.

“I’ll admit that this is unexpected,” the nun answered, shifting her position to sit next to Rosaria. “But you are still within the city. I think that is all Varka has requested at this time, and Sister Victoria has yet to say anything, as far as I’m aware.”

It occurred to her a little too late that the nun had somehow climbed the rooftops as well. Rosaria had thought she got a good read on the clergy—naïve and fragile—but she had some reconsidering to do.

The lack of clear admonishment or approval unsettled her. Hell—she pulled a knife out on this woman, and she was still calm and smiling. Maybe the clergy wasn’t just naïve, but full-on crazy and ignorant too? Was she to take orders from them? What did they even want with her?

Everybody had only talked of her ‘redemption.’ Of ‘better paths’ and ‘brighter futures,’ and Rosaria didn’t know what that meant.

Everybody wanted something from her. They always have. At least her fath— the bandits had always made it clear to her. (Except for the one time he didn’t, and Rosaria had to choose—her life or his.)

“I don’t think I ever introduced myself,” the lady continued when Rosaria said nothing else. “I’m Jilliana.”

She knew that the lady already knew her name, so she didn’t say anything. She just nodded slightly to show that she heard.

“You have questions, don’t you? You’ve been awfully quiet. Not just today, but during the talks, as well.”

Rosaria stiffened. What kind of question was that? She knew her opinion didn’t matter, and as for questions… Well, she had them, but they were going to be answered eventually. She was patient. However, if she didn’t respond now…

“What do you want me to do?”

The question was quiet, and she was trying to keep from blurting anything worse. Or more desperate. However, Rosaria figured this was a safe question, because undoubtedly, they did want something.

“Well, I think Mother Maria just meant for you to enjoy some fresh air and gather your thoughts,” Jilliana responded, gesturing to the journal.

“But that’s—” Rosaria reined in her tongue. “Is there a long-term assignment while I complete this?” She had no idea what to put in the fucking journal. It was probably going to be read and scoured, so she couldn’t put anything incriminating in there. However, because it was going to be scoured, it should probably be useful. She had no idea what was useful to these people.

She should have taken her chance and just asked, but she was more interested in the bigger picture. Not knowing was starting to give Rosaria anxiety.

“Long-term?” Jilliana echoed. “Well, the only goal is simply for you to ease your soul.”

This time, Rosaria couldn’t help it. She was so damn tired of all of this cryptic shit. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

If she offended the delicate sister, then Jilliana hid it well. Actually, by the way she laughed, Rosaria would say she was amused, or even glad. “Rosaria, I know I don’t know everything, but it’s clear you’ve been through a lot. However, by the grace of Barbatos, you’ve been granted freedom. We are here to help you learn how to use it.”

Rosaria ducked her head into her knees, glaring at the gray stone walls and trying not to be visibly bitter. “But this is my punishment. I don’t know what ‘freedom’ you’re talking about.”

Jilliana placed a hand on her shoulder. She nearly flinched from it, but it was surprisingly gentle and firm at the same time. “Sweetie, it’s not a punishment. Yes, the Grandmaster and the Cardinal are worried about relapses, but they just want what’s best for you. There’s no education system for kids your age here either, so this is the best way to catch you up. After the program, you’ll be free to do whatever you feel is right. That’s the will of Barbatos—that you can do good in this world. However big, however small.”

Suddenly, her knife was in Jilliana’s hands. Rosaria wasn’t sure when her death-grip on it faded, or how the nun snatched it from her, but it happened all the same. Jilliana turned it in her hands, observing it with a smile. “Whether you think that ‘good’ is to join the church, or to even to take up arms and fight back—that’s up to you. You’re still young, and you’re still hurting, so it’s up to us to help you figure that out. You don’t need to make a decision now, and in the end, no one is going to make that decision for you. But please, if you’re struggling, or if you’re upset, you can come talk to me. I would like to speak for the other Sisters as well, but… Well, you can decide who you can talk to too, okay?”

She handed back the knife. Rosaria accepted it with wide eyes and an unsteady heart.

What did she want to do?

All she wanted was to survive.

Chapter Text

Diona never knew what to expect when she came home. She hated it.

It didn’t matter that her job meant that she came home in the late mornings, to sleep away the afternoon and awaken when night came again. Not only was it normal for someone of the Kätzlein bloodline, but half of Springvale was nocturnal. It was only natural for a village of hunters. Her hunt was just different—spent trying to erode away the wills of men inside taverns, instead of chipping away at the stamina of beasts in the wild.

All in all, it meant that her and her dad had similar schedules. At least they should have similar schedules. While Diona was more or less consistent with her returns, never working overtime and only getting sidetracked if there was something in her way between Mond and Springvale, her dad was more unpredictable. Sometimes it was because hunts went awry. Sometimes, it was because he decided to get drunk.

Diona hated the uncertainty as much as she hated it when her fears were true. When he was there, drunkenly strewn across the floor like a dead man, or when he stumbled into the house after her, speaking in nothing but gruff grunts and growls.

One rainy morning, she came home, and he was not there. Her tail lashed at the implication. It was not good weather to hunt, but Angel’s Share stayed open for longer hours than Cat’s Tail.

She could turn around and try to storm the Dawn Winery’s awful temptation hub, but she could just waste a trip through the cold rain. Diona didn’t know if he was there for sure. He could be in a meeting or using the rain as cover to scout.

Diona had no idea, so she stayed like she always did.

Every time she almost drifted to sleep, the rain kept her up. It was getting bad at there. It could be a storm.

What if her dad did leave on a hunting trip and she didn’t realize it? He was an amazing hunter and he could handle anything, but that last bad storm that came through… No, no, that was a snowstorm. This was different. Just rain. He’ll be fine.

Or he was getting drunk again. And because of the rain, he was in that blasted tavern for even longer. Getting more drunk.

Would he come home, or would he pass out in the street or in the bar, and make everyone think that he’s an embarrassment?

Diona’s tail lashed again. Maybe she should go look for him… No, no. He could be fine, and she would be doing it all for nothing.

She managed to catch a few hours of sleep. When she woke up, Diona looked. He still wasn’t home.

Her dad was complaining the other day about the catch from the last hunt being poor, and with this weather, that wasn’t likely to improve. What if… What if he was drunk and upset?

That combination was the worst.

Diona curled back into her covers. For the longest time, she couldn’t sleep though—she just kept her ear on the door.

The silence was worrying, because it meant that he wasn’t here; yet, every moment that he wasn’t there, she could pretend that he was fine. Unless he wasn’t.

No, regardless of the outcome, she just wanted to know.

She needed to know.

Finally, the doorknob jiggled, and the door opened.

Chapter Text

The trip up to the cathedral was a familiar path. So was the way through the cathedral to the medical ward.

Very, very, familiar.

It was late, but it was still before nine, so Bennett hoped somebody would be in there. If not, it was fine—he understood that they needed to go home. But… Well, Bennett preferred if the issue could be fixed as soon as possible. As comfortable as he was with self-given first aid, he wasn’t so keen on replacing his dislocated shoulder on his own.

“Bennett, dear, is that you?” a voice said, rounding the corner that led to what hopefully was his destination.

“Miss Sister Grace!” he responded, relieved that one of the sisters was here. Sister Grace helped in the medical ward sometimes, but she wasn’t there as often as others, so Bennett tried to mitigate his relief, lest he be disappointed. “Yes, I’m, uh… I’m wondering if someone could help me with my arm? It’ll be super quick, I promise!”

Sister Grace gasped softly. Ah, yeah, it was probably swelling by now. He did walk all the way from Starsnatch. At least the walk made the throbbing pain into a dull ache. Or maybe that was the cold. It was just late autumn, but Mondstadt winds could be chilly, especially if they came from Dragonspine.

“Oh, dearie, that looks awful. Here—thanks be to Barbatos, I believe the deaconess is still here. Hold on for one moment.”

Bennett did as he was told, hanging out in the hallway and admiring the windows. He pretty much had them memorized at this point, though. As disaster prone as he was, he had to get medical aid pretty often. He tried to do as much as he could himself, of course! He hated wasting the Sisters’ time. But, sometimes, it was a little much for him to handle.

At least it was Sister Grace this time. She was nice to him—like how she was for many of the kids in Mondstadt—and she didn’t get super impatient with him like some of the others. And if Barbara was here, too, then that was great as well! (She probably wasn’t, because then it would be good luck, and Bennett didn’t have any of that.)

“Bennett? Oh, please come in.”

Well, that was strange, because Barbara was here. Huh.

Bennett walked into the examination room and took a seat at the bench, aware of the drill. He winced when the action of sitting jostled his arm, but once it was settled into its new position, it settled. Definitely.

“What’s wrong?” Barbara asked, looking him over. “You’re not bleeding, right?”

She held up her catalyst, soothing hydro at the ready, but for bigger injuries, it needed to be concentrated. The deaconess certainly knew him well enough to assume that he would, in fact, need extra help.

“I, err, fell off of a cliff. Just a little. One of those rockslides, you know?” They probably didn’t. “Ah, well I’m very sure my shoulder is dislocated. All I need is help putting it back.”

Barbara frowned at him—or, no she was probably frowning at his shoulder, because she moved closer to inspect it. “I can’t heal it now, before it’s set properly. I think I can ease the pain, but while I put it back… It’s going to hurt,” she warned.

“Hurts now, so it really won’t be that bad. Besides, I’ve dislocated it before,” Bennett told her, assuring the deaconess that it wasn’t his first rodeo. Granted, it had been a while since this particular injury, so he had to steel himself for it. Everything always hurt worse in the moment than it did in memory—when it came to physical pain, at least.

Barbara still looked unsure, but the deaconess was nothing if not professional and kind. “Okay… I’m going to need you to lay down on your stomach, please.”

He did so, wincing as the movement jostled everything again. The arm throbbed as it hung over the side. “Ready when you are!” he said, mustering enough enthusiasm to distract himself from— “OW! Ow.”

Barbara swiftly grabbed his wrist, held her other hand against his shoulder, and pulled. The shoulder realigned with a pop and a lot of pain, but it started to ease immediately after—probably because Barbara had resummoned her catalyst and was beginning to apply elemental healing.

“Thanks,” he said, with only a small wince. That ordeal sucked, but at least it was over. Bennett did prefer it to breaking bones though—that was way worse. “You did that really fast.”

She smiled sheepishly. “Well, I’ve gotten a lot of practice.”

Bennett rubbed the back of head in response. “Yeah, sorry about—wait, but this is only the second time I’ve dislocated my shoulder?” He normally broke his elbow or something.

Barbara laughed. “You’re not the only frequent visitor, Bennett,” she said, and honestly, that was the most surprising thing he’s heard all week.

She leaned in closer, like she was telling a secret. “Master Diluc was here with a dislocated shoulder just last week—as well as some other things. He was dragged here by Sir Kaeya and everything.”

“Wait, really?”

“Really.”

“Huh.” Bennett always just assumed that these things only happened to him. It was really weird to imagine someone as stoic as the Master of the Dawn Winery having as cruddy luck as he did. Well, then again, that was a one-off thing, and Bennett was here practically once a week. Still, he appreciated Barbara trying to cheer him up like that.

Falling off a cliff aside, this day wasn’t as bad as it could have been. That was comfort in itself.

Chapter Text

It all happened in a blink.

One moment, everything was fine. To send off the Moon Festival, there was a giant banquet at Yuehai Pavilion, with the winner of chef’s competition catering. Honestly, it was little different than the final round of the competition, except more people could taste the food, and it was supposed to be a more casual affair.

Keqing thought it was tedious in action, but the denizens of Liyue were happy, so it was worth it, she supposed. Xiangling seemed to be having a fantastic time, despite the fact that her reward was extra work.

As for Keqing, she was admittedly tired. Not just of social endeavors, but just…in general. She had spent so much effort on that stone—the statue of the stove god—that her duties as Yuheng fell behind a little. So, she had spent the last few days catching up on that. That, plus the preparations for the send-off to the festival, left her feeling exhausted and honestly cranky. She determined that she only needed to hover for about twenty minutes longer before it was socially acceptable for her to leave.

She glanced over at Ningguang. The Tianquan was nursing some fancy glass of champagne while talking amicably to who Keqing recognized were several businessman and lawyers—essentially the type of people who always wanted the Qixing’s approval over something or another.

If Ningguang was so actively mingling, then Keqing surely wouldn’t be missed. Not only did more people aim higher, for the Tianquan, in their pursuits, but Keqing had (finally) earned herself the reputation that she didn’t do well with boot-licking. Ningguang, to her credit, wasn’t a sap, but she took to it far better than she did; Keqing didn’t know how the woman could stand it. She didn’t know why she enjoyed it. Whatever got the job done, she supposed, but damn it was baffling. She and Ningguang may not see eye-to-eye on most things, but Keqing would begrudgingly admit that the woman did her job well.

Eyes lingering on Ningguang, that’s when Keqing noticed it—the glint. The shimmer. Keqing didn’t have time to fully comprehend it, because her body moved before her brain could catch up.

There was an assassin coming for Ningguang—back turned—with a knife. Keqing hurled her stiletto in the path, and in a flash of electro, she moved, and she slashed.

Two things happened at once. Her summoned blade met paper-like flesh, tearing through, but at the same time, a blade met hers. That’s when it got fuzzy.

Keqing was on the ground, liquid—not water, her mind supplied—warm and sticky beneath her. Then, the pain hit. Sharp agony erupted from underneath her ribs, and she forgot everything else. It was like fiery razors tore at her, keeping her succumbed. She pressed a hand against it, vaguely aware that yes, she was bleeding. A lot. Pressure was good, and it would keep her alive.

But Keqing, she— She had to stop it. The assassination. She couldn’t be taken down in a fight; that was simply unacceptable. She had to fight the assassin, and—

There were voices around her. Over her. Someone was prying her hand away from the wound, and she might have growled at them. Maybe. She wasn’t sure in hindsight, because everything sounded and felt like static.

Briefly, through the haze of hot white and red, she saw Ningguang, her mouth moving. Ningguang was alive. And not fighting. Maybe that meant it was handled.

No longer holding any will strong enough to make her get up, Keqing passed out.

.

.

.

.

“Keqing?”

Keqing pried her eyes open to find herself in an unfamiliar room. It took her a moment to realize it looked similar to the Jade Chamber, but the Jade Chamber was gone so…

So she was in Ningguang’s new house? Why?

Oh. It flooded back to her in a rush.

She was stabbed.

Someone tried to stab Ningguang, but she was stabbed instead.

Shit. Did Keqing even stop it? Did she even help? She should have noticed sooner, or instructed the Millileth better to patrol the perimeter, or…

“Keqing,” someone said again. “Are you awake?”

Was she? Keqing forced herself to run an analysis on her body, and it came up…numb. She felt kind of numb. And fuzzy. “Dunno,” she mumbled.

She heard a heavy sigh of relief. “Can you look over here?”

Somehow, her brain translated the response to ‘get up,’ so Keqing dragged herself into a sitting position. Her ribs apparently just needed a moment to adjust to her new state of consciousness, because the pain caught up quickly. Still, it was duller than she expected—merely painful rather than agonizing.

After a short delay, Keqing looked to her side.

Ningguang was seated next to what Keqing fully realized was a bed. Her gloves were off and for once in her life her hair wasn’t pinned at all. She was also staring at her—and Keqing blamed the delirium of pain on this—looking worried, of all things.

Keqing will figure out the complex emotions of the Tianquan later. She just wanted to get herself in order for now. “What happened?” she asked, feeling her heavily bandaged abdomen with her fingertips. She knew that she was missing the whole picture, and that alone bothered her more than the injury.

Ningguang straightened, whatever expression that was on her face morphing into something cool and professional, as always. “There was a cloaked man wielding a poisoned knife that you intercepted. You were stabbed in between the ribs, and he was cut open from his shoulder to his other side—he died from blood loss within moments, so we were unable to question him. The terrace was evacuated by the Millileth. As fortune would have it, Doctor Baizhu was in attendance and he was able to perform immediate first aid, with the help of his Vision—which is the only reason the poison didn’t immediately kill you, even when the knife missed your vital organs. That was two nights ago. You’ve been in and out, but this is the first time you’ve been lucid.”

“…oh.” That was a lot to take in. The news that she had been poisoned on top of being stabbed hit hardest, for some reason. At the same time, it was a relief, because she could blame all of her lapses in judgement and sanity on that. On the other hand, it meant that she likely made a fool of herself. In front of Ningguang.

Ouch.

“Why am I here?” Keqing asked next. “Bubu Pharmacy full?”

“On the contrary. Baizhu was pleased with your progress, and suggested home care instead.” Ningguang surveyed her fingers, as if she, too, was perplexed by the lack of added on claws. Her hands looked remarkably human—calloused and all. “Though you live alone, so I took you into my home. It was only the natural option.”

“No it wasn’t,” Keqing choked. Ningguang might have said she was lucid, but she didn’t feel that way. “I could have stayed at Bubu, or… Or at the Pavilion. I know there’s medically trained personnel there.”

Because Ningguang playing nanny? That was ridiculous. The woman smoozed her way through politics, but when it came to personal affairs, she was tight as a rock. Keqing might have labeled her as only slightly more adept than herself in that department. Maybe. Since spending the last few days with Aether and Xiangling, she’s gotten better.

…probably.

Ugh, thinking hurt too much.

Ningguang, for her part, didn’t look offended by Keqing’s implications. Not that she would expect her too. His skin was hard as stone as well.

“I’m not incapable of handling these situations,” she said simply. “Besides, I am in your debt, after all.”

Keqing blinked slowly.

Oh, she figured that out too, didn’t she? Who the knife was meant for.

“Rest now,” Ningguang urged, lowering her back onto the bed. “I’ll be back with tea.”

Keqing stared at the ceiling. Maybe… Maybe Ningguang wasn’t as obstinate as she thought.

Chapter Text

“H-Hey! Let— Let go of me!”

It wasn’t the first time that Xiangling ran into bandits or Treasure Hoarders while she was out looking for ingredients. It wasn’t the second or the third time, either. They, along with monsters and other dangerous things, were just a hazard in her quest for unique food.

However, this was the first time that Xiangling was so thoroughly overwhelmed by them. When one went down, two more took his place. For the first time, she feared the wilderness of Liyue, and she wondered if she and Guoba could make it out.

A particular strong Hoarder wrapped his arms around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides and squeezing her ribs. Panic set in, and she tried desperate to kick him, or to summon pyro on top of them even at her own expense, but nothing worked. Someone had grabbed her Vision and now it was out of her reach, and with it, her weapon too.

There was a cry of distress, and Xiangling’s efforts tripled when she saw another Hoarder pinning Guoba face-down into the ground. He keened in pain. She didn’t need pyro to see red. “DON’T TOUCH HIM!” she screamed, and her heel found purchase slamming against the man’s kneecap.

She had to get out of this. She couldn’t let Guoba get hurt. She couldn’t. It didn’t matter who he was in some past life, because Guoba was her friend, and he was the happiest and friendliest individual she had ever met in her life, and the thought of anybody hurting him, or even upsetting him, was enough to make even Xiangling furious.

With a startled cry of pain, the man faltered in his bear-grip of her. Her forearms wiggling out of his hold, Xiangling clawed at his arms, and when that didn’t stop him, she bit him.

Xiangling knew—from firsthand experience, too—that the worst thing about a cornered animal was their bite.

It worked. With a yowl, his grip loosened, and Xiangling moved. Or, she tried her best to. She was still spear-less, and she hadn’t paid attention to who took her Vision, because she had been so focused on Guoba.

Speaking of Guoba, he was spewing fire now, thoroughly freaked out. The grass caught it and it spread, and even though Xiangling didn’t have the same tolerance to the pyro at the moment, she ran through it anyway, throwing herself on the back of the man holding him down.

“Stop! Hurting! My! Friend!” she cried with each punch to his head. She wasn’t a physical fighter in the least, but by the archons, she was willing to try.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a physical fighter. Xiangling didn’t last long. There were more men coming at her, grabbing her and tearing her off of the man holding Guoba with a cry, and now she was being pinned down too.

“You dirty bullies!” Xiangling grit out, desperate. They didn’t even have anything to steal! “Let us go!”

Guoba keened again in distress, spewing more fire and eliciting a pained yelp from the Hoarder. “Why you little—!”

“NO!” she cried out, but it did nothing. Guoba went down with a shovel to the head. He didn’t move. She screamed. “GUOBA!”

“Somebody shut her up!” an ornery voice called. Just barely, she could see a slimmer man nursing his left arm.

“Aye, boss.”

“Hey!” she protested, growing more desperate and angrier all at once. “We don’t have anything, you just—!”

Xiangling was cut off with a jerk of her head, and to her horror, some sort of cloth was being shoved into her mouth and tied around her head. It tasted like dirt and sweat, but she wasn’t sure if it was from that or the situation that made her stomach turn upside down and sideways all at once.

The men pinning her were handed a rope, and Xiangling couldn’t thrash against their combined weight. She was helpless to watch as they wrapped and knotted it tightly around her wrists, before bringing the rope to her legs. The man that she kicked in the knee was particularly vicious, glaring at her as he yanked the rope until her knees were grinding together. Even though she couldn’t pull her legs free no matter how hard she struggled, they tied her ankles together too.

Oh archons. She… She was being kidnapped, wasn’t she?

Xiangling knew that the world was dangerous. She got into fights all the time. Most of those fights were with monsters, but she’s fought bad people too, because she saw they were doing bad things, or because they were threatened by her in their pursuit of bad things.

Her dad used to worry, when she first started wandering farther and farther to get ingredients. “You can be attacked by monsters,” he said. “Or kidnapped.” Xiangling had never truly taken it into regard though. What would someone ever want with her? As for the monsters, that’s why Xiangling learned martial arts. So she could protect herself. And when she met Guoba… Well, Xiangling had never been alone again.

The failure of it all came crashing down on her, and tears stung behind her eyes.

“What are we gonna do with ‘em, boss?” one man asked. She couldn’t see who.

“That panda looking thing is rare for sure,” the boss replied. “I’m sure somebody will want it. I dunno about the girl, but she had one of them Visions, so that makes her valuable too.” He paused for a moment, as if in thought. “Ugh, we don’t have the means for this kinda’ load here. We’ll hafta’ take them back to the Big Man. Shovel, Arrowhead—you boys clear some space for the cargo, yeah? And be sure not to keep that Vision close, ya hear?”

Xiangling pulled against the bonds with desperate fervor, but it was no use. The exhaustion of the battle was settling in now that she was on the ground, and her muscles were shot from all those stupid dumb electro grenades they ambushed her with in the first place. Even if she could work her teeth around the gag, so that she could gnaw them off, her wrists were tethered to her knees and she couldn’t pull them up.

An arm scooped her up, and her pained cries of surprised her muffled. Before Xiangling knew it, she was being slung into box, and the lid slammed shut with a click.

They threw her into a trunk. A trunk that had been holding food—not good food—because it smelled rancid. Xiangling threw up a little, but it met the gag and she had to swallow it down.

It was dark and cramped, and even the noises from the outside were muffled now. She had no idea what was happening to Guoba, and that scared her just as much as not being able to do anything. She couldn’t move. The ropes immobilized her enough as is, but she was pressed in by the sides of the trunk, and she couldn’t even wiggle and try to open the door up top.

She was beaten, captured, and thoroughly stuck. It would be hours until anybody realized she was gone, too. Tears came again, and they flowed down her cheeks, and she choked on sobs around the awful, awful bandanna they crammed in her mouth. Xiangling was terrified. Terrified for Guoba, and for herself.

The only thing she became aware of was the movement. The trunk they crammed her in was picked up and jostled, and she hit her head against the wooden board more times than she could count. The bumping made it harder for her shaking fingers to try and untie her knees.

Maybe, maybe, she could get free, bust her way out of the trunk, and get to her Vision. She would have the element of surprise on her hand, so she would just need to find the spot in their caravan farthest from her and run. If she could unleash a wave of pyro on top of them, maybe it would give her the advantage. She might get burned herself, yes, but Guoba should be able to withstand—much better than humans, at least.

If she could untether her wrists from her knees, then maybe she could reach her ankles. She wasn’t sure how she would do that, crammed as she was, but Xiangling was flexible. She could find a way. Since the finishing knot was in her ankles, that should help with the wrists. The rope should be looser, then. Hopefully.

They were so tight they were starting to chafe into her skin. She couldn’t actually work all of her fingers at once, so she had to do everything one-handed.

There was a particularly harsh jolt to the box, and she whimpered as she crashed into the side and lost her grip. Xiangling was trying, desperately, not to believe it was hopeless, but…

But it had been hours. In a box. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t move, all she smelled was rot, and she could barely breathe. She never, ever, wanted to see this cramped of a space ever again. But she will, because she was stuck with these terrible awful people. The thought of it made her start crying all over again.

Then the box fell. She screamed as it crashed, and as she tried to take in a shaky breath, she could hear the muffled sounds of screaming. Then she felt the fire.

The wooden trunk heated greatly, and Xiangling felt her skin warm, but somehow, it didn’t burn. The wood splintered, and Xiangling rolled to throw her shoulder against it. Light filtered in, and she had to squeeze her eyes against it, blinking rapidly.

There was so much light, because everything was on fire.

But it wasn’t normal pyro. It was golden flames, gleaming without regard for normal heat conduction. The Treasure Hoarders were panicked. All of them and their belongings were up in flames, and they scattered without regard for each other. And in the middle of it all, was Guoba.

It didn’t take long before Guoba spotted her either. The rest of the trunk and even her ropes burned away, crumbling to ashes without even touching her. Guoba always had the best heat control, but this? This reminded her that the friend she tried so hard to protect had used to be a god.

Not that it mattered. God or not, Guoba saved her. Free of her bonds, Xiangling ran to him when everyone else had run away. She slid to her knees and hugged Guoba with every ounce of relief she had.

He wasn’t alone anymore, and neither was she.

Chapter Text

The doors to the chamber opened, signaling a visitor. The Raiden Shogun turned herself to the door and sat down, ready to greet them properly.

It had been a tumultuous few months—a blip on the path to Eternity. The Shogun had not realized that the state of Inazuma had slipped beyond her control until the one within had encountered the Traveler from beyond this world. That, in part, had been her own error. Though the Shogun had been designed to be the perfected vessel for reaching Eternity, she too conceded with Ei that there needed to be adjustment—though the adjustment period had been…frustrating.

In the end, it was a simple fix: her journey was two-pronged, while also being singular. The Raiden Shogun was to uphold Eternity, but also, she was the Shogun—she was to uphold the well-being of the people of Inazuma. That had always been a factor, but there was a greater focus on it, so that Inazuma’s sanctity was to be mutually earned with Eternity. Eternity was for their sake, after all.

The error had been in her lack of focus. She realized it now. She trusted the people to be honest with her, and after the betrayal of the Kujou Clan’s head, the Shogun realized that she needed to be proactive. Day to day interaction was no obstacle to Eternity. Eternity was not a state of physical being, or even emotional being, but rather of a state of spiritual being—an Eternal Peace of Mind, that transcended even present strife. What the city appeared as, or even what the people chose to do, could not shake this Eternity.

For that goal, there had been much work to be done as of recently. The Commissioner had needed to be replaced, with a mortal who shared in this fully realized view of Eternity. A trustworthy one, at that. So, it had been done. The Tenryou Commission had been in disarray because of it, but it was improving. The momentary strife was nearly dissipated now, but she was on guard to ensure it.

There was also the matter of the war—hence her current meeting. A war within their borders was the last thing that a unified and Eternal Inazuma needed, so she had been diligent to see it to an end.

The General entered the chamber with a bow before the throne.

Despite being a Kujou, the Shogun determined that Kujou Sara was still fit for her position, being the one that actively warned against the deeds of her father the moment she discovered it. Besides, a singular Kujou in a ranking position maintained a sort of balance in the commission.

“Your Excellency,” General Kujou began. “I have the reports regarding the activity at Mumyou Fort.”

The Shogun listened dutifully as the General reported that the citizen’s army of Watatsumi had fully vacated Yashiori, taking with them all of their supplies to their home island. The only items confiscated were the Fatui Delusions, which the Priestess willingly handed over for proper disposal.

However, the Shogun’s attention wandered—only by a fraction. She was designed to take in everything, after all, and she was more diligent to do so now. The General’s left leg was completely bandaged. This made sense as she went on to explain that a number of ronin had taken up residence in Hiboki, catching them by surprise, initially.

As was customary, the General stayed at a kneel as she talked. The strain on her leg was evident. Because the Shogun had laid her focus on it, she noticed the moment that white began to give way to red once more.

“Stop,” she ordered.

The General froze.

Humans were fragile. She was well aware of this. Though a tengu and longer lived, the Shogun was aware that the General was still a child, and still a mortal. Injury was but a momentary disruption, but those must be properly handled for the sake of Eternal well-being.

“You are in need of medical attention,” the Raiden Shogun declared.

Kujou Sara flushed, and she bowed her head lower. “I am sorry, Your Excellency. I have disturbed this meeting with my ineptitude.”

“Nonsense,” the Shogun responded, confused slightly by the tengu’s insistence. “You do not choose when the wound bleeds.”

The nature of flesh was just that—nature. Ephemeral and unpredictable, despite obeying the laws of the world. When cut, flesh bled. This nature was one of the reasons why her body was constructed, after all. Because mortals could find this condition, but they could not master it.

She could not stop nature from running its course, but she was designed to mitigate it—to ensure that Eternity prevailed even nature. Thus, the Raiden Shogun would do her duty.

“You must momentarily relieve that leg of pressure,” she instructed, moving towards the now wide-eyed General. Sensing it would be difficult for the woman to enact this command herself, the Shogun bore her weight for her, and guided her to sit on the step.

The Raiden Shogun did not experience these things, but she knew of them. So she knew of the method that those of flesh needed in order to remedy such conditions. Unfortunately, she did not seem to possess the materials required, for there were no such things in the throne room of the Almighty Shogun.

Kujou Sara swallowed thickly. Was something wrong with her throat as well? “Y-your Excellency, thank you for your kindness, but I do not need to burden. I can make it to the infirmary on my own. It— It is not far from here.”

“Oh?” She appraised the statement. “That would be ideal. Yes, go to there and receive aid. This meeting can be resumed later.”

She helped her stand once more. The General continued to look confused.

“Your Excellency…” she started. “If I may be so… so bold to ask, why is a minor injury of concern to you? It is not fatal, and even if it was, I would gladly give my life for you, and for Inazuma. I can tolerate pain.”

“But there is no need for you to endure hardship this hour. You are a citizen of Inazuma, and I am sworn to ensure that Inazuma achieves the Eternity that was promised. If you were held back, even for a moment, from achieving that due to a moment of suffering—especially for my sake—then I have failed. Your sacrifice is noted, and Inazuma is grateful for your dedication to Eternity, but it is not necessary in this moment.”

They made it to the door. The Raiden Shogun instructed a guard to accompany the General to the appropriate location.

For a brief moment, Kujou Sara looked back at her. In that flashing second, the Raiden Shogun witnessed a cacophony of emotion pass through the mortal’s eyes like lightning, and afterward, there was clear awe and gratitude. Peace.

The Raiden Shogun returned to her chamber. If that mere instant in Eternity brought a brief, small smile to the Almighty’s face, then nobody would ever know.

Chapter Text

An exorcist died yesterday.

It wasn’t anyone Chongyun knew personally. He wasn’t sure if they were a true exorcist, or merely one of the people who tried for show, but the death was confirmed. The news spread to travelers, who spread it to locals, and whispers were that demons did it.

It was purportedly on the northwest side of Dihua Marsh. Chongyun happened to be nearby anyway, so even if a report of this caliber may warrant one of the elders of his clan, he prepared his supplies and went to go scout the area.

The demon would likely hide from him, due to his composition, so Chongyun knew—though he loathed the complication of it—that he would not be the one to exorcise this demon. However, he could sense the presence of one, and glean information by observing the area with the proper rituals. If the demon was strong enough or present enough to leave anything, that is. If the rumors were true, then likely, it would. If nothing was there, then Chongyun would report it to his clan anyway, but with less urgency. Demons were very much real in Liyue, but Liyue also had a fondness for rumors and ghost stories as well. He didn’t understand why, when they were a real problem, but Chongyun had come to accept it, as aggravating as it was.

He got the distinct feeling, however, that this instance was not mere conjecture. Chongyun, charms and guards intact, approached the area of suspicion, and he felt it. A shiver latched onto his spine, and a pressure settled on his chest.

The sensation was new, but not foreign. Chongyun knew that these were clear signs of malignant spirits…but this was the first time he experienced them first-hand. It was exhilarating and foreboding at the same time.

The spirit was still present. And, being that it was still present, it was up to Chongyun to properly exorcise it on site.

He tried not to let the anticipation interfere with his duty. Chongyun began the purification ritual, preparing for the necessary thaumaturgy.

He was about halfway through when the ground suddenly gave out from underneath him.

Practice and instincts alike kicking in, Chongyun summoned his claymore and the might of his Vision. He dug his sword into the walls, slowing his descent with physics and cryo alike. It nearly worked, but then the walls turned. He was upside down in a blink, his sword slipping away from the cracked stone with him attached, and Chongyun fell with no buffer.

He landed in a hard roll, crying out slightly as the impact jarred his body. This was…unexpected. Chongyun took three steadying breaths, forcing himself to remain calm. He was no longer in the marsh, and he was no longer in daylight. He looked up, and there was no sign of the hole that he fell through. There was only stone, dimly lit by sources that Chongyun could not see.

At first glance, it seemed to be a cave, but further observation proved that the walls were crafted structures—decayed reliefs carved into purposefully built ceilings and walls. And hallways. The pressure he felt from before had doubled, and his sense of time was all but erased.

Chongyun sucked in a breath. He reminded himself to exhale.

This was a domain. Not a domain left behind by ancient Liyuens or adepti, but rather, a spontaneous domain crafted by a demon.

Nobody alive in his clan had ever witnessed one, but stories were passed down. This phenomenon only belonged to the strongest of evil spirits.

Long had Chongyun hoped for the day when his cursed overabundance of yang energy dissipated, allowing him to properly do his job. He could not exorcise demons if they sensed him from afar and ran. If the day came when a demon did not sense him, then Chongyun would have taken it to mean success—that finally, he repressed it. It occurred to him only now, that it could also mean that the demon was strong enough not to care.

In. Out. Breathe.

Chongyun gripped his sword. He trained for this. Never mind that this was likely a situation even the most experienced would falter in. He trained for this, and he would not go down easily.

The evil spirits stirred. He could feel it around him, like a wind becoming tangible. Chongyun spread out a field of frost beneath his feet, aiming to slow and dissuade them. In every story he had heard and studied of demons’ domains, they never ceased with thaumaturgy alone—the demon needed to be fought.

Blocking the first strike with the flat of his claymore nearly sent him sliding out of his frost field. He saw the black tendril manifest, moving for a second strike, but it never came because he was knocked sideways instead, the tendril crashing into the spot where he had been standing.

Chongyun grunted in surprise, his breath leaving him with the impact. When he rolled back into a standing position, he saw only the blurry visage of horns and glowing green eyes. However, before Chongyun could return the blow with his sword, he processed the rest of the figure and his voice.

“Stay down, human,” he hissed, and it took the line in addition to seeing the figure brandish an ornate Liyuen jade spear for Chongyun to realize who was in front of him: the Conqueror of Demons, Adeptus Xiao.

In a flash of green and black, the adeptus was moving again, clashing with the black tendrils of the demon almost faster than his eyes could track. It was not the first time that Chongyun had met the Conqueror of Demons. As a clan of exorcists, it was only natural that his clan had had contact with Xiao over the generations. Chongyun himself had only some contact, namely the times when Xiao appeared before the clan heads, for one reason or another. However, this was the first time it had been just himself with the adeptus. It was also the first time he saw him fight.

Chongyun had always bristled at the adeptus’s lack of faith in his clan’s abilities, but those feelings melted away as he tracked the ferocious battle in front of him. He had always known that the Conqueror of Demons was worthy of his title, but it was another thing to see it in person.

He was fully prepared to fight—wanting to, even—but he stayed his hand and obeyed the adeptus. Once, one of the lashing tendrils came into Chongyun’s vicinity. He twisted and sliced it with a cryo-infused slash, spreading the icy element along the base and slicing the tip of it off. It wasn’t long after that that the wild tendrils of corrupted spirit energy dissipated with a final burst of anemo.

Xiao landed on the stone floor with a thrust of his spear. The mask vanished, leaving the surprisingly humanoid adeptus to take in a breath.

Seconds later, golden eyes focused on him. “What are you doing here?” the adeptus questioned, straightening himself.

Chongyun faced him readily, ensuring himself that there was no reason to be nervous. “I came at the behest of nearby villagers to investigate and exorcise the demon,” he replied. Belatedly, feeling to need to explain—as if he were talking to one of the elders, which, in a way, he was—he added, “I…did not anticipate things to escalate to this point, else I would not have come alone.”

The adeptus snorted, appraising him with keen eyes. “I know you. You’re from that clan, aren’t you?”

“Yes sir.”

He didn’t stop his stare. Chongyun struggled not to squirm underneath it. “How are you alive? Are you breathing well?”

Chongyun startled at the question. Did he doubt his ability to that extent? Because of his clan? He forced himself to take a calming breath. Growing upset and bothered would be detrimental. “I am breathing just fine.”

The hard stare continued, but there was something else in it. “Impressive,” the adeptus responded, and that was more surprising than anything else. “No human should be able to withstand this level of tatarigami. Yet, you seem to be shielded by positive energies.”

He didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t. He was…alive in this environment due to his yang energy? That didn’t seem right. Human exorcists had encountered domains of this nature before, and he knew that they weren’t afflicted with the same condition he was. However, the term he used—tatarigami—was new. It could have been just a different way of referring to the coalescing of malignant energies, or it was something else altogether.

Chongyun, despite his faith in the wisdom of his clan, was beginning to suspect the latter, because even though the tendrils had been completely dispersed by the adeptus, the domain remained. Granted, this could also be—as much as he was loathed to admit it—beyond his training. Chongyun knew the arts well, but he would never profess to know as much as his elders; he wondered if they would be of aid to the adeptus if they were in his position.

He banished such negative thoughts. He was the one here, now, lack of knowledge though he had. “What else needs to be done to exorcise this spirit, now that the body is dispersed?” he asked. “I am ready to assist.”

Xiao huffed shortly. “The body remains,” he grunted like it was obvious. “That was a mere fragment. This kind of demon dies with its head, but it will hide within the domain.” The adeptus appraised him for a moment more, before turning around with a small sigh of what Chongyun would label as resignation. “Stay close, but don’t get in my way. The domain will change shape to defend itself, so don’t trust your memory. Keep sight of me at all times.”

At this, Xiao started moving forward. Chongyun hurried after him, aware that the adeptus would not lie about the consequences of being separated; however, he was not pleased with the concept that he would do nothing else. He was a trained exorcist! Sure, he wouldn’t pretend to be of the adeptus’s caliber, but he wasn’t dead weight either.

“I can fight, too,” he insisted.

Xiao cut his eyes back at him briefly. He bore the slitted eyes of an exorcist, but his glowed slightly, accentuating the fact that he was no mere mortal. “Use that to protect yourself,” was all he said.

Chongyun wanted to argue more, but he snapped his jaw shut. In, out, breathe. It wasn’t worth the argument with someone who clearly outranked him. Besides, the adeptus was here first.

They traveled in silence. Xiao hadn’t been kidding about the domain shifting with them inside of it, either, because doorways moved and sometimes disappeared altogether. It was endless. There was several more chambers filled with manifested evil spirit energy, each more violent than the last. Chongyun would have liked to press his point about being able to help, but it was true that it took effort to simply survive. Chongyun did fight, each time, but it was also impossible not to. At least he took solace that the adeptus seemed less focused on him each time, so he took it as a sign that he trusted his ability at least that much.

Chongyun could feel the weariness settle into his bones, however. The pressure remained. Increased, even, despite destroying more and more manifestations.

“This is…all the same spirit?” he asked, once. Even though Chongyun had never been this close before (not that he would admit that to the adeptus) even he could tell that it all felt… well, the same.

“It is,” Xiao had replied easily. “It’s a god.”

Tatarigami—the corruption of the gods. Chongyun had all too clear of an understanding of the severity of this domain.

The domain coalesced into a single passageway. There were no other corridors, or doors, or anything—just a way forward. That’s when Chongyun started hearing the whispers.

It was unintelligible, mostly, but it was clearly upset. Yet…growing lucid. Goosebumps made a permanent residence on the back of his neck, and that was unsettling enough because Chongyun was never cold. The voice started as a mix of words, but soon, a single voice began to become distinguishable. A god, Xiao had said. Chongyun was aware that he was about to face this god as more than just tendrils and claws, and he…was honestly scared.

As an exorcist, he was not supposed to be afraid. There was healthy caution, of course, but fear only made malignant spirits stronger. It took a level head to be an exorcist for a reason.

It…was not ideal, Chongyun realized, that he had never even seen a regular demon before, much less the remnants of an evil god. He knew what evil spirits generally appeared as, of course, because he had heard and studied many accounts—so that he would know what to expect. So that he would be prepared, and in that preparation, he would not be afraid.

He had no idea what was waiting at the end of the domain. Chongyun had no way to prepare, except to grip his claymore, and ready himself for a fight. It wasn’t easy when the whispers cut into his skin like cold fingers, and the pressure was so great, breathing was difficult now.

Xiao, for the most part, remained as collected as ever. Except for the fact that he, too, was starting to show signs of tiredness. And the fact that as the voices continued, the muscles on his back tensed, and his grip on his spear tightened.

“Trai—cease thi-SSS—wORTHlesSSS—toRS.”

The voice became louder. Chongyun was starting to make out words.

Alatus.

Xiao, the Vigilant Yaksha, Conqueror of Demons, froze.

Chongyun nearly collided with him, startled by his sudden stop, but he corrected himself and moved next to him instead. Xiao sucked in a shaky breath through his nostrils, and Chongyun caught sight of his eyes. They were wide with trepidation, but more noticeably, recognition.

He kept walking. Chongyun kept pace with him this time, walking at his side; Xiao didn’t pull ahead.

“TraitortraitorTRAITOR. AlatusssSSSSSALAtus.”

Xiao kept his head straight. Chongyun was polite enough to ignore the slight tremble in his shoulders. On one hand, Chongyun had some degree of solidarity, his fear warranted—on the other, more sensible side… Well, if the Conqueror of Demons recognized the god, and he was afraid? Things didn’t look good.

In, out, breathe. He forced himself not to think about it.

“Alatus youSCUm you wortHLESS YAkSHa you—”

They kept walking. Shadows started to move. Without being able to see, he instinctively knew that they were reaching the end.

“You’re MINE!”

Two things happened at once. A tendril—no, a hand—struck out of the darkness, and Xiao flashed forward in a burst of anemo and pierced it. The corridor dissolved into an open room, the walls rising until it took form.

The figure of a woman took shape out of shadows, except she bent down on clawed feet, appearing as a tiger at the same time. The image shifted too much for Chongyun to focus on it well. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, anyway. The most that was clear was piercing red eyes, that seemed to come from everywhere, even when there was only ever two at once.

She screamed a piercing, raging scream.

It was not out of the ordinary to need to fight demons to settle them—that was why martial arts was just as important as thaumaturgy after all. However, this wasn’t just a fight to banish an evil spirit.

It was a fight for their lives.

Chongyun panted, rolling just barely underneath a claw and swinging his icy sword forward to block the next. It pushed past his sword and pressed into him into the floor, knocking the breath out of his chest and crushing him against stone.

There was a crash up above and a pained yelp. Xiao hit the wall hard enough to crack stone—because Chongyun heard it.

“FOOLS!”

He wasn’t sure how long they had been fighting, at this point. Time flowed differently, he was almost sure.

Chongyun wiggled out of the grip of the god because she was focused on battering Xiao, though it still took a spirit blade to her ankle for him to escape.

“Die, spirit!” Xiao grunted, moving past her form in a blink of space, raining down spirit spears as well.

The god flinched under the attacks, but that didn’t stop her from gnashing her teeth and lunging with a scream. Darkness filled the room in a cyclone of power. It passed by like mist and tore through like a razor, all at once.

He couldn’t see it, but he heard Xiao scream.

“You worthless yaksha! You forget your place, Alatus. You. ARE. M ̶̹̪̤̰̞͓̲̈́͗̂͒͑̍͆̽̎̈́̂̋͐̚̚ I ̸̛̛̠̟̲̳̮̞̼͓͙̼̲̑̿̓̈́͌͂̕͜ͅ N ̵̾̾̂̄ ̃ ̮͍̤ E ̷͇̼̟͍̼̖̟̗̼̱͉̱͇̖̞̏͗̈́̊͛̓͐̚̚!”

She was talking to him. All this time, ever since they neared… Xiao hadn’t just recognized her; he had been addressed. She had been cursing him this entire time.

Chongyun focused, seeing through the darkness with trained pupils. It helped that it dissipated some, too, as the god focused her power and her ire on Xiao. 

And that was a sight that hurt to stomach. Chongyun had heard stories of the Conqueror of Demon’s prowess, and today, he had witnessed it firsthand. He was every bit as powerful, graceful, and efficient as legends said. So to hear him scream, to see him bared against the ground on hands and knees, assaulted by chains of red and black that seemed to burn him and cut him all at once… It was wrong.

She was killing him. She drove him to pain and fear, and it was wrong.

Chongyun accepted that his own mortality had been at play since the beginning. He could die. That was the risk every exorcist took and accepted. Expected, even. But… To consider the real possibility that this was where the Guardian Yaksha, the defender of Liyue, died too? That was harrowing and frankly unacceptable.

Liyue already lost Rex Lapis. Chongyun couldn’t bear the thought that they would lose Xiao too.

Something in him snapped, because he didn’t want to die, and he sure as hell didn’t want anyone to die with him. Chongyun gathered his cloud-parting star in his grasp, applying thaumaturgical charms to them at the same time for good measure. He had passed the point of being calm, he knew, because his yang energy seeped into the thaumaturgy like the pest it was, turning it red. He couldn’t be brought to care—not in that moment.

“LEAVE HIM ALONE YOU BITCH!” he screamed, sending the spirit blades crashing in an uncontrolled torrent of cryo.

She screamed.

Good, he thought viciously. Chongyun charged, using icy constructs to scale her legs so he could dig his sword into her elbows—or chest. Everything was still moving. Cryo spread, stopping that.

Xiao broke free with a cough, and with an enraged scream, he flew and drove a spear into her eye.

“The yang charms!” he yelled as he dug the spear in. “Do it again!”

For a second, he blinked out of his episode. He…wanted Chongyun to lose control again? Though Chongyun doubted he could stop the deluge of rage and fear if he tried. He summoned the thaumaturgical arts, and when they started to turn red, he let them. They burned through the shadows that made her, no matter how much she writhed.

The Conqueror of Demons seemed to regain himself. In a surge of elemental power and adeptal power alike, he dispersed the god until nothing remained.

The domain fell away. Whatever strength was keeping Chongyun aloft vanished with the demon, because he collapsed on the ground, panting. Xiao was kneeling, his spear the only thing keeping him aloft until he tried to stand and stumbled backwards instead.

Human and adeptus sat in silence, their heavy breathing the only thing audible.

Chongyun stared at the blue sky up above. They did it.

That…was not how he imagined his first demon encounter going. At all.

With a groan, he forced himself to sit up. His body took the time after the adrenaline—and the yang energy—wore off to inform him that he hurt. All over. Scrapes, bruises, and a hoarseness in his lungs that had him wondering if the morning would be far worse. He glanced over at Xiao, surprised that the adeptus hadn’t vanished now that his job was done. Instead, he stared vacantly into the ground, panting like he was struggling to breathe.

Without thinking, Chongyun laid a hand on his shoulder as if he were Xingqiu, wanting a cool touch on his bruises. Xiao stiffened immediately, but relaxed and snapped out of whatever stupor he was in with a last shuddering exhale.

“Are…you alright?” he asked hesitantly. Still, he felt the need to ask. As much as humans and adepti alike spoke of the adepti’s resilience, Chongyun had a painful reminder that they hurt and died too.

Xiao grunted. For a moment, Chongyun assumed he wouldn’t answer, but then the adeptus slowly said, “I…will be.” He brought his hand to his neck tentatively, still staring, before it crashed to his lap. “You did good in there. You…have my gratitude.”

It was Chongyun’s turn to stare. Did he just…? He recovered from his shock with a cough. “I just did as I was trained. You have my sincerest gratitude as well, sir. I know I would not have survived that domain without you.”

“That statement is…mutual.”

More silence. The truth of their close encounter sank in. He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, catching their breaths, but it was…rewarding. Chongyun could almost fool himself that it hadn’t been a demon at all, but rather, just a regular, mortal battle that he fought alongside a friend.

“I’m…sorry,” Xiao said suddenly. “Your yang energy… It’s so rare that mortals acquire it. You’ll become an unparalleled exorcist, but I fear it means that you’ll have to face more threats like today’s.” He fixed his eyes somewhere in the distance, careful not to look at Chongyun. “I had hoped…” He shook his head, cutting himself off.

“Why are you apologizing?” Chongyun asked, surprised. He spoke of his condition both as a curse and a blessing, and then took responsibility for it. Chongyun had no idea what to make of any of it.

“It is my job to rid Liyue of demons,” Xiao replied, almost harshly. But Chongyun had spent long enough down in the domain with him to know that he didn’t mean for it to hurt. “For humans, like you, to have to shoulder my burden… That’s my failure.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. Chongyun had long felt resentment for the adeptus’s lack of support of his clan, but…that wasn’t it at all, was it? It wasn’t meant to be disparaging—not to them, at least.

“And that’s our choice,” Chongyun said firmly. “It may not be our divine title, but Liyue is ours, too. My ancestors chose to help protect it, and I chose to follow in their footsteps.” And he fought for it, too. There were times when he considered quitting, his condition unbearable, but he wanted to help, and Chongyun never considered another path than this one. “There’s… a saying, in my clan. ‘One is noble, but many are strong.’ Most exorcists work alone, but we try to understand the value of teamwork—it’s…more efficient, but it doesn’t mean that one alone would not suffice.” Ugh, where was he going with this? He wasn’t eloquent with words like Xingqiu. “Wh-what I mean is, it’s not your fault. We just want to help. To ease your burden.”

Xiao didn’t say anything to that, but… He also didn’t leave. He just watched the sun inch its way towards the horizon.

Finally, he stood. Chongyun assumed that now he would vanish as he always did, but Xiao looked down at him instead, a hand lowered to help him up. “Wangshu Inn isn’t far. Let’s…see to your injuries.”

Chongyun took his hand.

Chapter Text

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Five million mora? You couldn’t start any higher?”

“He’s right—ten million mora.”

“Now we’re talking. This is a one-of-a-kind specimen.”

“I was simply testing the waters. I assumed your establishment was incapable of seeing what you had. Fifteen.”

“Sixteen, then.”

“Twenty.”

Albedo listened to the numbers absently, numbed by their meaning. There was nothing to do but listen, in a way, because Albedo had already exhausted every option for escape that he could possibly consider. Anything else that he could imagine, he was too dizzy to plan fully—by their machination as well.

“Twenty-four.”

“Twenty-five.”

Every party involved was anonymous. Even more anonymous to him, because he could not see a thing. Albedo could surmise based on the way the sound traveled that he was in the same room as the bidders, but the blindfold taped to his eyes was absolute. Sound was all he had. He had guesses, though.

The party he knew the most about, circumstantially, was the sellers—his captors. They were bounty hunters of sorts, tracking their quarry with relentless precision. Even Albedo had not realized how long they had been following him until it was too late; when they revealed themselves, it was because they had ensured victory. There were three of them, all from different locales. A muscled red-haired man Albedo could guess was from Natlan based on physique and fighting style; another man, leaner and more well-spoken, from Fontaine perhaps, based on accent; and a short-tempered woman, who was clearly of Khaenri’ahn decent. Albedo was unaware if they targeted him based on some fallen-through commission, or rather, if they discovered his nature and considered him…lucrative enough to engage in pursuit.

…Albedo presumed it was the latter. With some trial and error, they proved knowledgeable enough to contain him, and now, they had brought him to a location with others for…

An auction. For him.

Albedo did not possess the propensity to get sick over trivial matters, yet, he nearly felt such a condition now. If was for the best that he had no compulsion to act on it, however, because he simply couldn’t afford the loss of sustenance.

“Thirty-two.”

“Thirty-three.”

“Why you— Thirty-five.”

He had not eaten in approximately a week and a half. Albedo had done his best to pay attention to his internal clock since this ordeal had started, especially since he had no access to the sun, but the method was not infallible. Shame that it wasn’t, because the resolute knowledge of his less-pleasant personal limits would be helpful. He did not need much food, but he did require sustenance in small amounts; he felt the pangs of hunger and malnourishment now. He received a little water over the course of his captivity, but judging by the way his skin felt, he was still dehydrated.

The main cause for concern were his hands. They had been mangled, once, and he did not have the means to repair them. Now, they were trapped in manacles that completely enclosed them, connected by a chain and hung from the bars above him. (Currently, he was kept in a metal crate, gridded with inch-wide bands of iron on all sides. It was about two and a half feet wide, and four feet tall. He would like more data on it, but he was aware that he was being watched, so he could not be obvious.) After his many attempts to utilize alchemy in his escape plans, they had grown weary of allowing him access to anything—including his hands. They correctly surmised that his appendages were the outlet for alchemical conversion practiced within his body. Losing range of motion in his hands was…difficult to circumnavigate. (They hurt, too. It was merely pain, but it was…distracting, nonetheless. Less so now that he was used to it.)

Right. They poisoned him as well. It was some sort of numbing agent, applied to the vein in his neck, and it was likely responsible for the extra lethargy and fogged mind. When injected, Albedo had attempted to cause an appropriate reaction internally to nullify it, but he lacked data to do so with full success. He lacked energy as well.

Forty.”

A grumble. “Forty-one.”

The hunters had known of his identity as a homunculus from the beginning. Now, that information was a clear selling point to interested parties. Likely for research purposes.

extensive research, if he had to guess.

Albedo had always known that he wasn’t a real person, in the traditional sense, but the knowledge that he was a commodity in this circumstance was…uncomfortable. Understandable, but disheartening all the same.

He was careful not to let this feeling show. If there was any hope of future escape attempts, it would bode well for the buyers to assume that he could not be emotionally manipulated. Unless the sellers already informed them of all of his… ‘weaknesses.’

Albedo couldn’t stomach that thought well at all.

In that regard, he was glad that he was certainly very far from Mondstadt. Knowing the Knights (and Klee), he did not doubt that he would be pursued, however recklessly, but even they had limits. If he was far enough to be a lost cause, then that was…good. They could not be used against him—or the other way around. Hopefully, they would not attempt anything. He wasn’t worth it. This was his mistake, after all.

It was better this way. Albedo resigned himself to it with a silent apology that would never reach the ears it was meant for.

“Fifty.”

“Damnit!”

The auction was reaching an end. His worth was, for some reason, labeled as high, and it seemed that this was only a matter of funds running low. What did they call him? Right. One-of-a-kind. Albedo wouldn’t dare to correct them, lest they get ideas, but he knew that he was far from being the masterpiece of his master’s creations. Though he knew all too well, by now, that nobody had any expectation that he should speak at all—the bruises to his ribs and his electro-sore muscles were a good indication of this sentiment. He was merchandise, and ‘merchandise had no say.’

“Going once?”

Albedo braced himself. Unless there was an opening in the transfer… Then this was it. He could not expect any more autonomy. He had no way of knowing for sure what would be in store for him, but he was advertised as a freak of science, so he imagined it would be scientists or alchemists that would be interested in a specimen to study.

His co-workers had always accused him of using himself as a test subject before. Albedo faced a dizzying sense of irony at the prospect now.

Of course, that was only speculation. There could be other intentions for prodding into him other than science. It could be for warfare. History. It could be an attempt to get to his master.

Ha. That thought was almost humorous, as likely as it was with at least one Khaenri’ahn present. Rhinedottir would never come for him. The only reason she might, in this case, would be to destroy him for his failures, lest her work enter someone else’s hands.

“Going twice!”

“Objection, your honor!” a new voice sang.

Albedo jerked in his restraints. That sounded like—

A loud boom rocked the walls and foundation alike. His cage rattled dangerously, and Albedo had to brace himself lest he fall over. He pulled at the chain above his head simultaneously, hoping that a loss of structural integrity from the heat—which blazed nearby—would make the thin iron strip snap.

There was shouting. More explosions. The thwip of projectiles and yelps of pain. Albedo tried to follow it, but he had to focus on his own end. If he spent too much effort questioning the scenario, then he would lose his opportunity for action.

In the end, he determined that going sideways was actually ideal, even if his body was not fond of the necessary impact. Albedo did so, and he rearranged himself to kick the side that the chain was attached to. He was not as well versed in using his feet to preform alchemical reactions, but they could be the outlet just as well as the inlet, if the flow was reversed carefully enough. He would have to reverse it, because his bare feet likely wouldn’t succeed in kicking the cage apart itself. Without strong access to the ley lines, gaining power was tricky—but thanks to the fight, the room was filling with elemental energy.

The hinges rusted and shattered. He still needed to remove the chain from the grate, but it was a sufficient first step. Albedo ran through potential reactions he could use to weaken the steel when the sounds of struggle stopped, and someone approached.

He tensed on instinct, likely losing precious time for his escape, but his body expected the jolt of the prod the hunters used, his escape attempt being plainly obvious. It never came.

“Oh my— Dearie, I’ve got you.”

At first, Albedo didn’t move. It could be a trick. But the hand that grabbed his shoulder was familiar, and the pyro that melted the chain was too. He strained his elemental sense, just to be sure. His other senses were functioning, but the lack of sight unsettled him, making him doubt what the evidence alluded to.

“…Aunt Alice?” he whispered, praying to Barbatos or whatever god that might not hate him for it to be true. His hope was as fragile as his hoarse voice, but it was there all the same.

“Yes, sweetie, it’s me, Alice,” she answered readily, strong and real. The relief almost had him releasing all the energy he had left—almost. Albedo was not taught to be dead weight.

“There were seven people in this warehouse—th-that I know of. Where—?”

“They’re dead, sweetie. I told you that I’ve got you now.”

This time, Albedo did slump against her, the adrenaline leaving before he could hold onto it. It figured that he wouldn’t be needed. Alice was far more capable than he was. Yet still, he felt useless, burdening her in this manner.

The manacles clicked off. He hissed slightly as his injured hands met the open air—now cooled, gratefully—and Alice made a noise too. “Oh, sweetie,” she gasped.

“I-it’s fine,” he managed, still not able to talk above a whisper. “I can… I can fix it later.”

She tutted. “I can fix it sooner, don’t you worry about it.”

Next, Alice touched the blindfold at the sides of his head. She made another noise of displeasure. Ah. He figured as much. They had bound an adhesive one to him after his nearly-successful break out attempt some days ago.

He was too tired to think about the implications of that, now. It was likely not have caused anything permanent, but the removal would be…tedious and unpleasant, he was sure. For some reason, he wanted nothing more than to sleep right there in her arms. Maybe because this was the safest he had been since this ordeal began.

Oh. Right. Rescue. He realized, then, that Alice had to have made a detour just on his behalf. He was sure, with her goals, that it would have set her back immensely. The familiar weight of…inadequacy…settled once more. “I apologize.”

“Nonsense,” Alice said. “Albedo, you’ve done nothing wrong. I know you did the very best you could—and those nasty bounty hunters were good, too. Even my scrying was rendered useless on this place.”

“I’ve inconvenienced you,” he explained. Rhinedottir never tolerated interruptions to her work, not even to explain principles, which she enjoyed doing. Albedo knew that Alice wouldn’t be as upset as Rhinedottir would have been, in this scenario, but…

Avoiding his hands, she hugged him. “Albedo, sweetie, I told you—I’m your mom now. And moms will go to any length to make sure their child is safe. This was more important than any other duty I had. I will always, always come for you.”

For some reason, her words sunk into his core, activating a pressure in his chest. Sadness. No, he was still relieved, and… and glad, yet, Albedo felt like he could cry. Klee did that sometimes. Cry when she claimed she wasn’t sad. He never understood it.

Albedo pressed into Alice, burying his face into her shoulder. The touch of her hug was somehow addicting—he blamed the lack of positive stimulus he experienced. His breath shuddered wetly, and his throat clogged. Were it not for the blindfold, he was sure that his eyes would water as well.

People were…such strange beings. He supposed, if he could experience emotion he didn’t understand, then he was in that category too.

“Come on,” Alice said, not letting go. “Let’s get you home.”

Alice Hugs Albedo

Chapter Text

Yae Miko walked through the city, her bag heavier than she could possibly imagine—never mind that there was only one object in there, and it weighed hardly anything.

It distracted her, nonetheless. Her ear twitched as low whispers broke out around her, and Yae realized that for once, she probably looked as distressed as she felt. It took far more effort than it should have to regain her composure, forcing a yawn to give the impression that she was simply tired. Which was true, but she certainly hadn’t slept well since yesterday, since…

“My my, and here I thought I could hold a favor over you for a while longer, after I saved your life and gave you that pass,” Miko hummed, smiling. “But I have to say, this more than makes up for all of those trivial things.” In a rare show of genuine gratitude, she bowed before the Traveler and his companion. “Thank you for completing the Cleansing Ritual.”

Aether and Paimon shared a glance between themselves. Her keen eyes caught the indecision and hesitance. “Umm, actually,” Paimon started. “We didn’t really do it…alone. We had some, uh, some help! From…”

Aether began to take something out of his bag. “This is… This is all that’s left of her. But we thought you should have it.”

Miko prided herself in always maintaining a calm and aloof composure, yet, her breath hitched when she laid eyes on the mask. It was a simple mask—an old one—that in itself was innocuous. But it smelled strongly. Kitsunes had a keen sense of smell, and this— this wasn’t a scent she forgot easily.

“How? She— She was…”

She hated how she stumbled the words, grasping at the mask and feeling how solid it was. How coated in death it was.

“It was just her memories,” Aether explained. “That took the form of a phantom. But…”

“When the ritual was complete,” Paimon finished. “She went away too.”

All this time… All this time, the Kitsune Saiguu’s memories wandered the land. Lived, in some way. Miko wasn’t even surprised. The elder kitsune was full of fleeting jokes and light-hearted days, but she was as dedicated to Eternity as they all were. That, at least, she took seriously, even if she never showed it.

Once, Miko had thought that the elder would achieve Eternity simply because she refused to die.

Her memories. Miko felt a bitter laugh rise in her throat. In a way, she had been too stubborn to die.

Had been.

The mask was empty, and with the Traveler’s account… The Kitsune Saiguu was as clever as she was slippery, but it was hard to imagine that she survived this time.

At least it was closure.

It meant that, perhaps, she hadn’t lied to Miko all those years ago. That she had intended to come back.

“It’s too dangerous,” Miko insisted, ears laid back against the noise of distant fighting. “You know what happened to Chiyo!”

Her sister smiled. It was so easy to believe it—to look at it and think, ‘everything will be okay.’ Her sister was also an amazing liar. “I know,” she replied calmly. “And that’s precisely why this core must be cleansed. If this darkness doesn’t end soon, however will I sleep? It’s lost its charm, that’s for sure.”

“Sister,” Miko pressed. “You can’t face that alone.”

“Sure I can,” she replied jauntily. “I was always much stronger than Chiyo anyways.”

Miko couldn’t forget Chiyo’s last form even if she tried. Mangled, ugly, torn… Not a single ounce of her spirit remained in her, yet, it carried her voice. Eternally, forever, that beast would remain Chiyo’s legacy as she attacked everything she had once loved.

“That doesn’t you mean you have to sacrifice yourself too.”

Her sister softened. She laid her hands on her shoulders, gold eyes meeting her violet ones. They weren’t actual sisters, and they looked as different as could be—nothing like Makoto and Ei. Yet, she had been the one who cared for Miko when she had no family to call her own.

“Miko,” she assured. “I’m not sacrificing anything. Not even the Abyss can keep me from coming back.”

She was the Kitsune Saiguu for a reason, yet still, Miko doubted. Chiyo had been confident, too… To make matters worse, Makoto and Ei weren’t even here. Her sister was the next line of defense, and it would be terribly selfish to hold her back.

Kitsunes were always selfish creatures.

Sensing her distress, she smiled at Miko, holding her head up high. In a classic use of contradiction, her words gave comfort, but no real direction in regard to Miko’s desires. “Do not be blinded. Do not waver. Keep walking the path that you believe in.”

It was one of her chants, and she would use it for cooking and life decisions in the same breath. This felt as one of her weightiest uses.

As it should have been, because those were the last words Miko ever heard from her.

Those words seemed to echo from the mask now.

Maybe she wasn’t ready for this. Miko should be calm and composed. Her friendship with Ei was the exception to this rule, but also not entirely. It was Miko’s job to comfort her in these past few centuries, not the other way around.

Not that Miko had done a particularly good job at that…

It was a moot point. Ei needed to know. She has lost as much as Miko had, and at the very least, she was her archon, and she deserved to know.

To know that the Kitsune Saiguu watched over Inazuma for as long as she could.

“Lady Guiji!” one of the guards exclaimed, bowing formally.

She flashed him her pass without a word. They opened the doors to the Shogun’s chamber and she strode in.

The puppet, seated on the throne, looked at her curiously. “Hello dear, I’m here to speak with Ei,” Miko told her, grateful she regained her composure.

“Of course,” the puppet intoned, closing her eyes.

The portal to the Plane of Euthymia opened in a flash. Miko kept walking, transitioning smoothly from one plane to the other. Ei was hovering in her meditative stance, eyes now open and focused on her curiously.

“Ah, Miko,” Ei greeted coolly, though with a hint of curiosity. “What brings you here?”

Miko should have said something witty—something fun, or soothing, or distracting, to mitigate the feelings that Miko thought were long gone.

(She had been here all this time. Now, and only now, she wasn’t anymore.)

She could not think of anything, so Miko simply said nothing. Not until she reached into her bag and pulled out the mask.

“What’s this?” Ei asked, brow drawn in confusion.

“Our traveler friend completed the Cleansing Ritual,” Miko said plainly, finding her voice again, thick as it was. “With the help of her.”

Slowly, it dawned on Ei. Miko quietly relayed what Aether and Paimon experienced to her, and afterwards, the two sat in silent vigil.

Happiness, sorrow, anger—all of these emotions are fleeting. Pleasurable (or not) in the moment, but gone the next, replaced by the next moment, then the next, and the next. However, there were things in this world that were longer—eternal, even. Peace. Freedom. Joy.

Grief.

It had been many lifetimes since Miko and Ei lost their sisters and their friends, and the sorrow had long since passed. Yet, with memory, fondness and grief remained. Miko wouldn’t have it any other way.

After all, the Kitsune Saiguu had always dreamed of an eternal memory.

Chapter Text

Always breathe. That was one of the first things that her sensei drilled into her, urging her to the break the tempting habit that a hiding ninja faced. Sayu was normally good at this rule. It was too troublesome to hold her breath, and she was small and quiet anyways.

Yet now, she was tempted to. Anything to be quieter—to be less seen. Maybe if she removed all traces of anemo—even her breath—the agent wouldn’t find her.

“Come out ninja brat,” the Fatui agent growled. “I know you’re there.”

Sayu didn’t move, of course. She barely remembered to breathe. Her ninjutsu was rushed and probably horrible, but she couldn’t use any elemental energy whatsoever, or the Delusion wielding Fatui agent would certainly see her. Again. She had already messed up twice, and now he was so close.

The agent prowled, practically stalking the forest. She could hear the wind whistle across his knife better than she could his footsteps. He knew what he was doing, and that scared her the most.

Stupid job and stupid Shuumatsuban. Not only would she rather be resting, but the job was obviously above her rank. She didn’t mess with the Fatui. Maybe because their diplomatic immunity drew short after the Tenryou incident, the elders thought there was lower risk in discovery. Or, more likely, they continued to overestimate her and assumed that she was the best evasive ninja they had because she evaded them.

Maybe she had been the stupid one. She thought if she could avoid work, she could rest more, but she only succeeded in making herself more appealing, supposedly showing off her prowess. But really, her success was mostly attributed to those looking not being good at it. (Except the Guuji, of course.)

(Somehow, Sayu really wished that the Guuji was here.)

“Damn brat!” he yelled, suddenly much, much closer. Sayu startled as the knife whistled, and she barely jumped out of the way in time, the knife embedding itself into the branch that had been behind her.

Pyro erupted close to her, and Sayu ran. She ran so fast she practically flew. In a way, she did. In her initial burst of desperation, she used anemo even though that was terribly trackable, and she rocketed from tree to tree on a wind of her own making.

She had to stop, eventually. He would only follow the trail, and Sayu was still much too far to just run all the way back to base. Even if it was close enough, she wasn’t supposed to compromise that location. Her beating heart didn’t quite care about that rule, but her mind forced her to slow down. Redirect. Misdirect. Hide.

Sayu ceased her anemo use and continued forward. When the winds blew off of her, she took a sharp turn to the left, before heading right again at a higher altitude. Focusing on the leaves shaking in the wind, Sayu took a deep breath, tucked herself into them, and she breathed.

The trick was to breathe in tandem with the wind. The wind was moving fast, erratically, so it was hard to keep beat with and still get enough oxygen. It matched her heartbeat, though.

She listened to him stalk and search and prowl down below. He even climbed, but Sayu didn’t dare try to look, lest she ruined the illusion.

Minutes passed. A few times, she was sure that he was close—just a breath away. Even after things grew quiet, she didn’t dare to move. Hours passed, and still, she stayed. He would never look where he had already given chase—it was a favorited tactic by the Shuumatsuban for this reason.

Only with the barest light of dawn started to creep over the horizon did Sayu move, running faster to the HQ than she has in a long time.

This was her job, but sometimes, for someone as small as she was, it was terrifying.

Chapter Text

Amber had never been so embarrassed in her life.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t true. Amber had done plenty of embarrassing things, but normally, it was lighthearted enough that even she didn’t mind. And… This didn’t have an audience. It was only embarrassing if someone was there to witness it, right?

All Amber could focus on was the sheer irony of the Mondstadt Gliding Champion making a rookie deploying mistake and falling off of a cliff. She should be better at this! She glided as easily as she breathed! Messing up the deploy and getting caught in a side wind… That was the equivalent of forgetting her foot when going to walk. It just shouldn’t have happened.

Berating herself and trying to laugh over how stupid she had been was much, much preferrable to…well, focusing on everything else. Like the pain.

Oh, there was so much pain. The first Outrider rule of first aid while alone is to take careful stock of one’s injuries, but she can’t even move, and focusing on each area just makes it hurt worse. She tumbled out of the sky… She probably broke so many bones.

Tears were permanently stuck in her eyes, it seemed, from the aftermath. Amber wasn’t sure how long she laid on the grass, whimpering in pain because she didn’t want to move, but it was probably… way too long. She made a fool of herself, and she was being a wuss about it. On one hand, she was alone, so she could make a fool of herself if she wanted to, because damn, everything was on fire. In the bad way, of course.

On the other hand… She was alone.

There was nobody to help her, and Amber had no idea how long it would take her to get her act together. Or if she could move.

A truly terrifying thought flashed through her mind, and Amber pushed aside all discomfort and started focusing on the injuries, now more concerned. To her relief, she could feel everything (which wasn’t relieving in practice, but it meant her spine was fine). Her whole body was definitely jolted, but her leg—yeah, her leg was probably super broken.

“Owwww!”

Whining to the sweet, silent winds of Mondstadt made wrestling herself into a sitting position more tolerable. After approximately forever, she managed it, wincing and cursing all the while. Her leg was definitely super broken, and Mond was…decidedly far. Amber knew she needed a splint, but she didn’t see anything conveniently in grabbing distance. Or even crawling distance. Just damn bushes.

At least there weren’t any hilichurls nearby. That would be very bad. She was in a bad enough spot as it was.

Amber ran through some other ideas of how she could possibly get back to Mond, but… Well, in the end, all she could really hope for was help.

Maneuvering even just her upper body hurt like hell, and drawing her summoned bowstring was nearly agony—oh, she probably broke a rib or two as well—but Amber managed to shoot a pair of flaming arrows into the sky. Now, she just needed to wait. Maybe shoot some more. And wait.

As an Outrider, doing nothing made her anxious. There was no stakeout, no opportunity to move, or run, if anything went wrong… She wouldn’t even be missed until tonight, which was still hours away. If nobody saw her arrows, then…

Gratefully, Amber wasn’t left waiting long.

“It came from over here,” a distant and blessedly familiar voice said. “It looked like…” The party rounded the corner of the cliff, and Amber could see the moment that Eula saw her. “Amber?!”

The Spindrift Knight and her reconnaissance party was rushing forward, and Amber was practically crying with relief. Revealing her location was risky with all of the Abyss Order goons running around, but Amber couldn’t think of any other way. With Eula here, she knew she would make it back home safe and sound.

“Eula! Thank Barbatos—I’m so, so glad to see you!”

Amber was blocking out the worst of her leg visage through sheer willpower alone, but however it looked now was bad enough for even Eula to fail to come up with some witty response.

“What on earth happened?” Eula cried, kneeling down and gesturing for her men to start first aid. She had three people checking her over at the same time, but frankly, Amber didn’t care.

“Jus’ fell,” Amber mumbled deliriously. “I uh… I think I broke something though.”

For a second, Eula stared at her with pure, unadulterated incredulity. Amber was pretty sure she giggled at it, but her brain had started going fuzzy a while ago. Eula schooled her expression then, shaking her head with a humph. “All of this trouble from a fall. I will remember this transgression.”

The company was splinting her leg, and Amber was pretty sure she was being geared up to be carried. The embarrassment returned, but she was also too tired to care, so she focused on Eula instead, crouched next to her. (In hindsight, she realized that Eula was distracting her on purpose, because first aid hurt sometimes.)

“Does that vengeance of yours include me going to the hospital?” Amber teased, though the feigned worry was mixed with some real apprehension. Recovery from this was going to suck.

“No,” Eula decided. “Giving you first aid is a matter of course.” A small smile managed to grace her lips, like they couldn’t hide her softness either. “When you are in bedrest, however, I will have full opportunity to enact my revenge.”

Maybe being stuck at home with a broken leg wouldn’t be that bad, if it made Eula take a break. “Sounds good to me!”

Chapter Text

Beidou had caught the Inazuman kid stumbling around the deck before, catching himself on the rails. As it was practically a rite of passage with this crew, she never missed the opportunity to poke fun of him for his ‘land legs.’

In truth, Beidou wasn’t too sure that that was what it was. It would have made sense for the rookie to be unused to the waters, of course, but she saw the way he moved when he wasn’t stumbling, too. It might have been that fancy anemo Vision of his, but the swaying of the ship didn’t seem to bother him at all. Beidou didn’t press the matter, though. It was probably some…previous condition…and she wouldn’t embarrass him by calling attention to the matter—especially not in front of the crew. She had seen him on Ritou, and that had been enough.

(Beidou had seen a lot in her days, but that didn’t make the sight of a scrawny teen with empty eyes clutching a dead Vision any easier to stomach.)

She had been willing to take a chance on him, giving him the time that he needed. So far, she was not disappointed. The opposite, in fact. The kid was reserved, sure, but he was diligent and honest, and that was what mattered. Her patience seemed to be winning, too, because now that it’s been over a week—and the kid was well and stimulated—that dead look behind his eyes was fading. She even heard him humming once, and as strange as it had been, it was welcome for sure.

He also finally gave them a name—Kaedehara Kazuha. It was a fancy name, and his sword and speech were indication of that as well, but the discovery of his name changed remarkably little. He was still the quiet anemo kid to her, and the only thing she was really looking to change was the ‘quiet’ part.

And it did look like he was getting better. Warming up to them, at least. It was small progress, but Beidou felt celebratory, nonetheless. Kazuha was certainly not her first crew member to come from less ideal situations, and it always warmed her whenever they started to… well, be themselves. Relaxed and no longer like a scared cat.

However, Beidou stayed her hand before she got too happy. Something still wasn’t right. When she had thought his constitution was improving, she realized that it was actually getting worse—he was just getting better at hiding it. He stumbled and sometimes moved too slow—certainly when compared to how swiftly he could cross through the sails—and it wasn’t just in the sun that he sweated more than what was normal for cool autumn weather.

She considered all these things carefully as she watched him that night, swabbing the deck. It was a task he had done before—the easiest to give to rookies—but he looked like he was concentrating on it harder than he had anything else in his life. So much so that Beidou could simply watch him, with no subtlety whatsoever, and he didn’t notice. That alone was enough to clue Beidou in that something was wrong with her newest crewmate; him suddenly collapsing onto the deck was just the nail in the coffin.

Beidou crossed the deck in seconds, beaten to the kid’s side only by Juza, who happened to be closer. Her chief-mate grabbed him by the shoulders, supported his head. Kazuha groaned softly, still out of it, but gratefully conscious.

“Hey, Kaedehara Kid,” Juza tried, shaking him a little. “Can you hear me?” Her normally confident chief-mate looked to her with a shred of worry. “He’s burning up.”

Beidou laid a hand against his forehead and winced. “Damnit,” she confirmed. Then, sensing the gathering commotion around them, she called behind her shoulder, “Get Yinxing!”

“Kid,” she started, trying to rouse him again. “Kazuha—are you with us?”

Kazuha pried his eyes open. For a second, he stared right past her, expression as blank as the day she met him. Then, pain filled the gaze, and he realized where he was and clammed up. “My apologies…” he mumbled. “I…must have been more fatigued than I thought.”

“Fatigue?” Beidou repeated incredulously.

Kazuha began to force himself back up. “Yes…” he admitted, like this was the last conversation he wanted to have. “But I’m fine. I can continue my duties.”

“With a fever?” she prodded. “Like hell you will.”

Kazuha blinked in surprise. Damn stubborn samurai—did he even realize he was sick? She watched him wrestling with it, and she was pretty sure the distressed keening sound he made was not on purpose.

She softened. She knew how to pick up stubborn ones, that was for sure. “You’re allowed to have sick days, you know,” Beidou chastised.

“Not just allowed—strongly encouraged,” Yinxing grumbled, bending down with her kit and starting her routine checks. “I’m not risking you infecting the rest of the crew just because you can muscle through it.”

“You’re right,” Kazuha relented, downright sullen. “I was reckless and inconsiderate.”

Yinxing scoffed. “Chin up, little samurai—I’ve had to yell at every crewmate here at least once for this. It’s practically a rite of passage. That said, if you make this occurrence a one-time deal, you’ll be my favorite.”

Beidou snorted in mock hurt. “Is that mutiny, doctor?” she teased.

“No, just favoritism,” Yinxing said with a smile. “Now, I want him in the medbay until that fever breaks—no exceptions.”

“Aye ma’am,” Juza responded automatically.

Beidou rolled her eye. She was the Captain, and nobody forgot that, but she was pretty sure everyone was more scared of Yinxing. It was amusing, to be honest.

“Actually, Juza, you take the helm for now. Get Sea Drake to finish the deck and sterilize it. I’ll get Kazuha here down below.”

“Aye Captain.”

It was better for her to do the dirty work—both for her crew and the kid. A little-known fact about Vision wielders, even those without healing prowess, is that they rarely got sick. Elements constantly flowing through the body had a tendency to strengthen the body and immune system alike. She was the least likely to pick up anything if he was contagious.

It almost meant that Beidou knew just how bad he had to be to get sick in the first place. She knew he hadn’t looked great when she first found him, but she had hoped that some time in a friendly environment would mitigate the damage. But Beidou had no idea how long he had been working himself like this before the Crux, so maybe, it was a long time coming.

Kazuha was leveraging himself to his feet, but Beidou scooped him off of the deck herself without warning. The startled sound the kid made would have been adorable if her action hadn’t highlighted just how light the kid was. She made a mental note to tell Fen to make sure the kid ate more—or just to sneak extra protein and carbs into his portions if he continued to eat like a rabbit.

“I can walk,” Kazuha insisted simply, but it was impossible to tell if he was red with embarrassment or with fever.

“Nonsense, feather-weight—can’t have you tripping down the steps,” she teased, arriving at the medbay and depositing him on the bed.

He closed his eyes with a crease of his brow. Beidou had no idea what he was thinking, but with a look that forlorn, she had a guess.

“Come on, kid, spit it out,” she urged. “I don’t bite. I swear. Besides, as the Captain, I need to know what’s up with my crew.”

She hoped the Captain-card would work, and it did. His face morphed into a grimace before turning blank again. “I can’t possibly repay you for taking me in as it is. Now I’m just more of a burden,” he explained, his words weary.

Yeah, that figured. This proved her initial hunch about the kid, however—he was honest. An honest soul and an honest worker. It was heartwarming, but at the same time, she wished he wasn’t such an adult about it. Beidou knew he was seventeen (which was still a kid in her book), but she had the feeling he grew up long before this.

“I told you already—we get you out of Inazuma, and you join the crew. You did it. And my crew members get full meals, good sleep, and breaks—and sick days. You’re part of the crew, kid, so that means the crew gets to take care of you, just like you take care of them. Got the picture now?”

Kazuha stayed quiet for a while longer, studying her. The fever was evident in his expression, but he grappled with the concept, nonetheless.

“…Yes, Captain.”

She smiled. He probably didn’t get it yet, but he will. Beidou would make sure of it. After all, she was stubborn too.

Chapter Text

Dainsleif woke slowly, head pounding and eyes barely wanting to open. He forced them anyway, on a matter of principle. Green leaves and blue sky filtered through, still much too bright, and then it hit him.

He has no idea where he is. He has no idea what happened. With practice, Dainsleif did not move, and his expression was schooled, but inwardly, he furiously tried to recall anything that might help.

Dainsleif did not lose time. He simply didn’t. He had more time than he ever wanted, but he never could make it go away, even when he tried. He was certain that he should not be in a forest, on the ground, but he couldn’t remember where he should be. Or what had happened that would possibly have led him to this lapse. There was an uncomfortable pit of dread worming its way up his throat, with the bone-deep sensation of wrong overwhelming his thoughts. But he can’t panic. Dainsleif can’t afford to panic.

Carefully, he managed to find the first memory of something fairly recent that he could summon, and he worked from there. The Abyss Order in Mondstadt. Liyue. The Traveler, asking questions. Investigating. The overwhelming premonition of something wrong.

Lumine.

It all crashed down at once. Not anymore lucid memories, of course, because such a thing hardly exists in the Abyss—not in the level he had been dragged to. Not for humans. For as much as he didn’t feel like one anymore, he was still human.

Black stars, tangible curses, pain in his eye, in his blood, knives in his skin, the inability to die, the inability to succumb, burning cold, freezing fire, golden eyes—

Any grasp he had on his composition was slipping. Or it already slipped. Dainsleif had to suck in a shaky, clear breath in a weak attempt to convince himself that he was not there. His homeland, and he couldn’t stand the thought of being there. (And he hated himself for it.)

Forest. Sunlight. Oxygen. All these things were present, and they would continue to be if he was able to focus on them. The pain his head experienced was bearable, but he could not seem to drag his mind out of the Abyss no matter how hard he tried.

Golden eyes, burning rolling burning cities, crumbling skies, thrust underground—

“Where were you?”

A curse. A promise. Gold and inky black. Secrets, secrets he shouldn’t have known. (Lies.) Doubt. Betrayal.

“You should have been there.”

He can’t afford to be dragged down by this. Dainsleif needed to be better. The horrors of that day were already done long ago, and no fresh reminder should drag up the pain. It happened. It was merely a fact, now. A harsh fact, but not something to make him feel this way. Not anymore.

Dainsleif wasn’t sure how long it took him to remind himself, but he had the feeling it was too long. He was not aware of his surroundings, as he should have been, because when finally managed to take in the sunlight and believe it, there’s music, too.

It was gentle and soothing, as jarring at it was for it to exist. Dainsleif grappled with the implication, focusing too much on the beats than the presence. Then it occurred to him:

He wasn’t alone.

That was the last push he needed to shove past the aftereffects of the Abyss on his mind and return to the present, sword summoned to his hand.

His sudden preparedness for a fight didn’t disturb his unwelcomed company in the slightest. It figured, too, because one look at the boy dressed in some ridiculous and unpractical outfit, strumming a lyre on a tree branch, and it was obvious that it was a bard. A Mondstadtian bard, to be precise.

(When did he arrive in Mondstadt?)

(How did he leave the Abyss?)

The bard regarded him with a naïve smile. “Ah! You’re awake!” he exclaimed, voice high with a giggle. “One wondered how long it would take.”

A rhyme. Definitely a Mondstadt bard.

(The bard had been watching him the whole time, hadn’t he? Dainsleif didn’t like that implication either.)

“How did I get here?” he ended up asking. Dainsleif kept away from the people of Teyvat, but he didn’t hide entirely. It wasn’t practical. It was better if they made their own assumptions about him, and generally, those assumptions were that he was some adventurer or traveler due to his evident fighting prowess.

He deemed the question innocuous enough not to arouse suspicion, and the truth was, he still didn’t know. It worried him not to know.

Dainsleif wasn’t particularly expecting the bard to be helpful on this front, but everyone witnessed events. Whatever the bard knew of him would a part of the whole, and it would be useful at least.

The bard regarded him with deep sea-green eyes. (Too bright eyes. Unnatural eyes. He would know.) “In the Whispering Woods, unmoving did you lay. Seeing a stranger in need, I figured I would stay.”

The bard’s sunny answer could have fooled him, perhaps, but Dainsleif was not a bad judge of character. He had watched too many people, in too many eras. He didn’t miss the beat of hesitation—sorrow, even—in the bard’s eyes. He also knew, unfortunately all too well, that he did not simply ‘regain consciousness.’ He had been conscious, but not lucid. Dainsleif also couldn’t know how many cycles of that he endured before he snapped out of it.

The bottom of the Abyss was filled with poison, and immortality did very little to mitigate it.

“There’s no need to be gentle with me. I can take it,” Dainsleif grumbled. He was not in the mood for the antics of a bard, but he also found that the very notion of standing up right now was tiring. Sitting up and humoring the bard was the most reliable option, as loathe as he was to admit.

He stared at him again, absently strumming the lyre. The tune wasn’t quite comprehendible, but it seemed…familiar. Though Dainsleif wasn’t one for music, so he had no way of knowing, or even caring. He couldn’t deny that the music seemed to ease him, somehow. The fact that it held the power to do that was concerning, but at least Dainsleif maintained all of his reasoning. (At that moment, at least.)

Eventually, the bard decided to be straight with him, with Dainsleif was silently grateful for, because he didn’t want to be having a conversation at all, much less with someone who insisted on talking in rhyme. To each their own, but Dainsleif was tired.

“It was probably about five hours ago,” the bard started, which was not what he wanted to hear. It only got more disturbing, however. “You were at Musk Reef—looked like you fell out of the sky, too, but well…” He shrugged innocently. “You know. I’ve seen you around, though, so I knew you weren’t anybody else. I almost took you to Mondstadt, but then I figured that being around people might not be the best, so I brought you here instead.” He paused for a bit, strumming his lyre once. “Oh, I’m Venti, by the way!”

The feeling that something was off returned. Musk Reef was… far. Farther than a five-hour boat-and-cart ride, likely, and he doubted that he only just got to these woods. Unless this bard somehow knew how to use waypoints.

Dainsleif spotted the Vision at his side belatedly. Ah. So maybe he did. Still… It was the other thing he said. ‘I figured that being around people might not be the best…’ He knew. He knew that Dainsleif would somehow not be in his right mind. (He knew that he had just been in the Abyss. He knew what the Abyss did to people.) How though? Perhaps if he still didn’t have a splitting headache, he would be able to come to a better answer.

“Thank you,” he managed, albeit awkwardly, before his thoughts overtook him.

Venti smiled at him. He suspected it was supposed to be bright and reassuring, but to Dainsleif, it just looked…sad.

“Just sorry I couldn’t do more for you,” Venti admitted.

Dainsleif didn’t reply—nothing more than a bow of his head and grunt of acknowledgement, at least, before he forced himself to his feet and started on his way. The words were deeper than the situation, somehow.

(Deep, unnaturally bright sea-green eyes.)

He carefully filed away the information to process later. He still wasn’t in a good headspace, and he needed to divert his efforts to that. The Abyss Order was sure to take advantage of his lapse, so he had to be ready.

The bard started playing again. The sound drifted through the forest, still audible even as Dainsleif moved further away. It was…nice. Hearing the music meant he didn’t hear the corrupted whispers of the Abyss that surely lingered in his mind.

Later, he wondered if the bard did it on purpose for that very reason.

Chapter Text

“Why? Won’t? You! Die?!”

Each word is punctuated with a kick, but only the last one is truly hard enough for Jean to feel threatened by it. Still, she knew she was in a bad place, and despite the aggravation of her attackers, who believed the contrary, she also knew that she was quickly running out of strength.

Jean inhaled deeply, breathing dirt in the process. When did she get on the ground? No. That was unacceptable. She couldn’t lose now. Not when it meant… Not like this.

She slammed the ground, a burst of anemo flinging the remaining Fatui around her and slinging them backwards. The same anemo healed her, just enough. She couldn’t fix the fatigue anymore, but she could close her wounds. Just enough. She just had to outlast them at this rate, or… Or make them get sloppy. Their plan wouldn’t work if their presence was obvious.

By now, Jean had a good grasp on what their plan was. Assassination. To be exact, her assassination, except they never intended for it to look like more than a battle gone awry.

That’s why the Fatui pyro agents and a handful of skirmishers ambushed her at a hilichurl camp, she was sure. Though since she hadn’t even meant to be raiding any camps, it meant that they had been following her for some time beforehand. It was careless of her not to notice.

The hilichurls were long since dead, but the Fatui agents took to using their weapons to assault her, and not any more elemental energy than what the hilichurls present would have used. That alone was her advantage. It meant they weren’t as ruthless as their normal weapons would have allowed, but she was still exhausted and painfully outnumbered.

She started by trying to pull the diplomat card—because that was her job—but their intent to kill became obvious. Two of their men laid dead by her hand, now, and she was ashamed to admit that she would kill them all if that meant she came out alive, even though it could mean diplomatic disaster.

Jean lunged, her sword cutting deep into an agent’s hand, knocking the club out of it. She tried to move the sword back and cut him even deeper, somewhere else, but he was faster than she was at this point. Hydro filled the air, and the hydrogunner healed the agent’s wound before Jean could inflict more damage.

(If only that hydro samuchurl hadn’t been there. Then they wouldn’t be able to use hydro as much as they were.)

The battle was more of a standoff. She could heal her wounds, and the hydrogunner would heal his team’s. He had a thick shield of hydro around him, and Jean tried to batter it as best she could, but anemo was never the most useful for breaking shields. She had to do it a little at a time, but they guarded him well.

A flurry of pyro arrows came down on her again, from the other gunner that stood on the platform beyond her reach. His aim with a crossbow wasn’t the best, but even with Jean actively dodging, one still landed in her calf. It burned, literally, and it took a gust of anemo to blow out the fire. She couldn’t even remove the arrow at this point, the two agents flinging themselves back at her with their crude weapons.

She didn’t know where the third remaining one was. Unwilling to take the risk of another ambush, Jean slammed down another wall of anemo, catching the third off-guard with a shout and giving her room to ready her sword.

Something wet came down her face, and she felt a similar wetness catch in her lungs and threaten her breath. Damnit. Jean knew that she had used way too much elemental power in this fight, but flanked on all sides, it was all she could use to survive this long.

Jean managed a few more moments of pressing the attack with her sword when a force slammed into her back. The hydrogunner finally joined the fray, using the butt of his gun as a bludgeoning device.

She crumpled to the ground, vision blackening. For a moment, all she managed to think was, ‘I hope that wound is incriminating,’ and… nothing else. A small part of her knew that this was it, even as she still tried to move her limbs. They disobeyed her, strength gone, and Jean could feel that another burst of anemo—strong enough to dislodge the heavy foot on her back—would surely kill her as well.

Jean was willing to try, though. For Mondstadt, as always. If they were this intent on killing her, it only meant bad things for the nation she swore to protect.

She could barely muster the strength for it, though. Her body had collapsed in on itself, and even elemental energy was hard to grasp.

However, she never had to. The foot removed, and there was shouting again. Something cold. A cracking sound. Admittedly, she couldn’t follow anything well, even though Jean was still trying to summon at least one more wind. Anything would be better than dying without giving her final breath, since Jean was sure that she was going to die.

…she grew less sure as the moments ticked by. Jean struggled lift her body off the ground, and she was only somewhat successful when her blurry vision was met with…a chunk of ice?

She wasn’t sure how many more moments it took until it ended. It was embarrassing, but Jean couldn’t do a single thing, no matter how hard she tried to focus. She knew that it was because she hit that wall, a limit that every human had, even if they wielded a Vision. Yet… it was still unacceptable. “There are no limits, only death.” Her mother said that, once. Jean understood it. If it was for Mondstadt, she couldn’t simply give up. She had to give it her all.

Jean didn’t have to, though. Not this time. The next thing she was aware of—that she remembered, at least—was a hand on her shoulder. But it was a gentle and familiar hand, cool to the touch.

“Jean,” Kaeya said softly, but in a tone that suggested it wasn’t the first time.

The best she could do was groan. (What a pitiful state she was in. She really had messed up this time.)

“Shh, it’s okay,” he continued, rubbing circles into her shoulders. “It’s over.”

It wasn’t. They both knew that this would be a giant mess, and that was without knowing if Kaeya killed them all or left any of them alive. It was guaranteed to be a mess regardless. The trepidation of that weighed on her, but with Kaeya here, it was easy to… Not ignore it, but rather, let it slide to the background, just for now. Just so she can relish the relief of being alive.

When Jean finally could open her eyes properly, she saw the result of the battle. Most of the Fatui were frozen solid. How alive they were in that state…she didn’t have the energy to care about. Not in that moment. Kaeya wasn’t without his share of injuries though. Absently, instinctively, she reached to heal him, but he caught her by the wrist.

“Now, now, Acting Grandmaster,” he chastised, putting on his ‘Captain voice.’ “That would be a bad idea in your current condition.”

Of course. She laughed somewhat wildly, but the sound probably came out tired. The only Vision wielder she had ever witnessed reaching this point was Kaeya, and now he was lecturing her.

(It felt like Venti’s sense of humor, for sure, though she knew that he had nothing to do with it.)

“We need…medical attention…” she huffed finally. Just…leaning on Kaeya. That was as far as she managed to move, and even then, it was with his help.

“Agreed.”

They stayed there for a few more minutes, both thoroughly exhausted after the fight. Well, she was more thoroughly exhausted than he was, because Kaeya managed to get up and haul her leaden body with him, dragging her and himself back to Mond.

Jean would find a way to figure out how reckless Kaeya had been later, but for now… “Thank you,” she whispered.

They would deal with the impending legal crises…tomorrow.

Chapter Text

The adeptus looked him in the eye before he turned away. Alatu—Xiao—did not know his name, but he recognized the inky purple antlers that looked vaguely like stars. He tried to stay something to the other adeptus, but his throat wouldn’t work.

“There’s no survivors over here!” the adeptus called to some unknown ally.

And then he left.

Something inside of him…broke, just a little at that. Xiao shouldn’t have been hurt by it, but there was some pit in his stomach all the same. He blamed the sense of finality, even though the action was to be expected. The battle had been bad, and triage was to be expected. He was a wounded yaksha, and frankly, he didn’t think he was worth the effort either. Especially when he was only so far removed from being an enemy yaksha. They were right to fear him. To hate him.

Dying on the battlefield should be a relief. It is the only death someone like him is allowed, anyway. And…it would be mean that it would be over. He wouldn’t have to… have to do things anymore. So why did he stare after the retreating form of allies, hoping they would come back?

No. That wasn’t right. He didn’t have to do those things anymore… just fighting. (Fighting was the same. He always fought.) So then why did he want to die?

Did he want to die?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

It didn’t matter. The desire or lack thereof was pointless.

Because he was going to die anyway.

His body had long stopped moving, and his mind was underway its own collapse as well. Yaksha were durable, so they took a long time to die. Even with the injuries he sustained. Xiao couldn’t recall all of them, but he knew that even if he had the strength to move, he couldn’t, because there was a spear jammed through his leg and into the ground, keeping him on his stomach.

That wasn’t the worst one, however. His back was torn to shreds. (Appendages ripped away.) Xiao didn’t know if it was a mercy that the wounds weren’t pressed into the dirt, instead exposed to the biting winds. (They were gone. His back lacked weight and they were gone.)

He wondered, numbly, if it were better if he just…sped the process along. He could be dying here for days, unable to stop his own decay. He didn’t know if he had the strength to manage something worthwhile, but he could try…

No, no he couldn’t. Alatus wasn’t allowed to. His Master forbid it. He was a weapon, and damaging weapons was mutiny, and he was needed to fight. (Always fighting.) To destroy. To consume.

(He felt sick. It was as much feeling as he could muster, his brain refusing to acknowledge the pain anymore.)

Alatus used to collapse on the battlefield all the time. His Master’s army was small, and because of that, he bore the weight of it. His Master needed him, so that meant that he was dragged off the battlefield however possible. By the arm. By the leg. By the wings. (Never again. They were gone.) He was tainted, and hard to control—as he was told—so it wasn’t abnormal for some adeptus to attach chains to him and drag him that way. But Alatus would be dragged all the same, and there were times when he wished he wasn’t. That he just… stayed.

He wasn’t being dragged, now. His Master finally gave up on him. The thought was relieving. (And disheartening.) He didn’t want to go. (He did.)

Alatus wasn’t sure how long it had even been. Since the end of the battle. Since the beginning of the battle. He just…laid there. Breathing. Gasping. Alatus wasn’t sure why he put so much effort into it, but it was the one thing his body commanded that he do. It would stop soon enough, on its own terms.

His own breath was the only thing he was truly aware of. His breath, yearning to free itself from his dying form. He understood—respected it, even. It distracted him from everything else. Even from the fact—for a while, at least—that he was now moving. (Dragged. They were dragging him.)

Except… no. His limbs were still here, close to him. (Except the ones he lost.) It didn’t feel the ground. The ground was cold, but he was…warm? There was some wall beside him (not under him) nonetheless, but it moved with him.

Alatus clawed himself back to consciousness, even though he didn’t want to. He was expected to make the effort, and the results weren’t pleasant when he didn’t. He must have made some sound as he came to, because the movement stopped.

“Xiao? Can you hear me?” a deep voice asked softly.

The voice was…wrong. Different. In a good way, but it was different all the same.

It took a while before the necessary information crawled back to him. His Master was dead. Killed by Morax, several battles ago. He was still alive, however, because… because Morax wanted him. Or something. Morax didn’t claim his right to him, he just… What was it called again? Right. A contract. He wanted him to sign a contract with him, to swear that he would fight for him and not hurt any of his people. It was a pointless endeavor, because Morax was a god—a powerful one at that—and Alatus was just a yaksha. All Morax had to do was speak his name to him, and he would be bound to do whatever he said.

But he didn’t. Morax called him ‘Xiao’ instead. A name that was his, but not the name that was on the end of his chain. He…rather liked it. The name invoked power, still, but in none of the ways that hurt him. It was a foolish thing to like, especially when yaksha weren’t supposed to enjoy things like gods or mortals, but… But he didn’t hate it.

It took Xiao a moment more to realize what had happened. He fell in battle, Morax’s regiment deemed it better to abandon him, likely in favor of the less wounded, but now… Now Morax had him. Morax was carrying him. In his arms. The implications were enough to make him dizzy.

Why…why did Morax come back for him? Personally, at that.

Very little about Morax ever made sense, but who was he to understand the will of the gods?

He had already forgotten that he was supposed to respond when Morax spoke again. “It will just be a little longer. I would like you to stay awake until we get you proper aid. Can you do that?”

Could…could he? Xiao wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to disobey Morax but… he wasn’t sure. Everything was still so heavy.

“…m’sorry…” His battered throat—right, someone had choked him, in the battle—could only manage so much, but he tried. Perhaps it would have been better not to, because he couldn’t manage anything proper, but… All Xiao had now was the regret he didn’t do more. If he had remembered who he was fighting for, maybe he could have done more. (Maybe he wouldn’t have accepted death so easily.)

“There’s nothing you did wrong,” Morax replied, and Xiao didn’t understand that either.

In the end, he couldn’t really stay conscious. Not in the perfect sense of the word. The best he could do was slip back into blackness and listen to his breathing. Except this time, he listened to Morax’s breath, too, all the way back to the plains.

Chapter Text

Klee was scared.

Klee has been scared before, but… Other times when she was scared, it would always go away. The scary thing would leave, the problem would be solved, everyone would be okay, and there’ll be someone there to hug her and be with her until she wasn’t scared anymore.

But… it’s been days, now, and she’s still scared. Klee wasn’t sure that she’s ever felt it this long, and now it was settled in her dreams and even in her body. She wasn’t alone, but…

Everybody was scared. Even if the grown-ups tried to pretend like they weren’t, it was starting to be obvious to even Klee. And Klee understood, because… because…

Mondstadt was taken over by bad guys. A lot of them. From what Klee could see, there were a bunch of big, masked men that were coming and going, and Amber said that they were the bad guys, and there were those fluffy monsters in the bubbles nearby too, more than Klee had ever seen before, and…

It had been so long. Nobody let her go back to the city and try to see what was happening, because it was scary and dangerous, but… But nobody came out of the city either. Albedo was in there. And Kaeya. And Jean. And Razor wasn’t, but Klee didn’t know where he was either. They were all super strong, but she’s never seen them take this long before.

Scary thoughts creeped into her head, and she wanted them out. She didn’t want to think about what it could all mean, but she thought about it anyway. Not for the first time, Klee started to cry.

She was in the middle of the camp—“refugee camp,” the grown-ups called it when they weren’t talking to her—when she started, so it didn’t take long for her to be noticed. For the first time, Klee hated it, because she wanted it to be better, not for the same people to try and comfort her.

“Oh, Klee,” Amber sighed, wrapping her arms around Klee readily. The hug was nice, but this time, it wasn’t enough. She felt bad, because Amber had been super nice this whole time, and Klee didn’t want Amber to think that she wasn’t happy that she was here, but Klee just wished that everyone could be here, because then Klee wouldn’t worry about them.

Amber had taken Klee exploring when it all happened, and when Klee had wanted to go see what was happening, she took her further up Stormbearer Mountain instead, meeting up with Miss Eula and her team. Klee had wanted to help, but everyone said that the situation was ‘really big’ and they needed more information first. That had been forever ago. Every time any of the knights left the camp in Stormbearer, they either came back empty handed, or with people from outside the city. Klee didn’t think much of it at first, but she began to be increasingly aware that… it was still too dangerous to go into the city. Klee couldn’t even look through the telescopes that they had, because the grown-ups needed them, and when they weren’t using them, they still said she couldn’t look.

This time, Amber didn’t try to tell her that everything was okay or that it was going to be okay. Klee wasn’t sure if she liked that or not. She did bury herself in the older girl’s arms though, because at least it helped a little. Still…

“I want Mom,” Klee said, the words muddled by her crying. But even if she couldn’t say it clearly, she wanted it all the same. “And Albedo. And Kaeya, and Razor, and even Master Jean.” The more people she thought about, the harder she cried. Still, she really, really wanted her mom. She was probably super far away, but she was always watching over her, right? Surely, she knew what was happening if it was so bad? So why wasn’t she here?

“I know,” Amber hummed, stroking her hair. She sounded a little bit like she was crying too. Klee didn’t want Amber to be sad either but… Klee didn’t really have the energy to cheer anyone up right now.

“I know…”

—o0o—

Eula was exhausted.

It had been nearly four days now, and they still weren’t anywhere close to the manpower they would need to launch a counterattack. They would probably never receive that kind of manpower, even if every refugee was willing and able to fight, because they lacked intelligence, too. Mondstadt had a good defensive position, situated in the middle of the lake, and that was a bad thing for them.

For reasons that Eula still did not know, the Fatui and the Abyss Order worked together to overthrow Mondstadt. The attack was sudden and internal. Somehow, a large number of forces teleported within the city itself. At first, Eula assumed that they used the waypoint that only Aether had been able to use for such means before, but from what little Eula had been able to glean, they weren’t treating the waypoints much differently than other gates and openings. It might have been through something else. Without better intel, there was little Eula could be sure of.

The day it happened, a loud noise erupted from the city proper. Eula’s team had been situated in the Stormbearer Mountains at the time, and when they saw smoke begin to rise from Mond, Eula had had a choice to make. On one hand, the city was clearly under attack, and as a Knight of Favonius, Eula was both willing and sworn to enact vengeance on any who would dare cross her nation. However, on the same hand, she had to ensure the protection of those outside the city too. In the end, she had to split her team to cover Springvale and the area around the winery. The Fatui were more interested in the city, but enemy forces were everywhere. Eula had been able to evacuate the staff of Dawn Winery, but Springvale was harder to reach. In the meantime, Eula had had to trust that the knights within the city would fight valiantly.

She was sure they did, but…it wasn’t enough. By nightfall, the city quieted. Fatui flags rose. Eula felt sick every time she looked at them, but she also knew that if the combined might of those within Mond had not succeeded, then her meager company wouldn’t have made much of a difference. At least by now, they evacuated most of the outer citizens—which was good, because Springvale and Dawn Winery were occupied now. Eula wished that she had been able to reach Springvale better, but as it was—between her knights and the town’s hunters—only a fraction of the city had successfully evacuated. They had been closest to the city, and the next to fall. A fight had started, but in the end, both she and the city’s leader, Draff, knew that retreat was the only way, otherwise, they would all fall.

The refugees gathered at Stormbearer, the one place that they had managed to secure. There were still adventurers and hermits out there, possibly, but most were gathered here by now. They couldn’t do much for the city, but they could rally the rest of Mondstadt to a safe place. Vengeance would have to come later. It would be terrible if there were more people she had to avenge.

Selfishly, she was glad that Amber had been on the outside, too. Eula wasn’t sure how she would have fared without her. She had fared well gathering people, because when people didn’t want to immediately listen to a Lawrence, they would listen to Amber.

Although in a strange way, that had…waned. Eula simply didn’t have the energy to fulfill any of the citizen’s expectations of her, but it seemed that they were in a likewise situation with her. In crisis, the people finally wanted to see her as a Knight of Favonius—likely since they weren’t many of them out here for people to turn to. Not everyone, of course, was willing, but it made it easier. Especially when other people were quick to blame the Lawrences for the fall of Mondstadt. Less, now, when it was clear that half of the clan was among the refugees, with their own wounds. There was still contention, of course—especially since both parties were loathed to share space with one another—but Mack and Vind had been helpful in buffering her from the needless complaints.

She had more important things to deal with.

There was still no word from Harry or Joyce, whom she had sent to Stone Gate in an effort to receive aid from Liyue. It would take a while to get there and back, of course, but she feared that they didn’t even make it that far. That would be the worst transgression they could commit against her at this time.

The more she gathered, from picking information from Fatui scouts to listening in on their encampments, the more she worried. The Harbinger Dottore had led the attack on the city, and even though she could only see the myriad of Abyss mages and their hilichurl entourages from the outside, whispers were that there were larger Abyss creatures inside the city. Ones even the Fatui skirmishers—built past the limitations of common man—were wary of.

There was also the…disincentive that their enemies left for the city and the refugees. Even without the telescopes, Eula could still see it clearly, burned into her mind like a sin, and this, she did swear to dole out due vengeance for, because it would not be forgiven.

The statue of Barbatos had its head and its hands removed. On the wings, objects were chained to the top: Jean’s sword and sword-belt, Kaeya’s cape, Albedo’s coat, Cyrus’s badged uniform, Master Diluc’s black coat… The Holy Lyre der Himmel, and a piece of green clothing underneath that Eula didn’t quite recognize. The message was clear. They had the key leaders of Mondstadt in their possession, and if Dottore’s reputation meant anything…then they certainly weren’t safe.

She was alone for the time being, so Eula allowed herself to lose her composure, dumping her head into her hands. If it was just the Fatui, then maybe…maybe their meager force could mount a surprise attack by way of infiltration. However, it was a Harbinger and the Abyss Order, including creatures that they had little to no information about. One report that one of her men had gathered was that of a creature with the stature of a man but twice the height, dressed in ornate robes and floating. They were still so many unknown variables, and Eula couldn’t safely find those unknowns without endangering what little people she had left. She probably already sent Harry and Joyce to die.

Besides, it was only a matter of time before they stormed the refugee camp. Already, Fatui scouts were getting closer, and they could only dispose of so many before their precise location became obvious. It would be safest, perhaps, to go ahead and retreat deeper into the mountains…but if they committed the manpower to that, then the idea of rescuing the rest of Mondstadt would be even farther away.

Eula wished it wasn’t her making these decisions. Anyone else, surely, would be better—more clearheaded and better at rallying the people. They could make cold-hearted decisions and they wouldn’t be blamed for it. They wouldn’t second-guess themselves as much. Eula wanted to be able to do what was best, but no option she could conceive didn’t look like a failure. She probably already failed. She knew that if she walked into the rest of the camp, her uncle wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that very truth.

“Hey, Eula,” a too-quiet voice spoke. She jerked her head upward, worried she let herself slip in front of the people she was supposed to be leading, but it was just Amber.

Amber…she had already slipped in front of Amber, before. The transgression had already been done, so Eula didn’t deem it necessary to compose herself quite so quickly.

“What did you find?” Eula asked.

Judging by the look on Amber’s face, always so perfectly candid, it wasn’t anything helpful or good. “More of the same,” Amber reported. “A couple of scouts were as far as Starfell though. None of them had climbing gear, so that’s at least something. But now they have complete control of the Whispering Woods, too. I couldn’t get far.” Amber twisted her glove. “Klee was crying again, too. I feel so bad that I can’t do anything to help her, and she’s still so young… She’s with Bennett and Diona, now, but… But Klee did get me wondering. Is there any way to contact Alice? I know she’s a loose cannon sometimes, but it would be nice to have a cannon, right about now.”

“If there was, I don’t know it, otherwise, I would have sent for her aid by now,” Eula sighed. “I would accept any help at this point, if it raises our chance for survival at least just a little bit.”

“Captain! Outrider!”

Eula rose to her feet at Bella’s cry, wiping the morose look from her face and settling into something plainer. Bella was in her company, so she deserved to have a proper captain, and not a mess of one.

“What is it?” Eula asked quickly.

There was a wild sort of look on Bella’s face as she panted, but when she looked up, she was smiling. “We have visitors!”

Eula and Amber hurried after her. For a moment, she wondered if Harry and Joyce had made it to get help after all. When she arrived, she quickly saw that it was not the Millelith nor her Knights—but this was easily just as well, if not better.

“Eula! Amber!” Paimon greeted with a cheerful wave. Aether was beside her, much more reserved, and Eula could spot the tiredness in his eyes, as well as the hints of bruises on his body. Wherever the Traveler and his friend had been, there had been recent fighting there, as well. However, he seemed to still be upright, and Eula was beyond grateful.

“Normally, I would consider this intrusion a slight against my abilities, but…” She coughed into her hand, her composition fading back into exhaustion. It was just Aether, anyway. She had plenty of opportunity to scare him away, but it had never worked before. “But we could really use your help.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s what we’re here for,” Aether said with a warm smile.

As a testament to Eula’s lacking capabilities, it was only when Aether said ‘we’ that she registered the fact that he wasn’t alone. Of course, the mysterious traveler had never been alone for as long as she knew him, since Paimon was always with him, but there was a young man seated on a stone behind him.

Eula was not the reconnaissance captain for nothing. Her memory was pristine, and she kept up to date on all information that could be relevant in future scenarios. Her training as an aristocrat was just precursor to what she compiled as a Knight of Favonius. She knew the names and faces of countless diplomats, aristocrats, and threats from all over Teyvat. So Eula knew, resolutely, that the red-haired man in gray was a Fatui Harbinger.

Her claymore was summoned, cryo tinged, and held to the Harbinger’s throat within the next second, eliciting the surprise of everyone present. She trusted that Aether had not meant harm, but the Harbinger could be using him nonetheless. “I will not overlook your transgressions, Fatui Harbinger,” she growled. Amber gasped beside her. “I know it is your people who committed this, and I will have vengeance for your schemes.”

The Harbinger—he was the Eleventh, she recognized—only raised his hands placatingly, undeterred by her honest threats. She studied him, looking for weaknesses, and she found that he looked as worn as Aether—if not more so. There were also bandages beneath the collar of his shirt.

“I know this looks bad,” Tartaglia started, eyes locked onto hers. “But I wasn’t a part of this.”

Eula scoffed. “Do you take me for a fool?”

“He’s right,” Aether interjected, pushing her sword arm back. “Not all of the Fatui were in on this.”

So Aether knew who Tartaglia was, then. Perhaps he did know exactly what he was doing. This felt wrong, still, but it was also the best opportunity for answers she had received in four days. Eula removed the claymore from his throat and settled it into the ground with a threatening thud. “Fine. But you best have a good explanation for yourself.”

Tartaglia and Aether shared a look, then Tartaglia began. “Everyone knows that the Fatui is Her Majesty’s the Tsaritsa’s personal vanguard, and that was true—for the most part. Many of the ploys that the nations scorned us for were the personal actions of individual Harbingers. Her Majesty allowed us reign so long as we did everything for Snezhnaya.” He shook his head. “But five days ago, the First—Pierro—he… he betrayed the Tsaritsa and implemented a coup. He had some of the other Harbingers on his side, a considerable amount of Fatui forces, and… And the Abyss. All of it. The Tsaritsa is powerful, but not even she stood a chance.”

“I was there when it happened, too,” Aether said softly, eyes distant as well. “It was chaos. The Abyss forces were so strong, it began to corrupt the land. The Tsaritsa was wounded, but she made the call to retreat. I had been there to negotiate with her, so I helped her people when everything went down.”

“Snezhnaya is lost,” Tartaglia reported, expressionless and haunted at the same time. “It was all we could do to get some people out of the country. They’re taking refuge in Natlan. Natlan was attacked as well, but their Archon and ours were able to stave them off and keep a defensive. Fontaine and Sumeru have refugees there as well.”

This was…very surprising, to say the least. “So you mean to tell me that the Fatui are acting independently of Snezhnaya?” Eula questioned.

Tartaglia nodded. “Some of them, at least. Pierro had apparently been in bed with the Abyss for… for centuries.” He scoffed to himself, some bitter thought in his head. “Only those loyal to him alone would be in with it. I would be willing to bet there are many Fatui in Mondstadt that were just as surprised as the rest of you—most try to get stationed in Mondstadt when they don’t really care about the upper politics of it all.”

Eula thought about some of the Fatui that she had been acquainted with, given her position as a knight. (She didn’t know nearly as much as Jean or Kaeya would, because she tried to stay away from the city, but it was something, at least.) There was Viktor, in the church, who always looked sad. There were those two that always stood around the fountain and gossiped. It was hard to believe that they would be a part of a violent and vicious takeover. She found herself believing the words of the Harbinger—if only because Aether vouched for him.

“Every nation in Teyvat has been attacked,” Paimon reported emphatically, and even though Eula was beginning to suspect that, her blood ran cold with the implications. “But the battle in between the borders of Natlan and Snezhnaya is the biggest! And in the Chasm. Sumeru and Liyue are both having to fight a ton of Abyss creatures over there. It’s so bad, even Dain is helping!”

Eula did not know who ‘Dain’ was, but he seemed to be important. Still, it confirmed that Liyue was just as bad. She hoped Harry and Joyce at least made it there safely, even if there wasn’t hope of coming back anytime soon.

“We just came from Liyue,” Aether explained. “They’re holding out well, even though humans still can’t get near the Chasm. They’re at least able to flank the Abyss on both sides, and Zh— Rex Lapis and Azhdaha have been wreaking havoc inside the mountain. They’re in a good spot, but we heard from Harry and Joyce that Mondstadt wasn’t. We would have needed to come here anyway, so we rushed as fast as we could.”

Harry and Joyce were okay. She could have sagged in relief at that alone, though she was glad that their neighbor was faring well. Mondstadt was still her biggest concern, but it was her job to be biased.

“I’m sorry,” Amber interjected. “But did you just say ‘Rex Lapis’? As in, the Archon that died?!”

Oh. Eula nearly missed that detail. (She needed to get a hold of her exhaustion, so she would not keep making that mistake.)

“Ohhhh yeah right, you guys wouldn’t know. Yeah, he’s alive,” Paimon confirmed, unbothered.

“He just retired,” Aether added. “He’s not as strong as before, but he’s in a better place than some of the other Archons.” He frowned to himself, grappling with something. Evidently, he decided to share. “They’re all weakened, actually. The Fatui had started gathering something they needed for the Archon seat a long time ago. Their power without it varies, but it has aided them in their invasion.”

“I…see.” Eula didn’t quite understand it all, but she understood the gist. She thought of the headless statue and the chained lyre, and now, she couldn’t help but to wonder if that meant more than a mere slight against the people of Mondstadt.

There was still much to consider, but for now, Eula needed to focus on action. With a practiced, invisible breath, she steadied herself. If she was to assume her role as strategist and commander, then it was of the upmost importance that she keep her composure in line. “It’s true, our forces aren’t in the best position, but with you here, we may be able to find a suitable plan.”

It was not befitting of her show desperation, but all the same, Eula desperately hoped that she was right.

—o0o—

Eula was right when she said that they didn’t have much to work with. If they had gotten as big of an army inside Mondstadt walls as Eula and Amber hypothesized, then they were certain to have several powerful Abyss Heralds on their side. Aether had already assumed that Mondstadt would be the second focus of the Abyss’ efforts—most of the Fatui being with Pierro in Snezhnaya—but this just confirmed it.

Their intelligence only goes as far as Springvale, and only as far as the Whispering Woods as of late, so they don’t have much on Wolvendom and Stormterror’s Lair. Aether, Paimon, and Ajax shared what they knew, because as they had suspected, it was crawling with the Abyss. Whatever they were doing was probably keeping Andrius and Dvalin at bay, and for any plan of theirs to be successful, they would need to be freed. Aether had regained a substantial amount of his original power—plus more, with seven elements at his control—but even he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that he would be that instrumental in taking back the city alone.

Truthfully, taking back the city had nothing to do with what he and Ajax needed to do in Mondstadt. When they were in Liyue, Dain had made it clear that if this was to be stopped, the fight would have to go to the Abyss itself. The only entrance suitable for entry through normal (safe) means was the one at Musk Reef.

Aether didn’t doubt that Musk Reef was guarded to the teeth, if the Abyss Order knew what was good for them. Disarming them at Mond would weaken them there by proxy, if they send reinforcements. It could also mean that the Abyss would abandon the city and guard it even more.

Regardless…Aether wanted to deal with Mondstadt first, and not just because he was stalling. (He could still see his sister next to Pierro. He still didn’t want to think about how she was waiting for him down there.) They’re in bad shape, and he hated it that they were getting hurt over this. Making so many friends along the way in his journey through Teyvat meant that he was currently out of his mind with worry, knowing that everyone everywhere was getting attacked, but it was worse here. Mondstadt had less to work with and… and Mondstadt had a special place in his heart. He would still go back to them even in the midst of his journey, because they were his first friends, and still, they didn’t treat him like some savior—just ‘honorary knight,’ and they said the title with the same fondness they did for anybody else in Mondstadt. Aether absolutely hated to think about how they were faring now. What was worst was that Dottore was the one keeping the city. Aether had met that man once, and once was enough.

“Are you sure this will work?” Amber asked uncertainly.

No, no he wasn’t.

“Of course!” Paimon responded. Aether smiled, because she had always been optimistic enough for the both of them. Stars knew that he needed that.

“I don’t know…” Ajax drawled. “I can’t help but notice that this plan of yours sidelines me as soon as we lift the gas suppressing Dvalin and go to the city. I can fight Dottore and those Heralds just as well as you can, comrade.”

Aether leveled his best deadpan at him. “Says the guy who’s been stabbed.”

Recovering from being stabbed,” he said easily. “That was days ago. This is now.”

“You need to save your strength for the next part of the plan,” Aether insisted, already tired just from thinking about it. “Besides, if there are a bunch of Heralds and Lectors in there, you’ll be useless.”

Ajax clutched his chest. “You wound me!”

“He’s right,” Eula cut in. “If what you two say about these creatures is true, then hydro wouldn’t fare well against either.”

Aether didn’t add the fact that Ajax still had his Delusion, though Aether wished he didn’t. What he said was true though—Ajax needed to save his strength. Honestly, he still wasn’t sure why Ajax offered to come into the Abyss with him in the first place. Aether didn’t deny that a guide would be instrumental, but it was obvious that Ajax had some misgivings about it. Having spent the last few weeks with him and his family in Snezhnaya, Aether could read him better. That bloodthirsty hunger that Childe had was still there, sometimes, but Ajax feared the darkness too. All those close calls with his family, being there when Pierro attacked the Tsaritsa… Aether knew that Ajax was still shaken by that. All that talk about desiring to go back into the Abyss seemed hollow.

They needed all hands on deck to hold back the Abyss while they freed Dvalin from the gas keeping him asleep, so that couldn’t be helped. Aether was confident that Dvalin could be in fighting condition soon—and willing. Andrius was a different story, though it would be great if he could cover Springvale. Still, with Dvalin, Aether could take some allogenes and mount an attack inside the city to draw everyone’s attention, while the rest of the company frees the prisoners. From there, taking back the city should be fully possible. He hoped that Ajax would take the backseat role, but then again, that was probably hoping for too much.

“Klee’s coming too!”

Everyone present snapped their heads to the side, where Klee burst into the tent. They tried to keep the initial planning under wraps for reasons just like her, so they could work through the unpleasant details before filling in the masses.

Bennett ran in after her. “Sorry! Sorry. I tried to keep her occupied, just like you said Captain Eula, but I tripped and when I got up, she was gone!”

Aether’s heart snapped a little when he looked down at Klee, tear-stained with deadly confidence in her eyes. “I’m going to help too. I have to. My bombs will help.”

“Klee,” Amber admonished. “I already told you, you’re going to have to leave the fighting to the big kids, okay? You’ll have the super important job of staying here and watching over the camp.”

Klee’s lip wobbled dangerously. Aether didn’t blame her. Aside from Alice, her whole family was in there—probably in a terrible position, knowing Dottore. And Alice was in the thick of it with Skirk, maybe even in the Abyss. There was no way that Klee knew the worst of it, and if she was already this upset, then Aether didn’t want her to know anymore. However…she was strong. Not for fighting people, but maybe, for the Abyss.

No. He couldn’t think like that. He remembered when she cried after killing an Abyss mage. She may be worried, but Aether knew that nobody here wanted Klee to gain any of their trauma.

“My, my, what a brave girl!” Ajax said, and suddenly, he was crouching next to Klee. Eula and Amber alike tensed, and even Paimon frowned, but Aether saw the merit in this. A week ago, he would be worried, but Aether knew that Ajax wouldn’t do anything reckless with Klee now. Not after Tonya almost died. “You know, I hear you’re quite the warrior.”

Klee nodded fiercely.

“Warriors are needed everywhere, and the best warriors always protect the castle. It’s because you’re an amazing warrior that you get to stay here and watch over your people.”

Klee nodded again, more slowly. “Klee…thinks she understands. I have to protect the re-fu-jeez from the bad guys, right?”

Ajax nodded sagely. “Atta girl.” He looked over his shoulder, partially at Aether, but more at Eula. “The Fatui will try to regain leverage by coming here, when we storm the city. I’ll be here with her, then.”

It was clear that Eula still didn’t have the best opinion of Ajax, because she frowned, before looking over to Aether. He inclined his head. If there was anyone here who could protect Klee, it was him. It also meant he wouldn’t be in the thick of battle, and honestly, Aether was relieved. It would be the best for both of them.

“Very well,” Eula acquiesced.

With that settled, they continued ironing out the plan. After that, they rested.

Come dusk, it would begin.

—o0o—

“I doubt pacing a hole in the floor is an adequate means of escape,” Lisa drawled. “The building is old, sure, but give it a little credit.”

Diluc scowled at her—one of those character defining scowls that was so intense, it nearly made Lisa giddy with excitement. (Though perhaps that was the delirium. Who knew?)

“I’m just thinking,” he snapped at her. “Unlike you, I’m trying to be productive.”

“Think quieter, please,” Jean whispered. Diluc deflated almost instantly, and Lisa frowned.

She pulled herself off of the floor and carefully sat next to her. Jean was laid out on the one cot that the cell had, because she was undeniably the worst off. The concussion that she sustained worried Lisa the most, but there was so little that they could do to help. The best Lisa managed was to gently rub her temples, using her palms like compresses. It absolutely didn’t help that the gash on her leg was infected, too. The fever was doing her no favors, other than the fact that maybe, just for once in her life, Jean was startlingly honest.

The invasion was past. Nobody saw it coming, and half of the Abyss just…appeared in the middle of the city. They flooded in with Fatui alike, and it was amazing that they lasted even a few hours.

All of the problematic people were incapacitated and rounded up. Mondstadt didn’t really have a large prison, so they were fairly squished in. It was mostly knights, rowdy adventurers, and absolutely anyone with a Vision.

almost everyone with a Vision. Of those who were certainly inside city walls, she knew at least Kaeya and Albedo were missing. Lisa was never one to pry, but she also knew her history well, as well as her science. The correlation was disturbing. She knew Diluc and Jean felt it too, and there was no use thinking about it when they couldn’t do anything, but…

Well, there wasn’t much else to do. They were stripped of their weapons and Visions, and even half of their clothes. They were locked in a cell, wrists still manacled in front of them like holding their hands more than a foot apart was a threat to those outside, and any sign of resistance was met with force. Diluc had certainly tried to, at force, but the deal became obvious: they behaved like good little children, or the Fatui were no longer interested in providing them with food or what meager medical supplies they were willing to provide for Jean.

They had to behave, or they wouldn’t all make it.

She, Jean, and Diluc all shared a cell. One of the more spacious ones, towards the front—where the prison was more closely guarded, of course. Lisa was honored that they thought her important enough to be kept with the other important city figures, though she would have preferred if they underestimated her instead. Alas, it was a problem that Lisa was all too used to.

“There’s going to have to be a turnover,” Lisa mused aloud. “If they intend to use us as sacrifices.”

Diluc snapped his head towards her so fast, she thought the bruise on his cheek was going to fly at her. “What did you just say?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she pressed. Lisa was sure it wasn’t—not to him, or even to Jean for that matter—but teasing him was all she had. She didn’t much like the idea of dying while she wasn’t her usual self, so she had to hold onto whatever she could. “Why else would they keep us alive?”

“As a method of keeping the people in line,” Diluc answered easily. “We’ll be used as examples if they buck the Fatui’s control.”

“But what about the Abyss?” It was just like lecturing students—you couldn’t give the answers outright. They had to figure it out while you guided them, so it would sink in better. Her knowledge was a terrible thing to internalize, and that was why Lisa simply never shared. What she gave now was courtesy, because despite her lack of show, Lisa very much did not want to die. Her ambitions might have faded, but she still had plenty to live for—even if that was merely the joys of life itself. “They have no interest in ruling cities, yet they’re here. And they even showed interest in us. Don’t you find that odd?”

Diluc frowned, mulling over her words. Jean shuddered slightly beneath her. Lisa stroked her hair gently, doing her best to pull her back to sleep instead of her trying to listen. She was so hot, and the stress would only make her fever worse. It was a testament to her condition that Lisa’s attempt was successful.

Yes, it was quite difficult to forget their ‘visitor’ the other day. If it wasn’t under such dire circumstances, Lisa would have relished the opportunity to study it in action, for it was a creature of the Abyss never before seen by those in daylight. They had purple robes and a surplus of electro energy, mangling their form and even their voice. Though her Vision was no longer by her side, Lisa could withstand their peering presence far better than the other occupants of the hall could.

They had rambled to themself all the while, obviously pleased with the ‘specimens.’ They had made note of the Vision holders, too, and mentioned keeping them alive.

“It’s true that the Abyss never seemed interested in anything but destruction before,” Diluc admitted. He was getting there. “But they could care simply for their partnership with the Fatui. Although, that partnership doesn’t make sense. I thought even the Fatui were better than that.”

“Ah, but they have one goal in common, don’t they?” Lisa pointed upwards. “The gods. The Fatui have spent the past year weakening the Archons, and the Abyss has always made their hatred of Celestia known.”

“So what? They’re just pissed that we received their favor? Are we their public example then?”

“Perhaps.” Lisa shrugged, doing the best to keep the weight of it off of her shoulders. “But ask yourself this—what kind of power do you think it will take to kill the gods of the gods?”

—o0o—

In a moment of pure indulgence, Kaeya spit at him.

Dottore slapped him, of course, but a wild and vindictive part of his brain was overjoyed that at least one of the red stains on Dottore’s stupid white coat was inflicted without his approval.

“Watch yourself, Khaenri’ahn dog,” the man hissed irritably. “You’re only useful if you amuse me.”

“Ah, ah,” Kaeya tutted. “I watch it…with the… with the slurs, if I were you. What—what would your boss think?”

That one earned Kaeya a yank by the chain around his neck, the metal choking him into a coughing fit. That was…that was fair. It was a sore spot, he was sure. To think that the First Harbinger had been a Khaenri’ahn plant this whole time? Kaeya never even guessed. It took hearing Pierro’s birth name from some Herald to put the pieces together; he had been the same man that his father had practically worshipped. It was probably a recent discovery for dear Dottore, too, but the man was crazy enough to even work with the Abyss for power and opportunity, it seemed.

Dottore went ahead and hooked him back to his post while he was hacking, and what a pitiful little spot it was. Chained by the neck to the wall, and by the wrists to the floor. The one solace was that he could at least sit comfortably, with his legs free even if he couldn’t stand, but the position rigged in the corner of Sucrose’s lab made him feel even more pathetic than he already did. He did his absolute upmost not to let Dottore know that, but it wore on him all the same.

Kaeya had known that the Abyss Order was up to something. They were moving around and moving back towards the gorge. He had been investigating it, and still, he was blindsided by the attack. He hadn’t even known some Lectors could show up in daylight, never mind that they and an army of Heralds and miscellaneous mages would come with Fatui forces.

Though the Fatui were obviously split. When it happened, the raw shock on the faces of the Fatui stationed in Mond were enough to clue Kaeya in on that, even in the midst of all the chaos. The lack of available information on that front made more sense, but it still pained him that he hadn’t been able to pick up any sliver of a clue that this was going to happen before it did.

This was the invasion that he had feared since he was a child, and Kaeya had been able to do so little against it. That thought alone made him feel more worthless than anything Dottore did to him. He had suspected that the Khaenri’ahn remnant had started working with the Abyss Order based on intel he had gathered over the years, even though when he was a kid, any Khaenri’ahn turned monster was disposed of. They weren’t always killed outright though, even when it would have been easier, so that was perhaps the first clue.

Still, a part of Kaeya had hoped that when the day for the invasion approached, he would be contacted. Sure, his blatant disregard for the Abyss Order was a factor, but he was also a knight: it was his job to fight them. Besides, he had never been explicitly told of the connection, so he couldn’t be blamed. Alas, one way or another, they must have correctly guessed that Kaeya had no intention of helping them—the opposite, rather. He was almost touched that his loyalty to Mondstadt was so obvious, but it only meant that he hadn’t been able to warn them. So it was to Mondstadt’s detriment, he supposed.

“Lick your wounds, dog,” Dottore sneered when he stopped coughing, all too pleased with himself. “I’ll be back for you later.”

All Kaeya managed to do was glare. He regretted not doing more, because for every moment Dottore delighted himself in making Kaeya miserable, it was time he wasn’t spending poking at Albedo. Or Venti for that matter. (Barbatos, his mind supplied, almost deliriously.) Though it was painfully obvious that Albedo was the mad scientist’s favorite toy. Kaeya was almost glad that he couldn’t see whatever was happening, but since the noise stopped, Kaeya couldn’t reassure himself that Albedo was even alive.

After the siege, the Fatui took over the Knights of Favonius’s headquarters. He was fairly sure the Abyss Order took residence in the Church, and he didn’t doubt that it was tainted with Abyss poison beyond belief by now. Dottore, the ever-illustrious Harbinger, didn’t even bother to set up base in something obvious, like the Grandmaster’s office. It was evident that his interest in this invasion wasn’t political power, like having his own nation to rule, but rather, his sick twisted sense of science. He set up residence in the basement, down in the alchemy labs, rearranging their offices and adding his own machinations and remodeling.

Kaeya hoped, in the event that this nightmare ever ended, that Sucrose would forgive him if he never entered her lab ever, ever again. Dottore had dragged her desk to the center of the room and turned it to his own desk and table. He came equipped with his own instruments of ‘science’ (torture, more like) and modified the room to his liking. Kaeya’s lovely new living arrangements were courtesy of this, of course, because Sucrose’s lab had been normal before, if not filled with copious amounts of protein bar wrappers.

He also drained her tank—the one that she had been using to cultivate her crystal fly solution, that they used to craft a sturdier form of glass. Kaeya had never thought of how large the tank was until Dottore pumped it with something else…and then left Venti in there. Tubes were inserted into his body—and…into his wings—and a mask was strapped to his face, but he remained unconscious in the liquid all the same. Sometimes, Dottore would put something else in there, and he might even twitch or groan, but other than that, he was just left there.

Kaeya had had his suspicions, of course, but it was odd to think that he was cellmates with Barbatos. (It was also weird to think that he and Barbatos had been drinking buddies, once.) It only made his position all the more bizarre.

And he was pretty sure his ‘position’ was simply amusement for Dottore. Kaeya would have been certain that the Abyss Order would have delighted in some public execution for him, traitor that he was, but evidently, they knew that tossing him to Dottore was a worse fate. It might have also been to appease the mad doctor as payment for helping them. Kaeya knew that all three of them were juicy specimens for someone obsessed with pushing human limits, though Kaeya also had the feeling that his ‘tests’ on him, as well as all of the insults, was just extra payback for all the times that Kaeya antagonized him, back when Dottore had been an ambassador to Mondstadt. The Harbinger certainly knew that Kaeya and Diluc had pulled one over on him, but he seemed more upset with Kaeya, because Diluc wasn’t here. He took it as a small mercy, though Kaeya wasn’t completely sure what it meant.

Dottore left through the adjoining door, the one that led to Albedo’s lab. Albedo was being kept in there, in what Kaeya was sure was even worse irony than what Kaeya was subjected to. Albedo’s lab was bigger, and better equipped; Kaeya didn’t like to consider all the ways Dottore used that to his advantage. And with Albedo being…whatever it was that he was (hey, Kaeya might have been Khaenri’ahn, but he was no expert in Khemia, even if Albedo’s off-ness was obvious to him ever since he knew the guy) would have only encouraged Dottore more.

As per the usual, Kaeya took the moment alone to test the restraints. They were hastily applied to the floor and wall, so they weren’t the most stable. He had been making progress on the floor one, being the hub that Kaeya could reach better. Not that he was in much a condition to do anything, should he break them. Dottore, unfortunately, had not been kidding when he told him to ‘lick his wounds.’ Kaeya’s arms still felt like they were on fire. They had been, of course. Dottore wanted to test the ‘susceptibility of flames on those affected by cryo long-term.’ Kaeya could have told him that yes, pyro was definitely worse on him, but it wasn’t like the Doctor would take his word for it.

Kaeya would have preferred if he went back to zapping him with Abyss poison, watching as his stupid eye blocked everything but the pain. The fire experiments were…much worse. Kaeya knew that he should take the salve Dottore threw at him yesterday and fix it, but that meant thinking about it, and Kaeya…wasn’t quite ready to do that. Kaeya had enough experience tending to burns for a lifetime, and he wasn’t keen on overextending that quota. No matter how hard he tried to psyche himself out of it, the burning of flesh always took his mind back to that surety he was going to die—and sometimes, even the acceptance of it. He hated it, because Kaeya should have moved on from that, especially since he and Diluc were on better terms nowadays, but his emotions weren’t as finely reigned as he would have liked.

After his routine jiggling of his bonds, Kaeya took the moment to lean his head against the walls and close his eyes, trying to simply…not exist, for a while. Scheming various ways of getting out was a delightful pastime too, but he was tired. Kaeya knew, resolutely even without evidence of Albedo’s state, that he was the most functioning ‘test subject’ down here. He needed to keep his strength up, even if that meant succumbing to Dottore’s games.

(Diluc probably would have starved himself by now. It was another reason why Kaeya was glad that it was him down here, and not his brother.)

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed like that, but he had dozed partially, because the shaking of the walls woke him in a heartbeat.

The headquarters was an incredibly stable building, and whatever just happened shook the foundation itself. It was similar to how it felt when the Abyss came down days ago, but there was no way that they would do that again.

Even through the wall, he could hear the swearing of Dottore from the other room, and the slamming of the door. Kaeya smiled viciously to himself. Whatever was happening, it scared the Harbinger. Good.

Kaeya had thought through countless plans, and even though they all were shaky at best with very low success rates, he was ready. This was probably the one opportunity he had to make anything count. Kaeya took the chain connected to the floor in both hands, leveraged himself against the wall with his foot against the base of the chain, and he pushed.

The sound of metal cracking open was possibly one of the most satisfying sounds he had heard in a long time.

—o0o—

Even through the thick walls of the prison, Sucrose could hear the sounds of battle. Timaeus heard it too, which was a testament to the decibel levels created by the clashes, because Sucrose’s hearing has always been better then most. She…sort of wished that it wasn’t, because it wasn’t good enough to distinguish friend from foe; all she could hear was the tell-tales sounds of screaming and battle cries. Sucrose pressed her ears against her skull unbidden, terrified that the battle wasn’t a good thing. She desperately wanted it to be a good thing, but… but it was a hard thing to quantify. The majority of Mondstadt’s strength was already imprisoned, so she couldn’t count on their rescuers to fare any better than they did.

She wasn’t much of a fighter herself. She knew that. Sucrose had learned her way around a catalyst mostly for her experiments, and when it came to field work, she just barely passed the benchmark that the Knights of Favonius’s supporting forces needed to reach. The only time she found herself in combat situations was when collecting ingredients, because occasionally, there would be trouble.

Silently, Sucrose swore to herself that if the impossible was achieved, and this nightmare ended, she would change that. She would train more. She just…never wanted to feel that useless again.

(She never wanted to have to watch Albedo struck down protecting her, ever again.)

“Hey, I’m sure they’re coming for us,” Timaeus said, not for the first time. He could hear less of the chaos, and he was still hopeful.

Sucrose wouldn’t begrudge him this, especially when she wanted to believe the same thing, so she nodded.

When the door at the end of the hallway imploded, Sucrose was certain everyone heard it clearly. Timaeus positioned himself in front of her, and she hated it, even as she cowered there. If one more person was hurt because of her… No, Sucrose didn’t think she could bear it.

The cell doors, attached to an emergency release mechanism, swung open simultaneously.

“Rescue has arrived!” the loud voice of Amber declared, echoing down the hall. Sucrose had never been more relieved to hear a voice in her life.

There was a jangle of keys, and a voice that Sucrose didn’t recognize called, “Unlock yourselves quickly, and bring the injured to me.”

Amber continued. “We have everyone’s Visions and weapons secured. Those fighting fit, come with me.”

Those imprisoned, for the most part, were efficient in the ways of duress. Noelle and Barbara hurried to the front to help who Sucrose later recognized to be Diona, and everyone made way for them and the injured. They had their Visions returned to first, and they got to work.

The prison was not large, but it was large enough to establish working order. Diona had temporarily frozen them in, in case they were pursued, so everyone would have the chance to catch their bearings before going into the fray. Sucrose was not confident that she would be helpful in any capacity, but she was willing to do whatever was needed.

Master Diluc had assumed charge alongside Amber. Acting Grandmaster Jean was critically injured, and Sucrose hadn’t realized it—being situated in the back of the prison—but Captain Kaeya was still missing. Albedo was as well, but she knew that all too well. Diluc may not be a knight, but he was decisive and easy to follow.

Timaeus helped her unlock her shackles and she aided him in turn. Diluc appeared down at their end of the hall, doing his rounds.

“Mona,” he said, addressing the hydro Vision wielder that had been nearby. “Can you scry the locations of our missing men? As well as that damn Harbinger, if you could.”

The mage frowned, a look of tired concentration adorning her face. “I can try, but these things can’t be rushed.”

While Mona swirled intricate hydro circles in front of her, Diluc turned to Sucrose and Timaeus. “You two. Amber told us that in order for their counter-siege to work, there was going to be a lot of inclement air conditions. What are the chances that you can produce temperature shields for the citizens? Especially one for the guild’s headquarters. As well as anything to keep the buildings structurally sound, really.”

It made sense that people would be sheltered there. It would be large, but not actively occupied. It was…long and moderately high. Sucrose ran the numbers in her head.

“Heat or cold?” Timaeus asked, startled.

“Both.”

“It’s p-possible,” Sucrose confirmed, her brain struggling to stay in an alchemical mindset. Yet, it was more comforting than any other mindset. “But I’ll need the lab.”

“Then you’re in luck,” Mona said, though she sounded morose for such an optimistic statement. The woman wiped a sheen of sweat from her forehead. “That’s where three Vision wielders are. As for that Delusion-headed phony, he’s in the middle of the plaza.” Mona cracked a smile, and it was terribly vindicative. Sucrose might have been worried about the expression under any other circumstance. “He left the headquarters and ended up there, but he’s not much of a threat, presently.”

Three… Surely, that included Captain Kaeya and Captain Albedo, but who was the third? Still… they were in…the lab? Sucrose couldn’t think of many benign reasons why the Fatui or the Abyss Order would want them down there.

Diluc went rigid too.

Perhaps Sucrose was foolish, still guilty over her shortcomings, but she found herself speaking before thinking it through.

“I’ll go.”

She needed the lab for the potions. She also, desperately, needed to make sure that Albedo was alright. The others too.

Timaeus startled beside her. “H-hey, just because the Harbinger left, doesn’t mean it’s still not guarded, or something. It could be dangerous!”

She clutched her Vision, feeling the catalyst behind it and her heart in her chest. “I-I know.”

“I’m going with you,” Diluc said, red eyes hard. Sucrose didn’t know Diluc well, but she was immensely grateful all the same.

Diluc thanked Mona and rushed back to the front. Sucrose hurried after him.

“They’re in the lab,” Diluc reported to Amber. “Sucrose and I are retrieving them. I trust you can handle this, Outrider?”

Diluc said everything so matter-of-factly. Idly, Sucrose wondered if he had thought through all of the complications that their mission could undergo, but his confidence was nearly infectious all the same.

Amber took in the news with wide eyes. “Y-yeah,” she replied, a little uncertainly. Sucrose couldn’t begin to understand the pressure that the Outrider was under. She was overwhelmed with her part, and it was much smaller. (So Sucrose told herself.) “I got it.”

Lisa looked up to them with the most serious expression Sucrose believed she had ever seen the librarian wear. “I’ll help her. You two hurry.”

They did. Diluc melted a way out of the room, and she could hear someone refreezing it behind them. The prison had already been cleared out of guards, and Sucrose tried not to look at any remnants too carefully.

For the first time in days, Sucrose was outside, hot on the heels of the Tavern Master, wielding a claymore expertly and ready for the battle. The battle outside was not their directive, but it was distracting all the same. Unbidden, her eyes carried her to the plaza, and she knew without looking that it caught Diluc’s attention as well.

Stormterror—or rather, Dvalin—hovered above the city angrily, a torrent of wind settled over it like a shield and a cage. Abyssal creatures that Sucrose could only begin to comprehend were fighting him, tooth and nail. Alongside Dvalin, in the sky and carried on what she could only assume were crystalline wings, was the Traveler. A myriad of elements swirled around him and his sword, and if they weren’t in the middle of a crisis, she would give anything to figure out how he did that.

Diluc blinked out of the shock faster, and he grabbed her by the wrist and urged her forward to the Favonius headquarters next door.

There were a few Fatui guards in the HQ, though Sucrose imagined based on their expressions that they were only there because they didn’t want to be outside. Diluc made short work of them. (She wondered if they were still alive, but she pressed on anyway.)

The bottom levels of the headquarters were labyrinthine by design. It made the alchemy lab more secure, both from the outside and to the remainder of the building. Diluc followed her now, and even though the hallways were the same, her body recalling the path with ease, the pit of her stomach labeled them foreign.

Her lab was the closest, but the door was locked. Sucrose didn’t have her keys, and for a moment she panicked, but Diluc kicked the door down with strength that rivaled even Varka’s.

Something sharp whizzed past them, and Sucrose ducked with a short cry.

“Diluc?!”

That was Kaeya’s voice. She had to hold herself together. Sucrose looked up right as Diluc yelled “Kaeya!” and…she wished she hadn’t.

It felt like an intrusion to look. She also felt violently ill. Broken chains hung from his wrists and neck, and his exposed torso and arms were… Horrendous didn’t even begin to cover it. Sucrose would have liked to attribute it to injury, but it was much too methodical. She swallowed down bile and looked to his face instead. It wasn’t much better. His hair was loose and unkempt and… And his eyepatch was gone.

She had always wondered what had happened to his eye, but she knew it would be rude to ask. Or, rather, he would spout a nonsense story whenever someone did ask. Perhaps… That was why. His eye was almost completely black, and in the stead of his pupil were bits of white like stars.

The one normal eye was expressive enough, and compared to his usual composure, she almost found that worse than everything else. Kaeya looked from Diluc to Sucrose, and when his eyes landed on her, there was clear sorrow. She hated to consider what that meant. However, his eyes snapped away to the tank beside him and…

“Help me get him out,” Kaeya commanded, desperate.

This time, Sucrose did get sick. She barely made it to the waste basket she kept by her door. There was nothing but water and prison porridge in her system, but she purged it anyway.

There’s a person in her crystalarium tank.

She could hear Diluc and Kaeya mess with it, muddled curses under their breath, and with shaking hands, she turned and fumbled through the proper controls to drain the tank. Kaeya and Diluc manage to pop the lid off, and Diluc climbed up the ladder and started to pull the… the occupant out. If the living nightmare wasn’t nightmarish enough, it wasn’t until the form was removed that Sucrose truly focused on who it was. Teal marks on the skin, twin braids, long white wings attached to the shoulder blades…

Barbatos. Barbatos was in her crystalarium tank.

She must have swayed, perhaps even losing consciousness momentarily as her brain attempted to process the surplus of negative information, because the next thing she knew, Kaeya was gripping her by the shoulders, steadying her. Sucrose felt a flash of shame. She was the uninjured one. She was supposed to stay strong. She had promised herself she would do better.

“Where’s Albedo?” she questioned, voice strained. She fully intended to make the reagent that the resistance has requested, but she also came to ensure her superior’s safety.

Kaeya didn’t immediately respond, and that alone worried her.

“He’s not decent right now,” was all Kaeya said, voice equally strained.

No, she should be strong. They shouldn’t need to shelter her. “Is he alive?” Sucrose questioned further, ready to demand information.

“He’s alive,” Kaeya responded readily enough. “But…he can’t be moved anytime soon. He told me he could fix it, if I focused on getting out Venti, but…”

The silver-tongued Calvary Captain was at a loss for words, and that was enough to inform her that Albedo’s condition was dire. However, if he was alive, and alive enough to be conscious… then Sucrose took solace in that.

She wanted to go to Albedo anyway, make up for her failings all those days ago, but Sucrose also knew that she was the only one who could start the alchemical process. “I’m going to make the shields now,” she said, forcing herself to enter work mode. It had never been a struggle before this event, but once she managed to set her mind on nothing but numbers and reactions, it’s…easier. Easier to breathe.

“Okay,” Diluc said, somewhere behind her.

Her lab is rearranged—tainted—but Sucrose ignored it. Because she had to. There were people that needed her, and she would not fail anyone again.

—o0o—

Diluc knew of Dottore’s reputation, and he had braced himself for the worst…but nothing could truly stop the anger that flared in his chest when he laid eyes on his brother.

Kaeya should never look that shaken. It was just wrong. And…and his injuries. Diluc had a good idea of what Dottore did to him, and he hated it. If Dottore wasn’t as indisposed as Mona made him out to be, then Diluc was going to kill him himself. Violently.

Diluc had to shove those feelings aside, however, and focus on the matter at hand. The overwhelming relief that Kaeya was alive was enough. Venti was also alive. Not finding a heartbeat immediately had been disconcerting, but he was also a god—and breathing. That much was clear. Unconscious, but breathing. (Diluc knew full well who he was, but it was his first time seeing Venti look like a god. He also looked terribly small and fragile.)

Sucrose was spacing out, removing herself from the emotions of it all as she focused on the potions. He almost felt bad letting her do that, but it was easier than letting her process that much trauma at once, and…they did need those potions fast, because the battle that Aether and Dvalin were waging against the Abyssal forces was already doing a number on the city. The lives of Mondstadt’s citizens were most important, but they owed something to the city as well.

He fought down the urge to scream when he looked back at Kaeya, because the rage had no outlet here. Besides, if Kaeya had been burned that much… He knew, absolutely, that he was not the best person to be here. The last thing Diluc wanted to do was to scare Kaeya more.

“I have Albedo’s Vision, too,” Diluc said softly, though he could see Sucrose’s ear twitch. “Would that help?”

Kaeya squeezed his own Vision, the temperature in the room dropping minutely. He nodded. “It wouldn’t hurt, at least. I’ll…see if he’s ready.”

Kaeya was keeping the extent of his condition from Diluc, too—at least as of now. Sucrose he understood, but…what had Dottore done to him?

His brother knocked softly on a cracked open door. Diluc could see that the lock had been broken off at some point. “Albedo?”

Sucrose dug into her work with a gasp that sounded eerily like a muffled sob. Diluc had no idea how to comfort her.

“Come in.”

The reply was almost inaudible, and Diluc only heard it because he was listening for it.

Carefully, Kaeya pushed open the door, and Diluc braced himself, keeping a schooled expression. Kaeya was obviously trying to shelter Albedo, but he had mentioned that Albedo wouldn’t be moving on his own, and Kaeya was in no condition to lift anything more than his own weight. Diluc would not leave anyone down here, so he prepared himself to carry Albedo out. Whatever was necessary.

He took in the scene with practiced apathy, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Albedo was on the floor, sitting against a table that was covered in blood. There was a decent amount of it on Albedo, as well, but it was mostly dried. He only had torn pants on, like Kaeya, but there was a different kind of injury on him than what his brother suffered. Incisions. Mostly closed incisions, some stitched close with thread and wire, and some that looked like they were barely glued together with magic scarring.

One such wound was on his abdomen—a large one. Perfectly Y-shaped.

Diluc had seen his share of shit in his life. Especially during his…travels. He had seen investigations. Morgues, even.

He knew exactly what had happened, and the fury returned. It took great effort to hold it back, and judging by the wariness in Kaeya’s eyes, he wasn’t doing a good job at it. Not that Albedo noticed. His eyes were set far in the distance, blankly. (There were tear tracks on his cheek. He didn’t know Albedo well, but he pegged him as more stubborn than Kaeya when it came to those things. He, too, looked way too young.) He was trembling, too.

“Are there any spare clothes in here?” Diluc asked thickly. “We should get all of you to the base at the guild for medical help as soon as possible.” By now, everyone would have moved out of the prison to there—or to fight. It was better to only have to secure a single building while the battle waged. However, he didn’t particularly want to expose what Albedo underwent so easily. Nor Kaeya, but somehow, even the methodical burns were easier to stomach.

“I—I think Albedo keeps some spare clothes over here,” Kaeya said when Albedo didn’t respond. Diluc didn’t blame him.

They found the closet, where spare sets of coats were neatly kept and gratefully untouched, but Diluc removed his shirt as well.

“What are you—?”

Kaeya didn’t get to finish, because Diluc already thrust his shirt at him. If he still had his own coat, this would have been easier, but it was still a simple decision. “You’re burned. One of us is going to have to carry Albedo, and the other is going to have to carry Venti. All I have are bruises.”

It was a testament to how bad off Kaeya was that he didn’t argue. Albedo’s coats would have been way too small, and though Diluc is wider than his brother, that was exactly what he needed—something not to rub against the wounds.

The transfer made, they silently wrapped Albedo in one of his own coats like it was a blanket, and Diluc hoisted him as gently as he could. Albedo didn’t have the strength to walk, unlike Kaeya, even though his brother looked ready to topple over as well. He didn’t like the idea that Kaeya would have to share in the work because of that, but it was necessary. Sucrose was small, and she would be carrying the potions out. Luckily, he knew that Venti was impossibly light, so it was doable. (Albedo, while also lighter than Diluc expected, needed to be handled far more carefully.)

Sucrose was nearly done when they emerged, true to her word that it would be quick. Devastation and relief crossed through her face all at once when she saw Albedo.

“Let’s go.”

—o0o—

Jean woke up when the battle was over.

There was something terrible and shameful about sleeping through the fight for Mondstadt, because she was the Acting Grandmaster, and it was her duty to protect Mondstadt, and to fight for it. However, she woke up to victory, so the guilt was mitigated.

The Fatui were driven out or arrested, and the Abyss within the walls was purged. They won. Mondstadt was once again free.

Barbara was still fretting over her, and Lisa was too—which, while Jean would never admit it to her sister, was more indicative of whatever condition she had been in.

It was still a mess out there. Thanks to Sucrose, half of the buildings were still standing, but the rest of the city was torched in the process. The Abyssal force had been greater that she anticipated, based on the reports. All the people were safe, however, kept in secure buildings—buildings made secure, by the counterattack—like the Adventurer’s Guild and the Knights of Favonius’ headquarters, once it was cleaned of Fatui.

There were countless injuries, but miraculously, very few deaths. They had been kept alive for reasons that Jean could not fathom—nor did she want to—but she was grateful for it all the same.

Her lack of contribution aside, Jean was incredibly proud of her people—knights and citizens alike. She should have figured that they would rise up so quickly, bred on songs of freedom since birth. She even heard that those locked in Springvale had fought alongside wolves—and the spirit of Boreas himself—to drive off the occupying Fatui; if that wasn’t a testament to their priorities, she didn’t know what else could be.

Eula and Amber especially pulled their own weight and so much more. Jean didn’t know if she could ever find enough honors in the books to represent what they’ve done. Aether, too. Mondstadt’s beloved Honorary Knight had done more than anyone expected him; from what Eula had told her, he was the reason that the counterattack could be launched at all, having worked to free Dvalin and Boreas, as well as fight in the thick of battle while they could work on securing the city.

As she and Hertha discussed their next step of action, she watched as Dvalin lowered the refugees from Stormbearer into the city, before the dragon curled beside the city wall for well-deserved rest. Her view was limited from the guild’s terrace, but there weren’t many of them. Mostly adventurers and travelers from what she could see; she supposed most of the knights were needed in the city, but she hoped that they had at least been well protected too.

“You should rest more,” Hertha said softly.

Jean blinked. She must have stared for too long. She shook her head. “No, there’s more to discuss. We have to be ready in case there’s a follow up.”

“If there is, then you being feverish won’t help, Grandmaster,” Hertha asserted. For a second, it registered to her that Hertha was using the same tone with her as she would her ten-year-old son. “I can practically see it.”

Jean wanted to protest more, but she remembered Barbara’s crying when she woke up, and the deep worry in Lisa’s eyes. Her leg still hurt, but it was manageable; the Abyss poison that had infected her was more of a concern.

Hertha was right. She was in no condition to think straight, much less lead. She hated to keep shouldering it on Eula, but she at least had Hertha and Huffman, now. Hertha’s arm was wrapped in a sling, but the woman looked far more alert than Jean felt.

“Okay. A short rest,” Jean relented.

Jean could make it to the working infirmary and rest area by herself. In truth, she did not head straight for the rolls on the floor, but rather, she ventured into the next room on a detour. She had been told by Diluc that they were alive, but she had yet to see them with her own eyes.

She entered quietly, just to lay eyes on them. She didn’t expect Kaeya to be awake, but perhaps she should have. His entire torso and upper arms were wrapped in bandages, and there was a medical eyepatch replacing his usual one, but he was remarkably alive. Jean teared at the sight of it.

“Jean,” Kaeya greeted with an exhausted smile.

When they were caught in the siege by that electro abyss…creature, and Jean had lost consciousness, she feared the worst for him. In the few moments of clarity she had in that prison cell, when Lisa and Diluc had been unable to answer about his whereabouts… She had been so sure. He couldn’t have escaped, and if he wasn’t imprisoned, then she thought the only other option had been death.

Held captive personally by Dottore was not a fate she wished on him—on any of them—but she was glad that he was here. “Can I…?” she asked, inching closer in a weak moment of delirious relief.

He nodded.

As gently as she possibly could, she hugged him. Jean blamed the fever, but it wasn’t until then that she convinced herself that he was alive, and that he would make it. His arms must have been hurting him, but Kaeya squeezed her with more strength than she even had.

Steadied by her best friend’s presence, she dared to look over the other two.

Albedo and Venti were both unconscious. Numbly, she wondered which nurse had their world rocked by having to tend to Barbatos. He was lying stomach down on a cot, wings limp beside him. Albedo was laid out normally, similarly swathed by bandages; he looked pained even in his sleep.

“Albedo’s been awake,” Kaeya informed her softly. “Venti almost was, whenever that big anemo burst happened outside, but Dottore pumped him with enough sedatives to keep, well, a god asleep.”

Jean nodded numbly.

“Is everyone…?” Kaeya began to ask.

“Yes. Aside from what happened in the initial attack, everyone is okay. Eula, her squad, and Amber gathered everyone outside the city.”

He heaved a shaking sigh of relief.

There was a noise approaching the room. It didn’t take long to make out the primary voice.

“No! Klee needs to see them!”

“H-hey, they’re resting, you shouldn’t—”

Jean’s heart cracked, hearing Klee in tears. She was already moving towards the door.

“But Ajax— Master Jean!”

As soon as Jean stepped out of the room, Klee collided with her, sobbing. She was aware enough to realize that a man she didn’t recognize was with her, but she knew the name from Eula. Aether had had a friend with him who helped fight. Jean would properly thank the stranger later, but she focused on Klee.

Jean cared for Klee because it was her responsibility, but it was also impossible not to love Klee’s kind innocence—even if she was a handful. Jean didn’t think that Klee was as close to her, though, as she was the one with the duty to keep Klee in line. The stern one. But she was glad that she could offer Klee comfort, nonetheless.

Silent footsteps padded behind her, accompanied by the creak of a shutting door. “Hey there, kiddo,” Kaeya said with a smile.

Klee looked up, hiccupping. “Kaeya!”

She wiggled out of Jean’s arms just to run into Kaeya, who kneeled down to greet. Jean didn’t have the heart to remind her to be gentle.

“You—Y-you’re h-hurt,” she sobbed. “Klee couldn’t help you.”

“Oh kiddo, that wasn’t your job,” Kaeya whispered, sounding as heartbroken as Jean felt. “Older siblings protect younger ones. Those are the rules.”

Klee gasped. “Al— Alb-bedo, i-is he okay?”

The child was still pressed into Kaeya’s chest, so she didn’t see the dark look that flashed across Kaeya’s features. His voice was as smooth as he wanted it to be, however. “Albedo is fine. He’s sleeping though, and—” Kaeya lowered his voice conspiratorially. “There’s a sick, naked man in the room. I’m simply afraid you can’t go inside now. But we will come get you as soon as Albedo is awake, okay?”

She seemed somewhat content with the answer, still crying. “O-okay…”

Venti was not naked, of course, but Jean tiredly admired Kaeya’s effort to keep Klee out of the room all the same. Though she had the feeling it was more for Albedo’s sake than Venti’s.

She did not know what they went through, Diluc’s report curt and angry, but she already swore to herself that she would keep them all safe in their recovery. Personally.

She noticed that the man—Ajax—had disappeared. He probably hadn’t wanted to intrude, but Jean knew she would have to find him eventually; it would be bad form if she didn’t thank him personally. Perhaps he would be with Aether.

There were even more things to do, of course, but she promised Hertha she would rest. Being here, assured that everyone was alive… That was rest enough.

It might take a while, but they would make it out of this. They would tend to their wounds, soothe their scars, and rebuild. Mondstadt was built on songs of freedom, and it was the wind of those songs that ran in their veins. Jean had faith that they would be okay. Maybe not immediately, but they will be.

Mondstadt would always rise again.