Xiaobai woke up to a place unfamiliar to her, and yet, at the same time, she felt as though she’d been here before.
It was a large room illuminated only by candle light and surrounded the walls and scattered about the floor. The material this room was made of looked like a dark brick, almost black. It was a material she’d never seen before.
Sitting up, she looked around more. Columns stretched further up than the eye could see, lost to the darkness that candle light could no longer touch. She noticed that she had been laying in the center of the room, and as her eyes slowly scanned her surroundings, she noticed strange markings on the walls, until her eyes landed on a dark, heavy looking door.
Ah, it was the place she had found Xiao Hei in. This must be some kind of dream then.
There was a loud bang that startled her a bit, making Xiaobai jump, and her eyes once more went to the large door. This time, she noticed there seemed to be someone there, with fists pounding against the door and once more causing the loud banging noise. She couldn’t tell what the person looked like, as they too were covered in darkness.
She sighed. Geez, she really hoped this wasn’t a nightmare. With how crazy and stressful her week has been going, she really couldn’t handle some crazy nightmare thrown on top of it. Well, if this was a nightmare, might as well get this done and over with.
“Hello?” Xiaobai called out.
The figure seemed to stiffen in the darkness, unmoving at all for a few moments before slowly turning around. The only thing Xiaobai could make out in the darkness were two piercing green eyes staring at her.
“How did you get in here? Who are you?” The other growled, their voice coming out threatening sounding, but also, Xiaobai couldn’t help but notice the youthfulness hidden behind it as well. She didn’t know how to answer. Before she could open her mouth and think of what to say, the figure seemed to shift in the darkness. “It’s… you.”
Xiaobai tilted her head a bit. “Do I know you?” This was turning into some crazy dream, but she was glad it hadn’t drifted into nightmare territory yet.
“You’re the one with the warmth, the one that found me.”
Looking around once again, Xiaobai’s mind slowly put two and two together, and her eyes drifted back to those green eyes that seemed just a bit less piercing. “Xiao Hei?”
“That’s not my name,” he scoffed, and she watched as he rolled his eyes.
“Then what’s your name?”
“It’s…” He stopped mid sentence, seeming as though he were thinking something over before she watched as he turned away from her, no longer able to see the green from his eyes as he blended in with the darkness. “It doesn’t matter anymore. It would just be a dead name now anyways.”
She could hear the sadness in his voice, and it made her chest hurt. She didn’t understand what he meant by that, but she didn’t want to pry too much. He can tell her everything when he’s ready. “Well, I think Xiao Hei is a fitting name for you now.”
“Oh yeah? Where’d you get such an uncreative name from, anyways?”
“Because your fur colour is black.”
“I hope your parents are better at naming than you are.”
“Nope, I inherited my naming skills from my mom.”
“.... I’m almost afraid to ask what your name is.”
“My name is Xiaobai!”
There were a few moments of silence. Since he was blending in with the darkness so well, Xiaobai almost missed the slow shaking of what looked like his shoulders, until his entire body was shaking almost uncontrollably, and then finally, no longer able to hold it in, Xiao Hei doubled over as he let out a laugh. Xiaobai couldn’t stop the smile spreading across her face as she heard his laughter, as it echoed in the dark and lonely room.
“I guess we’re matching then,” Xiao Hei said once he had calmed from his laughter, and Xiaobai couldn’t help but nod in agreement. She hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that she did, she liked the idea of them matching.
“So,” Xiaobai said as her eyes once more scanned around, “where are we?”
Xiao Hei hummed for a moment, tracing a hand over the large doors once more. “I don’t know how you’re here, but I’m trying to wake up.”
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“I can feel my strength and power returning to me, but those damned mages must’ve figured I would break out of that cage sooner or later and locked up my consciousness as well. Sick and twisted sense of humor if you ask me,” he scoffed.
Xiaobai frowned. “Caged?”
“So… why were you locked away? Did you do something bad?”
She could see Xiao Hei hesitating. She didn’t want him to answer if he wasn’t ready to yet, she was just curious, and these were the questions she’d been meaning to ask since she first met him, but she could wait a bit longer if he needed the time.
However, Xiao Hei sighed heavily and shook his head. “I really can’t remember right now, honestly. Since waking up in here, I can’t remember much of anything, other than wanting to get out.”
Xiaobai didn’t have much of an understanding of what was going on, but she believed him. It seemed as though a lot of weird and mysterious things had happened to Xiao Hei, so even if he was playing amnesiac, she didn’t care. If he wanted to come clean, he would when he was ready.
“Then it looks like all we have to do is break you out of here then,” she said as she stood up, clasping her hands together. “So, what’ve you tried so far?”
He didn’t answer right away, and when he did, Xiao Hei mumbled his answer to the point she couldn’t hear him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you speak up?”
Again, he mumbled, a bit louder this time, as she was able to catch the word door, but still she couldn’t understand. “Could you repeat that one more time?”
“I’ve just been trying to break down the door.”
Xiaobai nodded while humming. “How many times have you tried that?”
“.... I lost count.”
“Then it’s time for a new tactic. Have you tried putting out any of these candles?” There were so many of them, and now that she was standing, she could see that they looked to be placed deliberately, almost as if they were in some sort of pattern or symbols.
“No, I haven’t. I can’t even get close to the light without it hurting me.”
Well, that would explain why he’d only been in the shadows so far, only able to see his green eyes through the darkness. Xiaobai nodded in understanding as she continued to look around at the candles, twisting this way and that as she observed before her eyes finally landed on the circle of candles she stood in the middle of.
She walked over to the edge of it, lifting her foot up to step carefully around the flickering flames, when suddenly she was thrown back from a powerful blast, causing her to become airborne for a few moments before violently crashing back down onto the ground.
Xiaobai heard Xiao Hei frantically call out her name, just barely catching a glimpse of him through the dim candle glow with a hand reached out to her before her eyes shot open once more.
The wind was knocked out of her lungs, and she scrambled to sit up as she gasped desperately for a breath.
Once more, her surroundings were different. This time, she recognized the place as the inn they had arrived in the night before. Light streamed in from the window covered by sheer curtains, and from the glass she could hear what sounded like the hustle and bustle of the city as their tournament was once more in full swing for the day.
After finally catching her breath, Xiaobai placed a hand over her chest with a heavy sigh as she frowned. She left Xiao Hei behind in that place, and she didn’t know if she would be able to get back there again.
Would he be able to put those candles out on his own? He had said he can’t even get close enough to them without the light hurting him. Was that also some sort of precaution made to keep him from waking up? Was he supposed to originally be in the center of that circle where she woke up, so he wouldn’t be able to move?
Or was all of that really just a dream? Something her mind created from stress and her desire to finally meet Xiao Hei?
Either way, she at least had been glad to have been able to talk to him, even if it wasn’t real. It only made her more excited to meet him in person.
Xiaobai continued to think about that strange dream as she got ready for the day, noticing the lack of Shanxin within their inn room, but figured the other probably got tired of waiting around for Xiaobai to wake up and went to wander around the city. She couldn’t blame her, with a festival going on, the energy in this area was contagious.
Even just making her way through the inn, Xiaobai ran into a variety of different people, all attracted to the tournament being held by the Cryo Archon, wanting to see if this year would end just the same as every year before it, or if something new may happen. Personally, Xiaobai didn’t quite see the appeal of watching people get hurt, but she did have to admit that a good fight was exciting to watch.
Vendors lined the streets, selling various wares from jewelry, to trinkets, to toys and food. People walked about, and their voices were a loud background noise. With this many bodies about, Xiaobai could only just barely feel the chill of the harsher northern air. It was a nice change of pace from how the last few days had been, and Xiaobai couldn’t help but feel infected by the festivities as well.
However, finding Shanxin took priority at the moment, as sticking together in this new nation would be for the best, so she walked the vendor filled streets, forcing herself not to get too distracted by the calls and beckoning of the sellers and their extremely interesting items. Really, she couldn’t imagine Shanxin having gone off very far, figuring that the other would want to stay relatively close to the inn, so Xiaobai didn’t wander too far off, but it was very hard to tell just where she was with so many people.
Just as she was walking by a vendor, she felt something grab her hand, and Xiaobai looked over.
Standing there was a woman, leaning over a table of various items that glittered and shone in the daytime light. She looked gentle, wearing a smile to match the gentleness about her. “Excuse me for my boldness,” the woman said, bowing her head slightly as she apologized, “but I felt a growing power inside of you.”
Xiaobai smiled in confusion, tilting her head slightly. “I think you’re mistaken, I’m not here to fight.”
“Not that sort of power, I mean a divine power sleeping deep within.”
Ah, so this is one of those vendors. The kind that spews out some sort of made up prophecy on the spot in order to rub at a customer's ego, before finally presenting an everyday item, promising fortune and power if they bought it at some inflated price. These sort of vendors were very persistent, and with the grip the woman had, there wasn’t much Xiaobai could do but watch with an unsure smile as the woman seemed to be browsing her own table in search of something.
Finally, the woman let out a small noise as she finally found what she was looking for, and held it up.
From her elegant hand hung a beautiful necklace, a bird pendant attached to a braided cord, the colour of the pendant a deep red, looking much like a phoenix. “This is it,” the woman said as she held it out for Xiaobai to see. “This will help the divine blood that runs through your veins to reawaken, as well as protect you from any perils you may face along your journey.”
Xiaobai opened her mouth to insist on declining the pendant. Even though it was a lovely piece of jewelry, she couldn’t possibly afford whatever inflated price this woman was going to claim it was, when shockingly, the woman turned around Xiaobai’s still captive hand and gently placed the necklace within her hand.
“Please, take it, young one. This is on the house.”
“I… Are you sure?” Xiaobai asked in shock. Did this woman really want nothing for it?
The woman nodded, her smile seeming to grow a bit as she gently used both hands to now hold Xiaobai’s closed, keeping the necklace within her grasp. “I fear you will face many challenges soon, and while it may not seem like much, this pendant will give you all the protection you and your loved ones may need.”
There really was nothing else to do in this situation, huh?
With a small sigh, Xiaobai bowed her head a little in thanks as the woman finally let her hand go, waving as Xiaobai walked away.
It really was a beautiful necklace. The light hit the deep red of the gem from the phoenix and made it sparkle softly in the daytime light. But Xiaobai wasn’t one to normally wear jewelry, it always tended to just be a hassle to keep track of and would get in the way in the middle of any sort of commission that involved fighting. So for now, Xiaobai placed the necklace in her pocket for safe keeping, hoping to figure out what to do with it later on. Shanxin was good with figuring these sorts of things out, she’d be able to know what to do with it.
Xiaobai continued to wander the streets, aimlessly walking in whatever direction the flow of the crowd took her before coming to an arena type set up in what seemed like the center of town. The crowd here was much thicker and the energy was more intense, as shouts and cheers filled the air which buzzed in excitement. This was more than likely the main entertainment, the reason for the festival. Xiaobai couldn’t see from here, but she was certain that the closer she got, she would be able to see a fight taking place.
Just as she turned to head away from this area, a hand was placed firmly on her shoulder, followed by the shout of her name carried by a familiar voice. Turning her head back, Shanxin stood there with an excited look to her face. Huangshou perched on her shoulder, seeming weary of the situation.
“Shanxin!” Xiaobai smiled widely, relief filling her body. She knew she would meet up with her friend eventually, but she didn’t like to be separated for long.
“Finally awake,” Shanxin said as she threw her arm around Xiaobai’s shoulders. “Come on, I found some fantastic seats, we can watch the tournament from there.”
“Hm? But what about finding the Cryo Archon?”
“Turns out he’s the one everyone is fighting to get to, so I’m sure if we stick around the arena, we’ll meet him eventually.”
Well, that did make a lot of sense actually.
Xiaobai allowed herself to be dragged by Shanxin as they weaved through the dense crowds. The excitement and heat was so thick that it could be cut with a dull knife. Xiaobai couldn’t quite understand why so many were excited to see fighting going on, but the energy coursed through her and made her heart feel like it was pounding.
Soon, they were out of the crowd and entering into a building, climbing up the many steps quickly, Shanxin’s pace only picking up even more once a loud ring of cheers came out muffled through the walls, and she cursed something about having missed the match. Xiaobai did her best to keep up, until finally they came to a balcony that overlooked the crowd and the arena.
From here, Xiaobai could now make out the makeshift fighting ring, which was much larger than she had expected, as well as the row of seats she hadn’t been able to spot before.
“How’d you find this place?”
Shanxin shrugged as she looked over the edge of the railing, looking down at the arena. Her lips were in a pout, having missed out on whatever went on. “I politely asked a group of people to let us use it.”
Xiaobai raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
Sensing that she was getting a look, Shanxin stole a quick glance over at Xiaobai before clearing her throat, adjusting her stance for a moment before she once more opened her mouth to speak. “Turns out, this place has a rule, anything is fair game as long as it’s settled in some kind of clean match. So all I did was challenge them, and since I won, I won this spot. It was fair and square, I promise.”
Shanxin certainly wasn’t a cheater, so Xiaobai let out a small sigh as she shook her head. Already, her friend was fitting right in to this new nation.
Xiaobai turned her attention down to the tournament going on below, watching as they were introducing a set of new fighters, but her mind was drifting to other things. She felt a bit restless sitting here knowing what sort of turmoil the Anemo nation was going through, and that there was sabotage going on here in the Cryo nation.
Even if they hadn’t gotten asked by the Archons themselves, Xiaobai didn’t feel right sitting by after seeing what those delusions had done to people. So many were currently suffering in one way or another, in agony, losing their minds, growing older at accelerated rates, all because someone malicious had decided to take advantage of these people.
She also began to think about that strange dream that she had, that she still wasn’t even sure was a dream at this point. If Xiao Hei was currently trapped still inside his mind, then how was she to help him? How did she even get into that place to begin with?
There were too many mysteries, and it made her head hurt and chest ache. She just wanted to help, but she wasn’t sure how. She wasn’t strong physically, and the most she could do with her vision was buff others and create small fires. Really, this entire situation would be going much smoother if her gege was here. If Argen were here, he’d know what to do right away.
Xiaobai was so lost in thought that she missed the concerned look from Shanxin, who chose to stay silent for now.
“Are you sure this was a good idea?”
Qing Ning paced around, one hand behind her back as her other was brought up to her mouth, almost looking as though she were to start chewing on her fingernails in worry. “I mean, they’re humans!! Granted, the both of them have visions, but still-still human! What if something happens to them? I’d never be able to forgive myself!”
Leaned against a wall, Lao Jun silently watched her walk back and forth, ranting and mumbling to herself. There wasn’t much he could say in this situation, Qing Ning had been a nervous mess since those two children left, not even to sleep during the night. With a heavy sigh, Lao Jun finally moved from the wall and reached out to grab Qing Ning by the shoulder, promptly stopping her mid step as she turned her head to look at him.
“I understand that you’re worried for them,” he said, giving her a small, reassuring smile, “but I would much prefer them going than you.”
Qing Ning was silent for a moment, staring blankly at Lao Jun.
“How can you say such a terrible thing!?” she snapped, turning around and grabbing onto a piece of Lao Jun’s hair and tugged. “They’re human, shifu!! Human!! If anything were to happen to them it would be my fault for sending them!!”
Luckily, her grip this time wasn’t harsh, and the tugging of his hair didn’t do more than sting a little, so it was easy to bat her hand away while she was too distracted in yelling. “You’re human as well, you’re just as fragile as they are.”
“But I’m an Archon, I have already lived many lifetimes past them, and have strength far greater than a vision!! With a gnosis, I’m so much stronger than them, what if they run into problems while over there? What if they get attacked by whoever is distributing those delusions? I should’ve just gone instead, I should’ve–”
“Qing Ning,” Lao Jun interrupted her tirade with a firm voice, placing both of his hands on her shoulders now to ground her. “You know that going yourself would’ve only made the situation worse.”
Her shoulders sagged as Qing Ning let out a heavy sigh, her head dropping a little as she looked down. She knew this. They both did. And that’s why they had to make the tough decision to send two children, strangers at that, in their stead. “Believe me, I would’ve gone there personally if I could. You know how impulsive your father can be, so not being there for him… I don’t like waiting around as much as you, but right now, we would’ve put him in more danger if we had gone. And we would’ve endangered ourselves.”
As he spoke, Qing Ning’s shoulders seemed to sag more and more, and he could no longer see her expression, but she had so much of Xuanli’s personality, so it wasn’t hard to imagine she was wearing a pout on her face. However, from this angle, he could see the slight discolouration under her eyes. Although now an Archon with a gnosis, Qing Ning was still human, and he knew she hadn’t been sleeping well lately.
The entire situation with these delusions was stressing her out to the point where she only slept once exhaustion took over. She was able to go longer than a normal human without the required functions, such as eating or sleeping, but it would catch up with her eventually. Qing Ning constantly cared so much for others, but hardly gave a second thought to herself. It worried him. He wondered how Beihe and Diting were holding us as well.
Beihe was also human, but he knew that the doctor took well care of himself. Lao Jun figured he might have a talk with Beihe and convince him to start getting Qing Ning to bed every night.
Diting was also an illuminated beast, he didn’t have to worry about his physical wellbeing as much, but surely all of this commotion must be stressing the younger one out quite a bit, especially with the way he had spoken to the two children so coldly.
And then, there was the situation involving that young prince, Xiao Hei…
Well, Xiao Hei wasn’t even conscious yet. It was best to take one step at a time, handle each situation as they came, and right now, it was the situation with the delusions, and who could be targeting him and his family.
Whoever it was, they would not get out of this lightly.
Lao Jun moved his hands off of Qing Ning’s shoulders, moving them over to her face, squishing her cheeks and moving her head so she was looking back up at him, where he gave her a wide smile. “Now, if you’ve finally tired yourself out, it’s time for bed.”
“Shinsh when do I have a beds shime?!” Qing Ning shouted in indignation.
“Hmm, since I noticed you haven’t been getting proper rest.”
“But I don’sh need it!!”
“Won’t you humor your father a little? You’re wounding me, little Qing Ning.”
Her eyebrows furrowed, and Lao Jun really couldn’t help the laugh that escaped.
He truly and deeply loves his family, and if anyone were to harm them, they certainly will learn that calming waters can become quite deadly.