Shanxin stretched her arms above her head with a groan. “Ah, man, I can’t believe we were here for the whole day and didn’t see the Cryo guy once!!”
Xiaobai smiled, holding a sleeping Huangshou in her arms as they walked. “You were enjoying the tournament though, I don’t think I’ve seen you get that interested in something other than your tinkering.”
“It was so fun watching these people pummel each other, and with the restricted use of visions rule, it just made it that much more interesting!! We only ever see others fighting with visions, these people were all like,” Shanxin moved her arms into what looked like a fighting stance, arms braced before swinging them forward, accompanied by various sound effects to put emphasis on her swings.
Xiaobai laughed loudly at her friend's antics. The two of them weren’t very good fighters, with Shanxin even opting to use her vision mainly for healing, however, this did spark minor fear inside Xiaobai, wondering if Shanxin was now going to go up to Argen and demand that he teach her more on how to fight. That would certainly be a sight to see, but Shanxin was also their strategist, so if anything were to happen to her, they would be doubly fucked. There’s only so much you can do without a healer.
The night was colder than the daytime, as Xiaobai was able to see the fog created by her breath, but the festival was still as lively. There was even a betting tent that was currently packed to the brim for tomorrow's brackets. At least they learned that they were no longer accepting new challengers, which put Xiaobai’s mind at ease a little. It meant that they wouldn’t have to wait much longer to meet with the Cryo Archon.
“I’m hungry now,” Shanxin said with her hands placed behind her head as they walked. “We should find some vendor selling food, I wonder what’s good in this nation…”
Whatever Shanxin was saying drowned out.
Xiaobai slowed her steps as she stared until finally coming to a full stop.
In the distance, between two vendors, she could see the unmistakable glint of what looks like a vision, but one much darker in colour.
This was probably a person giving out delusions. This is the first time since being here that she’s seen this, they haven’t run into a delusion all day today. Is this what they did? Hand them out at night so the challengers for the next day can use them in a fight?
“Xiaobai, what’re you looking at?”
This could be their only chance to stop them, to put an end to all of this.
“Hey, hey what’re you– Xiaobai!!!”
Without putting too much thought into it, she handed off Huangshou to Shanxin and broke out into a sprint.
She could only just barely hear Shanxin’s distant shouting as her heart hammered loudly in her ears, as she pushed through the crowds as quickly as she possibly could, never taking her eyes off of that dark space, even as the person who was handed the delusion turned to leave, becoming yet another face in the crowd.
Xiaobai got closer, and watched as the person stood there in the darkness for a moment and smiled widely. She couldn’t make out many of their features in the dark, but for a brief moment as she continued to close the distance, their eyes met.
They must’ve known something was up, because as soon as that moment of their meeting happened, the moment just as quickly ended, their smile dropping from their face as they turned into the darkness and disappeared.
Xiaobai’s mind panicked. If she lost this person now, she may never be able to find them again. Who knows how many more will be hurt or put in harm's way if this person was able to distribute more delusions?
She pushed through the crowds, and followed the stranger into the darkness.
There were no crowds in this small space nestled between two buildings, and the only light was from the festival behind her. Without the crowd, this space was colder and felt even more isolating.
Xiaobai quickly spotted the figure ahead of her, running down the expanse of the alleyway, and she willed her legs to carry her farther, quicker. She needed to catch up with this person. She needed to stop them. She needed to!!
Her legs burned and ached, but she ran with all her might.
Reaching a hand out, she was almost within grasp to catch this person.
Just a little further..
Just a little more…!!!
The person suddenly turned around, taking a step backwards.
Time seemed to slow down as the annoyed expression on their face turned to one of amusement and ridicule, their smile stretching far across their face and Xiaobai saw fangs.
The view of that person quickly vanished.
Pillars of earth stretched up from the ground, blocking her view and blocking her pursuit.
Xiaobai would’ve slammed into them if it wasn’t for the sudden grip on her arms that pulled her back just in time before she ended up destroying her face. “Shit, a geo user?” Shanxin grumbled in annoyance from behind. “That’s not fair!”
Looking back, Xiaobai was a bit surprised to see that Shanxin had rushed after her and kept up as well, she had been too hyper focused on catching the person that she hadn’t noticed the other pair of footsteps echoing through the alleys.
“Shanxin!” She shouted in desperation, voice a bit uneven due to being out of breath. “We need to go catch them!! They were–the delusions!!” There wasn’t much time to explain, as she pointed past the wall of rock in front of them.
With a heavy frown, Shanxin shook her head. “It’s not our job to actually stop them, and how do you expect to get over that wall anyways? By the time we find a way to loop around, they’ll be–Ah!! What’re you doing?! You can’t climb over it!!”
Xiaobai struggled, reaching up to find a foothold, a grip, something, anything that would get her up and over this rock!! They can’t stop here!! They have to keep going, they have to try!!
The two fought as Shanxin reached out and grabbed onto Xiaobai to keep her from climbing any higher. The wall of rock was almost as tall as the surrounding buildings, and neither of them had the strength nor stamina to make that climb. They would grow tired halfway through and end up falling.
Frustration bubbled and boiled over inside of Xiaobai as she fought against Shanxin’s insistent pulling on her. “Let me go!! We’re wasting time, they’re getting away!!”
“This isn’t our job!!” Shanxin insisted once again, before finally getting a grip around Xiaobai’s waist and pulled.
She ended up pulling with too much strength, because next thing they both knew, they were toppled over each other and on the ground.
The two of them lay there in a mess for a few moments, catching their breaths. Xiaobai watched as hers puffed up and rose into the air, swirling about before disappearing into the dark sky above, and she felt her chest ache.
They had been so close to catching the person distributing delusions. She had come almost within arms reach of them, and they slipped past her fingers just like the smoke rising from her breath.
Finally, Shanxin sat up, groaning a little as she brought a hand to her head as she attempted to situate herself and get her bearings back in order before looking down at Xiaobai, who was still staring up into that vast dark sky. Shanxin sighed heavily as she frowned. “This isn’t like you, Xiaobai,” she said, her voice a bit harsh, but filled with worry. “You’re usually so optimistic and wouldn’t let something like this get you down, but now you’re lying on the ground with tears in your eyes.”
Ah, Xiaobai didn’t notice that her surroundings had become blurry, only now noticing the burning in her eyes as she brought her palms up to her eyes and rubbed at them. She sniffed a little, unsure if the stuffing in her nose was due to her frustration or the coldness of the air.
“I’m not–I’m not crying,” she said stubbornly.
She didn’t even know why she was feeling this way.
There was a gentle pressure upon her stomach, and Xiaobai could feel the heat from Shanxin’s hand through her clothing. “Stop holding everything in and actually talk to me. You’ve barely told me what’s on your mind this entire time. Xiaobai, I’m scared too,” the confession made Xiaobai’s breath catch in her throat. “We’ve been to three different capitals in the span of just two days, maybe three. And we have fucking Archons telling us to do jobs for them? We don’t need to do this, this isn’t our job. We can tell everyone to fuck off and just go home, this isn’t our problem. Xiaobai, please, tell me what’s going on in your mind because I can’t figure it out at all.”
The more she spoke, the more Xiaobai could hear the desperation in her voice, the more Shanxin struggled to get her words across and her emotions known, the more she wanted to be heard.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell Shanxin anything…
“How can I tell you when I don’t even know what’s going on?” Xiaobai struggled to say past the lump that had formed in her throat. “I don’t know what’s going on and I…” She let out a huff, a humorless laugh, “I feel like I’m going crazy.”
“You don’t need to know what’s going on, you can just tell me what’s happening, everything else we can figure out together.” Moving her hands out of the way, Xiaobai watched as Shanxin smiled, a soft and comforting one. “Besides, even if you were going crazy, I would stay by your side no matter what. You’re my best friend.”
Xiaobai let out a wet laugh, smiling at the ridiculousness of all of this.
She really didn’t feel very deserving of having such an amazing friend like Shanxin, but she was grateful nonetheless.
“Oh, I’m here again…”
Xiaobai opened her eyes, and was met with that never ending darkness that was the ceiling of this place, unable to see the top of the pillars. Candles still flickered wildly, the only source of light in this dark and cold room.
Sitting up, she was once more inside the circle of candles, and made a note to herself not to try and leave the circle again this time. Whatever it was, it seemed to be the only link between her and this place.
“You’re back!” Xiao Hei exclaimed, and Xiaobai looked over to once again only be met with green eyes in the distant darkness. “Are you okay? Last time, you burst into flames and disappeared after stepping out of that circle.”
It took her a moment to register Xiao Hei’s words, but finally, she gave him a smile as she nodded. “I’m fine, I ended up just waking up in my hotel room after I tried to leave the candles. Did anything happen to you while I was gone?”
From the movement of his eyes, Xiaobai could see him shake his head. “I tried to put out the candles like you said, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t snuff them out.”
As she listened, Xiaobai stood up and looked around once more. He had mentioned something about being imprisoned. There had to be some sort of clues inside of this room that would give them a hint on how to get out, but looking around, all Xiaobai could see were the writings on the wall that looked to be in a language she couldn’t understand, as they looked faded from erosion of some sort.
Still, it was worth a shot, right?
“Hey, Xiao Hei?” she called out, getting his attention as he responded with a questioning hum. “Can you read any of this writing on the walls?”
Her question was met with a few moments of silence, as she heard what sounded like shifting about. “What writings?”
Xiaobai blinked. She tore her eyes away from the walls to look over at Xiao Hei, who was already looking at her. “What?”
“There’s nothing written on the walls. It’s just all stone. Are you sure the candle flickering isn’t playing tricks?”
It could be a trick of the light, that was true, but there was a feeling in her stomach that told her that wasn’t the case. Even when the light flickered and danced this way and that, she could still make out the lines and curves of whatever writing was on the wall.
This would be so much easier if she could just write down what she was reading and show it to him, then maybe he would–
There were a few moments of silence before she got an answer. “Now might be a really good time to tell you that I can’t read.”
“I can’t read,” Xiao Hei said once more, and the sentence still wasn’t as clear as the first time she heard it, and it still didn’t make any more sense until a few more seconds as the words had to sit in her mind and finally process just what that meant.
Well, there went that idea then.
Xiaobai frowned as she crossed her arms, trying to think. So neither of them could read this writing, and Xiao Hei’s brute force against the door has made absolutely no progress. Is this something she should let Qing Ning know about once they returned? Would she be able to do anything about it? Or should she let Lao Jun know so they could go meet the person he had been talking about?
This situation was all too confusing, and honestly, she was a bit done with thinking. She looked over at the flame on the candles, before looking down at the pyro vision she had attached. “You said the candles refused to go out, right? And you tried multiple different ways?”
“En,” Xiao Hei sighed in slight frustration, “though, like I said, I can’t get too close to them.”
“Do you have a pyro vision?”
With a smile, Xiaobai lit a flame in her hand. “Let’s see if I can put them out with mine.”
The idea had sounded foolproof in her head. There was that saying “beat fire with fire”, so Xiaobai had thought why not? It was worth the shot anyways, what could go wrong?
Well, she hadn’t taken into account that the flames would reignite almost seemingly at random, but after some trial and error, the two of them realized that it was more of a puzzle. If not done in the correct order, then the candles would once again light up and they would need to start from the beginning. Which would be fine and all, if it wasn’t for the fact that there were so many candles scattered about and were a bit hard to keep track of, but Xiaobai was determined.
A few stubborn candles wouldn’t put out her flames, she knew they would get it eventually.
But the work was tedious as it was boring, the two of them only talking back and forth about the candles.
“So, Xiao Hei,” she said as she snuffed out a group of candles and moved on to the next, “why is it that I can only see your eyes? I know you said the candle light hurts you, but you’re completely in shadow, as if you are one.”
Xiao Hei let out a hum as he thought about it for a moment, watching as his eyes scanned the candles. “I can’t really explain it, it’s– oh, try this group over here next–it’s kind of like… my body isn’t listening to me, I guess.”
Her eyebrows raised. “How so?”
“Like I said, hard to explain, but almost like it can’t hold its shape properly or something. It’s like my body itself is water, unable to form or anything like that. I’ve never felt like this before. I’m blaming it on this cursed place, they must’ve done more to me than I’m aware of.”
Xiaobai hummed as she once again extinguished the light of another group of candles, and smiled when this time it seemed like they made the right choice. There weren’t many groups of candles left now. “Have you remembered anything yet? Like why were you locked up in here?”
“I haven’t remembered much, other than it having something to do with destiny.”
“En. My kingdom isn’t big on believing things like destiny, but they claimed there was some sort of prophecy that foretold our downfall.”
“What did that have to do with you then?”
Xiao Hei was silent for a few moments, and Xiaobai remained silent. Whether he wanted to answer or not was up to him, she wouldn’t force him to say anything more if he didn’t want to. After a few moments had passed, Xiaobai opened her mouth to say something and change the conversation, when finally Xiao Hei spoke up, voice sounding just a little strained with emotions that she couldn’t quite figure out.
“It was because I was born.”
How could someone bring the downfall of an entire kingdom simply for being born?
Xiaobai frowned. To her, it just didn’t make any sense. “How could such a thing happen? You can’t just blame something like that on someone simply for being born.”
“Yeah, well, you try telling that to those damned mages,” Xiao Hei scoffed. “They were convinced I was the cataclysm that would destroy everything, and that’s why I’m locked up.” He let out a sigh. Xiaobai could tell this was something weighing heavily on him, and she felt bad for bringing it up. “Other than that, I can’t remember anything else.”
The two of them remained silent for a few moments more, as Xiaobai went and put out two more groups of candles. Soon, she would be done, if they didn’t accidentally mess up before then and had to restart. She wondered what would happen once all the candles were put out. Would Xiao Hei wake up instantly? Would she also wake up? What would happen if this didn’t work? She didn’t have many other ideas as to what to do to help, this place didn’t have a lot in it.
She could just try to set everything on fire if all else failed.
“Well, I do remember one other thing.”
Xiao Hei had spoken so softly that Xiaobai would’ve missed it if they weren’t the only two in this space with no other noise to interfere. She looked up at him, noticing the shift in his voice. Earlier, it was full of venom and spite, rightfully so. This time, his tone was softer.
“What do you remember?”
“I remember having an amazing shifu, who raised me like I was his son. He’s the reason why I didn’t turn out heartless and bitter.”
“What was he like?”
“I… can’t remember that either. All I know is that every time I think about him, I miss him and want to go see him. I wonder what he’s doing now…”
A cold feeling twisted in Xiaobai’s stomach.
With the way Xiao Hei was talking, it was as if…
It was as if he was convinced his kingdom was still standing.
Does he know how long he’s been locked up for?
Does he not know that he was found in a pile of rubble and ruin?
Whatever kingdom previously stood there, it's been gone for hundreds of years already. Whoever he was speaking of was already long gone. She couldn’t figure out how to tell him this, or if she even should.
From the sounds of it, Xiao Hei was forsaken by his entire kingdom for some messed up reason, and all he had going for him were these vague memories of a parental figure and the feelings he was clinging onto. It felt cruel to explain his circumstances to him now, ripping away that warm and hopeful feeling before he could even get out of this place.
Besides, he would find out once he woke up. It was possibly for the better if he found out that way, he might not believe her if she were to try and explain the situation to him. He might even lose whatever little trust he held towards her.
Xiaobai let out a heavy sigh as she stretched her arms above her head, when suddenly her vision started to waver. She couldn’t help but to stumble a bit, losing her footing when the room started to shift this way and that.
“Xiaobai?” Xiao Hei called out, and his voice sounded muddled, as if he were speaking to her from underwater.
It was a weird feeling, but she smiled at him reassuringly. “I’m fine, I think I’m… I think I’m just waking up now, so don’t worry.”
He seemed to relax a little at that, obviously relieved it wasn’t like the situation from last time where she was abruptly ripped out of this dream.
“There’s not many candles left, so when I come back we’ll finish this, okay?”
Xiao Hei nodded. “Okay, stay safe, Xiaobai.”
Her vision twisted and waved, until everything went to black, and when she opened her eyes again, she was staring at the wall of their room, as light poured in to the room and she could see everything clearly. She rolled over onto her back before letting out a heavy sigh, closing her eyes.
A part of her wanted to fall back asleep in hopes that she would go back to that dark space and help out Xiao Hei more, but a larger part knew that she couldn’t, not when they had caught a glimpse of the person giving out those delusions, and with the tournament coming to a close soon, they needed to act quickly.
“Finally awake?” Xiaobai’s eyes opened at hearing Shanxin’s voice, using her arms to prop herself up on her bed and saw that the other girl was already dressed and ready to go, giving Xiaobai a lopsided grin. “You’re impossible to wake up when you’re in that weird dream realm with Xiao Hei, by the way.”
“Ah, really?” Xiaobai smiled in apology as she got up and quickly started getting dressed. “How long did you try waking me for?”
“About a minute, I got bored pretty quickly and just decided to wait for you.”
The night before going to bed, Xiaobai had explained the very weird dream she had involving Xiao Hei, and how she was very sure that it wasn’t a dream at all. At first, Shanxin had seemed a bit skeptical, but that didn’t last very long and had reassured Xiaobai that she wouldn’t force her awake if Xiaobai didn’t respond after some time.
Though there had been no guarantee that she would meet with Xiao Hei again, they didn’t want to risk Xiaobai being ripped out of it again, in fear of what the consequences might be.
“So,” Shanxin continued, as she turned to Huangshou and proceeded to tie a cloth around his neck into a bow, “did the two of you make any progress?”
Xiaobai nodded excitedly. “Yes, actually! I found out I could put out the candles using my own fire, but they’re in some kind of pattern, so it’s a lot of trial and error.”
“Hopefully that’ll help him wake up soon, with how excited you are, I’m getting excited to meet him. Though, you haven’t really said much about him.”
“That’s because there isn’t a lot that he remembers.”
“En, he said something is blocking his memories. He can remember bits and pieces, it’s really not a whole lot.”
“Then what does he remember?”
“There’s someone special to him that he wants to meet again, but…”
Xiaobai felt the pang in her chest, remembering Xiao Hei’s happy and fond expression as he spoke about someone obviously so special to him, probably the closest thing to family that Xiao Hei had after being treated so poorly by everyone else. She let out a small sigh. “Xiao Hei doesn’t seem to know that the place we found him in was in ruins, so he doesn’t know that the person he wants to see is already gone.”
Shanxin went silent, having turned her attention to Xiaobai fully after noticing the shift in her mood. She walked over and placed a comforting hand on Xiaobai’s back, quiet but reassuring, always so supportive even when Xiaobai didn’t know what to do.
“It would be cruel to tell him about it now, wouldn’t it?” Xiaobai continued, a small, hesitant smile stretching across her face. “I can’t tell him when he’s going through something like this. He was betrayed by so many people, I can’t tell him something like that…”
Was it more cruel to keep it a secret?
Should she just tell him the next time she sees him?
What was the best course of action here?
Really, she had no idea…
“It’s not your responsibility to explain something like this to him.”
Xiaobai blinked, her expression dropping as she looked over at Shanxin, who wore a very serious look on her face, yet remained soft. “Like I keep telling you, none of this is your responsibility. We don’t know anything about those ruins to begin with, so don’t place that burden on yourself. Once he wakes up and we learn more about those ruins, then we can all figure this out together.”
This entire situation has just continued to surprise Xiaobai more and more with how stable and firm Shanxin was, holding her up through this entire ordeal and keeping Xiaobai grounded. In a way, she was right. It wasn’t their responsibility. Xiaobai really didn’t know anything about those ruins, other than they were extremely old, and that Lao Jun seemed to know something about them, so he would be the best option of telling Xiao Hei what happened once he woke up.
She let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding, feeling as though a small weight was taken off of her shoulders. Xiaobai nodded. “You’re right. We’ll figure that out later. One step at a time.”
Shanxin smiled, seemingly proud of Xiaobai’s decision to ease the burden off of herself for once. “One step at a time,” she repeated back with a nod before taking her hand away. “And speaking of one step, here.” After reaching behind herself, Shanxin presented an apple. “Breakfast. Sorry, you’ll have to eat as we walk, the next rounds of the tournament have started, and we need to find that fighter with the delusion before some serious damage is done.”
Xiaobai quickly took the apple, wasting no time in biting into it as she suddenly felt almost famished. Shanxin picked up Huangshou into her arms and the two left the inn with hurried steps.
As Xiaobai chewed on the apple, one other thing came to her mind.
“Ah, I did learn one other thing about Xiao Hei!”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“He might be some kind of royalty, like a prince.”
“.......... We better get some kind of monetary compensation for all of this then.”