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As The Heavens Fall

Chapter Text

Commission posted by the Adventurers’ Guild:

Poster: Katheryne

Details: Recently, scholars and researchers have taken interest in the southwest ruins of unknown origin. Adventurer’s needed to do a sweep of said ruins for hostiles to be eliminated, as well as a general safety check.

Compensation: TBA


“These ruins have been around for… well, who knows how long. Why are scholars just now getting interested in them?” Argen wondered aloud from where he stood, atop a rather high rock with a map in his hand. It took him a moment to get his bearings before looking down once more at the map.

“Does it matter?” Shanxin’s words came out a bit odd, speaking through the oat bar in her mouth before finally swallowing. “As long as we’re getting paid for this, I don’t care what they want us to do.”

Argen hummed, once more looking up from his map to the horizon before jumping down. Rolling up his map, he safely tucked it away. “We’ll be at the ruins soon, shouldn’t be much longer.”

“Sure we didn’t get turned about somewhere again?”

Smiling with his eyebrows raised, “would you rather navigate? I’d be more than happy to take a break for a while.”

“Not my area of expertise here,” Shanxin quickly said, shoving the rest of the oat bar into her mouth and turning away to avoid the responsibility of not getting their party lost dumped onto her.

With a small laugh, Argen shook his head before turning towards Xiaobai.

Looking off to the distance, she was long lost in thought, and had been this entire time. The usually bubbly and exciting Xiaobai was replaced with a more quiet one that didn’t run about as much. Try as he might, Argen couldn’t figure out what had her so preoccupied.

Gently, as to not startle her too badly, Argen placed a hand on Xiaobai’s shoulder, getting her attention as she turned to look at him. “Ah, what is it, gege?” she asked with a small smile. Her mind was still lost somewhere, it seemed.

“I figured out our location, we can continue on now.”

“That’s great, let’s get going then.”

“Wait, Xiaobai,” he held more firmly to her shoulder once she started walking away, gently pulling her back and getting her attention once more. “I need to ask you something.”

“What is it?”

“You seem… hm, distracted, since we took that commission earlier today. Is everything okay?”

At this, Xiaobai looked away, bringing one of her own arms to hold the other, crossing it over her body and looking unsure. “Yeah, everything’s fine.”

“... You know you can tell me anything, right? No matter what it is.”

She hesitated for a moment, looking at everything that wasn’t Argen, trying to figure out what to do, and Argen waited patiently for her response. If she didn’t want to tell him, that was fine, but he needed to make sure she knew she could trust him. The three of them have been adventuring together for so long now, Argen could hardly count the years with complete accuracy. He cared for the two of them, and being their protector, he was determined to do whatever he could for both Xiaobai and Shanxin.

Finally, Xiaobai looked up at him, and he could tell right away there was a trace of worry in her eyes.

“Gege… I don’t know what it is, but I feel like there’s someone in those ruins who needs our help…”

 

 

 

The ruins have been around for at least 500 years, and that’s all known about it.

So far, scholars have deemed it the ruins of an ancient civilization, but due to the large amount of monsters that linger about, no one has been able to get close to them as of recent. There are a few basic studies done on it, however, but none of them are conclusive. Some say this civilization was one that had no god to worship. Not because they weren’t given one, but because they chose not to worship any.

A civilization run entirely by humans.

Today, such a feat was unheard of, as the nations of this world are each guarded by their own Archon. It was hard to believe that such a civilization existed.

The ruins themselves were made of a dark stone material, reminiscent of coal in colour, but stronger than such, though the harshness of time has worn it down. Looking at it, you could tell that such ruins used to be a magnificent castle.

It was hard to tell what it looked like in its glory days, as life around it had so much as vanished. No trees nor flowers flourished near the ruins, and the few patches of grass were nothing more than dust once you stepped on them. It was terrifying to imagine what sort of event happened here that would cause such a catastrophe.

Luckily, the commission didn’t ask for the entirety of the ruins to be cleared of monsters, and instead was requesting one branched off chamber for now. The entire ruins were much too large for a party of three to clear out anyways, and would need to be done in multiple sweeps.

What no one expected, however, was that there were underground passageways and chambers.

How does one know this now??

Well…

Xiaobai stared up at the hole she had previously fell through, her head spinning a little from the rough tumble she took, but was luckily otherwise unharmed. Which was miraculous, really, since the drop was much higher than she expected.

Argen was crouched at the opening, and she could see a worried expression on his face, while Shanxin looked more intrigued.

“Are you okay?!” Argen called down.

Doing a quick check over herself once more to make sure there weren't any broken bones or open wounds, Xiaobai gave a thumbs up once she came up empty. “I’m good, gege!!”

She could briefly hear some muttering from Argen, as she assumed him to be coming up with a plan on how to get her back up safely. While he was debating, Xiaobai looked down the corridor ahead of her.

It was dark and damp. She could hear what sounded like dripping water coming from the end of the hall. Nothing moved, nothing breathed, nothing lived down here.

It should’ve filled her with uneasiness and fear, but instead, all she felt was wanting to progress on forward, despite not knowing what sort of dangers could lie ahead.

 

Within this corridor, she could feel the pull growing stronger.

She couldn’t describe it, but she felt like she had to go help someone.

“I’m going on ahead!!” Xiaobai called up to the hole. “I can find a way out!!”

Before Argen could be given the chance to protest, she quickly walked off, his voice echoing in the abandoned halls as he called for her to come back, but his words fell on deaf ears.

With the hall being so dark, Xiaobai lit a small fire in her hand. It was one of the perks of being a Pyro user, she could just become a human torch whenever she needed.

Argen’s voice soon disappeared as she walked, with the only noise her breathing and footsteps as she cautiously walked. She couldn’t tell what these underground chambers were for, any indication of what they may have been already falling away to time and neglect.

She didn’t know how long she had been walking for, or where she was even going. It would be hard to find some sort of way out in this place, and she could only hope that no monsters had made their way underground and wouldn’t run into any. She wasn’t built for long term fighting, especially not on her own.

The pull grew stronger as she walked, drawing closer and closer until, finally, she reached a giant door with strange markings etched into it. The flame grew brighter, giving her enough light to see the entire door and all its markings.

Even after studying them for a few moments, she couldn’t make out what language they were.

She should be scared at this point. She should just walk away and find Argen and Shanxin and complete their commission, but…

But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t turn away. So instead, she pushed against the giant door.

 

It didn’t budge.

Xiaobai tried again, with a bit more force.

 

It still wouldn’t budge.

It took all her strength and using her entire body against it to get it to move it, opening it just enough to let herself slip through and she took a moment to catch her breath.

The door was probably made of the same stone as the rest of the ruins.

As soon as she caught her breath, she looked up, and once again it was stolen from her.

The room was large and she couldn’t see most of it, but in the center was a giant sphere that reminded her of the night sky, shifting through colours with what looked like stars sparkled through it, and she knew that this was the place.

With hesitant steps, she walked closer and closer until she was standing just before the strange sphere. Through the laps in the ever changing colours, she could see… what looked like a person, with dark hair.

This must have been the person who was calling out to her.

Xiaobai reached out.

She didn’t know what she expected, but being struck by a large blast of energy wasn’t it. It threw her back a ways, landing roughly onto her side, and the entire chamber seemed to shake violently. Pieces of the walls and ceiling started to crumble, and pillars that were still standing broke and fell off to the ground, kicking up smoke and dirt.

The sphere in the center seemed to become unstable all of a sudden, with lightning bolts shooting off in every direction and the colours shifted more violently before finally exploding.

Xiaobai quickly got to her feet, stumbling as she stood. The entire chamber seemed to freeze in time, and she even felt too overwhelmed to breathe. Whatever was in that sphere now emanated such intense power that it felt oppressive, making every hair on her stand on end.

Still, she wasn’t scared.

Through the smoke and dust, she saw green eyes staring at her, small before growing, and growing and growing…

Xiaobai quickly turned on her heels and ran without knowing where she was going, the fire she had created long since gone out, now navigating almost blind.

She stumbled and fell against what she guessed was a wall, and turned around just in time to see a giant shadow with those green eyes rush at her. It stopped just in front of her, letting out a deep, low growl.

And still, Xiaobai still couldn’t find herself to be scared, not fully.

Almost as quickly as it started, everything seemed to end.

The giant creature shrunk in size once more, no longer standing heads taller than her, and those glowing green eyes disappeared.

Xiaobai slowly slid down against the wall, still breathing heavily from her mad dash. Everything was silent once more.

She summoned another flame into her hand, and now, where the monster once stood, was a tiny black cat, passed out on the floor amongst rubble and stone.

 


 

“Hmm, I still can’t believe you found a little cat inside those ruins.”

Xiaobai smiled, feeling a pang of guilt.

After the encounter with the cat, Xiaobai had picked it up and continued to find her way through the ruins until she found a small opening that she could crawl through, if it wasn’t for the fact that she had hurt her leg in her mad dash to avoid the overgrown cat. She had shouted to get Argen’s and Shanxin’s attention.

They had gotten her out of the ruins, and upon seeing the injured state that she was in, as well as how much more dangerous this commission was than they initially thought, Argen called it a day. Xiaobai had protested, as Shanxin was already in the process of healing her leg, but Argen wouldn’t budge.

Now, with the sun setting after a much less eventful day than they had planned, Xiaobai and Shanxin sat outside, with the black cat sleeping soundly in Xiaobai’s lap.

She felt guilty. She didn’t tell either of them about this cat and what had happened, as she couldn’t even make heads or tails of the encounter anyways. It sounded too baffling. It was much easier to claim she found this cat living inside of the ruins than to tell them it had previously been a person, maybe.

Argen would just fret and think she had gone and hit her head at some point.

“He’s kinda cute,” Shanxin said, reaching out to gently scratch at the black cat's head with one finger before leaning back once more. “Huangshou seems pretty weary of him though, scaredy cat.”

Her grey tabby was peeking from around her back, wide eyes unmoving from where he was staring at the black cat intently. Xiaobai laughed softly. Huangshou was a friendly cat, getting along well with most in the village, sans the dogs of course. She had no doubt in her mind that he’d warm up sooner rather than later.

“So, thought of any names yet?”

“I was thinking of naming him Xiao Hei.”

Shanxin stared, not saying anything for a few moments before scoffing, shaking her head.

“What?” Xiaobai exclaimed, feeling her face heating up a bit in embarrassment.

“Nothing, nothing. I just couldn’t help but think how unoriginal that is.”

“But he’s a black cat! It’s perfect!”

“No you’re right, it’s very fitting. It goes well with your name.”

Xiaobai pursed her lips in a pout. So maybe she got her naming abilities from her mom, so what? It was a cute name either way, and she wasn’t about to change her mind on the matter!!

Before anything more could be said on the topic, the door to the small house behind them opened, and the two of them turned their heads to see Argen walking out, softly closing the door behind him.

“Gege!! So what did you tell grandpa? I’m not in trouble, am I?” Xiaobai said, putting on her best innocent face as possible. It wasn’t her fault that she fell into the ruins.

Argen sat down between the two, playfully giving Xiaobai a shove with a scoff. “You can put away that whole innocent look, gramps is just happy that none of us are injured. You know he wouldn’t be able to yell at you.”

“So what’re we going to do about the commission?” Shanxin asked. She had been the most disappointed in the idea of tossing aside such a rewarding commission, excited for the possibility of being paid big. It was understandable that she was itching to get to it before anyone else did.

“We aren’t doing anything about it. I, on the other hand, am going to Katheryne tomorrow morning and asking for more assistance with it, preferably with someone who can point out such weak spots in the earth so no one falls underground again.”

That was possibly the best option honestly. With the way things were, the three of them weren’t quite equipped to deal with something like this. If they had known there was the possibility of pitfalls, then they would’ve asked for more help to begin with. No one knew there were any underground passageways and chambers to begin with, so no one thought of it.

Shanxin fell onto her back, Huangshou jumping out of the way just in time to not be crushed by her falling body as she muttered something about rotten luck.

Argen fully turned to Xiaobai and pointed at the house with his thumb. “Gramps wants to see you, by the way.” Xiaobai panicked for a brief moment, looking down at the sleeping cat in her lap, too soft-hearted to move the poor thing before Argen spoke up once more. “He wants to see the cat too, so you can take him with you.”

Well, she didn’t want to move the cat at all, but this was better than nothing.

As she stood up, gently cradling the cat in her arm, she almost missed the odd look Argen gave the cat, and only wondered briefly what the reason behind it could be. That was, until he let out a surprised yelp. Looking around him, Xiaobai could see that Huangshou finally latched his teeth onto Argen’s elbow. He must’ve been expecting Xiao Hei to bite at him, like with every other animal.

Xiaobai laughed softly as she entered the house, leaving her teammates behind.

They lived in a small village, fairly close to this nation's biggest city. The village was mostly farmers, with nothing lavish about it. Here, everything was simple. Here, everything was small. But here, there was a tight knit community of neighboring friends and family. Nothing exciting or fantastic ever went on here, so when both Xiaobai and Shanxin got their visions a few years ago, they were congratulated by everyone within the village.

Argen, on the other hand, had his vision as early as Xiaobai could remember.

The house she and Argen lived in with their grandpa was something small and simple, like everything else in this village, and Xiaobai wouldn’t have it any other way. Just this past spring, they had to make a few repairs to the roof of it, as the spring showers came through and threatened to flood the place, finding too many leaks in the roof to ignore.

She loved her grandpa, and she loved Argen, and she loved her parents that were away on too many expeditions to keep Xiaobai in a house alone. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Adjusting her hold on the still sleeping black cat in her arms, she softly knocked at the already opened door, leading into her grandpa’s bedroom.

He looked up from where he was seated up on the bed, back resting against the headboard, and he smiled at Xiaobai. “Come here, come here,” he said, gesturing quickly with his hand to beckon her inside the room, “let me see the little stowaway you picked up!”

Excitedly, Xiaobai quickened her steps into the room, sitting at the chair that was beside his bed as she held out Xiao Hei in her arms.

He was silent for a few moments, saying nothing as he reached out to brush his hand through the cat's pure black fur, letting out a humming noise as he did so. “You’ve found something quite extraordinary. And dangerous.”

Xiaobai looked up at him with a confused look, tilting her head a bit. “What do you mean?”

“Tell me, how did you come across finding him?”

She froze for a moment, debating with herself if she could bring herself to lie yet again to someone she loved so much, but before she could even do so, her grandpa beat her to it. “The real story, not the one you told Argen and your friend.”

Her grandpa could always see through her. Without realizing she had been tensing them, she had relaxed her shoulders and gave a small sigh before looking down, looking at the cat.

“I’m… not really sure what happened… There was something that resembled the night sky in there, and when I touched it, a giant monster came at me from within. Before it could do anything to me, it shrunk down to… this. A little black cat.”

It sounded just as bizarre speaking it as it was to actually go through the experience. She half expected him to start laughing and call her crazy or over-imaginative, but he didn’t. Her grandpa just listened silently, nodding along.

“Xiaobai.”

Upon hearing her name, she tilted her head and looked up, back at her grandpa.

“I want you to go meet with Lao Jun.”

Lao Jun…

Lao Jun…?

Hmmm…… Lao Jun…

Her eyes widened.

“You want me to go see the Hydro Archon?!”

He laughed loudly at her reaction before nodding. “Yes, exactly!”

Xiaobai sat back, eyes still wide.

What?

What what???

Did her grandpa lose it? Has he really lost it? He wants her to go seek an audience with the Hydro Archon, Daode Zhizun, the God of Oaths, over a cat?

A cat????

What gave him the idea she could even get his attention in the first place? And why was he using his name so casually?! Did he want to be struck down by Celestia?!

“I can see the steam rising from your head, you don’t need to think so much.”

Blinking, Xiaobai dragged herself out of her thoughts, and decided her thoughts didn’t have to just be thoughts. “Grandpa, this is a cat. A cat!!! Why would I see Daode Zhizun about a cat?! I can’t just walk up before the gates and demand to talk with him just because I found a- a strange cat inside some ruins!!!”

He nodded along once more, allowing Xiaobai to speak out her thoughts without interruption until she was finally done. “So then, do you think you imagined everything that went on inside those ruins? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“I-” Xiaobai froze, her words stopping before she could say anything as she thought for a moment. There was the possibility that she had imagined everything, but at the same time… it wouldn’t have explained why she had felt a strange pull towards whatever this cat had been trapped in, and that also doesn’t explain why she could’ve sworn she had seen a human shape within the entrapment.

Finally, Xiaobai shook her head. “No, I… I’m sure that I hadn’t imagined it.”

“Lao Jun is one of the oldest Archons. He has been around far longer than any history book can recount. Those ruins were something meant to be sealed away and forgotten, with this little fella left to rot away with it. I may be an old man, but I can tell that there’s something special with this one, as well as dangerous. If anyone were to know a thing or two about him, it would be Lao Jun.”

That all made sense. He was the oldest Archon, said to be one of the original victors to have come from the Archon War, as well as the ruling Archon over their nation. If she wanted answers, he would be her best bet. However…

Xiaobai frowned. “But how am I supposed to get him to meet me? I don’t think Daode Zhizun meets with just any commoner.”

He raised his eyebrows before taking on a prideful look. “You simply just use the name you were gifted with of Luo.”

“Why would he change his mind just after hearing our family name?”

“The Luo bloodline is one that has lasted for many generations. He’d be happy to retell all the stories of our family to you, if you have the time.”

 


 

Lao Jun, also known by its citizens as Daode Zhizun, was the Hydro Archon of this nation, whose capital was named Lanxi Zhen. He is the God of Oaths and Protection.

Xiaobai didn’t know much about him, other than the rumors that the common folk pass around, which…. She wasn’t too sure of how accurate they were. Some were extremely mundane without anything too interesting, some spoke of him as being a benevolent god and saving the common folk, and then there were some that were just a bit odd, like how he was extremely interested in bizarre works of fiction and quite eccentric.

She really enjoyed hearing of these rumors, but she refused to make any assumptions about the god herself. How could she when she has never met him? It would be pretty rude to make any conclusions about him.

What she did know to be true, however, was his dedication to protecting all people of his nation.

Here, no one ever went hungry. If there was a natural disaster of any sort, Daode Zhizun would make a personal appearance to said area, bringing with him bags of grain and rice to feed the people until they were able to support themselves once more.

No one in this nation was desperate enough to turn to a life of crime, and any who came over from other nations were taken care of swiftly.

What Xiaobai knew for sure was she loved living in this nation watched over by Daode Zhizun.

However, despite all these appearances that he made, it was hard to meet with him personally.

For one, Lanxi Zhen was a capital built upon a mountain, and at the very top of it was where Daode Zhizun resided. For most, making such a trip up that mountain was too laborious. For those who did make it up, they were turned away for one reason or another (those are where the odd rumors come from, as most of the time, the reasoning would be something along the lines of “Sorry, Daode Zhizun is currently reading, and would rather not be interrupted. Any matters can be addressed over there.”)

So, it was safe to say that Xiaobai’s hopes of meeting with the Archon was low.

But, of course, if there were any answers she could get from Daode Zhizun about Xiao Hei, then she had to try!!!

Xiaobai had made the decision to leave early the next day, as the trip to the capital would take almost a full day, knowing she would get to Lanxi Zhen before the sun would set beyond the horizon.

She welcomed the chill of the morning air, taking a deep breath in and feeling the slight sting in her lungs. Xiao Hei had yet to wake up, so she decided to place the cat gently in a spacious backpack with enough cushioning to keep him safe and warm, and strapped to her hip was a smaller bag, holding a few coins and some snacks for the trip.

She hadn’t told Argen or Shanxin of her travels. She didn’t want to bother them.

They would ask questions, she knew for sure they would, and she wouldn’t know what to tell them. She felt crazy for doing such a thing, and they would think she was crazy if she tried to explain it.

Well, that was the plan, anyways.

That plan didn’t work out, though, when she finally came to just the outskirts of the village, and she saw two familiar silhouettes, slowing her steps down to a stop. Xiaobai internally panicked for a moment, wondering if she could sneak away before they noticed her and find another route.

Before she could move, Shanxin turned her head and spotted her.

“Xiaobai!!” Shanxin shouted, very loud, very unlike her normal quieter voice. “Did you really think you could plan on ditching us?!”

Ah, so she was angry.

Xiaobai quickly thought of her chances of getting away, not wanting to face whatever wrath Shanxin may throw at her, but really, that would just make matters worse.

And, honestly, Xiaobai felt a little happy she wouldn’t have to take this journey alone.

“How did you two know I was leaving?” Xiaobai said as she rushed over, careful not to run too quickly or move too much, though at this point, she wasn’t entirely sure that Xiao Hei would actually wake up, no matter how roughly he was treated in the backpack.

“We were listening in on your conversation with your gramps last night,” Shanxin said nonchalantly.

Why isn’t that very surprising?

“I can’t let you go to the capital alone,” Argen said, reaching out his hand to lightly ruffle at Xiaobai’s hair, which caused her to smile and laugh lightly before batting his hand away. “I promised your parents I would watch out for you. Besides, you might get lost in such a big city.”

“How could I get lost? Daode Zhizun’s palace is at the top of a mountain, it’s kind of hard to miss!!”

“You were raised in the countryside, a place like Lanxi Zhen is overwhelming for those who have never been to a city before.”

“Come on, let’s get moving,” Shanxin said, cutting off their conversation as she took Xiaobai’s hand and started walking. Argen quickly followed before taking the space on Xiaobai’s other side.

She couldn’t help but to smile.

She was ready to take this adventure on her own, taking sole responsibility for Xiao Hei and whatever weird circumstances surrounded him, but she couldn’t help but feel relieved that, for now, she wouldn’t have to be alone.

 

“By the way, Shanxin, why do you have Huangshou with you?”

“He needs to meet Xiao Hei once he wakes up, Huangshou needs a friend.”

 

 

Mountain air was different from the air in the country. It was hard to explain, but Xiaobai liked it. It also carried the smells from the food stalls scattered about Lanxi Zhen, making her stomach growl every time one drifted passed.

They arrived at Lanxi Zhen late in the day, just as she thought. The sun was close to disappearing completely behind the horizon, painting the city in a beautiful golden colour. One thing Xiaobai didn’t know of Lanxi Zhen was the many waterways cutting through the city. Such a thing didn’t happen on mountains, as any streams would run down and into larger bodies of water at the base, but Xiaobai learned that such a thing was possible through Daode Zhizun, one of the many gifts from the Hydro Archon.

Daode Zhizun controlled the waterways, able to keep them from flooding due to rain, or from freezing over from the cold mountain air. It was the quickest way to get from one side of the city to the other.

Xiaobai was amazed by the city.

Begrudgingly, she admitted that Argen was right. She would get lost if she were here on her own, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud. Argen lead the way the entire time, weaving them through the city with ease, almost as if he’s been here before.

It sat in Xiaobai’s mind, bothering her as they walked up the many steps of the mountain to the top. She could hear Shanxin groaning behind her, with Xiaobai staring at Argen’s back as he continued to take the lead.

For as long as she’s known Argen, he’s never mentioned being in Lanxi Zhen before, and she’s never heard him making any trips here either. He didn’t even have a map or anything of the sort on hand, so it confused her.

“Gege?” she called out, and he gave a hum in response. “I’ve been wondering… You’ve been leading us around the capital all day, like you know this place well. Have you been here before?”

Xiaobai waited for a response, and waited, but an answer never came.

Normally, whenever she asked a question, Argen would answer right away, even if it was to just say he didn’t know. It was weird to have him ignore her question, and in the end, it just made her worried.

Was there something he wasn’t telling her? Something he didn’t want her to know?

If he’s been here before, she wouldn’t get upset!! In fact, it would be amazing if he had been to Lanxi Zhen before, and she would love nothing more than to hear whatever stories he had from visiting this place. Lanxi Zhen so far was beautiful and there was something new and interesting around every corner.

Actually, now that she thinks about it, there isn’t much about Argen that she really knows…

“We’re here, the Jun pavilion.”

Argen’s voice cut through Xiaobai’s thoughts. Without realizing it, they were at the top of the mountain, with Argen turned to look back at them, smiling.

The setting sun shone on the palace in such a way that made the scene literally breathtaking, and Xiaobai starred with her mouth agape.

From the base of the mountain, or even from the surrounding city, it was hard to tell what lay at the top of the mountain exactly, other than being able to see the roof of a building. Here, at the top, there was a large body of water that surrounded the buildings, reflecting the sky to make it look golden and endless. A tall building stood in the center of the pool of water, with two smaller buildings on either side of it, embroidered in gold with white walls. Before them was a stone path, leading to the entrance of the buildings.

“I have to run a few errands,” Argen said after a few moments of allowing the two younger adventurers to soak in the sight. “I’ll meet up with you two back at the inn I showed you.”

Xiaobai blinked, taking a moment to process Argen’s words before she turned back to him. “Wait, where are you going? You’re leaving us?”

Argen nodded, but gave her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, there’s no one around, so you’ll have no problem meeting with Daode Zhizun, just go into that bigger building in the center.”

“But…”

Xiaobai tried to think of something to say, anything to get him to stay with them to meet Daode Zhizun. That thought from earlier, that Argen might be hiding something from her resurfaced. But really, why should she doubt him?

Why should she doubt the gege that has protected her and taken care of her for most of her life? The person who took up being an adventurer just to keep her safe, despite having no interest in becoming one in the first place.

She made him do a lot of things in his life just so he could watch over her, so now, she decided she wouldn’t force him to do this. Whatever it was that was bothering him, from keeping him from talking about this place, she wasn’t going to force him to say it. She wasn’t going to make him join them inside the Jun Pavilion.

So, Xiaobai smiled before reaching out and giving a squeeze to Argen’s hand. “Don’t leave us then, make sure you finish your errands quickly!!”

Some emotion Xiaobai couldn’t quite place flashed in Argen’s eyes, one she could only assume was relief, as he let out a light laugh. “I wouldn’t leave the two of you stranded here. Just take the path I showed you and you’ll find the inn in no time.”

With quick goodbyes from the three of them, Argen made his way back down the stairs. Xiaobai and Shanxin watched until they could no longer see him, and the awkwardness took over. Neither of them knew how to present themselves to an Archon, and they were at a loss of just what to do. But Argen told them to walk into the main building, and it seemed like their only option, so with the sun finally set beyond the horizon and the sky turning a deep shade of blue, they made their way into the building.

 

The inside was just as magnificent and breathtaking as the outside. The walls climbed higher than they could see, looking much taller on the inside, with the walls entirely covered with shelved books of all colours. There was no way to count the many books, but Xiaobai assumed them to be well into the hundreds, maybe even thousands.

“So many books,” Shanxin said in wonder as she took a few steps forward, walking deeper into the building. Turning her head to look back, she smirked. “Must be a nerd.”

Xiaobai gasped. “Shanxin!!” she yelled in a hushed voice. Her voice had carried, who knows who might currently be inside the building!! It would’ve been easy to hear her comment, even if she said it in a lower voice!!

“Must only nerds enjoy a good book?”

The two of them jumped, with Shanxin cursing loudly and Xiaobai letting out a tiny, high pitched noise in fright.

Turning around, there stood a tall man with a book in hand, his face wearing an expression of amusement. His hair was blue and curled slightly, reaching so low onto his back that it almost touched his knees. “I wonder what has the two of you so frightened,” he said, his voice full of amusement.

“You snuck up on us without making a sound!” Shanxin shouted, a hand still placed on her chest. “Of course we got frightened!”

The man hummed, seeming to nod in understanding as he used a book to poorly hide the smile on his face. “I apologize then, it wasn’t my intention. So, what brings the two of you here, so late into the day? Shouldn’t you be turning in for the night soon? It’s a long way back down the mountain.”

“We’re here to meet with Daode Zhizun, do you know where we might find him?” Xiaobai asked. She had already recovered from the startle, as Shanxin was still taking a moment more to calm her racing heart, as well as detach Huangshou from where he had jumped onto a bookshelf, holding on for dear life.

“Daode Zhizun? Why are you meeting with him? Don’t you know he doesn’t take any visitors past a certain time?” Xiaobai watched as the man leisurely walked by them, turning then to a shelf to pull out a new book and rifling through the pages for a moment before giving a satisfied nod.

“I need to talk to him about something, and I can’t bring it up to anyone else without sounding crazy.”

At this, the man's eyebrows raised. “And who’s to say that Daode Zhizun won’t also find you to be crazy?”

“Because my grandfather reassured me that if I were to tell him my last name, then he’d know that I’m serious.”

The man walked passed them once more, this time making his way deeper into the building, walking by even more bookshelves until coming to a clearing in the middle of it all. Xiaobai followed closely behind, afraid of getting lost in such a large and maze-like place. “Daode Zhizun knows of many family names and bloodlines, how can you be sure he would bother to remember yours?”

“Because my family name is Luo--”

Xiaobai was cut off by the man suddenly turning around. Any sort of amusement he wore before was gone, inside replaced with something else, something mixed with shock. “What did you say your name is?”

“My-My name is Luo Xiaobai… I’m the granddaughter of Luo Yunfei.”

“Luo Yunfei… That’s a name I haven’t heard in far too long…” the man muttered as he closed his eyes. He was silent for a few moments before he smiled, and once again opened his eyes. “Tell me, how is he doing?”

“He is doing well, sir. But, how do you know my grandfather?”

“I should properly introduce myself then. Seems as though you’re used to referring to me as Daode Zhizun, but those of Luo can call me by name, Lao Jun.”

From a few feet away, still struggling with Huangshou, Shanxin shouted loudly.

WHAT?!

Chapter Text

“I see, so your grandfather advised you to come to me in search of answers, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

Lao Jun gave a hum in thought, eyes drifting to the side.

After the initial shock of having already found the Hydro Archon, Lao Jun had insisted the two join him in the center of the building, where all the bookshelves seemed to spiral and center around, making the space seem closed off from the world, but in a comforting way.

The smell of old paper and their bindings filled the room, intense with just how many of them there were, and Xiaobai briefly wondered just how often these shelves got dusted. They seemed to stretch on forever above them.

“And what sort of questions might you have?”

Xiaobai reached for the backpack she had placed down ever so gently beside her, opening it up to reveal the still sleeping black cat, curled up and nested in blankets and cloth. “This is the reason. Are you familiar with the ruins on the outskirts of our nation?”

Lao Jun raised his eyebrows slightly, resting his elbow against a nearby table and supported his head with his hand. He once again wore an expression that seemed amused by something. “Have you present day humans taken an interest in this civilization long gone?”

“We were commissioned by scholars through the Adventurer’s Guild to clear a part of them out,” Shanxin explained. “We didn’t get very far though. Xiaobai ended up falling into the basement part of the ruins.”

“I see. And that’s where you met him?”

Xiaobai nodded. “He was… trapped in something, and it reacted when I touched it. He turned into a giant beast before taking this form, and he’s been asleep since then…”

“It broke when you touched it?”

Xiaobai nodded once more.

“Then it must’ve been weakened considerably. That, or you have some sort of power sleeping inside of you that instantly shattered it. I can’t tell you which it is.” Lao Jun shrugged.

From the corner of her eye, Xiaobai could see Shanxin’s expression shift ever so slightly. An expression of bewilderment mixed with “isn’t he supposed to be an all knowing god?”.

“I want to know why Xiao Hei was put in there in the first place.”

“Xiao Hei? Is that the name you’ve given him?”

“Yes, it is.”

The small smile Lao Jun had been wearing on his face this entire time seemed to widen more. “A simple name. You may have some sort of connection with him if that’s the name you decided on.”

Before Xiaobai could ask what he meant by that, Lao Jun continued on. “I’m afraid I can’t give you any answers.”

Shanxin reacted quicker than Xiaobai could, slamming a hand down on the table that Lao Jun was using to lean against. “We climbed up all those flights of stairs, isn’t there anything you can tell us?!” Shanxin wasn’t one for too much physical activity. It was understandable that she was more upset by this, simply because she doesn’t want that entire walk to have been for nothing.

“I may be one of the oldest Archons, but I don't know everything. The history of that civilization was one I wasn’t a part of, as I was here, building Lanxi Zhen and securing a capital for those I watch over.”

Xiaobai looked down, her shoulders sagging a bit at this answer. She looked at Xiao Hei, still asleep. She wanted to be able to help him, but she had no idea how, because she doesn’t even know where to begin. She could have sworn that, when she first saw him, he had looked like any other human while trapped.

How was he able to shift forms? Why was he trapped in the first place? Was he even connected to those ruins in the first place, or had he just wandered into the ruins and got trapped for trespassing?

“I might not be able to give you answers, but I know someone who can.”

Her head shot up, looking back at Lao Jun who was now sitting straight, no longer using that table to lean against. “You… You do? Can you please tell us where to find them?”

At this, Lao Jun shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s not a simple matter of finding him. I had set him out on a mission not too long ago, and he’s rather hard to track.”

“You should’ve just told us this from the beginning instead of giving us the runaround,” Shanxin said.

“It wouldn’t have been as dramatic.”

 

…. Ah.

“While we wait for him to return, I do know someone else that can help Xiao Hei now.”

“Help how?”

“Xiao Hei was locked away for quite some time. One of the reasons he’s sleeping for so long is because he’s recharging his energy. If you were to meet with this person, his rate of recovery will be almost tripled. He would wake up in a matter of days, rather than months.”

Xiaobai leaned forward in excitement. Even if they weren’t going to be getting answers right away, at least this would be something that could help, and if he were to wake up before that other person were to come back, then she was sure Xiao Hei would be able to give the answers himself. “Who do we have to meet?”

Lao Jun was silent, not answering for a few seconds before he closed his eyes. “Don’t worry, she’s already here.”

Before either of them could react, the doors to the pavilion opened with a gust of wind that brushed gently through the building, despite being nowhere near them.

The wind brought with it the fresh and gentle aroma of flowers and herbs, something more on the side of medicinal. Xiaobai heard the sound of hurried footsteps on the wooden floor, getting louder as they drew closer.

“Shifu, the situation got worse!! More were brought into my city, I have no idea where these people are coming from!! It’s such a mess, I swear I-- oh.”

Xiaobai turned towards the sound of the voice, and was met with a girl with long brown hair, and blue eyes that seemed to reflect the sky on a clear day, the sign of warm and bright days. She came to a halt once she entered the small clearing where the three of them were currently seated, looking very surprised to see that Lao Jun had visitors.

“I thought you normally didn’t have visitors at this time?” the girl asked when her eyes finally fell back on Lao Jun.

“I don’t, but this is a special case. This is Shanxin, and this Xiaobai, who is of Luo blood. They needed to meet with me rather urgently.”

The girl nodded along slowly, once more looking back and forth between them before she startled slightly. “Oh!! I’m sorry, I’m Qing Ning,” she introduced herself with a small bow, seeming as though she just remembered her manners, and the two bowed their heads in return.

“To save you two the shock you experienced earlier, Qing Ning used to be my student. She’s now the neighboring nations prominent doctor, as well as the Anemo Archon of said nation.”

Shanxin bent over, a supporting hand placed on the table. “I think I’m gonna black out…”

They’ve met two Archons in the span of two hours… Xiaobai also felt as if she might pass out.

“Ah, shifu, I think you scared them.”

“This is nothing compared to the scare they went through earlier,” Lao Jun laughed.

Qing Ning pursed her lips in a pout, hands placed on her hips. “And what’s with this ‘used to be’ talk? Shifu is still shifu, even if we’re both Archons!!”

“Ahahahaha, my bad, my bad.”

“Well, anyways,” Qing Ning dropped her hands from her hips, now looking uncertain as her eyes once more darted around the room at all the faces. “I have something important to discuss with you, so…”

Lao Jun waved his hand dismissively. “These two can be trusted, whatever you have to say, you can say in front of them. Besides, they need your help anyways, and maybe they could help you in return.”

Qing Ning seemed deep in thought for a moment, bringing a hand up over her mouth as she looked down a bit, weighing her options before speaking. “Well, it has to do with those damned delusions again.”

Xiaobai tilted her head in confusion. “Delusions? What are those?”

Qing Ning let out a long sigh, looking annoyed. “Delusions are like visions, but bring no good at all. Instead of being gifted to those chosen to receive them, delusions are man-made that control the elements. However, they tend to backfire on any who use them, causing a wide range of side effects. Some will rapidly age as their energy and life force is sucked away with every use of the delusion, while some instantly die within one use.”

Hearing the explanation, Xiaobai felt a chill run down her spine.

Vision users were far and few between. Not many of the current population have visions, as one has to be blessed by the gods and Celestia. Xiaobai heard rumors of those without visions becoming jealous, wanting to have that sort of power for themselves and cursing the names of those lucky enough to be granted one. She would’ve never imagined that there were those who would go to such lengths as to put themselves in danger just to be granted access to control the elements. It was heartbreaking.

“How many more have appeared in your nation?” Lao Jun asked. For once, the amused look was nowhere to be found on his face.

“About 30, with 12 of them having been brought to me already dead, or shortly passing on after reaching my doors.”

“Is this a problem only with people in your nation, or are they coming from other nations as well?” Shanxin asked.

“As far as I can tell, they seem to be coming from all nations, but I haven’t the time to go around asking for full history.” Qing Ning had her arms crossed now with her eyebrows furrowed, looking all the more annoyed and worried. “You two said you needed my help, right?”

Both Xiaobai and Shanxin nodded.

“Then come with me and shifu to my nation. I need extra hands, so in exchange for my assistance, I’ll need the two of you to go around and gather as much information for me as you can from those who’ve used those cursed delusions. I need to know if there is a focal point to all of this.”

It didn’t take much for the two of them to agree to go. How could they decline anyways? There were people in danger and in need of help, and even though there wasn’t much the either of them could do, they would do their best to help out. Also, it was one step closer for Xiaobai to figure out how to help Xiao Hei. She felt a bit bad that some of her intentions for helping were selfish, but really, even if she wasn’t doing this for Xiao Hei, she would do this regardless.

“I know you’re itching to get this problem solved now,” Lao Jun said as he stood, folding his hands in front of him, “but I think these two little adventurer’s need to get some sleep. They traveled by foot and climbed up my mountain all in a day's time. You know how it is.”

Qing Ning gasped, a hand covering her mouth as she did so. “That completely slipped my mind!! Yes, please get some rest!! Do you need accommodations? Do you wish to sleep here in the Jun Pavilion so you don’t need to make the trip back down? I know shifu won’t mind!!”

“Why are you offering up my home?”

Shanxin smiled mischievously. Instantly, Xiaobai was put on alert and spoke up before Shanxin could. “No, we’re good!!”

“Are you sure?” Qing Ning asked, now looking concerned. “It’s a very long walk, and it’s dark out. It would be no trouble at all if the two of you were to stay.”

“Really, we’re fine, we already have a place to stay, and there’s someone waiting for us.”

“I’m assuming it’s at the inn here in Lanxi Zhen?”

Xiaobai nodded. “It is.”

“Then please, give Pan Jing and Lady Xia my regards, and let them know that Lao Jun will pay for your and your companions' accommodations.”

“Ah, we really--”

Shanxin threw a hand over Xiaobai’s mouth, covering it quickly. “Does that also include any food we purchase in the inn?”

Lao Jun seemed caught off guard for a moment as Qing Ning struggled to hold in her laughter, shoulders shaking lightly, before Lao Jun once again smiled. “Of course, help yourselves to whatever you’d like. You’re doing little Qing Ning a huge favor by helping her, so it’s the least I could do.”

Having an Archon pay for your inn fees felt like something unreal, and it almost caused Xiaobai’s head to spin, but honestly… she was starving. They had a few snacks on the way here and stopped for a light meal for lunch, but that was about it. No doubt that Argen was hungry as well, running whatever errands he had to and waiting up for the two of them. Guess this time, she could let it slide.

The two of them walked out of the building, followed closely behind by Qing Ning and Lao Jun as they agreed on a time to meet at the Jun Pavilion tomorrow, where Qing Ning will take them to the Anemo nation for the day.

As they left the building, there was a young boy standing with his arms crossed, with green hair that seemed to curl at the ends, looking soft and fluffy. His face was worn in a frown that only seemed to deepen when he turned towards them upon hearing their voices.

“I thought you said we were here only for a quick visit,” he called out.

“Sorry, Diting, something came up,” Qing Ning said with a wave of her hand.

“Who are these mortals?”

“This is Xiaobai and Shanxin. You two, this is Diting, he’s both my little brother and retainer!” Qing Ning patted his head, ruffling up that soft green hair, which caused him to make a sound in protest that sounded close to hissing.

“I was wondering if you came alone or brought someone with you. Diting, why didn’t you come in and greet me?”

“You two were just going to talk about boring stuff, I didn’t want to sit around and wait.”

Lao Jun placed a hand to his chest, looking for a moment as if he had been wounded.

“Tomorrow, Diting will bring you to my capital, so you’ll be meeting up with him here. He’s a bit prickly on punctuation, so try not to be late, or he’ll more than likely leave without you.”

“What am I, a taxi?”

“Would you rather do this, or help me with making medicine and tending to patients all day?”

“... Be here on time, or I’m leaving without you.”

With that, Qing Ning and Diting disappeared with the wind. After saying their farewells and promising to meet up tomorrow, Xiaobai and Shanxin made their descent down the mountain, taking the ever long and winding stairs one by one. Shanxin grumbled under her breath, but Xiaobai wasn’t paying any attention, too lost in thought.

Soon, she would be able to help Xiao Hei and get some answers.

She couldn’t quite place why she wanted to help Xiao Hei so much. It would’ve been so much easier to have just left him in those ruins as a tiny cat, looking away and never having to deal with it. It wasn’t her problem to deal with in the first place.

But a bitterness filled her mouth every time she thought of abandoning him.

It was hard to explain, but she felt as though she needed to stay by his side. There was a sense of dread creeping up in her, and she didn’t know why, just that she needed to stay by his side.

 

Somehow, it didn’t seem to take as long to get down the mountain and back into Lanxi Zhen, and with only just a bit of getting lost, the two of them were able to find the inn. Just as Xiaobai thought, Argen had waited for them before eating, and after Shanxin went to explain the situation to the owners, they ordered far more food than they probably should’ve.

The three of them chatted, with Xiaobai and Shanxin explaining the situation with Lao Jun and planning on meeting up with Qing Ning tomorrow, and Argen shared some bits of what he had been up to while they were at Jun Pavilion. It was a nice and relaxing time for a day that was filled with travels and surprises, and Xiaobai laughed easily, forgetting her troubles for a moment. She was once again reminded how much she enjoyed travelling with two of the most important people in her life, and only wished that her grandfather was here to join them. Then, that would’ve been perfect, and she would have nothing else to ask for.

The food finally finished, and Shanxin passed out quickly, sprawled out wildly with Huangshou sleeping contently next to her, curled up in a ball.

Xiaobai also tried to sleep, she meant to fall asleep quickly, knowing the next day would be a rather busy one and she would need all the strength and energy she could muster, but… no matter what she did, no matter how long she kept her eyes closed for, she just couldn’t drift off to sleep.

As silently as possible, she made her way to the balcony, making sure to close the sliding door behind her quickly.

The mountain air was crisp and colder than what it had been when the sun was bright and shining. It caused her to shiver a bit, but she welcomed the cold. It was refreshing, and cut through her jumbled thoughts.

Once more, she thought back to Xiao Hei, where he currently lay safely on a pillow. He hasn’t stirred at all, and she couldn’t help but feel worried.

Lao Jun had said that without Qing Ning’s help, he would continue to sleep for months on end. Was that normal? Would he survive all that time without food or water? Was he even human to begin with?

Xiaobai couldn’t stop the rushing thoughts. She looked out at the city of Lanxi Zhen, now dark and still, almost as if the buildings themselves were also deep asleep.

“Here.”

She turned and looked up from where she was leaning against the railing. Argen smiled, holding out a cup to her. “It’s cold out here. I got you something warm to drink, it should also help you fall asleep.”

Xiaobai accepted the mug and took a sip. Something warm, something sweet, it warmed her from the inside out, and she smiled at Argen. “Thank you, gege. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

Argen shook his head, using his hip to lean against the railing next to her. “Nah, you didn’t. I’ve actually been awake for a while now, guess neither one of us can sleep, huh?”

“Ugh, I wish I was like Shanxin, she fell asleep so quickly, I’m jealous.”

Argen laughed lightly. “She’s a free spirit without much care in the world. This was probably the most physical activity she’s had in quite a while, other than taking commissions with us. If she were left to her own devices, you know she would stay holed up inside all day, inventing who knows what.”

Mentally, Xiaobai agreed. Shanxin liked to make things, she didn’t normally like to go out, not unless it was with Argen and her. Shanxin found joy in the challenge of creating new things, and she also used her electro vision to help out with the process as well. In fact, that was probably how Shanxin got her vision to begin with. Because even though a lot of the times her weird inventions failed, she never gave up.

“Are you excited to go to the Anemo nation tomorrow?” Argen asked after a few moments of silence between them.

“A little,” Xiaobai said honestly, looking down at the cup held in her hands. “I’m also pretty nervous.”

“Don’t be, the Anemo nation is just as kind as Qing Ning is. In fact, our nation and the Anemo one are pretty similar.”

“Are they?”

Argen nodded. “The Hydro and Anemo Archons are pretty close, as well as the Cryo Archon, that’s why the three of them have never gone to war or had any disagreements. Just like the Archons, the people of each nation are just as closely tied together.”

“How’re the three of them close? Qing Ning mentioned something about Lao Jun being her shifu, is that true?”

Once again, Argen smiled. This time, as he spoke, his eyes moved from looking at Xiaobai to looking out at the city. Xiaobai couldn’t see what he was looking at, almost as if he were looking at something far away that only he could see. “That’s right, before becoming an Archon, Lao Jun had taken in Qing Ning and became her teacher, showing her all that he knew about medicine and helped her to grow.”

“What about the Cryo Archon?”

“He’s someone that swore loyalty to Lao Jun, and Lao Jun only. He never listens to what Celestia has to say. If it doesn’t come to him through Lao Jun, he ignores it.”

An Archon that doesn’t listen to Celestia? Xiaobai thought for a moment, and figured that would make him someone very dangerous indeed, but after having met Lao Jun and Qing Ning, if he was loyal to them and had a close bond, then that only meant he was just as good of a person as the two of them are. “You sure know a lot, gege. I can’t wait for you to go with us tomorrow and meet Lao Jun and Qing Ning yourself, I think you’d like them.”

Slowly, the smile faded from Argen’s face, and he looked away from the horizon. He was silent for a moment, as he looked down, seeming to be thinking for a moment, before once more looking at Xiaobai. “I’m sorry, but I’m not going with you and Shanxin.”

Xiaobai blinked. She blinked again. Her smile fell. “What?”

“I’m not going with you two.”

Something akin to panic rose up in Xiaobai’s throat. Having Argen not go to see Lao Jun with them was one thing. She knew Argen had been right here in Lanxi Zhen, waiting for them, separated but within arms reach still if she needed anything.

But going alone? To an entirely new nation, where she knew nothing about it? Where she didn’t know anyone?

“But… But, gege, why aren’t you going?”

Argen once again looked away.

He looked conflicted, like he wants to say something but isn’t sure how. Or maybe, it’s more that he can’t. He wore a similar expression earlier, when he left them at Jun Pavilion. “Xiaobai, I… I really wish I could go. Trust me, I would rather not leave you alone in an unfamiliar place, but…” Argen shook his head, his shoulders hunching before he finally let out a sigh and they fell. “I’m sorry, I promise I’ll tell you when you get back, okay?”

Xiaobai felt her stomach twist in knots as she looked away. She still felt unsure, still felt anxious and wanted answers, wanted to know why he refused to go with them. It didn’t make sense, none of this made any sense.

She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

No, this wouldn’t do any good. Having these thoughts, thinking how unfair it was and how upset it was making it, it wouldn’t do any good, no when she could so clearly see on his face that he was just as upset by it as she was.

She trusted him. She trusted that whatever reason he had for not going was an important one. She’d never seen Argen look so torn and distraught before. Whatever the reason, it must weigh down on him, and demanding answers out of him now would just be selfish of her.

So instead, Xiaobai swallowed down the anxiety. They would be fine without him, they would be close by to the Anemo and Hydro Archons, both of which are kind and good people. If anything were to happen, she trusted that the Archons would keep her and Shanxin safe. And she had to trust that Argen believed the same, that he would never leave them alone unless he truly had to, and would do so after making sure they would be safe without him.

Xiaobai put on a smile, looking back at Argen, whose head raised after feeling her gaze on him.

“I trust you. Just make sure to tell me the reason when you’re ready, okay?”

She watched as relief spread through his body, looking as though a weight had been lifted off of him, and Argen once again smiled at her. “I will, I promise.”

Chapter Text

The trek up the stairs this time to Jun Pavilion didn’t feel that long this time. When they walked up them yesterday, it felt like an eternity to get to the top. Today, however, it only felt like a matter of minutes. It was hard to tell if it was simply because they’ve already made the walk once and were used to it, or if it was just a trick of the mind.

Either way, Xiaobai was relieved for the shorter walk, as they reached the top in no time, and the top of Jun Pavilion was just as breathtaking in the early morning sun as it had been in the darker evening sky. The sky was reflected in the water surrounding the buildings, making it seem as though it were floating in the sky, and the water shone as if it were made up of crystals.

As opposed to the last time they came, there were people walking about between the buildings, some looking as if they were in a rush, while some looked as if they were taking leisurely strolls. Amongst the people, easy to spot with his unruly green hair was Diting, shouting something that Xiaobai couldn’t quite pick up on to someone that was hurrying about, looking apologetic before they disappeared.

“Diting!! We’re here!!” Xiaobai called out as she raised an arm and waved, catching his attention.

He seemed to huff as he made his way over, placing his hands on his hips. “You kept me waiting. A moment more, and I would’ve left.”

The two exchanged a look. They were sure they were right on time, maybe even just a bit early, but it seemed as though Diting was more strict with punctuation than they thought. “We were tired from travelling yesterday,” Shanxin said.

With a wave of a hand, almost as if to brush the words away, Diting shook his head. “Ah, whatever, you’re finally here so let's get going, I hate spending time in Jun Pavilion.”

Before either one of them asked how they would get there, Diting was surrounded in purple flames, causing both Xiaobai and Shanxin to have to step back from the intensity of it. Just as quickly as the flames appeared, they fluttered and sparked out. Where Diting had been standing previously was a giant beast covered in green, those same purple flames looking like tufts of fur as they swayed and flickered about.

Xiaobai and Shanxin couldn’t help but stare in awe.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” the beast said, having the same voice as Diting. “Qing Ning is a very busy person, you’re making her wait.”

There wasn’t much to be said in this situation, both of them too dumbfounded to make any noise come out of their mouth, so they did as told, clambering onto the back of Diting’s beast form. Shanxin held Huangshou protectively with one arm, though the cat seemed as though he’d rather be anywhere but here right now.

The wind picked up, howling as it surrounded them as it picked up speed. Diting jumped, and suddenly, they were in the sky.

Shanxin screamed in panic. Xiaobai would’ve too, if her stomach didn’t feel as though it was left behind on the ground.

“Try not to fall off… or throw up,” Diting said. His legs moved as if he were running, but with absolutely nothing underneath his feet except for the wind. “If you throw up, I will drop you.”

It took quite a few moments for Xiaobai’s heart to stop hammering in her chest and to calm down enough to look around, but when she did, she once again found that she couldn’t form any words.

The view from up in the sky was a sight to behold. Green and blue stretched on and on, as far as her eyes could see. Trees and houses that once stood stories higher now looked as though they were tiny specks. She could see the mountains as they stretched across the land rise and fall into peaks and valleys. From a distance, she could’ve sworn she could see their tiny village.

“This,” she said, her voice cracking from the intensity of her emotions, and Xiaobai smiled widely as she began laughing. “This is amazing!!”

“Amazing? Amazing?! You call this amazing?!” Shanxin shouted from behind her. “This is absolutely terrifying!!”

“Hey, Diting!”

“Don’t ignore me!!!”

“How’re you able to change shape like this?! And how can you fly?!”

“I’m not some mere human like you,” Diting scoffed, but there was a sense of pride in his voice. “I’m an illuminated beast, changing between forms is nothing for me, as well as wind walking. I’m quite powerful, you know.”

If he were a human right now, Xiaobai had no doubt that she would seem him puffing out his chest as he boasted, and she couldn’t help but to laugh.

She wondered for a moment if Xiao Hei was also some sort of illuminated beast, but those thoughts and worries were quickly taken from her mind, as she couldn’t help but to look around and continue to stare at the world from the sky. It was so much different up here than it was on the ground, so much bigger, so much she hasn’t seen and experienced yet. She hoped that, one day, she’d be able to travel to further places and meet all different types of people, and see this sort of view once more.

Xiaobai knew that from Lanxi Zhen to the Anemo nation's capital would’ve taken them almost a week to get to. Like this, up in the sky, it took them less than an hour, and she once more marveled at the ability to traverse the skies.

The capital for the Anemo nation was a port city next to the ocean.

Having never seen the ocean before, both Xiaobai and Shanxin stared in awe as they drew closer, watching as the vast waters stretched on further than their eyes could see. The air here was just as gentle as the one from their homeland, familiar yet different, as it carried the scent of salt along with it.

There were no waterways stretching across the city, but there were so many windmills and slowly turned in the wind, and colourful kites soared and danced in the sky. It was beautiful in its own way.

Finally, Diting made the descent, drawing closer and closer to the city below before finally touching down on a large balcony in the center of the city. Just as Diting got all four of his feet on the stone, a set of doors opened.

“Welcome back,” Qing Ning smiled widely as she walked over before turning her attention to Xiaobai and Shanxin. “Welcome to my nation. I hope Diting didn’t give you any problems on the way here?”

Qing Ning held a hand out to Shanxin, which she took gratefully as she quickly got off the beast. Her legs practically gave out from underneath her, but Qing Ning was quick to catch and support her, laughing openly. “A warning would’ve been nice,” Shanxin said, her voice shaking just the tiniest bit as she righted herself.

“And ruin the surprise?” Qing Ning’s smile widened even more.

After making sure that Shanxin could support herself just fine, she turned and held her hand out to Xiaobai, who took the outstretched hand gratefully, also fearing that her own legs would give out the moment she stood.

Once the two of them were off, the same swirl of purple flames surrounded Diting, and he turned back into his human form. “I wasn’t rough on the way here, humans are just weak.”

“Be nice to them, Diting,” Qing Ning lightly scolded, making sure Xiaobai was okay to stand on her own. “That’s not how we treat guests either, especially not ones so willing to help us out.”

“They’re not even willing to do that, they’re here for their own gain.”

“Help is still help, no matter the form or reason it comes in. Now, let’s get you two inside, there’s one other person I’d like you to meet, and then I’ll send you off. Diting, could you go ahead and start doing a routine check up on the East side for me?”

As Diting turned and walked away, Qing Ning took the lead and began walking in the opposite direction, with Shanxin and Xiaobai hurrying to follow along. Xiaobai’s own legs still felt like they would collapse at any moment, so she did her best to keep up.

They walked into the building that the grand balcony was attached to, and the inside was just as grand. There were many windows, allowing in natural lighting, and many plants of various shapes and sizes and colours scattered about. Their footsteps echoed as they walked, and the faint noise of commotion could be heard past the railing, leading to the bigger open ground floor below them.

“Where are we? What sort of place is this?” Shanxin asked, the same questions filling her head as the one in Xiaobai’s.

“This is the capital's medical center, the largest of all the nations. This is where most come to see a doctor and to get medicine,” Qing Ning explained, a hint of pride in her voice.

Xiaobai rushed over to the edge, leaning against the railing to look down. On one side, there were large red doors, open and letting in more natural light and air flow. From wall to wall were cabinets, and she watched as one person stood on a ladder to reach into a high placed cabinet, shouting something out as they grabbed a fist full of whatever was in there before closing it and climbing down.

The place looked decently busy without feeling overwhelming. It smelled of various herbs and medical supplies, much like how Qing Ning herself smelled. Somehow, it was a relaxing scent.

“I’ll be sure to give you all a tour later,” she smiled widely as she once more started walking, and Xiaobai hurried to follow along.

It didn’t take them very long to get to where Qing Ning was leading them. They passed by various doors and rooms as they walked down a separate hall that broke off from the main room until they were met with an open room. Much like with the rest of this place, it also held large windows to let in sunlight.

Inside the room was some furniture, a couch, an armchair and a small coffee table. Across the coffee table were various papers and scrolls thrown about, with an unfamiliar face leaned over them, his face contorted in a frown with his tongue sticking out just slightly.

Lao Jun looked over as they entered the room, wearing a small smile, one that Xiaobai was sure was his default look. A lazy smile that didn’t reach the eyes, but held a gentleness to. “I see that our guests have arrived.”

Hearing this, the unknown man shot his head up, and Xiaobai could see what looked like a splotch of ink on one of his cheeks. “Oh, hello!” He exclaimed as he hurried to stand. Upon him moving, various papers and writing utensils fell, and he muttered under his breath as he tried to make his way out of the mess. “It’s--ugh-- nice to meet you, I’m--”

Before he could finish his sentence, the man got his leg caught on something, and proceeded to fall to the ground in a heap.

Qing Ning rushed over with a gasp, as Lao Jun watched with his eyebrows raised. “This,” Lao Jun said, turning to Xiaobai and Shanxin, who were standing in shock, “is Beihe, a renowned doctor as well as Qing Ning’s other retainer.”

Looking at him, compared to Diting, it was almost a startling difference in how the two retainers behaved. Beihe seemed less harsh than Diting, while also being less refined than the younger man. Then again, this was their first time meeting, and Xiaobai was sure he was under as much stress as Qing Ning was due to the delusion situation.

“It’s nice to, ah, meet you two,” Beihe said once more as Qing Ning helped him to his feet, and he smiled sheepishly. “I promise, I’m normally not this much of a mess.”

“Only slightly less of a mess, usually,” Lao Jun said.

“Don’t give them any weird ideas about me.”

“You’ve already made such an amazing first impression, I’m sure there’s not much more I can provide to them.”

“Anyways,” Qing Ning clapped her hands together, “Beihe, this is Shanxin and Xiaobai, as I mentioned last night, they’re here to help us do a few patient surveys, and hopefully help us shed a bit of light on this situation.”

Beihe nodded as Qing Ning turned back to Xiaobai and Shanxin. “The two of you will be reporting to him in my absence.”

“Absence?” Shanxin raised an eyebrow in a confused look.

“Are you going somewhere?” Xiaobai asked.

Qing Ning shook her head. “I’ll be inside this building with Lao Jun. I promised to take a look at your friend in exchange for helping me, so while the three of you are out, I’ll be here doing what I can. May I see your friend?”

Xiaobai nodded as she removed the backpack carefully, setting it down on the unoccupied couch to reach in and gently lifted the little black cat from the bag, holding Xiao Hei in her arms. “He hasn’t woken up at all in these last three days, and I’m really starting to worry…”

“Lao Jun has already briefed me on the situation,” Qing Ning said as she reached out, gently brushing her hand across the little cat's back. Xiao Hei seemed to relax at the touch, and Qing Ning gave Xiaobai a reassuring smile. “I swear that I’ll do all that I can for your friend here, so try not to worry too much, okay?”

There was the way that Qing Ning spoke so softly that Xiaobai felt as though all her worries were melting away. Qing Ning’s eyes held a gentleness to them, one that Xiaobai knew she could trust in her word. She was a doctor after all, why would Xiaobai have no reason to trust her?

A tightness formed in Xiaobai’s chest as she gently passed Xiao Hei over to Qing Ning, having not once separated herself from Xiao Hei since they crossed paths inside of those ruins, but for now, she’ll bear.

The two of them were given a quick rundown on what questions to ask, and how to go about it, as well as where they’d be able to find Beihe once they were done or needed to ask any questions. Really, it wasn’t that hard of a task, but Xiaobai could understand why they may need extra help, as it seemed like this place was always busy with something.

Shanxin and Xiaobai were led out by Beihe, his voice echoing through the halls until it was nothing more than a faint noise. Qing Ning frowned as she looked down at the little black cat in her arms.

“He’s very dangerous, you know,” Lao Jun said, standing up and walking over to her side. “You could deny him treatment and let things run their natural course. It might even save you some sort of headache in the end.”

Qing Ning shook her head, looking over at him with determination. “I don’t know what happened all those years ago, but what I do know is that it wasn’t his fault. He’s just a child, and they sacrificed him for no reason. No matter the circumstances, I want to help him.”

Lao Jun hummed in thought before raising a hand to pat Qing Ning on the head affectionately. “Where did this stubbornness come from, Xuanli or myself?”

“Of course it came from gouge!! Besides, I know that no matter what, shifu and gouge will protect me.”

She looked at him with absolutely no hesitation in her eyes nor her words, and Lao Jun felt adoration spread through his chest for her. “Of course, we’ll always protect our daughter. You humans are fragile, after all.”

 

 


 

 

Xiaobai tilted her head back, gulping down the entire canister of water in one go before bringing the back of her hand up to wipe off her mouth. She would have to refill it at some point.

The work wasn’t that hard, Beihe gave them a list of questions to ask, and she’s just been running around all day talking. It was mostly the conversations that were long winded and made her throat start to hurt from overuse. Who knew there would be so many questions to ask, and so much information to gather?

Eventually, she needed a break. Xiaobai found a spot in a small courtyard to sit, shaded by a tree from the shining sun beating down. Here, the wind hardly ever stopped blowing. It was always a nice, gentle breeze, cooling her off and making her feel more refreshed.

She sat there and thought about the answers she’s been receiving with a frown.

It seemed as though these people were coming from all different nations, but upon asking them where they had acquired the delusion, they always came back with the same answer. They always said they got it while at the Cryo nation, given to them by someone they were never able to track down afterwards. They were there to attend some sort of festival going on, but she wasn’t aware of what sort of festival.

“How’s it going so far?” Looking up, Xiaobai saw Beihe walking over, “I just met with Shanxin and decided I should check up on you as well.”

“It’s going well!” Xiaobai smiled widely. “I didn’t think that I would end up hurting my throat though, I didn’t know it involved this much talking.”

“Well, you have to press patients for answers in order to know how to best treat them. Here, let me help, hold still.”

Xiaobai did as told, unmoving as Beihe walked closer until he was able to reach out to her, using his pointer and middle finger to just barely touch the center of her throat. She felt a cooling sensation as the soreness slowly faded away. Pulling back, Beihe gave a prideful smile with his hands on his hips. “There, no more sore throat.”

She brought a hand up to her own throat before smiling. “Thank you!! That feels so much better!”

“It’s the least I could do for all the help you’ve given us.”

“By the way, are you an illuminated beast like Diting?”

Beihe’s expression changed to one of confusion before quickly shifting to amusement as he gave out a laugh. In just the short time Xiaobai has known Beihe, she noticed that he had very frequent and extreme facial expressions. “Don’t let him hear you say that, he’ll get upset that you even considered that I would be something like him.”

“Oh? So you’re not?”

“Nope,” Beihe shook his head. “I’m human for the most part.”

“What does that mean?”

“Hard to explain without spilling a few secrets that aren’t mine to tell, but I’ve had a long friendship with Lao Jun before he asked me to be Qing Ning’s retainer. Her and I are both doctors, I helped to teach her some of what she knows of medicinal remedies, while Lao Jun was able to help her to use the elements for healing.”

“Do you not have a vision, Beihe?”

“I do, here.”

He reached over to his hip and held out what looked like a glass diamond. It was a teal colour, meaning it was Anemo, and Xiaobai smiled, watching as the sun's rays bounced off of it beautifully. “I was a doctor before receiving my vision, so I never really understood how to heal with it except for small things like your sore throat. Qing Ning, on the other hand, can practically create miracles with her abilities, with or without the elements.”

“Qing Ning sounds amazing, no wonder why she’s the Anemo Archon.”

Beihe nodded as he once more returned the vision to his hip and turned back to Xiaobai. “Okay, enough small talk for now, mind telling me what you learned while talking with our patients?”

She went and told him what she learned, how they were getting delusions mysteriously in the Cryo nation and the mention of some festival. Beihe listened intently, saying nothing except for nodding every now and again. Even after she was finished, he didn’t say anything, just standing there and frowning in thought.

“It sounds as though someone is trying to sabotage the tournament…”

“Tournament?”

Beihe blinked, looking as though he didn’t even realize he had been speaking out loud. “Oh, yes, the annual tournament hosted by the Cryo Archon. I’m assuming you’ve never been there if you’re asking about it. The Cryo Archon is known as the God of Duels, and every year, he hosts a tournament that fighters from all over can participate in. Whoever wins gets to try their luck at fighting the Archon himself.”

“What do they get for winning?”

“For the tournament, the grand prize is quite a large sum of money, as well as acknowledgement of being the best fighter for that year. If you win, and decide to go against the Archon, he’ll give up his throne, and the winner becomes Archon.”

 

That….

 

That seemed like a really stupid idea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

“From the bewildered look on your face, it’s safe to assume you share the same sentiment as both Lao Jun and Qing Ning do about the situation.” Beihe sighed as he shook his head, lightly smacking his palm on his forehead in disbelief. “The idiot has been doing this for hundreds of years now, so he’s lucky he hasn’t lost. I doubt humans can match him in strength anyways. However…”

Beihe looked more and more troubled by the thought as it seemed to settle within his brain and he began working the information this way and that. Xiaobai was a little lost on just how, exactly, this was a bad thing, but it made her chest tighten and made her stomach do flips.

They were silent for a few moments as Beihe was lost in thought before he gave a heavy high, looking up towards the sky for a moment almost as if he wanted to speak some sort of prayer before turning his attention once more to Xiaobai, trying to give a reassuring smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. He was very expressive. “Anyways, thank you for your help. I need to go talk with Shanxin more and figure out what she learned from our patients. I think that’s enough for today, I’ll send her over here once I finish talking, okay?”

Slowly, Xiaobai nodded, and they gave their farewells as she watched him walk away.

It really seemed as though, whatever was going on, wasn’t going to end well at all.

She wasn’t sure what she could do to help, or even if she could, but she hoped that whatever was going on, that everyone would be safe.

Chapter Text

Without having much to do after being dismissed by Beihe for the rest of the day, Shanxin and Xiaobai wandered the capital, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells that came with a port city. They watched as a large fishing ship docked and unloaded its catch for the day before running off and finding a merchant that sold beautiful seashells, which Xiaobai bought two of to give to Argen and her grandfather once they returned home, and finally finding a restaurant to sit down and eat at, which gave a beautiful view of the outstretched seaside.

Shanxin ate with reckless abandon, eating as though she had been starved for three days and two nights. Huangshou was no better. As they say, pets take after their owners.

“Xiaobai… hey!! Xiaobai!!”

Startled, Xiaobai blinked at Shanxin before giving a small embarrassed laugh. “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said, can you repeat that?”

Shanxin frowned, “I asked if you were alright.”

“Hm? Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“For one, you’ve hardly eaten.”

Xiaobai looked down at her plate. Ah, she was right. The food was hardly touched.

“Second, I know how you are. We’ve been friends far too long for me to not know that all of this,” Shanxin waved her arms in the air, “would affect you. So,” she went back to eating, continuing to speak with a mouth full of food, “tell me what’s on your mind.”

Shanxin was too observant, always picking up on Xiaobai’s slightest mood changes before she could even pick up on them herself. Xiaobai let out a small sigh as she leaned back, eyebrows scrunching in worry. “I’m just… scared about what’s going to happen, that’s all.”

“We have two powerful Archons keeping us safe, you know.”

“No, I know, I’m not really talking about… us. I’m worried about them, and all the people who are affected by the side effects of those delusions.” Xiaobai looked out at the ocean, trying to find some sort of distraction as she spoke. “As we learn more and more information, I can’t help but feel something really bad is going to happen, and I can’t stand the thought of all these wonderful people that we’ve only just met to go through suffering. And then there’s that weird stuff going on with Xiao Hei as well, and it just… it feels like too much at once.”

Shanxin didn’t respond for a few moments, and for some reason, Xiaobai was afraid to meet her gaze. Was this just all in her head? Was she just overthinking all of this? Shanxin would be the first person to tell her so, she wouldn’t sugar coat it at all, she certainly hasn’t in the past, and Xiaobai was thankful for that. It was so easy for her to get wrapped up in her own mind and worries that Shanxin was what grounded her, even ripped her out of her own mind sometimes.

 

“We can just leave, you know.”

 

Xiaobai’s eyes widened as she quickly looked at Shanxin. “What?”

“We can leave,” Shanxin repeated herself as she leaned back in her chair. The plate in front of her was cleaned of food. “There’s nothing making us stay here, you know, and no one said we have to help these Archons.”

“But, Xiao Hei--”

“Once Qing Ning is done doing whatever it is she’s doing with him, we can leave and go back home.”

Home…

It's only been a few short days, but already, Xiaobai missed it dearly. She missed it so much that she felt it down to her very core. She wanted nothing more than to go back home to her grandfather and their small village, maybe even forget this trip ever happened.

But Xiaobai shook her head. “We can’t, not yet at least. Lao Jun promised that he would take us to someone who might know Xiao Hei.”

“Is that what you really want to do though? I know you, you care way too much about people even after just knowing them for a day. You’ll wear yourself thin with ways to help others, but is this entire thing something you actually want to do? This situation involves Archons and creatures that aren’t even human. It’s turning into some big whodunit situation that we don’t need to be a part of. So I need to know for sure before I whisk you away and take you back home, do you really want to be doing this?”

 

Xiaobai hadn’t thought of that.

 

Was this really something she wanted to do, and not just something she felt like she had to do?

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that there really wasn’t anything keeping them here. Honestly, they could just leave Xiao Hei here, Lao Jun already said he would get Xiao Hei to meet the person who might know him, but did they have to be around for that?

Did they have to come here and learn about delusions, and of some big plot that seemed to be at play here?

Xiaobai closed her eyes as she thought.

Going home sounded wonderful. Forgetting any of this happened would be even better. They could just continue on with their lives in their small village, forgetting any of this happened because it didn’t involve them.

However, that didn’t sit right with her.

She wanted to help Xiao Hei. She wanted to be around for when he woke up so she could meet him properly and introduce herself. She wanted to find out why these delusions were being handed out to innocent people, and just who was behind all this.

None of this involved her, and maybe she was sticking her nose in places it didn’t belong, but now that they were on this journey, she wanted desperately to see it to the end, to know that all of this had a happy ending of some sort.

Besides, it had also been her dream to travel the world with her best friends by her side, eventually leaving that small village and learning new things and meeting new people. These dreams and ambitions are what gifted her her vision to begin with.

Xiaobai opened her eyes to see Shanxin was sitting there, patiently waiting for her answer. She gave a small smile to the other girl, her chest feeling just a bit lighter after untangling the mess in her heart just a little. “Yes,” she said. “I want to stay here and help. It’s scary so far, but I’m also having a fun time exploring these places with you.”

Shanxin smiled, crossing her arms over her chest as she nodded. “I’m having fun as well, but it would be even better if Argen were here with us. I still don’t get why he flaked out.”

“Gege has his reasons, and I decided to trust him.”

“Yeah, I trust him too. This just gives us a reason to come back here definitely though, once he’s able to join us.”

Xiaobai felt her heart lighten up at the idea of coming back, and she couldn’t stop the wide smile stretching across her face as she nodded in agreement. The thought alone was exciting, and she couldn’t wait for that day to come. She hoped that it would be soon.

The gentle wind suddenly picked up, blowing around harshly, causing various items to be swept away in the frenzy. Shanxin reached out and held Huangshou in her arms protectively. Just ask quickly as the whirlwind began, it calmed.

Before either one of them could speak, a green beast appeared before them.

“You two,” Diting said, as he stood on air, held there by a gentle breeze, “Qing Ning Dafu requests your assistance.”

Xiaobai could hear the murmurings of nearby people, as they whispered to themselves about the scene, but she couldn’t bring herself to listen in to any of their conversations. Diting’s tone was one she hadn’t heard yet. His voice sounded urgent. All it took was for Xiaobai and Shanxin to glance at each other, thinking the exact same thing before once more climbing onto the back of the illuminated beast, once more taking off into the air.

 

 

When they entered the building once more, Xiaobai noticed that the grand red doors that were once wide open were now shut tight. Diting led them through the building, his pace quick as the two of them did their best to keep up. Like this, the building felt eerie. The atmosphere was different than before, and it made Xiaobai’s heart clench.

Back in the room where they had first met up, Qing Ning was pacing around, a hand over her mouth as she seemed to be in deep, troubled thought. Lao Jun was no longer lounging and looking amused, and Beihe was sitting down silently. Both looked deep in thought as well.

It took a moment, but once Qing Ning noticed the three of them had entered the room, she stopped pacing and dropped her hand. “I’ll get to the point quickly,” she said, letting out a small sigh before continuing, “but I’ll first apologize for summoning the two of you. I know I said that all I would need from the two of you was to speak to my patients, but…”

“It’s okay,” Xiaobai said, taking a step forward. The energy here was uneasy, something was going on, and whatever it was, it wasn’t good. “Just explain what’s going on, and what you need.”

Qing Ning opened her mouth to speak, but before she could even get a word out, there was the noise of rushed footsteps from the hall, before another person burst into the room. “Qing Ning Dafu!!” A girl shouted, looking to be about Xiaobai’s own age, maybe a bit younger. “More people have shown up!! They’re shouting to receive answers now!!”

“How dare you interrupt an important meeting-” Diting seemed to bare fangs as he snapped, causing the girl to physically wince, as if the words themselves stabbed at her.

“Diting.”

Qing Ning just simply called out his name, and Diting stopped his advance on the girl, having only taken one step forward before not daring to take another step. After realizing he would stay put, Qing Ning turned back to the girl with a gentle smile. “Thank you, Xiao Hua’er. Please tell them I’ll make an announcement shortly.”

With a hesitant nod, as if she was still afraid that Diting was going to hurt her, the girl, Xiao Hua, left quickly.

This just added on to the unease of the situation. What were people demanding answers for? Is this why they closed those red doors, to keep those people out?

“Xiaobai, Shanxin,” hearing Lao Jun speak, Xiaobai and Shanxin quickly turned to him. Lao Jun was now standing with his hands behind his back. Still, he wore a serious expression. “We must urgently ask for your assistance again. You may decline, as you’ve already fulfilled your side of the agreement we had, and this… could very well get dangerous.”

Xiaobai’s eyes widened, and she quickly turned to look at Shanxin, who was already looking back at her.

Dangerous?

“Just… tell us what’s going on first,” Shanxin said, sounding much calmer than she probably felt on the inside.

Qing Ning once again let out a sigh as she shook her head. “It’s a bit complicated to explain, but I’ll do my best.

Beihe informed me that all those who possessed delusions had come from the cryo nation, after having signed up to join the tournament being hosted, and were given these delusions by a mysterious person. As soon as I heard of this, it sounded suspicious to me, but before Lao Jun or I could take any action, those infected by the delusions, and those that heard of the situation began getting angry.

They’re demanding answers. They started shouting, demanding to know what was going on, before they started to blame the Cryo Archon himself. Those people are now convinced that he had something to do with this, as well as Lao Jun and I. I had already tried to explain the situation, telling them that they were mistaken, but they refused to listen. Lao Jun and I have too close of a relation with the Cryo Archon, and instantly assumed we were lying.

This situation is becoming more intense, so now, we need to get to the bottom of this, and fast.

Lao Jun nor myself can make the trip to the Cryo nation, and if I send my retainers, people will once more accuse us of lying. So, the only ones I have to turn to now are the two of you, please go to the Cryo nation and figure out what’s going on.”

 

That was…

 

That was a whole lot of information to take in.

 

The fact that people were turning on their own Archon was startling, especially to turn against someone like Qing Ning, who was so gentle and kind. This entire situation didn’t feel right. Something inside of Xiaobai was telling her not to go, to turn around now and go back home, but once again, she fought against that feeling.

She already made the decision to stick this out til the end with Shanxin, so she wasn’t going to abandon them. They may have only known these Archons for about a day now, but Lao Jun was the Archon of her homeland. He, too, was kind and benevolent, and if things continued to escalate, she feared what may happen to not only him, but Qing Ning as well.

Xiaobai watched as Shanxin ran a hand through her hair letting out a heavy sigh that puffed up her cheeks as she turned to look back. “Well, we’re too wrapped up in this mess to leave now, I guess,” Shanxin finally said, dropping her hand and turning back to look at the Archons in front of them. Xiaobai could see the relief wash over Qing Ning, as her shoulders seemed to drop after letting go of the tension she no doubt had been holding.

“Doing this for me, I will forever be in your debt,” Qing Ning said as she gave a small bow. “I’m unable to send any help along with you, but I can promise, once you meet with the Cryo Archon, tell him that Lao Jun and I have sent you and he will see that absolutely no harm comes your way.”

There was just one worry on Xiaobai’s mind, as she looked around a bit hesitantly before speaking up. “If this is going to be dangerous… Could you keep Xiao Hei with you, until we get back?”

It would be too troublesome to carry him around if all he would do was continue to sleep. Not knowing what would lie ahead of them, she didn’t want to put Xiao Hei in any danger at all.

Qing Ning smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep him safe here and continue to heal him. In fact, he should wake up by the time you return. You have my word.”

It did ease some of Xiaobai’s worries. Now she was able to focus on the task at hand more.

 

 

Being zipped around from one unknown nation to the next was exhausting, to say the least. Yes, they’ve been able to get to each place in a decent amount of time, but that didn’t make it any less stressful or exhausting. The further they traveled from their home, the more homesick Xiaobai felt herself becoming.

Qing Ning had done as she said. She made an announcement to the mob demanding answers that she had sent two emissaries in her stead, ones that held no connection to her or Lao Jun. Of course, not everyone was happy with this decision, as they shouted and screamed that it would once more be a lie, but the majority were content enough, and were told to wait patiently for their return.

 

The Cryo nation was one up north, taking a longer amount of time to get there than to the Anemo nation due to being on opposite ends of the Hydro nation. Here, the air was harsher than that of the other two, the temperature drop caused it to nip at Xiaobai’s skin. Here, she could tell it experienced harsher winters, and cooler summers than the other two nations did, but it wasn’t a malicious feeling. Instead, the cold felt more like an invitation to play, much like how a dog would playfully bite.

Diting had once again been kind enough to escort them from one nation to the other, cutting their travel time by a significant amount by running on the winds. After reaching their destination, Diting made known his discontent with the Cryo Archon as well, before swiftly leaving.

At this point, Xiaobai was sure it was safe to assume Diting didn’t like anyone except for Qing Ning.

Having left as soon as they finished meeting with Qing Ning, the sun had quickly set on their travels, and the city was dark and quiet. From having been raised in the Hydro nation, and then having just been to the Anemo nation, she could see here that the buildings held a lot of resemblance, hinting that the three nations did hold a strong bond.

 

Walking the streets as they made their way to a nearby inn, Xiaobai felt her entire body ache all the way down to her bones, and pierce straight into her heart. She still couldn’t understand why people would hold so much rage against someone like Qing Ning. Of course, it was no surprise for the helpless and scared to turn their anger towards something, anything, that was tangible, even if such a thing was something as powerful and almighty as an Archon.

Though, from what Xiaobai could tell her in short time having met Qing Ning, the Anemo Archon was someone who interacted daily with people, whether it be as their doctor or as an acquaintance, maybe even as a friend to some. It was hard to think they could so easily point blame in her direction. It was almost unfair. It almost made Xiaobai angry on her behalf.

But in the end, even gifted with a vision, Xiaobai was nothing more than a human.

Despite Qing Ning seeming so humanlike herself, there was still that line that needed to be drawn that separated the two of them.

It really was a weird feeling to have, wanting to help the gods, despite not knowing them personally. It was some sort of nostalgic feeling in her chest that made her want to help them, one that she couldn’t exactly place. It was almost similar to the feeling she had when she was called to the ruins where she found Xiao Hei.

Almost.

To call them the same feeling wouldn’t be right, but it was something close.

 

Having already paid for the inn and already in their room, Xiaobai silently laid down. Her body continued to ache. She felt heavy. Her chest felt heavy.

Something wasn’t right.

Something felt wrong.

But she couldn’t figure out what it was. So for now, Xiaobai let herself drift to sleep, unknowing to the concerned looks Shanxin had been giving her.

Chapter Text

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.

 

This place….

 

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.”

Warmth? Found?

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?”

“En.”

“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.

Chapter Text

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.

 

“Xiaobai?”

 

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–

“Xiaobai.”

“Hm? Yes?”

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.”

 

“Huh?”

“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?”

“No, why?”

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.”

“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.”

“Of course!”

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.”

“Oh?”

“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.”

Chapter Text

Big crowds were not something he was used to.

In the capital of the cryo nation, the crowds were thinner than other, more commonly warmer places. Most humans and wildlife resented the cold or couldn’t handle staying out in it for extended periods of time, so most would avoid the area.

It’s not that he didn’t like humans or interacting with them, it just wasn’t something he did often. Afterall, any time he was away were for missions, and most of those didn’t require speaking to anyone. When he got sent on a mission, it was either for stealth or, more often, fighting.

So while in the bustling city that was often on the quiet side, he kept to himself, out of the eyes of the crowd and avoiding any sort of conflicts.

Well, for the most part.

“Don’t you have a mission to do?”

Without being startled at all, he looked over to the sound of the voice almost lazily. Standing there was a boy with black braided hair, and large glasses that covered most of his face, giving a small smile, as if he wasn’t surprised at all to find the other here. By how he asked about his mission, he probably wasn’t surprised at all.

“Would I be one to stand here idly if I didn’t?” he raised his eyebrows at the boy. “I’m waiting for him to show himself, and then I will act.”

“I thought your mission was to keep a close eye on him during the tournament.”

“It is, and I am.”

The boy laughed, throwing his head back a bit as he did so. “You would have anyone else convinced, but I’m no fool, Wuxian! And neither is Lao Jun! He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent you on this mission, haha, this is so funny.”

Wuxian looked away from the boy. He wasn’t pouting. He wasn’t.

“And what am I to call you this time? I have fallen out of contact with you for too long, I apologize for that.”

Waving his hand in the air as if to brush away the comment, the boy shook his head. “You’ve been busy, fighting fallen and vengeful gods is a full time job. I’ve been going by the name Argen. What do you think, does it suit me?”

“It’s your name, I have no control over what you refer to yourself as.”

“Not even going to humor me? I gave my thoughts on your new name, you could at least return the favor.”

“You gave your thoughts out willingly, I hadn’t asked for your input.”

Argen gave a humming noise as he finally turned away from Wuxian, following the others' line of sight.

From this distance, it was a bit hard to see the fighting arena, as bodies blocked their line of sight every now and again, having to rely mostly on the shouts and cheers from the crowd to make out what was going on, but Wuxian wasn’t here to watch the fight anyways.

He had a mission, and he was waiting for his moment to strike. He had no desire to watch a bunch of humans enter into a meaningless fight for a prize they will never be able to obtain. Argen on the other hand…

Wuxian’s eyes drifted to the boy once again, lingering for a moment before turning his attention back to the arena. “What are you doing here? You know nothing good will happen if you get caught.”

The boy let out a breathy laugh that didn’t sound amused in the slightest. “I have my own reasons.”

“You avoided traveling to the other nations for centuries now, you can’t blame me for being curious, especially since I can tell how anxious you are right now.”

Being called out like that made Argen tense up as he adjusted his stance, going from one that seemed to have confidence to one where he was a bit more on the defensive, ready to run at any moment. In a way, Wuxian felt sorry for the boy, and could understand his feelings.

“Ah, I have some friends in this area. I’m afraid they’re going to get themselves into some trouble. Neither of them are fighters, really, so I wanted to be here in case something did happen.”

Both of them had similar goals in mind for being here, and Wuxian wondered if this was the selfishness of two beings born of sin, or if this was a feeble attempt to hold onto something precious after losing everything in the past.

He didn’t want to stir up any more unwanted feelings inside Argen, so he dropped the subject and went silent once more. They continued to watch the tournament for a while more together, both waiting for the pin to drop and move into action.

 

 


 

Shanxin sighed heavily as she leaned over the railing, looking worn out.

The two of them had been searching around for hours for some trace of either the person giving out the delusions, or the one they saw last night that had just gotten one, but no matter where they looked, they turned up empty handed.

Xiaobai felt on edge as they returned to their balcony viewpoint, disappointed that they weren’t able to find any clues, even asking around had given them no leads, and the tournament was now on the last few fighters. It was really terrifying to think that either of those could cause damage at any time.

They knew now that the person giving out the delusions was also someone with a vision of their own, ready to cause chaos at a moment's notice, and the one with the delusion was not only putting themselves but others at risk just by having it in their possession.

After spending so long with no leads, the two of them had agreed to return back to the arena and be on the lookout, hoping to spot either of them before something happened, but honestly, Xiaobai was too tired mentally and physically to keep on eye out, and looking over at where Shanxin was slumped over the railing, it was easy to see that she was just as exhausted.

 

“Beloved audience, I welcome you to the final round of this year's Duel to Rule tournament!”

 

Xiaobai let out a small sigh as she turned her attention to the arena, where an announcer stood center stage. Maybe the person with the delusion from last night wasn’t a fighter, seeing as it was already the final round, but the thought didn’t put her any more at ease. The announcer took a while to say some thank you’s and to hype up the crowd a bit more, all of which Xiaobai only half paid attention to.

 

“And now, on to the main attraction! The fight you’ve all been waiting for!!”

The crowd roared and cheered wildly.

Shanxin reached out and shook Xiaobai insistently. “Xiaobai! Xiaobai!! This is where we see the Cryo Archon!!”

Ah, right, that’s right!! The Cryo Archon!! They were here to meet up with him as well!!

Remembering this, Xiaobai shook her head and leaned forward against the railing.

 

“Introducing the beloved berserker himself, watching over our land for generations and protecting us from the sheer cold of the mountains, laying the laws of our beloved nation, capturing the hearts of many for his fighting spirit and good looks, here he is, the Cryo Archon Xuanli!!”

Any excitement Xiaobai felt in her almost completely vanished into confusion, blinking her eyes a few times to make sure what she was seeing wasn’t some sort of illusion.

She could’ve sworn that the person walking out into the area…

He looked just like Argen, but… not?

 

“Shanxin, do you–ah,” the roaring from the crowd was almost deafening, as she tried to talk over it and realized Shanxin wasn’t able to hear a word she was saying, as the other was also letting out cheers of her own. She reached out and shook Shanxin on the arm to get her attention. It was no surprise that she was excited for this, honestly, and the energy from the crowd only made it more infectious.

Finally, after a few moments, Shanxin calmed down enough to turn her attention back to Xiaobai. “Yeah? What’s up?” she shouted to be heard through the crowd.

“Do you think that–that the Cryo Archon kinda looks like gege?”

Shanxin gave her a puzzled look before quickly turning her gaze to look back out at the arena. She was unmoving for a few moments, squinting and looking closely. While she did so, the crowd calmed as the announcer went on to continue speaking, introducing the opponent.

Finally, she leaned back and shook her head with a shrug. “I mean… Kind of?” Shanxin said uncertainty. “They both have black hair and wear a braid, but his is longer than Argen’s. You might just be imagining it since you miss him so much.”

That made a lot of sense, actually, and any other time she would have accepted that explanation and moved on, but there was a nagging feeling inside of her. She couldn’t quite tell what it was, but she knew this person must be connected to Argen in some way. She didn’t know how, nor why, but she couldn’t shake the feeling. But for now, she’d have to brush that aside, as the crowd cheered and booed as the opponent walked on stage.

This time, Shanxin shot to her feet, cursing loudly and catching Xiaobai’s attention, looking up at her friend before looking back down at the arena, and dread filled her entire body.

It was the person last night that got the delusion!!

 

The two of them rushed from where they had been seated at the balcony, pushing past the crowds and forcing their way until they were just on the edge of the arena, any sort of warning they tried giving was completely drowned out by the roaring of the crowd and the booming voice of the announcer. Upon reaching the arena, they were stopped from going any further, as the fight had already begun. All they could do for now was watch on helplessly.

At the beginning of the match, Xuanli just seemed to stand there for a moment, looking his opponent up and down before raising his eyebrows with a smirk. “Aren’t you too young to be here, kid?” he said.

And, now that Xiaobai actually got a look at them, she agreed. He couldn’t have been much older than herself, maybe closer to Argen’s age, and it was baffling. Having watched the tournament, she had seen fighters much older and bigger built than this person, and now, the desperation to get him to give up his delusion only grew in her chest.

Instead of answering, he brought his hands up into fists, getting into a fighting stance.

Xuanli shrugged. “Not much of a conversationalist? Neither am I. Come on, I’ll let you make the first move.”

The boy had no problems with that, as he remained silent. He moved quickly, much quicker than Xiaobai had expected him to, and was in front of Xuanli within an instant, arm pulled back for a punch before throwing his fist forward.

For a moment, Xiaobai feared that Xuanli had been punched square in the face, but after her brain caught up with the movement, Xuanli had simply moved his head to the side, the fist narrowly avoiding his cheek. The Archon let out a whistle in amusement before grinning widely, almost manically. “For a kid, you have more to you than I thought. Sorry for underestimating you, I’ll take this fight more seriously then.”

Finally, the boy spoke. “Good.”

It was almost as if a bomb went off with his one word, and the arena was suddenly full of movement, causing the crowd to roar impossibly louder. Xiaobai struggled to keep up with the fight, watching as fists and legs were thrown around, not always making contact as they both moved at what seemed like impossible speeds to dodge one another, and Xiaobai wondered if this boy was using the power of the delusion he just acquired, or if this was his own strength.

With all the fast paced movement, Xiaobai didn’t even notice when Xuanli finally gained the upper hand, all she had seen was the boy throwing a punch at Xuanli, which he once again dodged, but this time he grabbed onto the outstretched wrist, pulling him so the boy was off balance. Once he was, Xuanli seemed to move at the blink of an eye, bringing an elbow down against the base of the boy’s neck.

And with that, the boy fell to the ground.

All around, Xiaobai heard cheers and booing from the crowd, seemingly with the fight having ended already.

Shanxin and Xiaobai exchanged a look, and she could tell instantly that her friend was thinking the exact same thing as her. A strange feeling welled up in her chest. This wasn’t the end of the fight, was it? After this boy having gone through such lengths to get his hand on a delusion, whether knowing of the side effects or not. This really couldn’t be the end of it.

 

A sickening feeling twisted in Xiaobai’s stomach, making her feel nauseous.

The crowd started to hush down with their cheers as others started to take notice as well.

Turning her own gaze back towards the arena, Xiaobai felt as though she couldn’t breathe. It felt as though she was submerged underwater and couldn’t take a breath.

The boy was now surrounded in what looked like a black fog, whipping this way and that as if they were snakes and dissipating in the air.

At this point, Xiaobai hadn’t seen a delusion actually being used.

Was this the sort of terrifying and awful power they held?

This was what causes the users to be drained of life?

As if sensing the same thing Xiaobai was seeing, Xuanli turned around just as the boy was rising from a kneeling position. “You shouldn’t be getting up from a blow like that,” he warned as he placed a hand on his hip. “You should let the medics come and take you to get treated.” His demeanor changed. Xuanli could see the exact same thing she was, she knew it. He could feel and see the evil energy coming from the boy.

Again, the boy remained silent until he pulled himself to his feet, obviously affected by the last hit that Xuanli dealt as he wobbled a bit to stand straight. “I’m sorry, mighty Archon, but your reign must end here.”

Xuanli raised an eyebrow. “Who says?”

“You’ve brought pain and suffering to my friends, so here and now, I’ll kill you with your own creation.”

The boy slapped something onto his wrist, and a blast of energy swept through the crowd, causing screams and shrieks of confusion and fear. Over both of his hands, a pair of gauntlets materialized, mixed with that same darkness that continued to surround him.

Just what was the full extent of these delusions?

This wasn’t something created to look and act like a vision. No, this was something to surpass them, to destroy them. Shatter them.

Xiaobai felt absolutely sick down to her very core.

Too overwhelmed by the energy coming from the delusion, Xiaobai failed to notice Shanxin’s frantic shouting at her, failed to notice anything around her except for the feeling of being crushed, weighted down.

Once again, the boy moved to punch at Xuanli, just as he had started this fight, but instead of playfully dodging like earlier, a giant wall of ice appeared and wrapped around the boy's gauntlet all the way up to his elbow. Xuanli let out a whistling noise as he walked closer to the boy, looking at his frozen arm in the block of ice. “Nice toy there, kid, mind telling me who gave it to you?”

“You should recognize it well,” the boy said, as the dark mist built up around his arm and inside the ice, twisting and turning more violently before the ice finally shattered. “It was under your orders to distribute these, afterall.”

“I don’t know if you read the official rules of the tournament or not, but no visions or underhanded tricks are allowed, so you’ve been disqualified.”

“I’m not here to win.”

It was obvious this person wasn’t going to back down from a simple conversation. Whatever reason he was here for, he intended to see it through to the end. Xuanli realized that quickly. Unlike before, where he wore a playful look on his face, Xuanli’s expression now turned dangerous. It was as if whatever safety measures he’d put in place to keep those he thought against safe were now null, and he could fight however he wanted. From his toothy grin, it looked as though mist was escaping from his mouth, almost as if he were now something like a wild beast.

“Alright, don’t disappoint me then.”

A raging blue fire surrounded the arena, blocking the fight from view of the crowd as people were now fleeing and being escorted away. It was as if chaos had taken over the entirety of the town, as people were questioning what was going on, what would happen, and what exactly that boy was talking about. It was complete chaos and disorientation.

Shanxin grabbed onto Xiaobai’s shoulders forcefully now, turning Xiaobai to face her, and finally, unable to see the dark mist, was able to breathe.

It was as if she had choked on water, because Xiaobai sputtered and coughed wildly, the nauseous feeling in her stomach still taking root and making her feel as though she would heave up all the contents of her stomach, and maybe even the stomach itself. Shanxin held onto Xiaobai, the only thing keeping her upright and on her feet.

Once she was able to breathe again, Shanxin finally spoke. “You were completely gone for a while there, you wouldn’t respond to me at all! I was so freaked out, what happened?”

Xiaobai thought for a moment, but there were no words to describe it. She shook her head, hand over her mouth as she let out a few more pained coughs. “I don’t–I don’t know. There was some kind of black mist, and I… I don’t know, I felt weird, I–I feel weird.”

“Black mist?”

“Didn’t you see it? It was wrapping around that guy!”

“I couldn’t see anything,” Shanxin shook her head in dismay, “but I believe you.”

“Shanxin, we need to get into that arena.”

Lifting her head to look around, Shanxin frowned before once again shaking her head. “I don’t think we’ll be able to.” Between the rushing and panicked crowd, as well as the blue fire surrounding the arena, finding a way in seemed hopeless.

But for some reason, Xiaobai knew they had to get there, they had to be sure the Cryo Archon and that boy would both be okay. For some reason, she felt that if they didn’t something terrible would happen.

“Shanxin, please,” she desperately grabbed onto her friend's arm, holding on as if her life depended on it. “We need to find a way!”

Shanxin looked at her, silent for a moment before sighing heavily. Xiaobai knew this wasn’t something for them to worry about, this wasn’t something they had to deal with, but to sit by idly… it didn’t feel right.

Once more, Shanxin took a good look at their surroundings, silently looking around for a moment before her eyes fell on something, and she turned back to Xiaobai, grabbing onto her hand. “Come on, this way.”

Without any hesitation, Xiaobai followed closely behind Shanxin as they weaved through the crowd, careful to hold onto each other tightly as to not lose each other through the surge of bodies. Gradually, the crowd thinned out, arriving at what was probably the other side of the arena that they had just been at. There was still a crowd here, but much less so than the side that they previously had been at.

The two of them stood in front of the blazing blue flames, watching as they flickered wildly, far taller than either of them were. The ground rumbled and shook intensely and suddenly, causing the two of them to stumble and hold onto each other.

Screams rang out around them, and the distant sound of something toppling over, crumbling to the ground. Whatever was going on in the arena was causing earthquakes. The northern land here hardly ever saw these sorts of natural disasters, and their buildings weren’t meant to withstand them.

Using her pyro vision, Xiaobai called forth her own fire and threw it at the blue flames, once again intending to use her own flames to snuff them out, but the red flames were completely devoured by the blue ones without so much as a dent to the wall, and Xiaobai stared in shock.

Something about these flames wasn’t right.

She thought for a moment more before realization dawned on her.

The one who called forth the flames was Xuanli. Being the Cryo Archon, he had no control over pyro, meaning these flames weren’t ones of heat. Instead, Xiaobai realized that instead of warmth coming from the blue flames, it was biting cold.

The flames were ones made of cryo. Her pyro couldn’t melt it or negate it.

“Shanxin, try using your electro on the flames,” she said, pointing to the cryo flames as she said so.

Electro wasn’t the best thing to use against cryo, but it did cause an elemental reaction all the same, and could gradually knock it back and weaken it.

Shanxin’s eyebrows raised. “You know I don’t use my vision for this sort of thing, right?”

Of course she knew, Shanxin only ever used her vision for healing or for her trinkets that she built. She wasn’t very good at controlling the course of the electrical currents any other way, but it was the only thing Xiaobai could think of other than using her pyro vision.

 

What could they hope to achieve against the powers of an Archon?

Xiaobai felt as though her head was starting to hurt from everything as she frantically tried to come up with a solution to this situation, when all of a sudden, the flames in front of them started to lower and die down. Instead of a raging flame, they became small flickers, threatening to reignite at a moment's notice.

The two exchanged a glance, trying to make sense of this situation and just what caused the flames to lower, but Xiaobai wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass up. Whatever caused this to happen, she wasn’t going to question it right now, and she quickly jumped over the flames and into the arena, with Shanxin following closely behind.

Just as they passed over the flames, they rose once more, blocking them in.

 

 

 

Despite the flames not reaching all the way around, the arena was blistering cold, making any exposed skin prick with pain as if being stabbed with millions of needles. Xiaobai heard Shanxin curse under her breath as she wrapped Huangshou in her arms, using whatever loose fabric she had to cover him with. The cat didn’t seem as bothered by the cold as they were, but Shanxin cared for him deeply and wasn’t about to risk the possibility of Huangshou getting frostbite.

Turning back to the open space of the arena in front of them, they quickly found out just what caused the earthquake from earlier. Having only been a short time since the arena was closed off, the two of them had already caused the space to look like a battlefield. There were shattered boulders of earth thrown around, along with a large hole shattered into the ground. There were chunks of ice pillars everywhere, probably from where Xuanli once again tried to freeze the boy only to have him break through it.

Already, the two of them looked worn down. There were patches of unnaturally coloured skin on the boy, his forearms taking the brunt of it, and Xiaobai couldn’t tell if it was due to the sheer cold or if it was from the delusion injuring him. Xuanli looked scuffed up, but with injuries nowhere near as bad, more than likely him being an experienced fighter as well as an Archon.

The boy slammed both of his fists into the ground, causing once again another earthquake as the cracked ground quickly made its way to Xuanli, opening up to swallow him whole. It was an easy dodge from Xuanli, swiftly moving to where the cracks couldn’t reach him.

Shanxin let out another curse, swearing loudly as they both attempted not to fall over.

Her scream caught the attention of the two fighting.

Seeing the wild look in the boy's eyes now piercing into them, Xiaobai felt fear. She feared for herself and Shanxin, knowing that they were now in trouble, but there wasn’t much either of them could do, they weren’t fighters, they weren’t gods or illuminated beasts.

He noticed the opening, and the boy grabbed onto a large boulder, uncaring that it was one already shattered. The black mist gathered around his arm and up to the boulder as he lifted it up over his head, and then threw it with all his might.

Xiaobai tried using her pyro vision, raising a hand in front of them to ignite a fire and create a shield, but the red flames flicked from her hand before quickly dying out. The amount of condensed cryo energy coming from an Archon was overpowering her vision, making the flames burn out too quickly for her to do anything.

There wasn’t anything she could do to stop it.

Fuck.

Fuck..!!

Without thought, Xiaobai quickly threw her arms around Shanxin, using herself as at least some sort of shield between her friend and the boulder hurtling at them.

It was all she could do to protect Shanxin.

She just hoped whatever injuries she sustained Shanxin would be able to heal them!!

 

Xiaobai shut her eyes tight, waiting for the inevitable impact and the pain that would come with it.

But instead, there was the rumbling noise of something shattering behind her, and while she was still hit, it wasn’t nearly as bad as she thought. A few hits here and there along her back, one really sharp one on the back of one of her calves, but not the crushing pain of the giant boulder.

Hesitantly, still afraid that she was going to get hit with something much bigger, Xiaobai turned to look, with Shanxin peeking over her shoulder.

Xuanli stood there in front of them, fist out, having punched and shattered the boulder before it could reach them.

Xiaobai starred in stunned silence.

Archons were scary… but also really cool.

“How in the hell,” Xuanli said, letting out a breath before slowly turning to look at the two of them, eyebrows furrowed, “did the two of you get in here?”

Neither of them knew how to answer them, exchanging a quick glance at one another. Xiaobai opened her mouth to speak, but her words came out slowly. “We, uh… The flames lowered, and we were able to get in.”

Xuanli’s eyebrows furrowed more, turning his body now fully to look at them with confusion. “The barrier lowered? No, the barrier just doesn’t lower, I’m in complete control of this place, so how–”

His sentence was cut off by the boy suddenly rushing at him, throwing his fist and intending to land a hit on Xuanli, but he reacted much quicker. He wasn’t able to dodge the attack, so instead, he held a hand up and caught the fist, the impact of it causing the air to blow wildly.

Xuanli turned to say something to the boy, but suddenly, his expression changed. His eyes widened in shock and, what seemed to be, pain. Looking down, the hand not being held captive by Xuanli was inside his chest.

“You–Wh–who–” Xuanli said through gritted teeth, unable to finish his sentence.

The boy looked up at the Archon. “Your reign ends now.”

 

Xiaobai didn’t understand what was going on, but her heart was hammering in her chest.

 

She had to do something…

 

She had to do something!!!

 

 

Raising her hand, Xiaobai summoned her fire from her vision. She couldn’t do much, but she can enhance the abilities of others. She had to make sure Xuanli would win, she had to make sure whatever was going on would stop, and that this person wouldn’t win.

Whatever it took, this person couldn’t win!!

 

The red flames changed. They became a while colour, shining brightly before rapidly swirling around Xuanli.

The boy gave a quick glance over to Xiaobai. Her eyes… they were glowing as well…

Before he could react, the boy’s attention was once more brought back to Xuanli, as he took a deep breath in. Smoke surrounded his gritted teeth like before, and blue flames erupted from his mouth, much colder than any of the attacks he used before, and much more intense.

The only way to avoid the attack was for the boy to take his hand out of Xuanli, and to lose the gauntlet on his hostage hand.

Xuanli gasped for breath and coughed, staggering a little backwards as he placed his hands over his chest, catching his breath and registering his surroundings once more.

The white flames disappeared, and Xiaobai’s eyes stopped glowing. For a moment, she stood there with a blank look in her eyes before collapsing to her knees, legs giving out completely from under her. With a frantic call of her name, Shanxin caught her before she could reach the ground.

 

After having regained his composure, Xuanli looked behind him and stared at Xiaobai for a moment. Just.. who was this child?

Actually, that was a question for later. He didn’t have the time to figure things out, nor was he the one to do so. Instead, he turned his attention back to the boy, collecting himself and standing up straight. Even though he had dodged the brunt of it, the boy still got hit, and it looked as though one of his arms was completely discolored and useless for a while.

“Mind telling me where you learned those tricks?” He spat, walking over to the boy. “Someone gave you those cute little gloves in order to get a hold of my gnosis, so I want you to tell me everything you know.”

“You distribute those fake visions and hurt people,” despite his bold tone, the boy staggered backwards as Xuanli gained ground, yet his eyes held onto that determination he had from the start. “How is this any more underhanded from your tricks?”

“How many times are you going to accuse me of giving out those things, kid? I don’t even know what they are.”

“You deserve to lose your gnosis and to be locked away by Celestia for eternity. You’re a loose cannon that’s going to hurt everyone you love, so you might as well give up now.”

Xuanli’s teeth gritted once more, this time in a blinding rage, as he pulled his fist back and threw it forward with all his might, but his fist made contact with only empty space. He looked around in confusion for a moment before he looked up.

 

The barrier he created was down, the flames having flicked out when the boy put his hand into his chest and disrupted his powers. Now, the boy hung upside down, a vine wrapped securely around his ankle and keeping him suspended in the air. Xuanli’s eyes trailed down the vine, but really, he already had in mind who could be the cause of it.

Unsurprisingly, he was met with unruly purple hair, and a gaze that said the other wanted to rip his heart out.

 

“You really have the worst timing, you know that?” Xuanli said with a huff before waving his hand in the air as if to dismiss the other. “I’m not in the mood to entertain you, Feng Xi. Besides, you already missed out on the tournament, try again next year.”

“Are you afraid you’ll lose after getting beaten up by a mortal?” Feng Xi said in a challenging tone that caused Xuanli’s fists to clench and glare at him.

“This is an Archon related matter, something you’re not.”

“I believe this mortal is only returning the favor. I’m sure that you’ve heard the saying ‘an eye for an eye’?”

Xuanli scoffed as he rolled his eyes. “Go play somewhere else, before your Overseer gets here and kicks your ass.”

Whatever that meant to Feng Xi, the killing intent from him only got worse upon hearing those words. He waved his hand, and the vine holding the boy responded by throwing him somewhere out of sight. Shanxin swore loudly, as that person was their only lead to finding out about the delusions, but there wasn’t much her or Xiaobai could do at that moment, so they just had to hope he survived his fall when they could find him later.

Shanxin shook Xiaobai lightly. “Hey, we should get out of here now,” she said in a hushed but hurried tone. Whatever was going on here was just getting worse and worse, and neither of them knew how to handle the situation, or if they even could. It was obvious to tell that these two had history, and whoever this Feng Xi was, he was extremely powerful.

Xiaobai felt as though the world around her was swaying this way and that, as if she were on a boat in rough waters, but she also wanted out of this situation. As long as that person was nowhere near Xuanli, whatever was going on he could handle himself.

But as she tried to stand, her head only swayed more, and her eyes widened in shock before she shut them tight to keep from throwing up.

“Shanxin, I–” she muttered, tongue feeling sluggish. “I can’t move my legs, I can’t-can’t walk…”

“What the hell did you do earlier?” Shanxin gritted as she knelt down beside Xiaobai once more and placed her hand just above Xiaobai’s legs. Little bolts of purple lightning shot down from her hand and into her legs, dancing just underneath the skin and turning it a slight purple colour before disappearing and spreading through her legs. The feeling was similar to having your arms or legs fall asleep due to lack of blood flow. A strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

“I don’t know,” Xiaobai shook her head a little, using Shanxin’s body as support. She couldn’t tell if the healing was working or not. She hoped it was. It has to work.

A loud noise caught their attention.

A giant vine ripped out of the already damaged ground, moving at an extremely fast pace towards Xuanli. It didn’t get very far, however, as sharp ice shards started to rain down and stuck it to the ground, unable to move.

“Damn it, Feng Xi!!” Xuanli shouted in anger. “I have more important things to deal with for once!! So get the fuck out of my way!!”

“Not until you return what’s rightfully mine!!”

Feng Xi swept his arm through the air, and from behind him, multiple vines shot straight up from the ground and aimed straight at Xuanli. The Cryo Archon let out a noise that sounded like a growl as he took off, running towards Feng Xi and avoiding the vines in the process, freezing them with the cryo flames and making the vines unable to move. Finally, face to face with Feng Xi, Xuanli’s hands were covered in the blue flames as he threw one punch after another, all of which were blocked just barely in time by vines rising from the ground.

Xiaobai wanted to stop the fighting, but she didn’t know how. She couldn’t stop them.

 

A hand suddenly came into her view, and she took a moment to focus on the object it held. Shanxin turned to look as well. In the outstretched hand was a glass bottle with some sort of swirling green coloured liquid inside. “Healing through visions won’t work,” said the person. Looking up, Xiaobai saw a man with a blank expression, but his blue eyes held a deep kindness to them. She didn’t feel scared at all by him. “Drink this, you’ll feel better soon.”

Shanxin scoffed, on edge from all that was going on. “And why should we trust you?”

He said nothing, just waiting there patiently as he continued to hold the bottle out. Xiaobai really couldn’t figure out why, but she knew this man was trustworthy, at least for now. With a shaking hand, she took the bottle gently. Once his hand was free of the item, he reached out and gently ruffled Xiaobai’s hair. “You both did good. As soon as you drink, get going. The person you came here for is safe, but apprehended. You don’t need to hunt him down anymore.”

Xiaobai could feel Shanxin’s wide eyed stare at her, boring holes into her head. She ignored the look to watch the man walk away and towards the raging battle.

With nothing more than a flick of the wrist, all vines and ice blocks were shattered and shredded apart, the intensity and suddenness of it all causing the two battling to back away from one another in surprise.

Xiaobai wasted no time in throwing off the cap of the bottle and quickly downing the liquids inside, with Shanxin shouting in her ear. It at least didn’t taste terrible, it tasted like sweet flowers with something a little spicy hitting her throat.

“Let’s get going,” Xiaobai said as she finished the bottle, placing it down gently on the ground. Shanxin berated her under her breath but wanted to get out of this situation just as badly, so she helped Xiaobai to her feet. She couldn’t stand on her own, so Shanxin put one of her arms over her shoulders and neck and supported Xiaobai’s weight, and as quickly as possible, the two of them went to somewhere safer, with Huangshou following them closely with wide and terrified eyes.

Chapter Text

The two stared each other down, breathing heavily from their brief but intense fight, unblinking and refusing to look away as if that, too, would be admitting some sort of defeat.

Feng Xi was the first to break that eye contact for a moment, his eyes instead flicking quickly to look at the other before once more staring down Xuanli, but the Cryo Archon saw the quick glance and smirked. “Wuxian,” he called out as he adjusted himself to stand up and relax his shoulders, “surprising to see you here!! Up for a rematch?”

Wuxian walked over and gave Xuanli a quick once over. Although he is an Archon, Xuanli looked worse for wear, and he gave a shake of his head. “Not interested.”

A lie, obviously, but he wasn’t about to start a fight with someone injured, even if that injured person was an Archon.

“What are you doing here?” Feng Xi snapped, venom filling his every word as he bared his teeth. “I thought the others were keeping you busy.”

“Your friends are nowhere near a match for me, even if I am to face them all at once.”

“What did you do to them?”

“Nothing. They’re getting treated by Xing.”

Even knowing this, Feng Xi didn’t drop his guard in the slightest, and Wuxian couldn’t blame him.

“The tournament is over now, Feng Xi. Any more fighting you wish to do with Xuanli, you’ll have to go and fight me first,” Wuxian continued, taking a challenging step forward. He knew that Feng Xi would hesitate. Feng Xi wouldn’t pick a fight knowing that his friends are beaten and worn down, even if they were getting treatment. He would want to go see them as soon as possible.

And Wuxian was right, as Feng Xi looked between the both of them, seriously weighing his options at the moment before fleeing. He wasn’t too worried about Feng Xi running off. They would cross paths once more, they always eventually do.

Startled by the hand suddenly placed on his shoulder, Wuxian jumped only a little bit as Xuanli began laughing, once again smacking his hand down. “I knew I could count on you to show up!” He said with a wide grin.

“Are you admitting that you would have lost if I hadn’t appeared?”

“Ha! And let someone like him take my gnosis? Like I would ever let that happen!”

“Are you aware that he is my equal in battle, and as such, is equal to you as well? He may one day take your gnosis if you aren’t too careful.”

“I still wouldn’t let him take it, I would much rather have someone like you take it instead, ya know.”

“I’m not at all interested.”

Xuanli took his hand off of Wuxian as he started rambling on about how much of a pity it was that Wuxian had no desire to become an Archon, but his ramblings were only half listened to as Wuxian surveyed the destroyed arena and the broken buildings.

He has been around long enough and has witnessed enough tournaments held here to know that this isn’t normal. A bit of damage here and there, yes, but this looked similar to a battlefield. The wall of cryo flames had blocked his view of what was going on, and he ended up helping the crowd of people get away, so he didn’t have the time to approach the arena until now.

Xuanli wasn’t one to be easily beaten up in battle. He may be a bit of a brute, but he had years of combat experience and knew when to get serious during a fight. He wouldn’t willingly let himself get beaten by some mortals.

Something wasn’t making sense here, and it made him uneasy.

“Xuanli,” he called to get the Archons attention, who turned to the side to look at him with raised eyebrows. He didn’t know how to go about asking, so he just chose the most blunt way possible. “What happened here?”

The cold air blew through the silence between them. Xuanli lowered his head, shaking it before letting out what looked like a heavy sigh. He no longer held the air of nonchalance around himself, now he looked as much as the Archon he was supposed to be.

“We need to get to Lao Jun and Qing Ning as soon as possible,” he said, avoiding the question but Wuxian knew from his tone that it would be discussed once they got with the other Archons. Xuanli looked back up at him, eyebrows raised as he continued to speak. “But first, we need to go find those kids.”

 


 

Xiaobai felt weird.

She didn’t know how to describe it exactly, other than just… weird.

Her body felt like it was floating but being weighed down at the same time. Her mind was full of cotton and she couldn’t hold on to a single thought at all. She didn’t remember blacking out, but at some point, she must’ve, because this wasn’t the arena in the cryo nation. In fact, this wasn’t the cryo nation at all.

It was warmer here, gentler, the wind carrying on the gentle scent of salt.

Everything felt weird. It was so hard for her to put it into any sort of words, having felt nothing like this before. She opened her eyes and was greeted with a familiar ceiling. They were back in the anemo nation.

Just how did she get here?

Was Shanxin also with her?

Was the Cryo Archon okay?

And what about that boy, what happened to him? Were they able to take him with them?

Her head started to feel like she was swimming, and it ached as more and more questions appeared in her head until finally, Xiaobai winced at the pain. Maybe it was best to just forget all of those right now, and find someone, anyone, in order to get some answers. At least then she wouldn’t just be laying here and torturing herself with these questions.

She got up from the soft bed, a bit reluctant to leave it, and left the room. She didn’t know too much about this place still, only having been here just a few days ago and it hadn’t been for very long either, so she wandered about rather aimlessly.

Once again, the massive building was empty, making it void of any life. It felt eerie.

It didn’t take very long before she stood in front of a familiar pair of doors, slowly opening it and peeking her head in the room. It was almost like a rush of deja vu, watching as Qing Ning was once more pacing around and Lao Jun lounging, but this time, the two Archons were joined by a third, the Cryo Archon.

The door made a soft creaking noise, catching the attention of the three Archons.

Qing Ning was the first to react, as her eyes instantly lit up and she made a dash for Xiaobai, throwing the door the rest of the way open before wrapping her arms around the girl, only just a bit taller than Xiaobai. She held on tight, with Xiaobai a bit stunned for a moment. With the way Qing Ning held her in her arms, it was almost as if she was about to protect Xiaobai from anything and everything that threatened her, shielding her from the world.

It was a warm, comforting embrace. Xiaobai couldn’t help but to sink into her arms a bit.

“Oooh I’m so happy you’re finally awake,” Qing Ning said, relief spilling all over her words and her tone. “I was so worried when you showed up, my healing was doing nothing to help! I’ve never felt so scared and powerless before!”

“Sorry for worrying you,” Xiaobai said, and she meant it. It really did seem like the Anemo Archon had worried herself to death. The two of them had only known each other for such a short amount of time, and already Qing Ning was treating her as if they’d known each other for so many years.

After a few moments, Qing Ning pulled away a bit, but kept Xiaobai close as she quickly checked her over, even gently placing her hands on both sides of her face to turn her head this way and that. “You really shouldn’t be walking around already,” she mumbled as she fretted. “You should be resting still. Are you sure you’re alright? Oh it looks like you have a cut across your forehead here, let me just–”

“Qing Ning, you’re smothering the poor girl,” Lao Jun called out. From just over Qing Ning’s shoulder, she could see that Lao Jun had an eyebrow raised, but his tone held fondness to it despite the warning.

Qing Ning huffed as she turned to look at him over her shoulder. “How can I not? We sent two children off on a dangerous mission, with gou gege coming back looking as if he was just beaten to a pulp!”

“Hey! I was not beaten to a pulp!”

“How can I not worry about them?!”

Xiaobai couldn’t help but smile a bit at the slight bantering. It really was obvious how close these three Archons were. “By the way,” she interrupted, getting Qing Ning’s attention on her once more. “Where’s Shanxin and Huangshou? Are the two of them okay?”

“They’re fine, I promise,” Qing Ning nodded as she lowered her hands finally from Xiaobai’s face, now moving them so she was holding onto one of her hands as she dragged Xiaobai into the room. “Any wounds they had I already healed, though Shanxin is already a very skilled healer. If she were to study here for a bit, I’m sure her healing capabilities would be one of the best in no time.”

“Good luck convincing her of that, she doesn’t have much interest in getting better at healing, she wants to mostly use her electro vision for her inventions.”

“I hadn’t known Shanxin was an inventor,” Lao Jun looked interested, sitting up a bit more and even leaning just a bit forward. “There’s a rather prestigious school in Lanxi Zhen she could enroll in. I haven’t heard of any new inventors in the last few years, I’m happy to know the youth are starting to take an interest.”

“Huh? But she could achieve so much more if she were to stay here and study healing,” Qing Ning frowned. “There will always be those willing to tinker away and invent, but not many have the drive to learn the process of healing and medicines.”

Xiaobai listened as the two Archons started bantering back and forth over what sort of studying would benefit Shanxin best, and all she could do was sigh. If only the two of them were to know Shanxin did whatever she wanted, when she wanted. She would probably turn the both of them down if the offer was extended, honestly. She was a bit of a prodigy, but Shanxin really had no drive to please others or do as they say. She invented whatever she wanted to invent, and she learned healing to the extent of her own interests.

The only one not caught up in the debate was Xuanli, who sat there looking bored, completely uninterested in what was being said. Looking at him now, Xiaobai noticed that he had bandages wrapped around him, and her eyebrows raised in confusion.

“You’re staring.”

His sudden statement made Xiaobai jump a bit, noticing that he was now looking at her with his eyebrows furrowed a bit. She couldn’t tell if he was angry with her or not for staring, but it really seemed like he was. Quickly, she looked away, muttering a quick apology to the Cryo Archon. For a moment, she had forgotten her place. He was an Archon and she was nothing more than a human, show some more respect for crying out loud!!!!

Xuanli let out a scoff. “I’m not going to bite you or anything, you don’t need to act so on edge.”

Well… that seemed to be true.

He was close with Lao Jun and Qing Ning, who both seem to be rather relaxed and don’t care much for being treated and worshiped like gods, even if they essentially were gods. He also held an air of nonchalance around him about his position.

A bit hesitant, Xiaobai lifted her eyes to look back up at him, meeting Xuanli’s eyes that were already on her. He smiled once he had her attention again, the furrow of his brows from earlier gone. “There, see? I haven’t bitten you yet. Besides, you really helped me out back at the arena, so I can’t quite fight you just yet.”

The way he kept using the word yet made her feel a bit on edge, to be honest, as if he would lash out if given the chance.

“We haven’t really been introduced yet, I keep forgetting your name. So, I’m Xuanli, the Cryo Archon. Who’re you?”

He seemed a bit awkward with his wording, as if he wasn’t too used to this sort of thing, or like he was sort of forcing himself to make this introduction. But she appreciated it nonetheless as she raised her head up more to properly introduce herself. “My name is Luo Xiaobai, sir.”

Xuanli seemed to wince. “No, no no no, don’t call me sir, that’s just fucking weird,” he quickly waved a hand in the air, looking as if being called such a formal title was physically wounding him. It made her laugh a little. “Luo… Luo, Luo… Hmmmm…. I’ve heard that name before…”

“Because it’s the family name of the deity like warriors that fought with us in the Archon War.”

Xiaobai and Xuanli turned to Lao Jun, who apparently was finished bickering with Qing Ning. She couldn’t tell which one of them won, or if either of them even did and they just came to some sort of stalemate. It wouldn’t be surprising if it was the latter.

“That’s it!” Xuanli smiled widely before laughing out and slamming a hand on Xiaobai’s back, promptly knocking the wind from her lungs. “I thought your family died off along with the rest of them! Nice to see you Luo’s have some survival instinct!”

It took a moment for Xiaobai to catch her breath, coughing a little from the impact. She looked at the three Archons with a confused expression, not understanding a single thing they were saying. “Archon War? And… deity? What are you guys talking about?”

“From what Xuanli told us about what happened at the tournament, it’s a good idea to tell you all that we can.”

 

 

“Long ago, the divinity that’s known as Celestia opened up seven seats of godhood.

 

‘Take claim one of these seven seats,’ Celestia said, ‘And the victor shall govern over land and element.’

 

As many fought and clawed their way up, thus began the bloodbath that is today known as the Archon War.

 

There were no rules, and Celestia did not watch over the carnage that took place across the land. Their only concern were the final standing seven that would be chosen. Humans were caught in the middle of this war, powerless to defend themselves against the beings that paid no mind to their lives. They were on a quick path to extinction, if it were not for a few who rose up and protected them.

 

One of which was a divine being from Celestia itself, the only one to watch in horror as many were slaughtered by what Celestia had caused. Their pleas went unheard by the other divine bodies, until they finally had enough of sitting by and watching.

 

Stripped of their godhood, they descended down from Celestia.

 

Though protection was far and few between, this divine being took up arms to protect those who wished for protection, and saved those that wished to be saved, and aided those who needed it.

 

Too many were powerful yet selfish beings, and the divinity wished to strike them down before they could strike down those who wished for peace. They could not directly interfere with the war, and so, they gifted the beings that wished for peace power to destroy those with malicious intent. They gifted humans with power to fight and made allies.

 

But they also made enemies.

 

Just as the Archon War came to a close, Celestia finally stepped in after seeing that one of their own had betrayed them. Divinity could only be struck down by divinity, and with the seven seats taken, the deity that aided humans during the war was struck down.

 

After many centuries of suffering, the land finally knew peace, and all that remained of the divine being that helped humans was a bloodline that carried that same divinity, of the last name Luo.”

 

 

Xiaobai had heard of the Archon War. She had heard stories about it, with all sorts of different storylines and tales, and yet she had never heard this one before. She never heard of a god from Celestia stepping down to help, nor that there was some sort of divine bloodline. It was all very, very confusing, and she had no idea what it had to do with her.

Seeing the look of confusion on her face, Lao Jun sighed heavily as he closed his eyes for a moment, seeming as though he were collecting his thoughts. When he finally spoke, they remained closed. “We were aware that the divine bloodline all but died out long ago, with your grandfather being the last line. For many generations now, that divinity that the original god from Celestia held slowly faded away, until your grandfather was left with nothing but the faintest hint of it. The Luo family no longer wanted to be close to the Archons long before you were born, so we hadn’t thought to check when your birth was announced.”

Lao Jun opened his eyes now. He held a warm smile, yet it also seemed sad in a way to the point where it made Xiaobai’s chest ache. “It seems as though that divine power has reawakened in you. While a blessing, you are also a terrible omen, and I fear for what lies ahead of us.”

Her hands clenched tightly in her lap and she looked down. Her head felt like it was spinning. She couldn’t fully grasp what was going on, nor understand what it all meant. Was she some kind of threat to her friends and family now? What would happen if Celestia found out?

“So then, did that person who attacked Xuanli have something to do with this?”

Xuanli let out a mocking laugh as he threw his head back. “Celestia is too cowardly to go after someone like me!”

“You’d best hold your tongue with that,” Lao Jun said with a small shake of his head and a sigh before looking back at Xiaobai, this time a more reassuring expression on his face. “While we can’t say for sure right now, I doubt this had anything to do with Celestia or with you. Xuanli has made many enemies in the past, this isn’t the first time he has been attacked. But this is the first time his gnosis has been targeted.”

“Normal people don’t know about an Archon's gnosis, it’s a well kept secret, so for a mortal to have known about one, as well as possess the tools to forcibly take one from an Archon…” Qing Ning’s voice trailed off as she became deep in thought, as her expression turned to one of great worry.

Gnosis… She heard that word being used during Xuanli’s fight. “Can you explain to me what a gnosis is?” she asked hesitantly.

She got the gaze of all three Archon’s on her after asking, and Xiaobai feared for a moment if that secret was something to be kept from her as well. Just before she could start panicking and beg for forgiveness, Qing Ning stepped forward. “Seeing how your abilities affect an Archon’s gnosis, it might be for the best to let you know.”

Lao Jun turned and gave her a stern look, one that didn’t go unnoticed by her, as she let out a sigh before setting a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve told her this much, and I doubt we can keep it a secret from her much longer.”

It took him a moment to relax once more, but eventually Lao Jun did, but not without still holding a look of concern in his eyes.

“You can think of it as an Archon’s source of power,” Qing Ning went on to explain as she turned back to Xiaobai. “It proves we are Archons, one of the seat holders of Celestia, as well as our right to rule over our nation and land. It’s similar in a way to a vision, but visions are much more primitive compared to the power of a gnosis. Without it, an Archon is stripped of their title and greatly weakened. However, with your divine abilities from Celestia itself, you hold the power to give those with a gnosis a great boost in their abilities.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to win that fight without your help,” Xuanli said with a smile as he looked at Xiaobai, sincere with his words. “The moment that kid grabbed hold of my gnosis, I was cut off from it.”

Lao Jun nodded. “So, then our next order of business is to figure out where that young man got his knowledge from, as well as where he got those gloves from. However, this situation doesn’t involve you.”

His eyes were looking directly at Xiaobai, and she knew that whatever information was given freely to her was already given, and no more would be handed over. She wanted to know more, she wanted to know about the situation with the delusions, and if these three would be safe in the end, but Lao Jun seemed to now have some sort of guard up.

She remembered back to his words said only a few moments ago. Xiaobai was now an omen to them. If she could help these three, then she didn’t doubt that there might be some less kinder Archons that would target her if word were to get out. Although kind, Xiaobai had to remind herself of Lao Jun’s position as her nation's god, Daode Zhizun, and how he was ruthless against those that posed a threat to his nation and its people.

Suddenly, her heart ached deeply, however, she nodded her head respectfully. “I understand,” she said as she stood.

“Qing Ning or I will summon you sometime tomorrow to hear what you encountered while in the Cryo nation, but for now, find your friend and get some rest.”

“Thank you,” Xiaobai smiled, before finally leaving the room and making sure the door was closed behind her.

She couldn’t hear anything from the room as she leaned her back against the door, taking a moment to catch her breath and process all the information given to her. At this point, Shanxin would have certainly told her that their work here was done, that they could finally go home. There was nothing left for them to do, nothing that they had to do or required to do.

And Xiaobai wished with all her might that she could believe that, but there was a strange tightness in her throat that told her this wasn’t over yet. Something was coming. Something big and terrifying. No matter what, it was just a feeling she couldn’t shake.

 

 

“You didn’t have to be so harsh on the girl, you know,” Qing Ning said with a heavy sigh as she proceeded to collapse into the now empty seat that Xiaobai had been occupying. “She never asked for this.”

Lao Jun nodded. “I know, but you wouldn’t understand just how dangerous the situation is now. You weren’t there for the full intensity of the Archon War, you didn’t see just how bad it was.”

She knew that Lao Jun was only harsh to protect everyone, that he meant no ill will or malicious intent behind it, but sometimes that harshness would hurt others, and more importantly, it hurt himself. Xiaobai has only known Lao Jun for a short time now, the mortal wouldn’t be able to pick up on his slight mannerisms that gave away that he was truly upset by how harsh he had to make his words.

While the world knew him as the mighty and malevolent Daode Zhizun, all Qing Ning could see him as was her shifu, family.

Despite being born nearing the end of the Archon War, there really wasn’t much she knew about it, other than Lao Jun lost too many close to him. By the time he and Xuanli adopted her, he was already so broken and scarred from the ongoing war that had almost no end in sight. She had made it her own mission to make sure that not only humanity, but also her family, would no longer suffer from such a war.

She couldn’t find it in her to be upset with him for how he acted towards Xiaobai. Xuanli must’ve picked up on Lao Jun’s emotions as well, as she watched him reach over and take Lao Jun’s hand into his own. Lao Jun looked at Xuanli with love and adoration in his eyes, briefly distracted from the pain and fear that was no doubt in his chest.

Neither of them knew what was going on. All of these events were happening all so suddenly and at once, after so many years and centuries of peace.

Qing Ning thought back to the absolute horror she felt not too long ago when those humans arrived back at her nation's capital with Xuanli in tow, beaten and worn. An Archon can’t heal another Archon, and they can’t heal through normal means. The fact that he had been attacked with a delusion only made it worse, she couldn’t heal him, and his connection to Celestia in her chamber was much weaker than it should’ve been.

Finding out that Xuanli’s gnosis was targeted and almost ripped away, Qing Ning had watched as Lao Jun almost broke down after the realization that he had almost lost his husband without knowing why. She had to drag Lao Jun away from the child that they took prisoner, because she was sure Lao Jun would’ve killed him if given even the slightest chance.

Now, Lao Jun was much more calmed down from the ordeal, with Xuanli smiling in front of them and moving around, even though the bandages were just barely holding him together. Luckily, her capital was built upon a large leyline, and as whatever damage the delusion did to him faded, he would heal.

Qing Ning felt her vision swim for a moment, resulting in her putting her head down for a moment as she collected herself. She was tired, more so than she remembers feeling in a long time, but she figured it was due to the recent anxiety and stress.

“Alright,” Qing Ning declared, as she stood from her chair once her head stopped swaying and her vision cleared up once more. “I’m going to visit the kid they brought in. Shifu, did you want to join me for some questioning?”

It might be a bad idea to bring him, but he knew more than she did and would be able to place whatever pieces were missing to this puzzle a lot quicker than she could. Lao Jun nodded as he stood, and Xuanli looked at them expectantly, eyes shining almost. “Can I go too?”

“No,” Lao Jun shook his head, “you were targeted specifically. We can’t risk you getting face to face with that child again.”

Instantly, Xuanli seemed to deflate, and he threw himself dramatically over the arm at the seat, tugging at the hems of Lao Jun’s sleeve. “Why nooooottt?” He whined. “It’s boring here! There’s nothing to do!”

“Do I have to remind you that you’re technically a patient here, and that I will strap you down to a chair if I have to?” Qing Ning raised an eyebrow at him. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him involved, but Lao Jun was right. There must’ve been a reason why Xuanli was specifically targeted, whether it was from the kids own personal vendetta or by some order. It was too risky.

Lao Jun smiled as he placed a hand on Xuanli’s head gently. “We’ll be back soon, I promise, so be a good boy and stay here.”

A redness spread across Xuanli’s face as well as some wide, stupid looking smile, as he instantly relented and gave in to Lao Jun’s words.

Qing Ning faked a gag as she walked past them. “While you two flirt, I’ll actually get some work done around here!” She could hear Lao Jun chuckling as he followed along behind.

There wasn’t any sort of jail or containment center inside of the medical building, since it functioned more as a hospital as well as Qing Ning’s home rather than a place to lock people up, but she didn’t trust the kid to be placed anywhere else, too afraid that he may find some way to break out or would hurt innocent bystanders, so they turned one of the rooms into a makeshift cell. It was easy to use her abundance of anemo energy to keep a constant flow of wind containing him, easily tearing him to shreds if he should attempt to leave.

Opening up the door to the room, the boy was seated in the middle, legs hugged tight to his chest, unmoving except for the shifting of his eyes over to the archons as they entered the room, his expression changing to one of a glare.

Qing Ning looked in confusion as she shut the door behind herself and Lao Jun. “Why are you seated on the floor?” she asked him, having made sure there was proper seating in the area he was contained in. “You’ll upset your wounds more if you aren’t careful.”

The boy just looked at them for a few moments, the only sound heard between the three of them was the soft blowing of the wind from the cage. His eyes shifted away from them. “I’m fine, dafu.” His voice was low and a bit muffled from the way he was seated.

Lao Jun remained silent as he slowly walked, eyes never leaving the boy, and Qing Ning could tell he was just barely containing himself to keep quiet. She let out a small sigh, realizing that she really was going to be the only one to get any real work done. “Do you mind telling us your name?”

Once again, he was silent and took a few moments to reply. He was probably weighing the pros and cons of all his answers, and deciding which would be the safest option.

“Mu Si,” he finally said.

So, they at least had a name to call him, finally.

It was hard to tell, having been alive for so long, but Qing Ning figured this child was in his late teens, early adulthood at the latest. A similar age to Xiaobai and Shanxin it seemed. It was extremely baffling why someone as young as him would want to use a delusion, he still had time to gain a vision of his own if that’s what he desired, but what made it even more confusing was his hatred for Xuanli. A god with a hatred towards Xuanli made sense, he has fought many battles through the years and has had many vow to one day overthrow him, but a child who has no such means of doing so…

“Mu Si, why were you after the Cryo Archon?” Qing Ning asked. Of course, Xuanli had already told his side of the story, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could tell to begin with.

“As I said, he was distributing those things and hurting others. I figured someone had to do something to stop him.”

“Those things, do you mean the delusions?”

“I didn’t know what they were called.”

“Did you know what sort of effects they had on people, then?”

Mu Si nodded. “Two of my friends had gotten them a few days ago, before being brought here for treatment.”

So he and his friends went and used them without even knowing what they were? Why would they want them in the first place?

Well, the question of why wasn’t that hard to figure out at all to begin with. Whether they wanted them for some other reason, most of the time, it all boiled down to the fact that many mortals wanted a vision of their own. Visions were marvelous and amazing tools to mortals who didn’t fully grasp what they were, some even looked at vision bearers with envy.

But he also said that two of his friends were now in the Anemo nation getting treatment. “Could you tell me the names of your friends?”

Mu Si just stared at her, with enough time passing between them to let her know he wasn’t so readily going to answer her question, probably due to wanting to protect them.

“I made a vow to never do harm to my patients, no matter who they may be. If they are under my care, they will receive said care until they are healthy once more. I only wish to know their names so I can tell you how their treatment is going.”

At this, he seemed to perk up a little, as if he hadn’t considered that to be an option, that she wouldn’t tell him how they were doing instead of instantly punishing them. “My friends… are A Xian and Tan Jiu.”

Qing Ning racked her brain, trying to think of anything involving these names. She had seen so many inflicted by those delusions, it was hard for her to keep track of it all clearly, but eventually, the names became faces, and she remembered what she could about their conditions. She gave him a reassuring and, what she hoped was, a convincing smile. “They’re both doing fine. Although they had been showing symptoms when they arrived here, we managed to slow down or completely stop them.”

She didn’t know Mu Si had been sitting there, all muscles in his body tensed up, until she finally saw what looked like him relaxing, as though a weight had fallen off his shoulders. “That’s good,” he said in a much lower tone this time, but he sounded relieved.

Looking over, she saw Lao Jun with his eyes closed. No doubt he had conflicting feelings and thoughts going through his mind right now. As someone who would do anything for his family, Lao Jun could no doubt sympathize well with this child, even if it pained him to do so.

Qing Ning felt relieved, having answered a few of their questions now, but so far, these questions were the easier ones. What came next were the harder ones, the ones this child might not be so inclined to answer, if not for his own sake, than for the ones of his friends.

“Can you tell us the reason behind what drove you to attacking the Cryo Archon?”

Just as she expected, Mu Si seemed to put up his guard once again, though not nearly as much as last time. “I know that you went after him because of your friends,” she continued, pushing on forward, “but that doesn’t quite explain how you knew of his gnosis, or how you even possessed the ability to take it from him.”

Mu Si bowed his head, looking back and forth between the two archons as if they were predators, ready to strike at any moment. “I was told he was the one giving out those delusions and making everyone ill.”

Qing Ning raised her eyebrows. “What nation do you and your friends hail from?”

“The Cryo nation.”

“And have you lived there your whole life?”

“Yes, dafu.”

“Then you’ve been under the Cryo Archons protection for many years, probably even generations if your bloodline is from there as well. You should know then that the Cryo Archon is not one to favor such underhanded tricks, nor is he intelligent enough to pull through with such plans.”

Lao Jun lifted his hand and let out a small cough, holding back a grin and laughter. It wasn’t favorable to say such things about her father, but really, Xuanli couldn’t come up with such a plan and the both of them knew it. Any plans they enacted in the past were first thought through by either herself or Lao Jun. It was just the truth.

And obviously, the people who lived under the Cryo Archon were at least a little aware of this to be true as well, as Mu Si seemed to stop for a moment and really consider Qing Ning’s words, running them through his mind a bit and realizing that there were enough instances for this to be true.

“I see we have some level of understanding now,” Qing Ning said with a small nod.

“While it may be true he couldn’t plan this on his own, I’ve heard that both Qing Ning dafu and the Hydro Archon would easily back him up, making it so the three of you were working together. The three nations are close, afterall.”

There were rumors that she and Lao Jun were in on this as well, but after some thinking, it didn’t hold a lot of weight. “Do you really think I would be willing to give myself more work as a doctor? Especially with something I couldn’t cure easily?”

Mu Si seemed to think about it some more, and his eyebrows seemed to stitch together as he frowned. He was putting the pieces together and realizing that all these allegations weren’t holding up as well as he thought.

Lao Jun turned and gave Qing Ning a look, one that was only a little concerned. She could tell what he was thinking just by the look in his eyes.

There was something much bigger going on here, much bigger than a simple child getting his hands on a weapon and pulling some stupid stunt. If that were the case, then this situation would have been blown over by now.

No, this wasn’t just the arrogance of the youth.

Qing Ning bent her head down a bit and placed a hand over her forehead, feeling as though her head was going to start splitting from the stress of it all.

“Qing Ning dafu,” Mu Si said, causing her to look up once more at the suddenness of being addressed without needing to ask him a question first. “I don’t know much, as the person I got these items from kept their identity hidden, but please be careful.”

“Why must we be careful?”

 

“I fear someone may be betraying you.”

 

Lao Jun took a step forward towards the child, hands now clenched at his side in ill contained rage. “And what sort of proof do you have throwing around such claims, child?” he said through almost gritted teeth, not taking well to the threat that someone close to them may be a traitor. Qing Ning could understand, but she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back just enough that he got the hint to back down.

Mu Si seemed hesitant to talk for a moment, but he ended up letting out a sigh before figuring he would be dead either way. “The one I spoke to, they seemed to know quite a lot of detail of how the state of the Anemo nation was under this crisis due to the delusions. They had also warned me of what your two emissaries looked like, something I don’t think you had announced prior.”

No, she hadn’t said what the two looked like, or even showed them off to the crowd that gathered. She had made sure Xiaobai and Shanxin went there as anonymously as possible, as to not draw attention to them from anyone, much less anyone that might want to target them.

This meant that whoever it was, they were very close to her, making the group of people to consider even smaller, which just made her anxiety spike more. She couldn’t bear the thought of anyone betraying her, much less someone she would consider family. She didn’t even know who would do such a thing, with absolutely no names coming into her mind.

This news was extremely upsetting and concerning, and if it were true, they would need to figure out what to do about it, and extremely quickly.

“That’s enough out of you,” Lao Jun sneered, placing himself so he was now standing in front of Qing Ning protectively, as if this boy was of any harm to her. “If all you’re going to do is feed us lies now, we’re done here.”

Nothing more was said, Mu Si didn’t seem to dare to speak, as he just silently watched Lao Jun lead Qing Ning out of the room. As the door closed behind her, Qing Ning looked back into that room, back at that boy, and for a moment, she could see something that looked like fear in his eyes, but it didn’t seem as though it was for himself. There was something else on his mind. Was he scared for his friends? Or was there something more that they needed to be on the lookout for?

The door shut, and Lao Jun seemed to let out a sigh of relief. “I know we’re in your nation, but next time, we should put him under oath. That way, if that mortal tried to lie to us again, he would be doing so under my court and have to deal with the punishments. Are you alright?”

 

Qing Ning…

 

She really didn’t know how to answer.

 

Letting out a heavy sigh, Qing Ning wrapped her arms around herself. “Yeah, I’m fine,” it wasn’t a total lie, but she really didn’t know how to feel or what to think. She didn’t want to believe someone close to her could be some kind of spy, but that sort of accusation doesn’t just show up suddenly.

It was one thing with people thinking that the three archons were colluding with one another, they were super close, afterall, with hardly anyone knowing that the reasoning was due to them being family. It’s been going on for so many years, with so many accusations, that she could simply brush it off.

But to think someone was going behind her back…

It didn’t seem possible. She didn’t want to believe it.

A hand on her shoulder knocked her out of her thoughts, blinking in confusion as she looked up at Lao Jun.

“Don’t think too hard about what that boy said,” he placed his hand on her other shoulder, a comforting touch that helped to ground her and keep her from getting lost in her thoughts. “No one in our family would ever betray one another. We’ll figure this out, like we always do.”

Something was nagging at the back of her mind, making her feel unsure. But she smiled anyway and nodded. Even for a moment, she wanted to believe in his words. “You’re right, shifu. Everything’s going to work out just fine.”

Lao Jun reached up and lightly ruffled her hair, causing her to shout in protest but laughed nonetheless. “That’s enough excitement for now. You should go and rest for a bit, we’ll continue this later. I have some things I want to go over with Xuanli, anyways.”

“Ugh, you two are going to do gross things, huh?” Qing Ning faked disgust as she fixed her hair. “At least I don’t have to worry about you getting a divorce.”

“A divorce? That’s a mortal concept, your father and I are bonded for eternity, I made sure of it.”

“You made him take an oath, didn’t you?”

“Not to stay as my husband, that’s just an added bonus.”

“Yuck, alright alright, I know you haven’t seen each other in a while, I know when to get out of your hair,” she said dramatically as she walked away, shaking her head as she did so.

Lao Jun stood there and watched for a moment before heading back the way that they came, no doubt going to see if Xuanli had done as told and remained in the room to wait for them.

 

Qing Ning walked the silent halls of the building, before finally reaching her room, opening the door and walking inside with a heavy sigh. She felt a little suffocated with the overwhelming feeling of dread and the knowledge from what they learned today, so she walked over to her window overlooking the city and threw it open. The moon shone overhead, bright and illuminating the darkness. It was late into the night, the only noise filling the silence was the distant sounds of insects softly chirping. Even the city seemed to be sleeping, as a faint glow shone above the city, and the sea made no noise.

She tried her best not to get lost in thought, fearing that it would lead her down a rabbit hole that would certainly make her feel like she would lose her head.

With another heavy sigh, she bought a hand up and pinched the bridge of her nose.

This situation was really getting out of hand, huh?

“Do you plan on jumping?”

Qing Ning startled, quickly turning around to see Diting holding a tray with his eyebrows furrowed a bit, confused.

“Nonsense!” She quickly laughed it off, quickly waving one hand in the air in embarrassment for having startled so much. “Even if I was, I’m the Anemo Archon!! The winds would catch me long before hitting the ground!!”

He just stared at her for a moment before walking into the room, letting the door behind him close as he shook his head. “Lao Jun told me to bring you some tea,” he said as he set down the tray on the small table in her room, setting up the small set he had brought in with him.

Qing Ning smiled as she walked over, sitting down and happily accepting the warm cup he offered to her.

“Ah, wait wait wait, where do you think you’re going?” She reached out and caught his arm, just as Diting was motioning to leave.

He looked at her with a frown. “I have work to do.”

“Not right now, sit down and have some tea with me.”

“... I don’t drink this brand.”

“That’s fine, then stay and keep me company, we’ve been so busy lately I haven’t gotten the chance to talk with you.”

Diting seemed to hesitate for a moment, his eyes looking towards the cup in her hands and then towards the door, before he finally let out what sounded like a long suffering sigh. Finally, he did as told and sat across from her, hands folded neatly in his lap.

Qing Ning raised an eyebrow at him and smiled. “You don’t have to keep up appearances, you know. You’re my little brother, afterall, relax.”

It was hard for him to get out of a work mindset, where he acted refined and aloof in front of others, but she knew that he actually had a bit of a temper and didn’t enjoy talking much. It took him a few moments, but eventually, Diting relaxed, leaning back fully in the chair and crossing his arms over his chest.

She couldn’t help but to laugh a little as she set down the cup of tea, too hot for her to drink at the moment. “Thank you for all your help lately, didi. I don’t know where I would be without you and Beihe helping me out.”

“Probably trampled to death by some angry mob, or drowning in so much work that it kills you.”

Well, he definitely was right there. Without them to help manage the work and keep her on a schedule, she would’ve certainly overworked herself centuries ago.

“The old man seemed tense when he told me to get you some tea, is there anything I need to worry about?” Diting asked. For the most part, Diting was in charge of simple medical tasks as well as serving as Qing Ning’s bodyguard and security. He didn’t like having to deal with paperwork, and he couldn’t heal like Qing Ning and Beihe could, nor did he understand medicine as well.

Seeing Lao Jun tense, he probably assumed there may have been a security threat of some kind, especially with the recent accusations being thrown around, anyone would jump at the opportunity to try and do harm to at least one of the three Archons.

Qing Ning let out a sigh, looking down at the liquid inside of the cup.

Once again, Mu Si’s warning, or threat, came to her head. There may be someone within their close circle that could be a traitor, and she wondered just how much she should be telling him.

But Diting was her little brother. She watched him grow up. She loves him dearly, and trusts him as much as she trusts Lao Jun and Xuanli. They are her family.

“Gouge was attacked.”

“He was hosting that stupid tournament of his, of course he was attacked.”

“No, this wasn’t related to the tournament, if it was, shifu wouldn’t be so stressed out over it.”

Diting stared, shifting in his seat a bit. “Was the criminal apprehended?” He asked after a short moment, taking in the news.

Qing Ning nodded. “He’s staying imprisoned here until we figure out what’s going on, but as far as we know, he’s getting help from someone extremely dangerous, as they were also distributing delusions to the public.”

“Why is he staying here?” Diting quickly asked, leaning forward as he frowned, a hand pressed down onto the table. “We don’t have the security measures needed in case something happens. If he’s colluding with someone dangerous, then they could come and break him out!” His tone of voice rose, sounding more and more panicked as he spoke.

She could understand why he would be feeling anxious about this, he was right anyways. This nation was used to heal and nurture, not to confine and jail. Their defenses were lacking, and if the mastermind behind all this did show up, they really would be in huge danger.

But Qing Ning leaned forward and gently placed her hand over Diting’s, giving him a reassuring smile. “Gouge is resting here, and shifu isn’t about to leave until he makes sure this entire situation is over with. If something happens, it’ll be okay, we’ll get through it together. Besides,” she puffed out her chest and her reassuring smile turned more to an overconfident grin, “we can easily take down anyone. Don’t forget, I might be a doctor, but I know how to fight just as well. We’re tied whenever we spar, remember?”

Diting just stared once more a few moments. Something unreadable flashed through his eyes, as he seemed to be thinking about something over and over in his mind. Finally, his nose seemed to scrunch up a bit as he took his hand out from under hers and once more leaned back in his chair. Qing Ning didn’t take it to heart, he was always shy when it came to physical contact and reassurances. “Fine, but I get to say I told you so when something actually does happen.”

“Of course, of course,” she laughed lightly, nodding.

She felt her heart swell up with the love and affection she felt for her family, and how much they were all willing to go through to protect one another. It made her feel at ease and washed away the worries she had that whatever traitor there might be was in her family. Whoever it was, it definitely had to be some sort of close adversary, or was a fly on the wall.

“Thank you, didi.”

Diting looked at her with confusion. “For what?”

“For putting my heart at ease, and for taking care of me. You bring me tea every night to help me relax, and you’ve been taking on more work recently to keep the nation safe. Really, it means a lot to me.”

He looked away, looking off somewhere in the distance, with his shoulders hunched and looking embarrassed. Diting let out a small scoff. “Yeah, whatever, just drink your tea already so I can leave.”

Qing Ning looked down once more and saw that the tea in her cup was no longer too hot, now a subtle warmth as she drank it, feeling it warm her up from the inside.

She was ready to do anything to protect her family and keep this small piece of sanctuary close to her heart and happy, for as long as she was Archon.