When Rex Lapis first received his gnosis and ascended to godhood, burdening himself as the Lord of Rock and Stone, he didn’t mind it. Being an Archon that is.
If one had asked Morax what he enjoyed most about becoming a god, he would have unhesitatingly cited his power to appear as he desired, changing appearances at will. He was never fond of his Adeptus appearance, the gangly limbs feeling much too unwieldy and unnatural. It felt as if he was living in another’s body, a body that wasn’t suited for him. It was much too small, much too frail. Walking on two legs felt awkward and cumbersome and Morax would often be teased for giving everything a wide berth, his mind conjuring up images of things that did not exist on his person. Morax did not possess a tail, yet he strode on the balls of his feet as if he was balancing out an extra limb, his hands hitting each hard surface with a dull thwack as he misjudged how long his limbs were, again.
As an Archon, the impossible became possible and Morax found himself experimenting with all manners of appearances. The first form he took was that of a beautiful lady with rays of sunlight cascading down a firm back, lithe arms that would heft even the largest and heaviest of claymores with ease and piercing amber eyes. Morax marched into war with fire scorching the ground and blood dripping off a sharpened blade sending even the Lord of Destruction cowered under the heavy swing which blazed across the battlefield. That day Morax returned to camp, holding within her hand the served head of War and the title was placed upon her instead. The Stone King carved her name into the very foundations of Liyue, written in the blood of her enemies as she took the land for himself, along with a new name.
Whilst on the battlefield, Rex Lapis took upon many forms, sliding between faces and blending among the combatants. An androgynous warrior called forth mountains which glimmered under the blood-soaked moon, the small spy scurrying between the feet of the waring archons to deliver punishing lashes through a short-bladed sword, a flag bearer who’s roaring commands could be heard above the tides of war.
The Lord of War met The Lord of Dust as a young man, barely entering his 20’s, with ebony hair that swayed with the wind and amber eyes the same shade of cor lapis. The end of his polearm dug against her chest, right where the source of her power hummed slowly without any concern for how quickly it could cease to beat, the ends of his hair glowing with the blessings of the earth under the setting sun. Around him the Glaze Lillies flourished, untouched by the songs of war and despair and her eyes as clear as the water which ran through the marsh they stood upon reflected that same love which poured out from the lilies.
Guizhong was a beautiful woman, with hair of flax and silk cascading down her frail body. Her body was as frail as which she ruled over as if a simple breeze would scatter across the lands. Yet behind a sickly pale face flowed knowledge and wisdom that Rex Lapis, for all his strength and power could not comprehend. Instead of a blade, Guizhong weaponized her vast mind to craft and protect, outshining Rex Lapis in every single way. Perhaps that was why he kept coming back, the faint pull of curiosity leading his legs to walk along the endless sloping topography to visit such an intriguing archon.
That soft demure face was nowhere to be seen when Rex Lapis next wandered into Dihua Marsh, sitting among the flourishing lilies. Instead in her place was a lion whose single heaven pointing horn shone in the growing light. The Xiezhi regarded him with clear eyes and trotted through the swaying grass to settle down beside Rex Lapis as stout legs began to unfurl. Rex Lapis watched as the crown of gold resting against the creature’s neck slowly smoothed out into shining pale hair, Guizhong slowly taking shape where the Xiezhi once sat. The Lord of Dust giggled as she poked at Rex Lapis’s impassive face, brushing her flaxen hair out of her eyes. A knowing twinkle danced in Guizhong’s eyes of topaz as she nudged her elbow against his side. “Come now, Morax,” She had wheedled, honeyed voice sweetening him towards the idea. “It’s not all that hard or scary. Just imagine what you want and it’ll come to you, just like changing our faces.”
Rex Lapis didn’t know how to tell her that he wasn’t afraid -- how could he be when he had looked War in the eye and taken its head for himself -- but more so he supposed he was doubtful. Doubtful that such a shift could be possible for if it wasn’t then the spark in his chest would forever stay as such. A spark.
It was with trepidation that Rex Lapis slowly filled out the hollow space from his tailbone, folded legs joining with his body with his arms contorting to form strong and sturdy limbs for him to balance his growing form on. His head bowed under the weight of ornate horns and his snout brushed the soft petals of the blooming lilies, cracking uncomfortably as his jaw shifted to make room for extra teeth which jutted out into a snarl. Skin hardened and glowed under the warm sunlight as Rex Lapis slid across the marsh, grass tickling the interlocked scales of his underbelly. Eyes of molten amber fluttered open, irises narrowing against the glaring sunlight as everything came to focus all at once.
There was the slight ache of discomfort as Rex Lapis twisted out sore muscles, yet there was a sense of belonging as he ripped off the guise he had trapped himself in and stretched out limbs. His large tail swept through the air and his jaws opened up to swallow the skies as a roar echoed throughout the marsh. The earth trembled, rejoicing at the god’s new form which he melded into as if he was returning home. Beside him, Guizhong watched with a smile in her bright eyes, her song-like laughter sounding divine to Rex Lapis’ ears.
With the God of Dust beside him, they created a nation of their own, the Guili Plains, ruling over their people and soaring high above the clouds. Rex Lapis rarely walked the barren streets of the plains, leaving personal assessments of the nation to Guizhong. Rex Lapis would set out with a weapon in hand and the earth humming under the coil of his muscles to protect the borders while Guizhong kneeled amongst the rolling fields, showing her children how best to sow the seeds and tend to the earth.
Guizhong adored humans, treating them like her children. She designed beautiful temples and sprawling courtyards for her humans to admire and reside in, crafting from her mind and the earth weapons for which to protect her newly formed nation. She worked with an unparalleled zeal which swept through her secluded workshop, sketched out diagrams and half built prototypes littering the enclosed space. “Why?” Rex Lapis asked one day as he watched Guizhong plan out her newest project, a ballista which would serve as a defensive measure should the Guili Plains befall enemy siege. “Why go all this way for such insignificant beings?”
Guizhong only smiled, grabbing another tool from the mess upon her worktable. “Because I love them.” She replied simply, leaving Rex Lapis with more questions than answers.
Despite speaking the same language, Rex Lapis couldn’t comprehend humans. They made cute noises, sure, but they were so… fragile. They would trip over a stray rock and be immobilized for weeks, unable to do anything for themselves. Unlike Adepti and Archons who drew upon Celestia’s power to heal themselves, humans could only wait for the passage of time to close their wounds. They would look Rex Lapis in the eyes yet they would cower away when he clambered to his feet and pulled his lips back, immediately recanting the invitation for battle the moment he accepted. Humans were strange in that their mouths spoke a language that Rex Lapis could understand yet their bodies ascribed to a different dialect, one which Rex Lapis for the life of him could not understand.
Guizhong laughed at him when he told her as such, face stony even in the face of dishevelled flax hair and frail fingers clutching at shaking sides. “My dear Morax,” She murmured almost fondly, letting her fingers swipe away at the moisture that had gathered around her mirthful eyes. “You have much to learn about the world around us. Humans are wonderful and amazing creatures who are so different from us. It is precisely that unpredictable difference between us that makes them so fascinating.”
Rex Lapis begged to differ but he was a god and gods did not beg. So instead he let out a chuff and buried his head into his mane and inhaled the scent of rain kissed earth eroded away by the howling winds which carried away with it the dust of days long gone. Humans were confusing, incomprehensible to his mind. Humans would attack other humans as a sign of affection, wrapping weak arms around limbs in an attempt to crush them. To actively try again and again to injure another was an odd way of displaying affection. It baffled him even more when Humans smushed their faces together, never moving down to claim or scent each other. Humans never treated their loved ones with ginger care, never claiming what was theirs as muddied scents from all manner of things lingered around each human. Even when a pair of humans became mates, Rex Lapis had difficulty recognizing this, impure scents muddying up any claims the pair could have staked on each other.
Even more baffling was the constant rejection of Rex Lapis’ favour. Even the humans which Rex Lapis found interesting violently flinched away from his face as he brought his snout down to claim them. Did humans not want the markings of a god? Humans were confusing. Rex Lapis was simply displaying his intentions for his people, marking those who lived with his favour as his and his alone. Perhaps humans disliked being marked on the neck? Yet Rex Lapis had difficulty in imagining scent marks anywhere other than the neck. The point of scenting and claiming was to envelop the devotee in their god’s scent, to bear the mark of their possession proudly. Yet these humans refused every advance Rex Lapis ever gave them.
He found himself wondering if he was doing something wrong.
Guizhong never minded though and that was enough for him. She never flinched away or attempted to deny the twisting need inside him to mark her as his, to gload to the rest of the Archons that they could never have her, that she was his and his alone. His Guizhong. His treasure. It became somewhat of a routine for Guizhong to travel up to the peaks of Guili Plains and settle down with a book or her latest inventions as Rex Lapis coiled his body around her, jaw resting upon her fair hair. She would throw dust in his face when he misbehaved occasionally, as if he was a naughty stray cat in need of disciplining and Rex Lapis would rumble in dissatisfaction, his head travelling down to rest heavily upon her thin shoulders. But she would never push him off, and instead used the coiled ropes of muscles that curled around her as a pillow. She always left her neck exposed, delicate and unblemished, and Rex Lapis would always place his head upon her shoulder, soft fur rubbing against the pale flesh letting the smell of metal and dust flood his nose.
As the Guili Plains grew in size and strength, the other vermin began to approach the two Archons and a vow of non-violence was struck between those who wished to live under the protection of the Guili Assembly. In these offers, Rex Lapis demanded equivalence be given to both parties, that an offer of equal weight be exchanged. And thus, Rex Lapis donned a new title, wielding a weapon in one hand, blood dripping down his wrist to water the earth, and a scale in the other weighing the sins of all those who prostrate themselves before him, judging the fairness of exchanges. The Lord of Contracts observed each alliance he had forged with careful amber eyes, tracking the ebb and flow of equality and tearing out the poison at the root with vicious jaws and merciless claws. The relationships Rex Lapis kept were based on an equivalent give and take relationship, yet Guizhong sat beside him, giving everything and asking for nothing in return, as he ruthlessly forged contracts which he would undoubtedly see crumble under the weight of a looming war between the foolish Archons.
When Guizhong returns to which she ruled over, her body scattered into the rain damp earth as Rex Lapis’ fingers desperately grasp what is left of her. Rex Lapis mourned the passing of the only being who had seen him as something other than a harbinger of war and death the only way he could, letting rage grip his gnosis with a shattering grip. The earth trembled as Guili was shaken to its core by the death of one of its Archons and the other’s overwhelming grief ravaged him until he was nothing but a smear of blood flashing across the battlefield, his skin stained with destruction as Chi writhed and screeched under his wrath.
When Rex Lapis finally settled the people of Guili into his newly formed nation of Liyue, he dared not plant any Glaze Lilies within his grand city, leaving the token of his affections within the marsh. For whenever Rex Lapis sang, the flowers would close their petals to him, rejecting what feeble efforts he attempted to remember the fleeting beauty of the Goddess of Dust.
Perhaps, Zhongli pondered centuries after he painstakingly carved out a sanctuary from within hardened earth, as Rex Lapis sang, his song carried with it the stench of war and despair, copper filling his notes and death approaching on the crescendo. The Archon could only sing of despair which would wilt even the most tenacious of flowers, a stark antithetical to the grace and hope which coloured Guizhong’s voice. Even as the broken Archon commanded the stone to rise into jagged peaks, Guizhong’s song of wisdom and love, of an ephemeral day spent in the glades and of setting suns rang clearly in his mind as he toiled away.
Yet when Rex Lapis walked the streets of Liyue, her lithe body trapped in a slender black gown with amber eyes glowing under the crescent moon, she saw one such lily swaying in the sea breeze, the song of happiness and renewal beading off its petals. Walking past the small glowing flower, Rex Lapis did not bat an eyelash at the unfurling petals of blue (clear and true just as her eyes once were a voice reminded her). Yet as she moved further and further away from the unfurled petals, she felt as if someone had thrown dust in her face before reaching deep into her chest to grasp the source of her divinity.
Perplexing. Rex Lapis mused, clutching the light fabric covering her chest as she brushed away the rain which rolled down her cheeks, the cloudless night sky keeping her company. To her knowledge, Archons’ bodies would never fall ill.
But as she sat in the pharmacy listing out her symptoms, Baizhu had only laughed softly and set his clipboard down. “Go home and rest up.” He suggested, her stomach rolling at the pity twinkling in his eyes as he passed on a sheet with a prescription scribbled on it. “All I can prescribe for grief and a broken heart is time. Give it time and I’m sure it will heal. If not, then come back. I’ll see what I can do.”
Thanking her fellow Adeptus, Rex Lapis gingerly picked up the prescription, tucking it against her breast as she wandered the lively streets of Liyue
Centuries later, Zhongli would find a yellowed scrap of paper among his belongings, buried under invoices and paperwork and written in chicken scratch. A sad smile would crawl over his face and he would dust it off, setting it out on his desk before heading out to Bubu Pharmacy.
“I miss her too”
If it had been Guizhong who first set him off on his journey to learn about humans, then it would be Xiao who administered his first test.
Rex Lapis hadn’t called upon the powers of the yaksha on purpose but had given in to the whims of Guizhong and the then young Ping. Moon Carver too had voiced a preference for such a ritual to be held, citing that those who were birthed from spilled godly blood could be handled by these underlings. Rex Lapis couldn’t understand why. He was the one to end their lives, who put a blade to their chest and drive the point through. He had killed many gods before and he would continue to do so. A few demon spawn would do nothing against the God of War, who shaped mountains with his bare hands and dyed the fertile soil red. It was laughable yet Rex Lapis begrudgingly agreed after Guizhong threatened to do it herself.
In the end, Rex Lapis only had the heart to summon five, the outer yaksha having come from other gods and deities who wished to protect themselves. Out of those he summoned, none of them stuck around all flying off to do what they were summoned for. Only Bosacius returned occasionally bearing the news of the outside world and of his brethren who slowly descended into madness and rage, turning their claws against those who were not the enemy. Unfortunate, but Rex Lapis felt nothing for the writhing souls consumed by their mortal coil. They were just another tally in books of an endless war between gods.
Rex Lapis himself had cut down the very thing he had birthed, as the battlefield showed no love to friend or foe. Closing draconic jaws over fragile bones and spitting out vile flesh was par for course as was driving a spear into the hollow cavity of a god. Perhaps it was that monotonous field which Rex Lapis lived his uneventful days upon that humans feared so much, who cowered in fear in the face of a god who found the taking of insignificant lives to be bland and mundane.
But it was on that boring daily grind of warfare, facing yet another Archon whose delusions of grandeur had led them to foolishly challenge the Lord of Stone that Rex Lapis met Alatus. The Guardian Yaksha was a beauty on the battlefield, tearing through the carnage and destruction with blood smeared over his face and a wild haunted look in those dull cat-like eyes. Raining death from above, the demon ripped apart bodies as if they were naught but training dummies who had the unfortunate experience of being in his way and feasted on rotten corpses and broken dreams.
Yet for all his savage beauty, Alatus was a muzzled hound, bound to his master in chains of arsenic and mercury. Though Rex Lapis supposed that bound dogs always did bite the hardest.
He watched as Alatus cracked his jaw against the stone, lips pulled back to display glimmering fangs as a soundless scream wrenched itself from the yaksha’s throat. A sleeve of markings denoting his position as a tool and slave glowed against his shoulder, searing into frazzled nerves. Grinding his teeth together, the stabbing pain which blossomed in his chest tore him apart from the inside out, red flooding his vision.
The heat splattered across his cheek, sleeves billowing in the wind as the point of Rex Lapis’ polearm found its mark. Beneath him, wide eyes had long since lost their light, the carnage which surrounded the Archaic God revolting to even the most battle hardened of warriors. To say that Rex Lapis painted the floor with blood would be a gross understatement, disregarding the destruction he had wrought upon a god who dared touch what was his.
A possessive guttural roll of sound vibrated and slipped through the cracks in the blood-soaked earth, sending a warning to everyone in the vicinity as Rex Lapis yanked his weapon from the dismembered corpse, the torn muscle and sinew barely recognizable as a face, shattered bone caving under the wrath of a god.
Turning to the boy whose savage eyes of fire had been dulled by helpless despair, Rex Lapis flicked his wrist and shattered the final shackles binding golden wings to an ungrateful master. “Yaksha.” He spoke, voice distorting with divine power and authority. “I hereby absolve you of your contract. You are no longer bound to that wretched god and are free to do as you please.”
Eyes so sharp and dangerous slowly trailed upwards to glare at him, hidden behind the shadows of his bangs. A single pained breath escaped Alatus’ mouth, arms trembling to hold up the dead weight of his weak body, fingers scrambling across blood-soaked rocks. Observing coldly, the tip of Rex Lapis’ spear flicked forward to tilt Alatus’ head up, forcing the Archon to face the life he had saved. “Or perhaps, you desire to be bound by yet another contract.” He observed, digging the tip of the blade which had taken Alatus’s previous master into the Adeptus’ neck. “Tell me your name and it shall be done.”
Guizhong has screamed and dropped her hammer at the sight of two men, covered head to toe in blood as if they had bathed in it, standing in her workshop. Rex Lapis didn’t care, wrapping his arms around Xiao with a low growl in an unflinching display of what would happen should Guizhong turn him away.
“Don’t threaten me, Morax.” Guizhong snapped, her motherly nature blooming at the sight of Xiao’s battle-scarred body and haunted eyes, wiping her hands of grease and approaching them. “If you do that, you’ll scare the poor child.”
He obliged and pressed his lips into a thin line to cut off the warning rumbles but in return, he tightened his hold on Xiao, resting his head on the Adeptus’ shoulder. “Mine.” He stated firmly, breathing in the thick iron which masked the scent of a whirling gale, ready to rip whatever stood before it to shreds. It was a delightfully intoxicating scent, a warmth blooming in his chest that Rex Lapis had only associated with the dusty iron of Guizhong.
The roll of crystalline eyes almost drew an offending sound from Rex Lapis’ lips, yet he held the warning growl which bubbled in his chest, trusting Guizhong to have at least some semblance of an explanation. “Don’t be stupid, Morax.” She chided lightly and Rex Lapis peeled his lips back into a snarl. “I’m not going to take him away from you. I can see how both of you have already claimed each other, to separate you two would be a dead fool’s errand. I just want to make sure that the child is unhurt.” The growl caught in Rex Lapis’ throat as he faltered, the pull of his eyebrows together writing out his confusion. While he also considered Guizhong to be an integral part of his hoard, the first of his treasure (now treasures he reminded himself, feeling the slight shift of muscle under his protective embrace) to open her home and heart to him, he had expected more of a fight. He was jealous and possessive, claiming what was his and keeping a firm grip on them. Yet Guizhong had easily given up her privilege as his sole treasure to make way for another sparkling gem.
Reluctantly stepping back, he was graced by a soft and grateful smile as Guizhong took a knee and gently grabbed Xiao’s arms, moving slowly enough for the yaksha to deny her if he so wished. Though he flinched at the unfamiliar touch, Xiao made no move to pull away and even relaxed marginally in the embrace of a mother.
The sight of the two treasures who belonged to him gently testing the waters brought forth a pleased rumble. Mine , the thought with a satisfied purr, adoring the way it rolled off his tongue as if it was always meant to be. Rex Lapis, Guizhong, and Xiao. His treasures. His.
Later, when Rex Lapis spoke with Guizhong in hushed voices as to not wake Xiao, he learned what those feelings that ate away at him were called. He supposed jealousy and anger could be potent emotions, catalysts for a more efficient form of fighting.
Guizhong had sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose at his observation, shaking her head. “Not everything is about war, Morax.” She had told him, voice strained as if she was holding herself back from cuffing him upside the head. “Sometimes, we just feel things that don’t benefit us in any productive way and that’s okay. It just makes us human.”
He failed to see how fickle and confusing elements such as emotions made something human, but Rex Lapis only hummed in agreement, watching the stars shine innocently overhead.
Rex Lapis’ final test was, in theory, quite easy.
It was almost laughable how easy of a challenge the final wall barring him from humanity was. He was more than strong enough to burst through the challenge, his Archonic powers making quick work of the task.
But Zhongli was no longer Rex Lapis, for the God of Liyue had already died, cast out from his lofty place from up on high and sent crashing down upon his people. Rex Lapis was now a mortal, stuck as Zhongli with the same ebony hair which swayed in the wind that glowed with the earth's blessing and eyes of cor lapis, gifted with a soft face that would slowly age past his 20’s. The very same face that Guizhong had known him as, falling victim to the passage of time.
To be mortal wasn’t bad. Zhongli had grown tired of godhood, seeing those he once called friends sink down into the depth of the ocean, buried by Zhongli himself. He thinks he’s gotten better at interacting with humans, faking the experience of being mortal. He doesn’t know. The other Adepti don’t help in that regard from the sole fact of losing track of which human disguise Rex Lapis has donned for this century. Despite all the various faces and masks Rex Lapis has worn over his extensive lifetime, Cloud Retainer’s unsavoury nickname of “Stone Faced Morax '' still stood the test of time. (He does wish that the anti-social Adeptus would grow more outwardly fond of him just as she had with Guizhong)
Zhongli had been pretending for years now but to truly be human was indeed quite different from the flimsy exoskeleton that Rex Lapis had once worn. There were fascinating roadblocks that Rex Lapis could never have imagined which Zhongli had to overcome.
For one, he didn’t expect that the innovations which humans had cultivated over the years would become such hindrances. It took Zhongli a good few weeks to remember that he no longer possessed a tail and couldn’t just curl up on a chair, that his legs were longer than normal and were prone to banging against desk edges and tripping over nothing.
Hu Tao had laughed at him the first time he stumbled, having instinctually risen up to walk on the balls of his feet before promptly falling over. “What the hell, Zhongli?” She had howled, arms clutching her shaking sides as she was immobilized with mirth. “I never expected a prim and proper man like yourself to be such a klutz.”
Pursing his lips, Zhongli had picked himself up off the ground to regain his bruised dignity. “We all have our flaws.” He replied with, testily rubbing his boney wrist. “For me, that would be a poor sense of spatial awareness in relation to my own body.”
But perhaps one of the biggest challenges was the sheer emptiness that Zhongli felt. A sense of dissonance between himself and his body gnawed away at him from the inside out, screaming with a boiling rage to be let out. He wasn’t human, not in the slightest. Even when he had donned the disguise when his gnosis still resided within his chest, he had regularly left to simply slip off his human form, letting his wild heart of war roam and rage until that ugly part of himself was sated. A god spanning centuries of dominion and rule couldn’t become human after a single month of mortality, that was simply impossible. As impossible as shoving a dragon into a fragile bipedal vessel. Oh, wait.
But things were manageable. He grew accustomed to his light crown and lithe body, learnt to gauge how much space was needed, learned to run on the balls on his feet but walk on the flats, learned how to sit somewhat properly on seats though Zhongli suspected that perfecting the art form of properly seating oneself would forever be lost on him. He learned to fill in the gaps between his skin with caked mud and fashioned out of geo a wreath of rock which sat heavy and calming upon his head. Through painstaking practice, he stretched and melded his vocal cords into instruments in which he could properly express himself, churring and rumbling as he would when he still held divinity. He continued to hoard the scents of yesteryear and days long gone that only those who had lived since the time of the Plains of Departure and Return would remember, the lone comfort of what he had used to be.
Did he regret signing away his gnosis? No, he didn’t think so. Millenia of ruling over his nation left him weary and tired, yearning nothing for the rest that mortals so desired after a long day’s work. But the freedom of retirement was hampered by the soul-crushing reality that he was placed into the wrong form.
So he yearned. Yearned for the lithe body he had once possessed which danced among the clouds and slipped past stone pillars, yearned for the rush of wind buffeting his scales as the drag of his horns prevented the breeze from lashing against his soft underbelly.
He was ever grateful for the Traveler who stayed with him, gently retelling stories of their own adventures. They bonded as thus, as the Traveler quietly admitted that they missed their wings. Crystalline and beautiful, crafted of filigree and dreams that were so easily shattered by an unknown god. Once upon a time, they along with their sibling would fly high above the clouds, laughing as they explored worlds and untold horrors, delighting in each other's presence. Yet all that was cruelly ripped away from them in an instant, a scattering of blocks shattering their dreams and wrenching the siblings apart.
Under the dotted white map which spanned the night sky, the Traveller whispered into the sea salted winds that once, just once, they had experienced that freefalling freedom of flight, chasing after a corrupted dragon. The irony of such a context was not lost on Zhongli as he gave a snort and draped his jacket over the Traveller’s thin shoulders. When the pair made land on Liyue’s rolling docks, the Traveller had pressed into his hands a Wing Glider, the amber feathers interlocking with the forged metal, bent into a majestic spread of wings. Eyes seared onto the tips of the wings, mirrored in the delicate metalwork glared back at Zhongli as if challenging him to give them a try. “I know that it won’t be the same as flying,” they murmured, smoothing out the immaculate feathers. “But this helped me deal with the yearning so I hope it helps you.”
Smiling thinly, Zhongli accepted the gracious gift, handling the glider with the delicacy a master appraiser would hold a timeless relic. “Thank you.” He whispered softly, feeling Barabtos’ essence rising off the wings of flight.
He hadn’t meant to divulge his yearnings to Childe, truly he did not. Yet the boy (everyone was so young, so fragile, yet Childe was moreso than any other mortal he had met) had made a home by his side, with the acrid roll of iron and a brilliant smile. Zhongli didn’t know if it was guilt, regret or a mixture of both with a dash of something else that made him reach out to the traitor in the first place, Gently holding their shattered bonds, Zhongli painstakingly glued them back together as he peeled back himself, using his secrets to bind the shattered chains.
Their previous relationship had fundamentally been built upon a tower of lies and deceit, a beautiful picnic atop the stakes of treachery. Perhaps there had been genuine trust and friendship woven within the briars and thorns which held up their throne, thin yet present, but all too weak to support the shaky tower of convenience. But even Zhongli’s personal feelings towards the harbinger couldn’t sustain their fragile relationship, the illusion naught but a stack of cards that crumbled the moment Zhongli ripped out his heart, the unbalanced weight sending the thinly veiled farce crashing into reality.
But maybe, just maybe, that wasn’t what their friendship had been at the beginning. Perhaps it had been a castle full of flourishing lilies and built upon the mutual enjoyment both of them held as they basked under the rolling waves. Once upon a long time ago, Rex Lapis could have said that their relationship was a mirror of what he had with Guizhong, but to say that now would be an insult to both memories, tainting them in a bitter anger that had become all too familiar to the Archon throughout the long years of battle.
Holding that single golden thread, Zhongli began to reweave the ties that bound him to Childe, reforging the unspoken contract which had become Rex Lapis’ lightest burden. Perhaps it was that admission of weakness that finally bound the two of them with a sliver of what they once had had, laying the foundation for something fertile soil from which a mutually cultivated lily blooming amongst their shared companionship could one day sprout.
“So you’re telling me,” Childe swallowed while waving around a fork, for he still hadn’t grasped the finer delicate motions needed to chopsticks as intended even for all his years residing in Liyue, mouth full of food. “That you can’t turn into a dragon anymore? And you miss that?”
A tentative sip of tea was the only reply given as Zhongli closed his eyes. “That is correct.” He finally uttered, cradling the ceramic cup within his hands. “I am an Adeptus now. Therefore, I can only take two forms. The one you see before you now, and a form akin to the ones Moon Carver and Mountain Shaker are prone to taking. Unfortunately, neither forms are draconic in appearance.”
Swallowing, Childe’s eyebrows knitted in confusion, his fork dangling between limp fingers. Mulling over what he had been told, he finally gave Zhongli a confused sound and slight purse of soft lips. “Huh… So what? Do you miss being able to breathe fire or something? ‘Cus I get the whole I miss being a dragon thing but can’t you just make an exoskeleton out of geo for yourself or something? Like what you did with the Exuvia?” Spearing another piece of food, Childe shoved it into his mouth as his fingers drummed against the marble table. The confusion was written clearly over the younger's face, a sight which made Zhongli smile. Though there was a slight undercurrent of bitterness, the ability to even talk about anything related to the incident was a sign that he - that they were moving on from the hurt.
“Hardly fitting for the Lord of Geo to be spitting out fire,” Zhongli replied with a wry chuckle, setting the cup down. Deftly dividing up the fish before them, he dropped the best parts into Childe’s plates, a hand propping his face up in a decidedly ungraceful manner. “If simply crafting a new vessel was the solution, I scarce think that we’d be having this conversation. I would aliken it to looking in a mirror and not recognizing the face who stares back at you, though you are fully aware that the one in the mirror is you. There are times that I find myself ducking under entryways that would have grazed against my horns yet arch peacefully above my head, for example, or I pull back my lips and expect to be met with sharpened enamel yet my teeth are as normal as the next person. While giving myself a form that more fits what I perceive myself as would certainly be helpful, it, unfortunately, doesn’t satisfy the urge to throw myself off the highest peaks of Liyue just to experience the rush of flight once again.”
“... So why haven’t you?”
The air seemed to still as Zhongli blinked, hands stilling in their action of bringing the cup of tea back up to his lips. “I’m sorry?” He laughed stiltedly, the implications of such a question resting heavily like weights in his stomach.
“Why haven’t you jumped? It’s not like there’s anything stopping you.” Tartaglia mentioned flippantly, scraping meat off tender fish bones. If Zhongli hadn’t known better, he would have guessed that his companion was apathetic, indifferent, simply uninterested in such matters. Yet there lay within his words the sparks of a challenge which taunted Zhongli to action. “You have those wings that the Traveler gave you so you wouldn’t die or anything.”
The cup trembled slightly as Zhongli let out a small sigh. “Not all of us are so eager to discard our lives for a rush of satisfaction.” He pointed out and Childe had the good grace to at least shrug his shoulders with a guilty upturn of his lips. “But I suppose I simply detest the thought of disappointment. Gliding is quite different from flying after all. In addition, I am still unused to this mortal body and the limitations upon which hinders what is within the realm of possibility.”
“Zhongli, you can’t be mortal if you don’t take any risks. What’s the use of living if you don’t try something new?” Tartaglia rubbed his temples, listless empty eyes pinning Zhongli with a heavy stare. For a moment, he was the very material he had once held dominion over, immobilized under the heavy gaze of a mortal warrior who willingly threw all caution to the four winds. “You can’t say you’ve lived as a mortal has unless you take a leap of faith.” Shuddering under the heavy gaze, Zhongli felt as if Tartaglia had stripped him bare, unlocking the dust covered self that Zhongli himself refused to coax out. The cowardly, lonely, lost god who only yearned to be comfortable as he was.
Dinner fell into an awkward sort of silence, the clinking of utensils on delicate china filling the air before Zhongli set his chopsticks down. “Next week.” He uttered, folding his hands over his lap. “I’ll have no obligations by next week. Would you care to join me?” he elaborated, staring at the half cleaned carcass of their dinner.
Childe’s grin was all sharp edges and poisoned flair, cutting deeper than any blade. “It would be my pleasure.” He purred.
Even after all his years of existence climbing ever got easier, Zhongli thought ruefully as he scaled the stone structures that had once served as his spears. The sheer mountain tops of Huaguang Stone Forest were as cold as ever, the elemental resonance from the countless gods he had sealed away humming under the earth as he pulled himself up the towering peaks. The pair had chosen Mt. Hulao as Zhongli’s attempt to experience flight once again, with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be chased off the mountain like Cloud Retainer would undoubtedly do.
Trudging up the last few paces, Zhongli hauled himself up and over the precipice with a grunt, mortal limbs burning with exhaustion. How far the former Archon of War and Rock had fallen, bested by the very things he held dominion over as the contract he had zealously made tied him down to such unfortunate circumstances. If Zhongli hadn’t been the victim, he would have chuckled quietly to himself, but this time he simply sat by the cliff, catching his breath.
“Out of breath already, Old man?” Childe’s lilting tease sang from behind him and Zhongli let out a suffering sigh, not bothering to grace the other with his gaze.
“If I wanted someone to point out the obvious, I would have invited Cloud Retainer.” Zhongli pointed out, finally turning around to catch the affronted gasp that Childe dramatically exaggerated. “On the topic of Cloud Retainer, she would be able to accurately ascertain the differences between flight and gliding. Though I suppose Mountain Shaper would suffice as well.”
The seat next to him was unceremoniously taken as the Harbinger plunked himself down, one knee hugged close to his chest and his chin resting upon it. “You wouldn’t.” He chuckled, tipping his head so that azure finally clashed with amber. “I doubt the other Adepti know about you and with your whole ‘I want to live like a human’ shtick, there’s no way that you would have turned to the one group of creatures that would out you in a heartbeat.”
Humming, Zhongli picked himself back onto his feet and brushed away the dust and pebbles. “How astute of you.” He acknowledged, breathing in the crisp mountain air. “But my fellow Adepti aren’t beings who would readily sell out one of their own. The fact that Cloud Retainer still keeps the table set as it always has for millennia even after the war is enough proof for me.”
For a moment, Zhongli saw a flicker of sadness cross his companion’s face, the melancholic upturn of the lips quickly swept away by the winds. “Must be nice to trust your comrades.” Childe sang with a laugh, leaning back to flash imperfect teeth at Zhongli. The whispers of the breeze grazed across the two’s bodies, sending strands of fire whipping across the air before Childe broke the peace by stretching languidly. “Well, whatever~ It’s not like we’re here to gossip, let’s fly.” The grin took on a sharper edge, the soft rolling waves promising to capsize anyone foolish enough to wade far out.
A huff of amusement was punched out of Zhongli’s chest at the childish impatience Childe displayed. The pair hauled themselves to their feet, one bouncing elegantly to his feet with a burst of energy, grey feathers coaxed forth to catch the breeze which seemed to pick up in accordance with the atmosphere. Beside him, Zhongli followed suit, slow and steady movements rippling across the embroidered grace.
“Let’s start small, yeah? Just try gliding over to the pillar across from us.” Childe suggested, almost sighing as amber eyes narrowed as Zhongli observed the distance between himself and the target goal. Finally, a sharp nod was given and with a jaunty salute, Childe winked before taking one, two, three steps backwards before gravity snatched his body in a crushing grip and the Harbinger dropped off the cliff, hollow seas meeting the steadfast earth. Zhongli didn’t have to wait long before the telltale whoop and swoosh of air gave way to the sight of a hair of ginger cutting through the skies, hurtling towards the stone structure just across from Zhongli.
Letting out his worries in one breath, the Adeptus let his fingers stretch towards Celestia, leather sparkling under the rising sun. Too broad shoulders popped and a rumble brewed within Zhongli’s gut, the rustling of wings unfurling as his glider was freed from its confines before resting snugly against his lithe back. With a pop of his jaw, Zhongli sighed and shook out his mane, golden light following the whip of his hair. Bringing his hands down to seep into the dirt, Zhongli took a running start, throwing himself off the precipice and into the awning jaws of the ocean underneath him. The freefall pushed Zhongli’s stomach up into his throat, the winds ripping past him in a screech of power, the tailcoats of his clothing whipping against his cheeks. His traitorous muscle memory had him summoning his polearm, the burst of geo illuminating his cherry red flush and his body angling down to drive into the soft earth with a burst of power. Had it not been the heavy and unfamiliar drag of the glider pressing against the small of his back, Zhongli theorized that perhaps he would have wrapped his nimble legs around the length of the weapon, raining death upon what poor being was unfortunate enough to stand below his spiral of destruction.
With a heavy snap, golden feathers caught the updraft, jerking Zhongli up in an abrupt motion. The breath was torn from his lungs but he barely paid any mind to the ache in his shoulders at the sudden pressure, eyes captivated by the lonely yet familiar view of the Liyuen sun cresting over the pillars of stone embedded into the earth. A scratchy rumble hummed from within his chest, a far cry from the territorial snarl that would ring across the skies in times long past.
“Intoxicating isn’t it. Finding something that makes you feel free.” A soft voice murmured from beside him, the wind swallowing his words but Zhongli heard it all the same, jaws snapping at whatever dared encroach on what was his. The twist of his body was unfamiliar, the height he possessed in his human form a far cry from the elegant coils that rippled through the air, but the fineness which he lunged forward was similar enough that for a moment the mirage of Rex Lapis snarled, lips pulled into a territorial warning.
Narrowed pupils focused on the laxadical smirk stretching across narrowed eyes and slowly Zhongli began to relax the muscles along his neck, vaguely wondering when he had been so convinced that he still had an elegant ring of fur blanketing his serpentine neck. “Childe.” Zhongli rumbled, the name sitting heavily on his throat, sweet syllables rolling off a forked tongue. “It is quite rude to speak whilst announced.”
The barking laugh rang out among the pillars, Childe’s glider jerking around in response to his mirth. “Ah, but you were having so much fun I couldn’t help it! Besides, I was always here, you just forgot about me.” A small huff escaped Zhongli’s lips, though the reasoning was sound. Wheeling around and feeling the rush of familiarity as he angled his body towards the cliff face. Hooking onto the rugged terrain, Zhongli pulled himself upon his own weapon mentally cursing his past self for using unnecessarily large weapons. Well, not really but Zhongli certainly was bemoaning the inflexibility of his body’s fragile mortality.
With a sigh, Zhongli unhooked the glider from behind his back rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks. Beside him, Childe alighted with a soft sigh. “So?” He asked as the feathers rusted against cloth, not even waiting for them to fully close before shrugging it off. “How did it feel?”
There was a multitude of ways Zhongli could have answered such a question. On one hand it had been terrifying, how easily he had slipped back into Rex Lapis when he himself had been the one to bury the ancient god under the rubble of history and regret. But the euphoria of taking to the skies once again outweighed any of the terror he had felt, the rush of freefall snatching away all his worries as the reanimated god’s heart still thundered from within his chest.
“It… was interesting.” He finally settled on, licking his slightly chapped lips. “It certainly is quite different to flight, although it emulates the sensations to a satisfactory degree. Barbatos’ people have always been dreamers and it is no wonder that it would be from the Nation of Freedom that these contraptions are born from, harnessing the air to bequeath upon the wearer another form of freedom. Though it vexes me so that Barbatos found it fit to craft a device from which to free mortals from my domain. It is a fairly recent invention as well, only coming into use within the last two thousand years.”
“Two thousand years is not a recent development, Zhongli.” Childe groaned, and ran a hand down his face. “But I guess this one was a bust, huh. Back to the drawi-”
“I want to go again.” Zhongli interrupted, haloed by the sun as his amber eyes glowed with an innocent kind of yearning. I want to feel the drag of wind against ornate horns again. I want to dance in the air again. I want to feel like myself again. I want I want I want I wantIwantIwantiwantiwantiwant-
The clearest laughter rang out, the lone glaze lilly bobbing to and fro in the wind slowly unfurling its periwinkle eyes to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sound.
Rex Lapis supposed that even if he did fail his quote unquote final exam, sinking back into the familiar draconic clutches of his divinity, he found himself bearing no ill will towards that reality. After all, he wasn’t human.
He never would be, and that was okay.
Zhongli walked down the ports, expensive out of place shoes clicking against the damp wood when he caught a glimpse of flaxen hair. He paused, his head turning to catch a glimpse of a ghost of the past, breath catching in his throat. Guizhong stood on the harbour, a skin tight qipao hugging her upper half to show off her beauty no matter which way she turned, the clearest laugh ringing across the piers. As quickly as it came, it was gone as twinkling red eyes replaced Guizhong’s clear ones. A sharp smile so out of place on a kind and loving face twitched over the woman’s face the dangerous pull of lips directed at someone who Zhongli could have believed was Rex Lapis in disguise had he not been the Archon in question. For a moment, Zhongli allowed himself to lose himself in a dream where Guizhong was still alive, laughing as Rex Lapis looked on without as much of a twitch of lips, overseeing the beating heart of their life’s work. But in the end, it was simply the yearnings of a god stuck in the slowly disintegrating past, chasing scattered memories and fleeting emotions. So instead Zhongli averted his gaze, his steps resuming its leisurely stroll.
“Zhongli!” A voice rang out, voice connected to an eagerly waving arm.
Turning his gaze to whoever had called him, Zhongli smiled and his legs unconsciously began to walk faster, closing the distance between him and Childe. “Hello, Childe.” He greeted warmly, amber eyes quickly flickering around. With no one else within eyesight, Zhongli quickly dipped his head down to nuzzle at Childe’s neck, peals of laughter greeting his scenting. Breathing in the sandalwood and sea salt with the tang of iron, a scent which screamed Childe , Zhongli gently nipped at the junction between Childe’s neck and shoulder. His own breath of stone and old parchment enveloped them both and mixed into the fresh scent of rain seeping into the warmed cracks of the earth (petrichor his mind helpfully supplied). Mine Zhongli smiled smugly, letting himself sink into that familiar, need to claim, take, have.
“Zhongli, that tickles.” Childe snorted, yet he made no move to push Zhongli away. Instead, he let Zhongli take his time before the former Archon finally drew back, finding a fond smile dancing over Childe’s lips. “Done? Come on, I found a great place to glide down from and I think you’d like it.”
Grasping Zhongli’s gloved hands with his own, Childe began to lead Zhongli on whatever adventure that lay before them and Zhongli couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face.
Guizhong, he thought, throwing one last longing gaze over his shoulder to find the docks completely void of mirages displaying days long gone, I believe I've finally discovered what it’s like to be human. It’s not easy, faking something that I am not, but I wonder. Have I become a better Archon for it? Are you proud of me now, Guizhong?
And the dust sang under his feet, its feather light touches giving him the only answer he desired.