Part XX. The Boy from Morepesok
“What the actual fuck.” Ajax flips the page around to see if there’s anything else written, but nothing, nada. He traces along the ragged and ripped edge. “This looks like it’s torn from somewhere, like a book or something. Hey AR? Please tell me OG Tartaglia has more scraps lying around?” Anything to explain whatever the fuck creepy shit he’s witnessing at the moment.
He’s met with silence.
“Uh, AR? You there, bud?”
A quiet ping chimes out. “Apologies, User Ajax. I have been distracted. What is your enquiry again?”
Distracted? Can systems even do that?
Ajax shakes his head. “No worries. I was just wondering how my quest progression is for Traces of Tartaglia.”
“The side-quest Traces of Tartaglia is still ongoing. Current status reads: Traces of Tartaglia(2): you have found some of Tartaglia’s hidden objects in your quest to discover more information about Tartaglia. Continue to find more hidden objects to learn about Tartaglia’s link to the Abyss.”
“So, there are more hidden stuff around the apartment. If my gamer senses are spot on, then I suspect I will get more of these ripped out pages or I might even get the rest of the book.”
What to do next? Ajax can try sweeping his apartment again but it honestly feels like finding a pin in the haystack. He also suspects, from the way things are progressing, that he’ll find the missing pieces in due time by accidentally running into them. That’s how he’s been making 99% of his discoveries anyway.
Meanwhile, he can try to advance his Tartaglia quest by chasing another lead, something that makes him feel like he’s actually making good use of his time.
“Hey AR, can you pull out OG Tartaglia’s military records again?”
A literal brick of paperwork materializes a second later, landing on his desk with a loud ‘thump’, thoroughly reminding why Ajax had never finished reading this.
“You…uh…wouldn’t happen to have a search function in your Shop, would you?”
“I do, but its cost may be a bit prohibitive.”
“Do I even want to know what it is?”
AR wisely chooses to remain silent.
Ajax lets out a huge, defeated sigh before cracking open the report.
Once upon a time, there was a young boy named –
No, that’s not quite right. The story doesn’t start there.
Not yet, at least.
For now, the story starts like this: once upon a time, there was a young man. His full name has unfortunately been redacted; not intentionally, but more due to bad luck – it just so happens that the original enlistment form which contains his name appears to have been severely damaged by water, smearing the ink on the sheet into a smudge of grey. All that is left (somewhat) legible of that form is the first letter of the young man’s last name – a P or maybe an R or a B – and the town from which he originates: Morepesok.
It is unclear whether the young man has any family. What is clear is that the young man appeared, well, young in the grainy black and white image attached to the form, all large eyes, baby round face and messy hair.
But the cocky smile stretching across his face makes him look…fearless. Reckless.
And just a touch unhinged.
It is an expression that does not belong on someone so young. One must wonder just what had happened to put it there.
Regardless, this person was assigned the rank Private and the identification numbers 3560720, and for the rest of the records, he’s simply referred to as his title followed by ‘720’ (until his promotion to Harbinger, when he was granted the name ‘Tartaglia’).
Within his first year, Private 720 seemed to have attracted a lot of trouble. Case in point, according to the very first report, which apparently was written a mere one month after Private 720 had enlisted, Private 720 had been reprimanded for fighting in the cafeteria. If one were to continue reading the report, they would see that this fight had not been something so mundane as punches exchanged between two hot-headed youths over something insignificant. No. The fight had been Private 720 versus a group of thirty of his classmates. Apparently, they had started it by providing some loud, unflattering comments about the humble origins of Private 720.
Private 720 sure as hell put a stop to that real fast.
What was even more spectacular was that apparently, those thirty classmates had all been older and physically larger than Private 720, but despite facing against overwhelming odds, Private 720 had made short work of his foes. According to eye witnesses, the youth had fought with the grace of a seasoned veteran, dancing between clumsy fists thrown at him before charging forward to slam makeshift weapons – whether it was a cafeteria tray, a mug, or a fork – in some soft, fleshy and utterly vulnerable part on his foes’ body.
All the while wearing that unhinged smile, no less.
The instructors, including the one writing the report, had been rather impressed. They had also been warned that this youth, despite his humble origins, was a special case. He was hand-picked by Harbinger Pulcinella for greatness, so it was no small wonder that this little protégé would show such promise so quickly.
Still, protégé or not, the youth needed to learn some discipline. This was the Fatui, after all, and one must learn to work together as a cohesive team to succeed. Beating the stuffing out of ones’ classmates do not promote a collaborative work environment.
(The instructor writing the report noted that the comments by the classmates, though crude, weren’t exactly wrong either. Private 720 did come from “some backwater village in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere” and to everyone else, Private 720 seemed like “some ginger inbred yokel who has no place in the illustrious Fatui”. Though the accusations that Private 720 had whored himself to obtain his spot went a tad overboard, those sorts of comments were not the worse the instructor has heard. Nothing to warrant Private 720’s massive overreaction.
(Had Private 720 not received the backing of a Lord Harbinger, the instructor would have been more than happy to…turn a blind eye to the whole incident. After all, there was nothing wrong for some bottom-tiered trash to be taught a lesson or two by their betters.)
But the instructor was well aware of Pulcinella’s watchful gaze on his protégé, so, the youth was punished with having to clean the cafeteria from top to bottom. The instigators had it worse – they were punished with cleaning the toilettes with nothing but their toothbrushes for a week. The instructor writing the report was satisfied with the punishments doled out and that had been that.
Until the events in the second report occurred, which involved a fight between Private 720 versus even more upper years. Fresh punishments were doled out, harsher than the last.
Not like that deterred Private 720 because shortly afterwards, there was a third incident, then a fourth – all the way up to the double digits and this was all within Private 720’s first six months of enrolment. The instructors were a bit stumped on how to stop the chaos.
It probably hadn’t helped that Private 720 had never lost a single time. Not once. Ever. That had only fuelled other people into challenging Private 720 into more duels. Whenever that happened, Private 720 would fight with his all, never holding back his punches. If anything, the young man was a bit too gleeful at the prospect of a battle, his good mood only increasing as he became more and more injured. The author of the reports made sure to highlight just how unsettling this was to witness. Private 720 was way too young to develop such strong masochistic tendencies.
Eventually, the instructors firmly believed that Private 720 was way more trouble than he was worth. It was in their best interest to promote Private 720 out of the unit they were overseeing so that this individual could become someone else’s problem.
And so passed Private 720’s first year in the Fatui.
“You know, these records remind me a bit of my own wayward youth,” Ajax muses as he finishes reading the last of Year 1’s reports. “I was a terror in my teenage years and fought everyone who would look at me funny. After getting suspended from school and arrested multiple times, my parents decided to send me to a child’s therapist to ‘get to the root of my problems'.”
Although, luckily, nobody ever called him a country bumpkin slut like people apparently had with OG Tartaglia. Ajax probably would’ve shanked someone if he had received that fun treatment. He would’ve caused some damage too. He was surprisingly good in a fight and he was not afraid to fight dirty.
He wonders what OG Tartaglia’s deal was, how he ended up in the army to begin with, how he ended up with this scrappy attitude and burgeoning ego.
(If what he experienced in his childhood was anything like Ajax.)
Ajax also wonders what made this… trouble-making youth into the villain in the game, and how any of this is related to the person who filled that page with sorry’s in painful, jagged handwriting.
“Hey, AR? Do we have any more personal details on OG Tartaglia? I doubt these records would say much and so far, we only know that he’s from Morepesok. I don’t even know his real name or if he has any family.”
The system is silent for a bit. “I do not know his name, that information is not available to me,” AR admits. “Most of Character Tartaglia’s information is similarly locked on my end as well.”
“Seriously? Damn,” Ajax grimaces. “Would you happen to know why that info is locked for you?”
“Regretfully, I do not know. I am as equally perplexed as you are.”
“Okaaayyy, no biggie. Let’s go back to the stuff we’ve found and see if we can piece together more information.”
He pulls out all the things he’s found from his Traces of Tartaglia questline and sifts through them again. “Nothing, nothing, I can’t even read what that says – oh wait, hang on one second.”
He takes out one of his more recent clues: the list of seemingly random items OG Tartaglia had wanted commissioned in Liyue. He rereads the note, then the bottom blurb out loud:
“To purchase and to request customization. Send underling to get tasks done. Discretion is of utmost importance. To be sent to Morepesok anonymously.”
To be sent to Morepesok anonymously.
Suddenly, it clicks in Ajax’s head why Morepesok looks so familiar.
“Wait, these are things that OG Tartaglia wants to send back to his home!” Ajax exclaims. He flips to the first page of the reports, and points to the registration form, “See? Morepesok. That’s where he’s from!”
And he wants to send toys, medicine, clothes.
Probably to his family back home.
The excitement dies a swift, painful death.
Oh. Oh, no.
The familiar feelings of unease and guilt slam into Ajax once more like a sledgehammer to the gut. There’s proof now that OG Tartaglia had a family. Why else would he be sending these things to his hometown?
“User Ajax? Are you alright?”
“I don’t know, no?” Ajax confesses, pinching the bridge of his nose to work out the beginning of a tension migraine. He’s glad he’s already sitting down. “Tartaglia has a family and I don’t know how I feel about this except bad and oh shit. Oh fuck, Tartaglia has a family and they don’t know that he’s dead!”
There’s no way Ajax can just leave them hanging either. Not when he’s the only person in this entire world who even knows about Tartaglia’s death.
“We’re going to have to tell them,” he says, grimacing even harder.
“User Ajax, just to be clear, you plan to inform them of Character Tartaglia’s death?” AR says, the incredulousness dripping from its words evident despite its robotic voice.
“Maybe not immediately, I dunno, but I kinda have to tell them, you know? It’s not like I can hide this fact forever and it’ll only be a matter of time before they find out! I mean, look at me. Which part of me screams OG Tartaglia to you?”
He gestures to himself helplessly, at the sloppy sweater and sweatpants he’s in, and at his mop of messy ginger hair. Very student chic. Very pathetic. Not at all like a proud Harbinger.
“Wouldn’t it be simpler if you were to…just pretend that you are Character Tartaglia with them?”
Ajax winces. “Yeah, no. Hard no. I don’t want to pretend to be their family. That’s just wrong.”
“Weren’t you pretending to be Character Tartaglia with his subordinates?”
“It’s different. Given how quickly OG Tartaglia had died in Liyue, his men never had the chance to know him. They’ve only known me and I’ve always been, this.” Again, Ajax gestures at himself vaguely. “So, it doesn’t really feel like I’m replacing him. It feels more like I’ve just continued where he left off as a different actor.”
He continues, “But, it would be different if I were to reach out to his family as OG Tartaglia. It would feel too much like I’m erasing the memories of who he really was to those who knew him best. And I just – I hate the idea that his family doesn’t know he’s gone, that he has no one to mourn for him.”
There is something tragic about having no one to mourn your death – not even family members who are supposed to love you the most in this whole wide world. Because this implies that you’re that unloved, that reprehensible, or that you’re that forgettable of a human being, that your existence meant absolutely nothing to anybody.
(It’s not lost on Ajax that he is probably projecting his own insecurities. He’s had that fear running in the back of his mind since Day 1 of his new life in Liyue, this fear that nobody would find out that he’s dead until the police discover his rotten, stinking corpse in his apartment a week later. That his parents wouldn’t care at all, that their only reaction is annoyance at being inconvenienced with having to arrange for his burial. That nobody would remember him before things turned bad. That nobody remembered how once upon a time, there was a young, happy boy who had lived in the brick house with white trimmings, who had loved music, had loved playing Salut d’amour for his mother and father as they danced in the living room. That nobody would remember him – )
(Ajax feels his urge for his piano rearing back; his go-to crutch to help process the familiar mess of emotions is just in the other room. It’d be all too easy for him to…sink into his playing like he did before his fateful performance for Zhongli so many months ago. He can play and play and play until his fears quiet down once more.)
(No, he can’t let himself do that. He’s still got work to do.)
“I need to find out more about OG Tartaglia and his family,” Ajax says, the decision cementing in his mind. “Maybe I can get a Morepesok address or something from the vendors who worked on OG Tartagli’s commissions. Somebody has to know something.”
“User Ajax, I am still having difficulty grasping why it matters whether you inform Character Tartaglia’s family about his demise. Character Tartaglia is dead and gone, so it is not like he will care one way or another if you tell his family about his death. His family is nothing but strangers to you, and to disclose their son’s death could invite further trouble into your life.”
Ajax gets where AR is coming from, he really does. To AR, his actions must seem illogical and foolish for the unnecessary risk he’s taking. It’s a lot easier to just keep quiet about OG Tartaglia’s death and sweep it under the rug, and yet…
“I have to. It’s the right thing to do,” Ajax answers, his voice soft. “It’s cruel to leave the family hanging and waiting for a son they won’t get back. It - it’s also what I would’ve wanted someone to do for me back in the real world.”
Because this is really what it comes down to, this futile hope that someone has done one last act of kindness for Ajax, that his fear of being left forgotten is nothing but a baseless one.
(There’s also the hope that despite his strained relationship with his family, someone would’ve wanted to know that he was gone and that someone is missing him as much as he misses them.)
“It seems that User Ajax has decided. Very well. Perhaps, User Ajax should think a bit more carefully on how and when you would like to disclose such information without breaching the rules.”
“I remember. Don't mention the transmigration business. It’s not like I planned to because who would even believe me?” But Ajax takes AR’s point about planning this a bit more carefully without it coming back and biting him the ass.
“Before making such disclosure, User Ajax should also consider what other uses he can obtain from finding the Morepesok address.”
Ajax draws back, confused. “What do you mean? What other uses –are you suggesting I write to OG Tartaglia’s family about other things? What will I even ask?”
“I am not instructing you to do anything specifically. To do so would be breaching my protocol. I am merely cautioning User Ajax to consider all the cards in his hands before he discloses the death of Character Tartaglia and risk cutting off a potential source of information for his own research. After all, there is a high chance that the family would not wish to remain in contact with you after you delivered the unfortunate news of Character Tartaglia’s death.”
Ajax is still not sure why AR is carefully hinting that he may need to talk to OG Tartaglia’s family members. Is he missing something?
There is a few seconds of silence. “Perhaps, User Ajax should continue reading the reports.”
Private 720 continues to live quite an exciting life as he rocketed up the ranks, quickly becoming Corporal 720. According to the Sergeant overseeing his progress (and was stuck writing the next several dozens of progress reports), his meteoric rise was both met with excitement and dread. The excitement was evident: seeing a young man brimming with innate talent excel at every challenge thrown at him made everyone involved in his training look good. His superiors could easily boast about how they have contributed to Corporal 720’s career, how they have refined that raw diamond in the rough until it became the shining gem that it was. Better yet, it was clear as day that Corporal 720 was going to go places with the backing of Lord Pulcinella, so just imagine the bragging rights one would have in instructing a future-Harbinger. Think of the glory!
As for the feeling of dread, it came from the fact that with every challenge Corporal 720 had conquered, the more his ego seemed to grow…as with his eccentricities.
One such eccentricity was his fascination for battle and for blood-shed.
Various methods to temper Corporal 720’s fascination were attempted, including assigning Corporal 720 on some of the most gruelling missions that would sure to exhaust anybody. But the young man only became stronger and with it, his ability to wreak havoc became greater.
The Sergeant also noted that Corporal 720’s success also drew equal parts admiration and ire from his fellow Fatui, but Corporal 720 had a reputation for winning fights, so any attempts made to undermine the corporal was done in subterfuge. The Sergeant also noted that those who led such efforts against Corporal 720 were related to those the youth had offended in his days as a private. Worse still, most of the offended parties belonged to well-to-do families who had their eyes set on getting a family member to become chosen as the next Harbinger. The spotlight-stealing Corporal 720 clearly threatened their plans; who could possibly shine and catch the Tsaritsa’s attention with Corporal 720 being right there?
The Sergeant noted a particular example that propelled Corporal 720 further into infamy: there was a mission to exterminate a series of Hilichurl camps that have invaded a local village. The camps were headed by not just one but three Frostarm Lawachurls, and contained an army of Mitachurls, Samachurls, and Hilichurl troops. Since the village was located close to the Fatui training compound, the responsibility fell on those leading the compound to take care of this problem.
Corporal 720’s unit was sent out to dispatch the threat. The mission was scheduled to take up to five days.
It ended up taking two days.
According to eyewitness accounts, Corporal 720, upon seeing the first Hilichurl, grinned his toothy, unhinged smile and automatically launched himself at the monster, hydro blades flashing as swirls of dark, corrupt power enveloped his body.
What followed could only be described as a massacre.
Nobody was certain just what sort of power Corporal 720 had used, but it had enhanced his speed and strength even more than what he had already, which were leagues above his colleagues.
Needless to say, the mission ended in an overwhelming success for the unit. Corporal 720 was recognized as the person who pretty much singlehandedly defeated all the Hilichurls including the three Lawachurls whose heads Corporal 720 had dragged all the way back to the Fatui compound as trophies. The corporal had been awarded multiple medals for his feats.
But with those merits also came Corporal 720’s rising reputation as a terrifying, bloodthirsty monster.
‘Perhaps,’ the Sergeant wrote, ‘had Corporal 720 had companions or some sort of relations that could help ground him a little, he would come off as less intimidating. It is such a shame that the boy is very much a lone wolf with no friends. Even his family members seem to distance themselves from him, judging by how few correspondences the corporal receives in response to all the letters he sends out.’
Coincidentally, the medical reports (stamped with ‘confidential’ in bright red all over the documents) came to a similar conclusion.
“The Abyssal Effect in Corporal 720 will continue to grow if left unchecked, resulting in increasing side-effects from the corruption of the body and mind. To slow the corruption, Corporal 720 is advised to have trusted confidants or family members to ground him. While this is not a permanent cure, corruption could be better managed with more positive, stable influences around Corporal 720.”
“Son of a bitch!” Ajax jumps up. “The Abyssal fucking Effect?!”
Long ago, shortly after Ajax came back from Wangshu Inn, Ajax had asked Zhongli about the Abyss and its energy. If Ajax remembers correctly, Zhongli had mentioned how those who visited the Abyss were left a mark, implying that OG Tartaglia had at some point ventured into the Abyss.
The report was written during OG Tartaglia’s second year in the Fatui, so whatever Abyss-visiting incident that gave OG Tartaglia his status effect had to have occurred earlier.
Ajax flips through the reports again. He’s not seeing anything in the reports for Year 1, no mention of any extraordinary event or Abyss visits. There weren’t even any mentions of OG Tartaglia mysteriously missing for a little bit before resurfacing again. Everything seems to be in pristine order.
Does this mean that Tartaglia had been plagued with the status effect even earlier than that? Possibly before his army days when he was still, presumably, chilling at home with his fam?
Wait, shit, is that what AR was hinting at? AR must have figured it out from reading the reports. They had been just…floating in the System Inventory for the longest time, after all.
Which means, “Fuck. Do you think OG Tartaglia’s family was there when he went into the Abyss?”
“It is hard to say definitively,” AR chimes in. “But this is one possibility User Ajax should keep in mind in case it needs to be explored.”
“AR, I think I really, really need to get my hands on that address,” Ajax concludes.
“I think User Ajax may be right.”
It doesn’t take much effort to get a start on his investigation. Asking a few questions to his underlings quickly reveals that yes, OG Tartaglia had instructed a fellow grunt (a nervous-looking fellow by the name of Alyosha) to make arrangements with various vendors to purchase and ship the items on the list. But when he asked about the specific sending address, Alyosha pales and begins to apologize fervently.
“Master Childe! My most sincere apology. You have never provided me with the address. Instead, you prepared several letters for me to deliver to the vendors containing all the information they needed to know.”
Of course, OG Tartaglia would do that. The man is absolutely paranoid. Ajax wouldn’t be surprised if OG Tartaglia also instructed the vendors to destroy the letter once they’ve shipped off the items. “Can you point to me the vendors you have reached out?”
Alyosha is happy to do just that.
“An order for the medicine to be sent to Snezhnaya? Yes, yes, I remember,” Baizhu says when Ajax drops by Bubu Pharmacy with his request. Ajax had specifically picked an afternoon when the pharmacy was less busy to get the shop owner’s attention, but he needn’t have bothered. Baizhu’s face lit up upon seeing his person like Christmas came early, immediately launching into sales pitch after sales pitch. His talking snake was just as chipper.
Ajax suspects that he has gathered a bit of a reputation for himself having spent so much mora buying things for Zhongli out in the open.
“If I recall, the order was for cold medicines and a pain reliever against headaches. It came with a letter instructing that I provide the finest quality I had in store, and I was happy to deliver! I believe I shipped the package and following that, I destroyed the letter as it had instructed.”
Of course, he did.
“Do you have a copy of the receipts or any documentation on the shipping address?”
“I do not, unfortunately. Given the request for privacy in the letter, I had documented the package as shipped to Snezhnaya only. Is…there something wrong?”
While this level of attentiveness would normally score brownie points for Ajax, today, it’s doing nothing but adding to Ajax’s frustration.
Still, Ajax plasters on a friendly smile. “No, no, it’s fine. Thank you for your time, Doctor.”
The moment he gets far enough for him to not be seen or overheard, Ajax’s shoulders slump. “Welp, that’s a strike. I’d had hoped that this info would’ve been easy to find, but just my luck.”
“The search has just begun. User Ajax still has plenty of other vendors to find and ask. In the meantime, there are always more reports to read.”
Corporal 720 became Sergeant 720, then Sergeant Major 720, Second Lieutenant 720, First Lieutenant 720, and so on and so forth. The promotions piled on and on until he was pulled out of the army altogether and appointed into a special commissioned role largely recognized as a precursor to becoming a Harbinger. He was referred thereinafter as Candidate 720.
Through the years and promotions, trouble had only followed him like a ghost haunting his every move. There were never-ending battles between strong opponents and never-ending glory obtained from winning. Candidate 720 grew terrifyingly strong, but his successes also went straight to his head, and he could always be heard boasting about his plan to become the best fighter to serve Her Imperial Highness.
He started to call himself as Her Imperial Highness’ Vanguard.
As part of his appointment, there was a psychology test conducted on him. A formality, more than anything, since the outcome would not affect his eligibility to become the next Harbinger.
(After all, if the Dottore could become a Harbinger, anybody could.)
It was no surprise that the psychological evaluation revealed that Candidate 720 was both masochistic and sadistic as well as being borderline narcissistic and possessing some form of conduct disorder. He held no interest in almost anything else except battle and seemed to relish in the violence.
The only things that would capture his attention and temper his more violent urges were his letter writing to his family and his friendship with a fellow candidate that had managed to blossom against all odds. There were notable differences in Candidate 720’s behaviour when he spoke about his family and friend; he seemed more grounded, calmer, and downright chipper.
When asked about the state of the relationship with his family, he had shrugged and had said, ‘Fine. It’s fine. I wish they wrote more.’
The evaluator concluded that Candidate 720 could benefit from having more time off to spend with his family. Otherwise, Candidate 720’s psychological evaluation firmly put him in the average amongst the other Harbinger candidates:
‘Despite a few personality quirks, Candidate 720 is sound of mind. Nothing alarming, especially compared to those normally accepted into this program.’
At the bottom of the page, there was a note tucked in below the last paragraph in neat handwriting: “Abyssal Effect creeping upwards was noticed, resulting in increased aggression and paranoia, but symptoms are controllable. Well worth the trade-off of increased stamina and strength. Proposed next steps: continue to monitor candidate for Abyssal Effect creep and encourage candidate’s exploration into his powers.”
“You seem busier than normal,” Ekaterina notes as she pointedly takes away his coffee and nudges the plate of deliciously fragrant chicken fried rice closer to him. Ajax has gotten so used to her barging into his office that he doesn’t even bat an eye at the sight of her scowling at the way he’s hunched over his paperwork. “What’s gotten you so busy? Also, it’s an hour and a half after lunch and all you’ve been consuming today is coffee. Eat.”
“Huh, is it?” A quick glance at the clock shows that Ajax has completely blown past his lunchtime. It’s the third time this week, so of course, Ekaterina noticed. “Sorry, I’ve been trying to get as much of my work done before I run off to meet with a few vendors.”
“Vendors? What for?”
“Trying to figure out something with some of the orders I’ve put in,” Ajax answers with a dismissive wave of his hand as he reaches for his rice dish and starts scarfing it down. No offense to Ekaterina, but he doesn’t need her reporting the details of his hunt back to la Signora, so he’s keeping his explanation vague and boring. “I had a bunch of stuff commissioned and I want to check on them, except that’s surprisingly tricky. Like, I thought it’d take a day or two at most, but some vendors are away, and some only open their stalls once a week and at very specific, very limited times. It’s been a right nightmare trying to catch everyone.”
The toy seller, Granny Shan, for example, is away on an extensive business trip for something or other, and her son who’s subbing in for her knows nothing about OG Tartaglia’s request. There’s not much Ajax can do until she comes back, which he hopes is sooner rather than later.
His frustration must have leaked through (or he must look particularly pathetic), because Ekaterina hands him his coffee back. “You know, you do have subordinates who can help you. You don’t have to try to do everything under the sun.”
Definitely not. He does not need the Morepesok address to be leaked through the gossip vines.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” he says with a feeble chuckle and a dismissive wave before switching to his tried-and-true tactic: deflection. “Besides, I think Felix is ignoring me. The last three times I ran into him, he literally turned right back around and scurried off. He must have blabbed to everyone else because even the recruits are running away when they see me. They run pretty quickly too after all those months of training I put them through.”
Ekaterina snorts. “I think everybody has heard about your unique ways to train the recruits. Even the Millileth are starting to give the recruits looks of pity while the Qixing is starting to grumble.”
Ajax looks up, mid-chew. “The Qixing is doing what now?” Shit, is the Qixing catching on to Ajax and his millions of plans on the go? Last he checked, the Dottore’s research department is still happily researching away in some secret laboratory to make replicas of the Sigil. The Dottore was so excited at the prospect of fresh research on Archons and Archon powers that he sent a (surprisingly sincere) thank you note to Ajax. It tops as one of the most disturbing things he’s received in his life.
“The Qixing have been grumbling about the paint splatters the recruits trail behind them whenever they march back into the Harbour after an afternoon of training.” Ekaterina gives him a look. “They started forwarding their cleaning bills to the bank.”
Oh. Oh, thank God. “As long as they haven’t been giving us any trouble beyond that, let them be petty.”
The look Ekaterina gives him is downright venomous. “Easy for you to say, you’re not the one having to receive those reports from one of their people every other day and having to file them in triplicates.”
The room descends into a comfortable silence, but it doesn’t last long. “Are you sure you’re doing alright, Master Childe?”
“Hm?” Ajax blinks up. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s just…you have that look on you again. All glum and miserable and woebegone.”
Ajax’s face scrunches up. “Woebegone?”
“You look like a kicked puppy dog,” she clarifies bluntly. “You haven’t looked like that in months and the last time you did, you worked yourself to a stupor. The men and I worry is all. Even Mister Zhongli dropped by to see how you’re doing.”
That has Ajax sitting up. “Mister Zhongli dropped by? When? Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“He said it was an impromptu visit and insisted on not telling you if you were busy. He did get you the food and hoped you would like it.”
Ajax glances down at the rice he’s holding and feels a surge of warmth in his chest.
Ekaterina pulls up a chair and settles in. “So, what’s wrong? Something’s bothering you.”
She’s not wrong. This whole OG Tartaglia and his backstory has been lingering in the back of his mind ever since he found that disturbing letter. The more Ajax reads about his experience in the army, about his glory and achievements and his skyrocketing career growth, the more he’s starting to realize this one, crucial piece of information: OG Tartaglia had lived a real lonely life.
There is no doubt that OG Tartaglia had been a talented fighter, but his success certainly hadn’t made him popular amongst his colleagues. From the get-go, he had been tagged as a country bumpkin with no connection to the upper echelons of society. He should have stayed in the bottom tier of the army while his well-to-do colleagues flourished, but despite all odds, he had somehow obtained the support of a Harbinger and had climbed to the very top of that precipice. He had threatened the status quo and he had been hated for it.
What’s unclear to Ajax is…where was OG Tartaglia’s family? What roles did they play in all of this? From what Ajax read, OG Tartaglia was an avid writer but apparently, had heard very little from his family in return. Could it be a financial thing? Maybe sending letters out from Morepesok had been expensive.
Or maybe, like some of the instructors had noted, OG Tartaglia’s family had been distancing themselves from him due to his problematic behaviour.
Hoo boy, what a kick in the gut that fun thought is. Did the family just abandon OG Tartaglia because they hadn’t been able to deal with him?
(Just like how his own family had given him the boot when he became too much to handle?)
(Does that mean that if the Abyss Effect is allowed to continue to run wild on Ajax, he could become as twisted and conceited and bloodthirsty as OG Tartaglia? On the flip side, does that mean that had the Abyss Effect been under control, OG Tartaglia would’ve just been…some random dude like him?)
His head hurts. His heart hurts. No wonder Ekaterina says he looks like a kicked puppy.
“I’ve just been thinking about some stuff in the past is all,” Ajax finally answers. “Say, Ekaterina, have I ever received anything from Morepesok? Letters and stuff?”
“Morepesok?” Ekaterina looks confused. “Um, I can’t say you have. Not from what I’ve noticed. Were you expecting to receive something from there?”
Ajax shakes his head. “No, I guess not.”
There once was a young man from Morepesok who was gifted with exceptional skills in combat. How he obtained those skills was unknown, at least for now, though the medical professionals in the Fatui who examined him could say that those skills were enhanced by the odd Abyssal taint in his body. The Abyssal Effect also brought on other unfortunate side-effects, including increased levels of aggression, narcissism, antisocial tendencies, and masochistic and sadistic tendencies, but such effects were deemed small, inconsequential things if the trade-off meant possessing strength, speed, and stamina unseen before.
It was all thanks to the young man’s fighting prowess that he was propelled from the very bottom all the way to the cusp of success: a candidate for becoming one of the Tsaritsa’s honourable Harbingers. In order to go from Candidate to Harbinger, one must undergo a series of tests to prove their worth, after which, one must be voted in by the current Harbingers, with the final decision being approved (or rejected) by the Tsaritsa herself.
There were 20 candidates to choose from, 20 talented men and women, the majority of which hailed from the most influential families in Snezhnaya.
(Of course they would hail from influential families. Who in the country would have the resources to train their progeny to ensure they were among the best?)
The young man had no such background. Although he was picked by Harbinger Pulcinella, this did not set him apart. All of the other candidates were lord and ladies in their own rights, and probably had their own connections with the Harbingers.
(This information was implied from various mission reports. More often than not, the writer of the reports accidentally referred to the other candidates either as Lord or Lady before those words were hastily scratched out, or in notable instances, ‘Lord Pantalone’s Pick’, or ‘Capitano’s Chosen’, for example.)
(Candidate 720 himself has been called ‘Pulcinella’s Gold Egg’ in more than one report.)
What continued to set Candidate 720 apart was his expertise in battle, the sheer versatility of his combat styles, and his mastery of all weapons he put his hands on. It made sparring with him a thing of nightmares, and it made him an absolute monster on the battlefields. He was, simply put, a one-man army destroyer.
His capabilities for destruction slowly won him the grudging respect of his fellow candidates, though there were no indications that anybody outside of select medical professionals knew that Candidate 720’s skills were attributed to the strange Abyssal energy plaguing his body. It also helped that apparently, Candidate 720 was friends with a fellow candidate who helped bridge the gap between Candidate 720 and the rest of his cohorts.
The medical reports and psychiatric evaluations all put him as stable and actively encouraged this comradery to help counter the symptoms of the Abyss taint.
And then –
“What the?” Ajax flips between the pages of the reports. “Hey AR! You got a second there, bud?”
The familiar robotic chime sounds out. “How can I help you, User Ajax?”
“I think I’m missing some pages from this file.” Ajax frowns and flips through the reports again. “Do you see this? We go from the updated psych eval on May and then the next report,” he flips the page over, “is another psych eval but it’s for November. We’re missing six months of info here.”
“The file has been copied in its entirety. Chances of error are 0%.”
“Which means that the original file had missing info.” Ajax slumps in his chair and breathes out a heavy sigh. “Just when I was getting to the juicy parts.”
“Yeah. Here, take a look at the May psych eval. Nothing unusual, same old, same old, ‘Candidate 720 is showing signs of stability.’ Great, fantastic news. Now, take a look at the November psych eval.” Ajax goes to the page and reads out loud, “‘Candidate 720’s mental health is degrading at a significant rate, lack of support is a contributing factor.’ Oh, and take a look at this.”
Ajax skips a few pages forward. “Here. The physical eval. ‘Significant improvement in strength and agility, Candidate 720 is quickly proving to be one of the most, if not the most, capable fighters this nation has ever seen. Candidate 720 is showing complete control over his black armor despite the considerable strain on his physical body. Given the armor’s natural compatibility with electro powers, it is recommended that Candidate be provided an appropriate Delusion.’ What the fuck is this ‘black armor’?”
Also, “Delusion? I’ve seen this before.”
Ajax pulls up his status screen and swipes through the pages. “Inventory? No. Shop? No. Status Page? No…”
“Allow me, User Ajax.”
The screen glows once, twice, then the text blurs into streaks of grey. When the screen resettles, it’s on the Battle Gauge page. The words are currently faded as with the horizontal gauge keeping track of the amount of hits Ajax has accumulated, but he can still make out the words.
“Under the first battle gauge - Delusion! That’s it, that’s what I remember seeing! Isn’t the Delusion power suppose to give me electro powers? I remember you telling me that.” He goes back to the report and rereads the recommendation. “‘Be provided an appropriate Delusion’. What weird phrasing. Does that mean that OG Tartaglia has been given a Delusion that grants him electro power because of his compatibility? Wouldn’t that would make a Delusion a weapon manufactured by the Fatui that gives people the power of Vision Holders?”
“Intelligence point, +5,” AR answers. “Secret achievement unlocked: ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson (I)’, for piecing together the clues obtained from Character Tartaglia’s backstory with the skills you possess. Reward: +10 SP.”
“Oh shit, I got it right!” But also oh shit, Ajax got it right, which means the Fatui is a hell of a lot scarier and more powerful than he thought with their capacity to make fake Visions.
Now, if only he can find out more about this black armor business. Is that also a Fatui weapon?
“User Ajax, I believe you were inquiring about the missing pages in the file?”
Ah, right, right. Looks like AR is catching on to his bad habit of chasing down after every shiny new piece of information. “Yeah, sorry,” he says. “Thanks. About those missing pages, something tells me that they’re not simply placed in the wrong order in the file either.”
Just in case though, he flips through the rest of the document. There isn’t much left, just more of the same information about OG Tartaglia getting a massive stat bump like he’s gone Super Saiyan all of a sudden, and more records of his personality becoming dark and twisted. The file ends on a brief note explaining that OG Tartaglia has been selected as the next Harbinger and that all monitoring efforts would cease.
“Yeah, fucking knew it,” Ajax says, finally closing the file. “I’m willing to bet all the mora in my bank account that those files were redacted on purpose ‘cause something big had happened.”
“What do you propose to do now?”
“Don’t know yet,” Ajax confesses with a sigh. “But it looks like we’ve reached a bit of a dead-end with this file. Maybe I’ll have better luck with finding that address.”
He doesn’t. A solid two months go by and Ajax still doesn’t find his answer among the vendors who handled Tartaglia’s orders. It leaves Ajax with roughly half a year before the Main Character is set to show up, and he is growing antsy at how quickly time is trickling away from him.
On the bright side, this whole exercise really showcases the professionalism of Liyue’s merchants and how they’re clearly willing to go above and beyond to make a customer happy, including following instructions to keep the shipping address on the down low to Ajax’s great frustration.
He’s about to give up and retreat to his hotel room to sulk when he reaches the toy stall – the last vendor on his list whom he hasn’t spoken to yet. He nearly weeps tears of joy at the beautiful sight of Granny Shan behind the counter.
“Good morning, Granny Shan!” he greets with a wave. “I have a question about an order I asked an associate put in for me months ago, the one to be sent to Morepesok. Would you happen to recall that order?”
Before he can elaborate further, Granny Shan’s face lights up. “Young Man! I am glad you paid a visit! I remember this order very well, and your timing is perfect.”
She reaches under her stall to pull out – what the hell, is that a giant Ruins Guard kite? How did she even manage to fit that under that tiny ass table? “Your third commission took longer than I had wished. Unfortunately, we had a supply shortage of plaustrite that I had to go resolve personally, so I was just able to finish this yesterday.”
Ajax stares at her, confused. “My third commission?”
“Why yes, young man!” Granny Shan nods patiently. “As requested in your letter. You commissioned three large kites: one flying dragon, one large stag, and one ruin guard; they are to be sent to Snezhnaya in one package once completed.”
For the first time in weeks, Ajax feels warm hope blossoming in his heart. “Granny Shan, can I trouble you to show me the letter? I just recall that I may have made a mistake in the shipping address and I wanted to double-check if that’s alright.”
Bless her soul, Granny Shan agrees readily. “Of course, young man. You are very fortunate that I have not sent the package out yet. Let’s see, let’s see – ah! I have the letter right here.”
Ajax accepts it with cheerful thanks. When Granny Shan is distracted by a set of new customers, he quickly turns around and activates the Copy Function, stuffing the extra in his pocket.
“Everything looks to be in order!” he says, returning the letter to her after the customers depart. “Thank you for your patience! Please send the package out when you are able. Those kites look perfect!”
He barely manages to close the door to his apartment before pulling the copy out of his pocket. He skims over OG Tartaglia’s blocky writing (legible for once) at the address (some street name he doesn’t recognize, but that’s expected), and laughs.
“Fucking finally! This took fore – huh?”
His eyes catch the set of instructions under the address, ‘to send the parcel anonymously’, but below that is the name of the addressee.
Ajax goes still.
What – what the – ?
‘Send the parcels anonymously,’ the letter says, ‘addressed to Dearest Princess Tonia of Morepesok.’
Ajax feels as if the ground shifted under his feet like he is experiencing vertigo from free-falling into the unknown. The painfully familiar name glares back at him, the black ink crisp and clear against the white paper even as he rereads the name again a second time, a third time, a fourth time in disbelief, the letter clutched between nerveless fingers.
“H – Hey, AR? I’m reading this wrong, right? That’s not Tonia’s name on there, is it?”
But AR doesn’t answer him. AR continues to stay silent even after Ajax repeats the question a few times.
Ajax looks back at the paper in his hand.
Princess Tonia of Morepesok.
Princess Tonia of Morepesok.
There once was an unnamed boy who later grew up to become the 11th Harbinger. But before that, he had lived in Morepesok and had a sister. Her name was Tonia.
He doesn’t register what happens next. One second, he’s standing in the foyer, letter in hand, and in the next second, he’s in the middle of his living room that looks as if a tornado has torn through the place. Chairs, tables, stools, instruments, everything movable are either shoved to the side or are upended. The floor and the walls around him are littered with great jagged holes breaking into the planks or through ripped silk screens, almost as if someone had punched their way through before ripping chunks out of it, desperately trying to reveal what was underneath the veneer surface.
Dimly, Ajax registers a dull throb in his knuckles and the scent of copper, but he ignores them.
What was he trying to – oh. Oh, he remembers now. He’s been trying to find more letters, notes, anything by OG Tartaglia to give him more of an explanation, but…
He looks around the mess. No hint of paper anywhere.
“AR,” he croaks out, “What’s the status for my Tartaglia quest?”
“It remains unchanged, User Ajax,” comes AR’s quiet explanation.
Unchanged. There are more hidden items around here that Ajax isn’t finding. There are more hidden clues around the room to explain just why the hell his sister’s name is showing up in this world despite his best efforts to find everything, and he’s – he –
He is so sick of everything.
Fury sweeps through his veins, hot and acrid and uncontrollable. Ajax had spent months chasing down these stupid leads, months trying to untangle this web of secrets and it seems like at every turn, his past is being thrown back into his face time and time again and he’s sick of it. He’s sick of having to jump through more hoops only to discover more things that poke and pry at his scabs. He’s sick of being toyed with, of being reminded just how much OG Tartaglia is unwanted and unloved just like how he was, how OG Tartaglia had died alone and hated like he had been in his goddamned studio apartment, how OG Tartaglia hasn’t even been given a fair chance at living because he was designed that way just like how circumstances pushed Ajax into his shitty, shitty existence. How is that fair? How is any of this fair?
That’s right, OG Tartaglia’s backstory was designed. OG Tartaglia’s family was designed.
Ajax spins on his heels and marches out the door, slamming it shut behind him.
“HU TAO!” he roars, banging against the redwood door of Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. The sky is pitch black and it’s probably late at night, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if he’s causing a ruckus and waking up the whole goddamned neighbourhood. He just needs to see Hu Tao because she has a lot to answer for. “HU TAO! GET OUT HERE!”
The door opens. “Holy shit, calm your tits – Ajax?” Hu Tao lifts the lantern up closer to his face and squints up at him, “Is that you? The fuck are you doing here raising hell - fuck, your hands! You’re bleeding everywhere!”
He lets himself get pulled into the building and ushered to a seat. Now that he has her attention, Ajax isn’t sure what to say, or how to express the craziness he’s experienced, so he wordlessly bats away her hands that were trying to bandage his knuckles, instead, shoving the copy of the letter towards her. “Read it.”
She takes the crumpled paper from him. “I – uh – I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be reading,” she says, shaking her head. “Is this a letter by OG Tartaglia or something? Who’s Princess Tonia?”
“Y – you don’t know who Tonia is?” Ajax asks, his voice small. The anger in him leaves in a rush, leaving him lightheaded and breathless. Maybe that’s the blood loss, who knows. “B – but you wrote him. You wrote OG Tartaglia.”
Hu Tao’s eyes turn soft. “Boyo, the characters I’ve written are not carbon copies of the ones in this world, and they’re certainly nowhere near this in-depth. OG Tartaglia is no exception. Whoever Princess Tonia is, she’s not anyone I came up with.”
Oh. Hu Tao didn’t write Tonia.
Hu Tao has nothing to do with her appearance in this world.
If that’s the case, then how? How did she end up there?
“Hey, boyo, I need to see your hands, okay? You’re bleeding a lot and uh, you’re not wearing any shoes, do you know that?”
A knock sounds out. “Miss Hu Tao? I heard a lot of commotion. Is everything alr – Childe?”
Familiar hands adorned in soft brown gloves gently cup his face and oh, it’s Zhongli. Zhongli is here and he’s looking decidedly unhappy.
“Childe, what’s wrong?” Golden eyes flit towards his hands at the split knuckles and the rivers of blood running down his arms, and there’s a part of Ajax who knows that that should hurt, but he can’t really feel anything at the moment. “You’re injured,” Zhongli says, frown deepening. “How? What happened?”
“Um, I – I – I think I punched something,” Ajax chokes out a laugh. He sounds deranged even to his own ears. “I punched the walls and the floor.”
It hits him just how stupid everything is and how crazy he must appear. He’s sitting there in the reception of Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, shoeless while his hands are dripping blood all over the once pristine floor. It’s also getting really late, because Ajax can’t hear the hustle and bustle of the night market outside, which means that he had probably barged into Wangsheng Funeral Parlour as they’re about to close for the night. He’s probably holding everyone up from being able to go home.
He’s causing a lot of inconveniences when Hu Tao doesn’t even know who Tonia is.
“I – I need to go,” he stammers, stumbling up. He’s swaying a little, probably would’ve swayed way more if Zhongli isn’t propping him up. “I think I need to leave. Sorry for – sorry.”
“Woah, you’re not going anywhere.” Hu Tao pushes him back down into the seat. For such a small girl, her grip is surprisingly strong. “I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re in no state to be going home like that. We also need to fix you up first. Mister Zhongli, can you keep an eye on him? I’ll be right back. I’m going to get some water.”
“Of course. Please, leave him with me.”
“Childe.” Zhongli’s hands are back. They feel warm on his cheeks. He’s crouching down and is looking up into Ajax’s eyes, and he looks so worried that Ajax feels the guilt and shame come flooding back. “Are you hurt anywhere else? Your head? Your chest?”
Ajax chokes out another laugh past the growing lump in his throat. His head feels a muddled mess and his chest feels like he’s got a million pounds crushing him. But, he forces out an answer: “No, no I’m not hurt anywhere else. I’m just…” going crazy, “I’m just having a really, really bad day.”
A look of understanding settles over Zhongli’s face. “Would you like to talk about it?”
No, Ajax definitely, definitely does not.
Instead, he leans forward and lets his forehead rest on the other’s shoulder. Lets himself do nothing but breathe in the soothing scent of silk flowers and incense. Lets himself do nothing but bask in the comforting warmth of the other’s body as he tries to wrestle his breathing back in order and his heartbeat to slow from its scared, frenzied thrumming.
“Alright,” Zhongli says when the silence stretches on. A second later, Ajax feels long fingers card through his hair, tentative at first, but getting bolder once they reach the nape of his neck. Then, the motion would start all over again and again, slow and rhythmic and soothing. The careful touches send shivers down Ajax’s spine.
It’s been a long time since he’s been touched like this. Probably back when his father and mother were still together.
“Alright,” Zhongli repeats, his voice soft and low and so gentle that it makes Ajax want to weep. “You can rest easy, dear boy. I am here. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
As Zhongli continues to murmur into his ears, Ajax latches on to the words like a drowning man grasping at a lifesaver. In his mind, he repeats what Zhongli says over and over again. A lullaby to calm the turmoil in his heart.
Zhongli is here. Zhongli is here.
Zhongli is here like he’s always been, like all those times when Ajax found himself feeling overwhelmed in the new world and left to ride out the chaotic storm of his emotions on his own. Zhongli is here to act as his anchor and ground him to reality.
Zhongli is here and Ajax is safe. Ajax can rest.
And with that realization, the pressure in his chest lessens and Ajax can finally breathe.