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every morning in the dark

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Liyue Harbor is beautiful in the springtime. Venti likes to wander the docks with a dizi and ask the workers if they have any song requests. Busking is harder in a city so enamored with contracts and so uninclined to tipping, but he can occasionally weasel his way into a few Mora. Besides, Zhongli isn’t down here, and rarely does he ever come down here. Venti is relatively certain he isn’t even in the harbor right now. Just yesterday he saw Venti busking by a teahouse near Dihua Marsh, picked him up by the collar, and physically threw him down the road!

It’s better than getting crushed under a towering boulder, but it still isn’t fun. 

Thankfully, music is fun, even when Zhongli is not. Venti plays a lively little tune. He thinks it was popular a millennia ago, but it still wins him a few appreciative nods. One sailor even fixes his ship’s sails to the beat.

Venti plays until evening. He’s gathered enough Mora for a few drinks and a meal at Third-Round Knockout. Venti heads towards the restaurant with a spring in his step. There’s nothing better than ending the day with a good drink! 

It’s lovely to be as free as the wind. Venti has no obligations here. If he wanted to head back to Mondstadt, he could! If he wanted to stay here for two weeks and sample everything on Third-Round Knockout’s menu, he could! There’s still so much to explore. And once Venti has had his fill, he’ll be off to another land! How wonderful.

Right outside the tavern’s door, Venti hears a scream. Not the jovial shout of a drunkard, but the piercing wail of someone about to die. Then he hears another.

And then so many that he can’t tell the voices apart. 

People on the streets begin to worry and panic. Someone shouts for the Milileth to come help. It must come from the other side of the harbor, but as he pushes the door open, he hears the tavern’s patrons murmur to themselves. A few get up to leave.

Venti isn’t scared. He matured in the fires of rebellion. A few screams aren’t enough to unsettle him. Instead, an eerie calm washes over him as he picks his way towards the source of the sound, right on the edge of the harbor. People rush past him, panic in their eyes and tears staining their faces. Entire families pass by with nothing but the clothes on their backs and whatever trinket — a stuffed toy for a little boy, or a pinwheel for a little girl — they managed to grab before escaping. He can’t see what they’re running from, but he hears more screams and the violent splintering of wood.

It must be a group of Hilichurls. Strange that they’ve gotten so close to such a big settlement, but Liyue recently faced a resurrected god. Weirder things have happened. Venti keeps his weapon close. He can handle a few Hilichurls, however big and scary they may be. Even a Stonehide Lawachurl can fall to his bow with enough time.

In the distance, a plume of smoke curls into the air. Some kind of energy hangs oddly in the air, though Venti can’t quite tell what it is. Maybe this is the Abyss Order or the Fatui getting up to more nonsense. It wouldn’t be the first time. 

From the northern side of the harbor, a few figures glide down. Venti squints up at them, trying to figure out who they are, and nearly runs into a fleeing couple. “Ah, sorry, sorry!” Venti says, skidding to a stop right before he bowls over the husband. He ignores Venti as he rushes forward, still holding his wife’s hand tight. Not wanting that to happen again, Venti summons a burst of Anemo energy and launches himself into the air. 

From up here, he gets a better look at the gliding figures. They must be members of the Qixing. One woman in the gold dress, another in purple, and a third woman in white and blue seem to move in tandem.

He knows a few members of the Qixing have Visions. These must be those members. He doesn’t know many specifics, outside of whatever tall tales the local storytellers have invented for a few of the women who lead the organization. What he’s certain of is how vicious they can be. Whatever is causing trouble must be bad if it’s attracted their attention!

Venti reaches the edge of town. The bridge heading out is completely broken. He spots the three women landing at the other end of the clearing. They draw their weapons and rush forward, though the blue-haired one seems to hesitate.

Venti follows their line of sight. In front of the bridge is a mess of writhing shadows and Anemo energy, whipped up into a complete frenzy. Venti creeps closer, using his own power to buffet back the winds before they can reach them. This person is strong, whoever they are. Oh, he really hopes this isn’t another Fatui delusion. This perversion of Anemo energy is so offensive. 

“Don’t hurt him!” says the blue woman. “He— I don’t know what’s—!”

“That fucking Rex Lapis!” spits the purple woman. Electro energy crackles all around him. “I know we should have released him from that damn contract—!”

“We have better things to focus on than your feelings towards Rex Lapis,” snaps the woman in gold. She summons a translucent shield and sends a flurry of Geo constructs flying towards the person. The person’s weapon cuts every projectile out of the air. Only when it stops does Venti realize it’s a jade-tipped spear. It looks familiar, but Venti can’t quite place where he last saw it. 

The person rushes towards the woman in gold. Shadows slide out from underneath their feet and leap into the air, gaining a physicality that shadows should not have. They’re formless things, moving like water transferred across different jars, but the way they surround the women in gold and purple speaks only to danger.

The woman in gold fires her projectiles. The woman in purple throws what looks like a knife at the shadows, then rushes to grab it. Electro and Geo energy intertwin, scattering the shadows everywhere. 

Venti turns his attention to the person who summoned the shadows. It’s hard to see from this distance, but Venti thinks it’s a young man. One in white and purple, wearing a terrifying looking mask.

“Xiao! Stop, please, this isn’t you!” cries the woman in blue. The woman in purple rushes forward, purple lightning arching off her sword. 

Venti stops. 

Xiao. He knows that name. The lonely adeptus who has always longed for freedom. No wonder he uses Anemo energy — Venti gave him his Vision eons ago. He was one of Morax’s yaksha: guardian warriors to help make sure the Archon War stayed as a relic as the past. 

Venti saved him once. Played a melody so sweet he dragged Xiao’s corrupted corpse into the dawn light. It was so easy back then. He hasn’t seen him since. This isn’t Venti’s home, after all. When he wasn’t visiting his Geo Archon friend, he had very little reason to come here at all. 

He wonders if the debt has come back for him, or if this is something else entirely. Whatever the answer is, now isn’t the time to find out. 

Venti should protect these people. He doesn’t know Xiao well, but it’s clear that he is out for violence. They can talk later, after Xiao has calmed down.

The woman in gold barely evades his strike, aiming right for her stomach. If it had hit, it would have been fatal. Venti rushes forward. Humans are so frail — he knows that better than most humans do! Even if he doesn’t know these women, it’d be a shame to watch them die. 

She and the woman in purple work seamlessly together, as if two pieces of the same whole. They barely can fend Xiao off. The woman in blue tries to reason with Xiao. Her voice is too frantic for Venti to make out half of what she says, but the desperation in her voice is clear. 

“Ganyu, I need you to stop talking and start fighting,” says the woman in gold. Xiao aims for her neck; she barely avoids being beheaded. She fires another projectile in retaliation. He slices it out of the air and it fades to nothing. 

“I can’t fight him. I can’t! Rex Lapis — he — we need him. He could help.”

"Rex!” The woman in purple slams her sword against Xiao’s spear. “Lapis!” She flips out of the way of his strike. “Is!” He lunges for her face. “Dead!” she screams, firing a blast of lightning that sends Xiao flying clear across the gap where the bridge used to be. He slams into the side of the wall and falls into the water.

Ganyu — the woman in blue — covers her mouth with her hands. She rushes towards the edge of the clearing, past shops left in ruin. “Xiao! Xiao!” she calls out. “He isn’t evil! He just needs help!” 

The woman in purple rushes forward and grabs Ganyu. “You saw him! He’ll kill you if you go down there!”

“He’ll drown!” says Ganyu, struggling against her. She headbutts the woman in purple with her hair clips. There’s a sickening crunch, and the woman lets her go with a howl. “I’m sorry, I really am! Please forgive me!” Ganyu says, offering  a quick bow to her before sliding down the bank’s side.

Venti steps forward. “Let me help!” he says. “I have an Anemo Vision, I can—” and he doesn’t wait for Ganyu to respond before lifting Xiao out of the water. His body floats up, seemingly comatose save for the glowing teal of his mask. He fights against Venti’s power, writhing in the middle of Venti’s Anemo array. Venti grits his teeth and pours more power into it, trying to keep him in place.

“Who are you?” asks the woman in gold.

“A mere traveling bard from Mondstadt,” Venti grits out. It’s getting harder to contain Xiao. He doesn’t know what the problem is, but Zhongli trusted Xiao. He once told Venti a story of the adeptus trying — and failing miserably — to bait a butterfly into landing on his fingers. How can that gentle boy become this thing? Is this the cost of whatever fate Venti had saved him from before, or is it something completely different? 

If only Venti could ask him!

Shadows writhe past Venti’s array. One slips out between the winds and strikes Venti in the chest. He falls, his shoulder colliding hard with the stone below. The impact steals his breath away. He rolls onto his back and grits his teeth from the pain. 

Xiao leaps back in front of them. Then he leaps high, high into the air. Higher still.

“Arrow! Aim an arrow!” shrieks the purple woman.

Ganyu, tears streaming down her face, readies her bow. Cryo energy blooms around the arrowhead. Venti scrambles to get his bow and aims one of his own, gathering all of the Anemo energy he can to power his shot. He doesn’t want to do this — all he has to do is use the Anemo energy to send Xiao off-course —

Xiao plunges, down, down, wrapped by shadows and leaking hatred—

He doesn’t hit them, but a nearby building, spraying rubble everywhere— and the ground cracks open where he lands, and—

Venti’s arrow never leaves his bow.