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They tell him he will rule.

He whispers their promises to himself as broken things scrape and grind beneath him, whorls of razor-edged stone beneath his knees. Wetness against his brow, a smear across his cheek, an uncontrollable shiver. Back bent and twisted, the bare blades of his shoulders prodding the dark sky. Fingers cold and fixed as metal are interwoven with the ridges of his spine, claws grasping tight against his larynx as he breathes in heavy gasps, tasting salt-wrack. It is better than falling, better than falling with the pressure of the light on his face, blinding.

They use him. His skin is stained with blood, shadow-mottled with bruise and scar. They tell him he will rule: he will be as a pure vessel for their will, hollow, thrumming with power, echoing inside with dark truths. They will discover all his uses. He will feel the crush of things breaking beneath his feet.

He has stopped resisting. He laughs when they hurt him.

He presses his palms against the blackness, breathes the thick-wet-sour-slick air, pushes, body undulating.

They tell him he will rule and he will be ruled. He will conquer and he will be conquered. They force his body down again, even as he convulses, and his tears are hot, dull, cool, cold, trailing down, falling silent into the foul pool below.

He has learned to be commanded, and he feels the whip-curl of power under his skin, true power, not as he once was. So much more. A whole realm will be his. He will cast a shadow, and the light will be behind him. Broken fragments shriek and grind under the heels of his hands as he slumps lower.

There are many things beneath his skin. Wet and terrible and seeping out in an unstanched flow from every wound. He licks his lips, shudders at the taste.

They use him. They no longer need to compel him, but when they hurt him he laughs deep in his throat with a sound like a drowned body sinking for the last time. They hurt him more, even as he obeys, even as he promises loyalty, offers sweeter trades, gropes forward in the grim shadows. He has no end of uses.

They press his face against the ground, and the hand on his neck…

The hand on his neck is broad and warm, warm as sunlight. A grip tight as the noose of fate, strong as iron bonds, inevitable as nightfall. The futility of struggle; his blood pulses against soft fingertips, rushing dark and fast, as his body softens in defeat. His lips move, silent, not daring to speak, not willing to let his throat tremble on those syllables.

“Brother,” he doesn’t say. Plea or prayer or a hollow, half-forgotten shape on his tongue.

He no longer wants to be his equal.