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Stone that will not break

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The whip is a primitive thing. A single length of coarse rope tied with shards of sharp metal and attached to a cloth-wrapped wooden handle. Its crudeness does not make it any less effective.

The metal shards – some sharped to razor edges, some left broken and jagged – slice readily through cloth and skin and flesh. Paint trails of fire across his torso and outstretched arms. Turn pale skin and dark silk into a broken landscape of tattered thread and fissured skin, crags of white bone peeking through blood turned molten stone.

It’s a test of his will to not flinch, to not blink, as the next strike misses his face by a breath. The caress of displaced air from the lash’s passing sits in strange juxtaposition to the hot spray of blood on his cheek and the surge of new fire through his body.

When the next strike is not immediately forthcoming, Shen Wei allows himself a cautiously deep breath – as deep as the cracks riddling his ribs allow. He can feel the eyes of his four torturers – two men, two women. Watching, scrutinizing, assessing. Wanting. He stares back, unflinching. Defiant. Flicks his tongue out to lick at a fresh split in his lip. Tastes the familiar iron tang and smiles. Small and cold. A promise.

The four shift, gazes sliding away. To the chains, bloodied and stretched taut. To the coil of the whip lying limp and defeated on the red-smeared stone. To each other’s pale, sweat-streaked and blood-splattered faces. Anywhere that is not Shen Wei’s eyes.

One of the men steps up to the woman’s side. The whip is still clenched in one white-knuckled fist. Their exchange is hushed, a brief argument easily settled. The man holds out his hand. The woman scoffs. She switches the whip to her left hand, stretching and trying to shake feeling back into the right. Shen Wei can see the fatigue setting in, dragging at her bloodlust. He’d seen it in the newest of his men, so long ago. Inexperience. Lack of training. Using only the strength of her arm and shoulder rather than utilizing the power in her whole body. Expending far too much energy for too little result.

She resettles the handle in her grip, snapping at the man when he reaches out again. He shrugs. Lays a hand on her left shoulder. Dark energy surges, electrifies the air like the milliseconds surrounding a lightning strike. The two manage to move in tandem, more than passing familiarity guiding their bodies.

The whip comes down again. Not fire this time. Lightning. Surging through his body. Every muscle seizing, every nerve a conduit for the pain. He can’t hear the rattle of the chains as he strains against them, can’t feel the searing metal cutting ever deeper into flesh. Blood roars in his ears, the stuttering rhythm of his heart, the screams he refuses to give voice to.

These strikes draw no new rivers of blood, impossible heat sealing broken blood vessels almost as soon as they’re cut. The lashes carve chasms of burnt-blackened skin and screaming-dying-dead nerves. And still Shen Wei will not scream. He bites his cheek until hot iron drowns the cries, clenches his teeth and focuses on the grind of enamel on enamel. Tries to ride out the waves of agony as the cliffs withstand the storm’s fury.

A part of his mind registers that the assault has halted, the stained rope – too saturated with his blood to burn – and flame-hot metal trailing on the ground instead of slicing air and flesh. That part watches with calculating eyes as the four again confer. Notes how dissatisfaction and impatience are quickly replacing gleeful fury. The rest of him…

Shen Wei breathes. Swallows the blood to wash down the screams still lodged in his throat. He inhales, careful, deliberate. Unclenches numbed hands from their death-grip on the chains. Leaves behind bits of skin seared into the metal. Exhales. Hides the wince. Okay. He takes another breath. Okay. He has open wounds covering much of his chest, part of his stomach and upper arms, but he isn’t in imminent danger of bleeding to death. His ribs are cracked, as are a couple bones in his right hand, but thus far the bones haven’t shifted out of place. Shock lurks in the background, silent and deadly, and he focuses on regulating his too-rapid heartbeat. In time and left untreated, the burns alone will be fatal, without even considering the infection Shen Wei can already feel taking root. But none of that will kill him. Will be allowed to kill him.

He just needs to wait, just needs to hold on a little longer. These four are dead already; Shen Wei won’t let them drag him along with them. He isn’t finished yet. Beneath the wreckage of skin and rent flesh, beneath the blood and cracked bone, the hoarded light energy lurks, biding its time like a chained volcano until he releases it. He tightens his hold even as every cell in his body burns, rejecting its very existence. It isn’t time yet.

The four’s conference ends with the second man stalking off into the ruins. Not in defeat. Searching, by the posture of his body. Shen Wei doesn’t watch him go, doesn’t betray any curiosity or trepidation. Instead, he keeps his gaze fixed on the remaining three. Not in fear. In challenge. A jungle cat watching its prey, just biding its time until it decides to strike. The three shift, eyes darting away but always returning to him, to anywhere but his face. Shen Wei lets his body shift just enough for the chains to sway and watches as all three retreat to the dais steps, the man and second woman placing the woman who’d wielded the whip between them and the Pillar. Interesting. He hadn’t sensed anything but physical strength behind her strikes, but perhaps her power is better applied to other situations. It must be strong, to make the other two look to her for protection. Her accuracy with the whip had been surprising, considering the other signs of her inexperience. Or perhaps she had simply been fortunate with the landing of her strikes.

The clatter of boots on loose stones heralds the return of the fourth. The object of his search is apparently a jagged length of metal. Broken rebar, perhaps. Professional curiosity throws his mind back to days both simpler and filled with infinitely impossible decisions. The metal bar is better suited for blunt force – for deliberately placed bruises and broken bones. The whip excels more at psychological fear – for slicing flesh and drawing blood, in addition to the sheer shock from the sharp crack. The whip also allows for a certain distance between the wielder and their target. The part of his mind analyzing the change in tactics from a professional standpoint is intrigued. As of yet, the four have taken great care to remain far out of arm’s reach, Heipaoshi’s reputation keeping them to pacing the edges of the platform, despite the chains. The iron bar, though a good two feet long, will require close quarters.

Shen Wei grins, bloody and feral. Sees the marked hesitation and wariness. He wonders how far their false bravado will carry them.

The man saunters up the steps and approaches the Pillar. He stops a couple paces away.

“Heipaoshi.” The title is a sneer, a mockery of respect. A bully, confident in his superiority and the helplessness of his victim. Shen Wei doesn’t acknowledge him. Eyes narrow and the sneer twists, turns cruel. The man releases the bar and raises his hand, fingers clenched in a fist as though still holding the weapon. The bar follows his motions. Similar to Chu Shuzhi manipulating his puppet but lacking the independent, albeit limited, sentience of the puppet. A form of telekinesis. Clever. It allows the man to keep his distance while, depending on the strength of the man’s power, providing more force behind each blow. The man motions with his other hand, and the chains begin to move.

Very clever. The man has figured out that while the chains bind Shen Wei to the Pillar and will not release him without Ye Zun’s command, they can be used to move and hold him in a chosen position. That’s all the rational thought Shen Wei manages before his body recognizes the intention behind the movements.

The chains tighten around his ankles, begin to pull. For a single, vital second, he freezes. Thought – silenced. Defiance – numbed. Plans – forgotten. Hands on his thighs, between them. Demanding. Unrelenting. Fingers pressing bruises into flesh in silent command.

His body is already fighting before his mind can free itself from the past. Halting the movement of the chains, locking his body in its current position. Metal – burning cold – cuts into flesh, digs into bone. Muscles reach beyond endurance, strain against the limits of mortal flesh. His eyes fix on the man’s. Predator and prey locked in a standoff. The barest flicker of satisfaction worms through the desperate panic at the sweat beading on the man’s forehead. Shen Wei does not need dark energy to be strong.

Whatever the man sees in Shen Wei’s eyes is enough to drain the color from his face. The pull of the chains falters, and Shen Wei regains a precious few centimeters. But then the man’s face hardens, and he redoubles his efforts.

No. No no no NO.

Every millimeter increases the panic building – knees between his, hands forcing space where they do not belong, are not welcome – until he’s waging a war on two fronts. Against this man and Shen Wei’s own ghosts.

The first blow catches him off guard. Shen Wei had lost track of the other three. The second lash steals his breath, and the man gains another two centimeters. He grits his teeth, tightens his grip on the chains like a lifeline. No. The third drives him back against the Pillar. Cold stone. Unmoving. His head slams back. Enough to stun. A man’s heat. Unmovable. He blinks. Sucks in a breath. The force pulling the chains is gone. There’s an ache in his hips that speaks of joints nearly but not quite separated. He tries to move his legs, to close the distance between them. The chains refuse to give. Not even a breath. Holding his legs spread just over shoulders’ width apart. Shen Wei jerks against the metal lengths. Once. Twice before forcing himself to still. To not give the four the satisfaction.

The man is pale, sweating. Drained. His face twists, lips curl up. Not victorious. Infuriated. For the first time since the four had appeared, cloaked in resentful anger and contempt, Shen Wei feels the first frisson of fear curl up his spine. An offered deal. A necessary bargain. His payment accepted with greedy eyes and a rough hand on his shoulder, shoving until his knees hit the ground.

Breathe. He needs to breathe. Conserve his energy. Wait. This didn’t break him before. It will not break him now.

It seems wrong that the sound of metal ripping through layers of cloth is so much louder than the sound of tearing skin. Of rending flesh and shattering walls beneath the deluge of memories.

The stranger’s weight, over twice his own, pinning him to the ground. Rough hands twisting his limbs, holding them where the stranger wishes them to be. The stranger’s body forcing his own to yield, to yield or be broken beneath the inevitable.

The chain rattle, cover the choked-off cry as his body spasms, instinct driving him to yank at their unyielding grip to try and escape the agony.

Driving into him, the sting of sweat and salt on torn flesh. Helpless to move, helpless to do more than try and breathe through the pain. To choke back his cries because such defiance goes against their agreement, and he can’t risk the stranger turning on his didi next. To blink back the tears because salt on his stone-cut cheek may be what breaks him, and he needs to be strong.

The four watch, intent. Feeding off his agony.

The scornful satisfaction as the stranger stares down at his trembling body.

The victorious smirk twisting the man’s lips even as he twists the iron bar deep.

No.

Shen Wei forces his mind blank. Forces the walls of ice, slowly melted through by Da Qing and Kunlun and then Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing again, to rise again. Sealing off memory and pain and emotion.

No.

He will not be broken by this.

Days of things tearing and retearing within him at every movement. Of nights curled in fevered agony. Of bloodied feet and ghosts tracking every step.

He forces his lungs to take a breath. Tightens his fists around the chains and pulls himself up until he’s standing, not merely being supported by the lengths binding him to the Pillar. Meets the gaze of the man wielding his iron bar. Smiles.

He will not be broken.

These four are dead already.

Shen Wei just needs to hold on until Ye Zun comes and kills them.