When he lays the knife blade against the skin of his forearm, Shen Wei hesitates.
Only for a heartbeat. But it startles him.
Maybe it's an natural reaction, to flinch from voluntarily inflicting pain. Maybe one he's allowed.
He sharpened the blade already, whetting it as carefully as he cared for his sword, way back when he carried a physical blade. Familiar actions. Steady, strong pressure applied evenly down the cutting edge during nights spent on watch, learning not to sleep. Raw-edged memories.
He doesn't allow himself to glance back to where Zhao Yunlan sleeps.
Another pulse comes from the warring energies inside him. It rocks him back; threatens to topple him. It hurts. Like an infection, he feels it crawling through his body, hijacking his veins and sinews and nerves; contagion creeping up and outward from his hand where he had held the Dial with Zhao Yunlan's fingers warm against his.
He had known that first moment after letting go that he had done too much. But it had been too late already, and besides… he wouldn't have stopped. Regardless.
Zhao Yunlan has saved him and sacrificed for him, and will do so again, and so this is a fair repayment of what's owed. It's duty, and also infinitely more.
He brings the knife to bear. Skin is tough. It resists slow deliberate cutting.
If he allows himself to be honest, what he wishes to repay isn't the life debt. He would, if permitted, repay a night spent under starlight; a name gifted; eyes seeking him as if he's the most precious thing they've seen.
He pulls the blade across in a sharp slash.
His body reacts with an instant of shock — a jolt, like electricity. For an instant the wound gapes bloodlessly, unexpected paleness within the layers of flesh, and he doesn't breathe.
A pulse, and blood rushes in from the severed vessels. Red, bright, spilling over.
The pain reminds him. Breaks his distraction. He summons his dark energy, feels it rise more strongly than ever. Too strong; unbalanced, unearthed. He teases it out through his welling blood and it's a thread at first, then more and more, winding together into a flood that dams the bleeding behind it as it forces its way out.
It hurts a lot.
He breathes through it because he's had worse injuries; of course he has. He's lived through deprivation and war and years of solitude while he hunted his own people. But this precise, self-inflicted pain still off-balances him.
His dark energy spools from his arm. Maybe… more than he expected, but it's not until Zhao Yunlan startles him so badly that he drops the knife that he realises this. Zhao Yunlan grabs hold of his arm, pulls it barely resisting into the light. And, again, it's too late already, and again he wouldn't have turned back if he could.
He can't explain this to Zhao Yunlan. Doesn't know how, doesn't have the words, and also he just can't. Not yet. Not now.
Ten thousand years, and it's too soon for him to part with these secrets. He's too afraid of the consequences.
He let too much energy go at once. Can't recall it now to steady him through this argument that he didn't want to have. Isn't sure how it became one — somehow everything he says is wrong and he doesn't know quite how.
Zhao Yunlan's face speaks his horror and Shen Wei can't explain.