*Warning: Explicit descriptions of violence. Please proceed at your own risk.*
It was clear that he had learned nothing.
Had he known, he would've come prepared. Had he known, he would've come with his sword on his hip, polished and shiny like the weapon it was supposed to be—had ceased to be. Had he known, he would not have shrieked as loud, would not have fallen so quickly to the ground when they struck his stomach, his chin smacking against those smooth, red floors with the sound of cracking bone. Had he known, he would not have simply watched as his parents' voices broke and splattered onto the wall, swelling and receding in one sickening breath.
"He was spoiled in Baxian Peak," they said as they rubbed their dirtied boots over his cheek. He was spoiled with small smiles and comfort and beautiful things. And now, he was beautiful just like it. Like those green ghylls, those fragrant pines, and those sweet rains. How soft, the stickiness of his pale skin and the lashes framing his frightened eyes. How lovely, the overflowing tears sullying his rounded jawline and the jut of his wobbling lip. He truly was beautiful.
And utterly pitiful.
They intended to have fun tonight. His parents' bodies were already piled in the corner, more flesh than human. If they hadn't threatened him, if they hadn't waved their sharp daggers in front of his little nose and said they'd slit his eyes if he dared looked away, he would not have watched as their souls melted out of his parents' mouths and seeped onto the floor. His naivety would've stayed intact for a few moments more.
And when they were done with them, the bandits smiled at him with boiling syrup dripping from their teeth.
"Did you listen?" They asked, the roofs of their mouths glinting at him like a puddle of blood. "Did you hear about that deal they tried to make?" He pretended that he couldn't hear them as he shook under their grip, eyes blown open and unable to close.
Suddenly, those grimy fingers trickled near the name of the boy's neck, and he gasped as the back of his robes were torn, exposing the naked skin to the densely red oxygen, that dirty air. He quivered and wondered if he would die right there, not from injury but from shame, but his thoughts were firmly staunched when something sharp pricked into the soft epidermis.
His bloody fingers made caves on the floor as he screamed. The bandits could only laugh, great delight dripping out of the corners of their yellowed mouths. "You should've studied numbers better. Couldn't count 'til thirty even if you tried." they sneered. His skin was nothing but a stone stele for etching into, nothing but a tablet to record the results of the day's hunt. The boy thrashed, clear liquid leaking out of his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to shake too much with his sobs in fear that the agony would be prolonged. And soon enough, he ceased to move and flattened his stomach to the crimson tile, mouth stuck open. It only made the job easier.
(They had missed something though. From that very first moment, when the boy shattered onto the ground, they had taken too much time playing with flesh instead of paying attention to that sliding body and sticky hands, which shakily crawled and pulled off the emergency fireworks with a great sound. They hadn't noticed, too caught in their delirium to feel the reverberation, and instead took to dragging the boy back to where he had been at first, laughing as they slapped the back of his useless legs with the flats of their scarlet swords. Something akin to glee in their eyes, their ears were smothered by the euphoric blanket of depravity.
They too, were human after all.)
In that final moment, as the bandits stood over their handiwork with great pride, the air grew thicker with static. Thunder suddenly boomed through that hall, and they were only able to grin a last time at each other before they were no more, severed by a bolt of lightning.
(The bandits had heard those rumbling footsteps too late. This was the one thing that saved him. The boy had been crying out feebly: "Shizun... Shizun... Shizun..." and that was a curse. Chances of survival were at an absolute none when the Baiye-Jun found them, brought in by his disciple's pathetic whines.)
The boy laid there as the rescuers rushed in like the water after a terrible drought, relieving for those alive but taunting for those who weren't. At first, the cultivators thought he was dead as well, until a single shadowed figure rushed from the center of the fray and took that thin body up into his arms.
"He's alive. He's alive," the man cried in a voice no one had ever heard from him before. He tore off a strip of his own silk sleeve and bound it tightly around the other's bloodied shoulders. He hugged the boy to his own chest in a defining moment no one would remember and along the way back, he kept whispering to himself like a madman: "Not this one. Not this one."
Needless to say, the boy survived. He still breathed, though everyone found it difficult to look at the scars left upon his back, much less trace them with liquor and redress them, address them. He might never stand up straight in pride again, but he would live, yes. At least he would live.
But despite all this, no one was sure of anything. That at any given moment, something could go wrong. But wasn't that the case for every patient? Just a missed beat, and they could be erased from the world.
"This boy, he was sullied by the blood that beat his family home," they said. A rotting odor soon filled his body, one of expired goat's milk and soiled water. He no longer slept with a serene smile on his lips. Instead, he writhed and thrashed, jaw slack or grinding like the sound of a knife against a whetstone. His hair was no longer straight like the hanging vines, and instead, it was bunched and smelly like a bird's dirtied nest.
Though he would live, none was sure if he would ever wake up. "This boy," they whispered, "he was spoiled in both of the ways the word could imply." He was spoiled, and it was clear there was nothing else that could be said or done.
All they could do was wait.