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Title: Under
Rating: R
Pairings/Warnings: Some vaguely defined gore and lots of Kurogane swearing. Also rampant literary quoting.
Summary: For a thousand years Kurogane has died every night at the hands of a demon and awoken every morning alive again. A stranger offers him the chance at a cure, but who can trust a strange mad prisoner who hears voices in his head?
Notes: Posting the first part of this slightly early since I'll be out of town all weekend. I kinda have no idea what's going on in this fic. There was a lot of "Isn't that a bit much? Wait, who cares, harlequin fic!" Yeah. The rest will be posted as soon as I finish editing it once I get back.

“Don’t move, kid. This will hurt.”

The reassuring voice did nothing to soothe him as the sword ran across his palm, drawing a bright line of red blood. His father grasped his hand tight, letting the blood stain his palm. His father’s face was grim and determined despite its thinness. The dragon tattoo on his face was moving, twitching as though there was a snake living under his skin.

Then there was a rush of air and pain and his entire body felt as though it was on fire and he realized that he had fallen to his knees. He didn’t understand why this was happening. There was a voice in his head that wasn’t his own and he could smell something burning in the distance.

His father’s skin was turning gray before his eyes, fingers already pitch-black as if he had dipped them in ashes. Normally it took weeks for victims of the plague to show such advanced symptoms but it all seemed to be happening to his father at once, skin going dead, the whites of the eyes turning a sickly yellow with a red ring around the iris and still there was a smile on his face twisting like a knife—

—His mother’s knife, small, ceremonial, sticking into his father’s gut and then slicing apart his father’s throat, red blood raining down all over her small hands. She turned back to look at him, smiling crookedly, her skin too white but not gray, not black around the fingers. The plague had gotten his father at last, but it had never yet touched her. Tsukuyomi’s medallion hung loosely around her neck, stained red like a sacrifice.

She staggered towards him, coughing blood from her lips as she touched his face gently and said something he had never been able to remember over the blood pounding in his ears and the screaming in his head. She reached for him and held him close to her chest.

And then her knife plunged down into his back.

Kurogane did not wake with a scream. He never did, these days. There were only so many times one could have the same nightmare in a thousand years before it ceased to frighten. Not that it was, in fact, a nightmare. It was far too real to be a nightmare and besides he could feel the blood drying along his back. All told, this one had not been too bad, not compared to some of the others. Sometimes he had to kill his mother with his bare hands. Other times both mother and father held him down and placed it inside him, laughing as he screamed. Sometimes he didn’t see them at all, only fire and a destroyed town and corpses everywhere, riddled with plague and reaching out to him. Visions too real to be mere dreams, but too frenzied to be truth.

Such a delicious thought, the thing in his mind whispered, snickering. Burn it all down and watch them die again, while you lie helpless. It would be a relief to you, wouldn’t it?

“Shut up,” Kurogane said, the reaction as natural as breathing by now. It simply laughed at him and retreated into the back of his mind, a small spark of rage that would, as always, slowly worm its way into his mind until it eventually became a bonfire.

It had no name, but allowed him to call it Erebus. It was a demon, of that much he was sure, though he had never been able to find any concrete information on it in any text he had ever unearthed — and he had certainly looked, in that first hundred or so years before he resigned himself to his fate. It fed off rage and hate, constantly whispering words of destruction in his ears, making even the mildest of irritations into a desire for murder and blood.

And every night when the last light of the sun disappeared the demon would fight and claw its way out of his body, tearing through flesh, ripping organs as though they were tissue paper, shattering ribs and bones as it fought to escape the prison of his body. Every night Kurogane died and was consigned to the torturous depths of the underworld to dream of pain and horror, and every morning he awoke alive and whole with a demon still singing in his head. The cycle had gone on for hundreds of years now, ever since the day his father had placed the damned thing inside of him.

The first few hundred years he had cursed his fate, had tried desperately to find a way to save himself. He had gone to exorcists, priests, had traveled the world in search of a spell or ritual that could expel the demon from his body. He had cursed his fate, cursed the gods, cursed his father for betraying him this way. He had tried to kill himself in hundreds of ways, only to wake up every morning still alive and still possessed.

After nearly a thousand years the cursing and pain had given way to a sense of irritated, familiar boredom. There were only so many times one could be sent to hell and back before it took on the patina of routine. Kurogane remembered a priest he had met once back a century or two ago, who preached “the tortures of hell are infinite.” Having personally lived through thousands of them, Kurogane could only assume the priest had meant in length rather than scope. In practice, the tortures of hell got rather boring after the three thousandth nightly visit.

Kurogane stood stiffly, ignoring the sound of the demon laughing still in the back of his mind. The room was a mess, again, but that was why he rarely kept anything of value there anyway. Chains hung loosely from the wall, the locks broken, and Kurogane thought idly that he’d need to find something more complicated. Though he couldn’t stop the demon from tearing its way out of his body, he could hinder it in various ways. Locks were the easiest. The demon had strength beyond that of a normal human, strength which Kurogane himself could tap into if he so chose, but even it had difficulty with strong metal chains and it had no patience for locks. Kurogane had begun to get a bizarre sort of satisfaction by purchasing increasingly more complicated locks just to piss the demon off.

Even on the rare occasions when Erebus broke the locks it never went far. Kurogane’s room was the most secure in the entire building, which was saying something considering he lived in the darkest, most miserable prison on the entire continent.

He hadn’t intended this to be his home. Some fifty years ago some bastard in glasses had come to him in the middle of the slum where he was eking out a living using his unearthly strength for manual labor and hiding out nights in the forest, hoping Erebus would be sated by deer and rabbits, and had offered him a job.

“The choice is yours,” he had been told, but really there had been no choice. He was sick of living off rats and the remains of Erebus’s nightly feedings and of hiding out nights in abandoned buildings and empty fields, hoping that when he woke there wouldn’t be a corpse lying beside him. The Hole may have been dark and foreboding, but it was secure and offered three meals a day and the image of a respectable job.

It wasn’t called the Hole formally, of course, but that was what the prisoners called it and therefore what Kurogane had begun calling it as well. There were a handful of guards and none were there of their own choice — they were all the scraps of society, homeless men and bastard sons and exiles of foreign countries with nowhere else to go. They lived in the town at the foot of the hill with the prison looking down on them. As warden Kurogane alone remained living in the prison, surrounded only by the prisoners themselves — all of them murderers and rapists and the worst kind of scum, most of them half mad even before they arrived. The bars of their cells were enough to keep Erebus out should it ever manage to escape Kurogane’s room, but even so all were aware that any prisoner fool enough to attempt escape after dark would likely never be seen again. Not in one piece with all the flesh still on, anyway.

And wouldn’t they all deserve it? Erebus snickered. Its voice in his mind was like a reptile in the sun, coiling and uncoiling.

Not bothering to fix the mess he’d made of the room, Kurogane undid the multiple locks on the doors and stepped into his real room, the one where he kept everything of importance. Including his clothes, as he’d learned the hard way that there was no point in wearing decent clothes at sunset when they were just going to be rags by morning.

As he stepped into the room his eyes were drawn as always to the sword hanging on the wall. Like many of the things Kurogane owned, it was wrapped in chains and locked tight. Even as he stared at it Kurogane’s fingers itched to hold it again, to feel it in his grip. He mentally clamped down on the feeling and turned away. He couldn’t trust himself with Ginryuu, not anymore. The last time he’d held the sword….he didn’t even remember now, not really.

Ginryuu was a sword of protection in any case, and he had no business protecting anyone. Kurogane kept his gaze away from the wall as he retrieved his clothes and began dressing.

A sound from outside caught his attention and he turned to stare idly out the window. Through the bars — of course the window was barred, this was a prison and Kurogane was never completely sure if he was warden or prisoner here — he could see a black carriage making its way up the hill, passing through the barred gates of the prison.

If the guards had let the carriage through that could mean only one thing: a new prisoner. Kurogane scowled. He hadn’t been informed of any new prisoners arriving, and most of the cells were full at the moment. Some bureaucratic idiot must have sent this prisoner down, assuming Kurogane would make room without needing any warning.

The carriage door was barred and locked, but as Kurogane watched two men clothed in black jumped down from the driver’s seat and began to unlock the door. One waved to the guards standing outside the prison and they stepped forward to help as the first man slowly pulled away the last lock. A figure all but fell out of the door, all black ragged clothes and messy blond hair, covered in chains from head to toe, his arms locked behind his back and head down. As the guards began to drag him forward the man stirred just slightly and turned his head upwards.

Though Kurogane was certain there was no way he could be seen through the barred windows, he could swear the chained man had smiled at him.

“I won’t do it,” Kurogane growled, arms crossed. Erebus paced restlessly in the back of his mind, like a feral cat in a zoo trying to figure out how to break through the bars.

“We apologize for the sudden intrusion,” the man in front of his said in oily tones, bowing low. He was one of the two who had arrived with the new prisoner and already Kurogane had forgotten his name. The man had black hair, white skin, gray eyes and the most utterly forgettable face Kurogane had ever seen (which was saying something considering his current lifespan). “It was, how do you say, an emergency of sorts. The prisoner had to come here. None other could hold him.”

Kurogane snorted in disbelief. He’d only caught the briefest glimpse of the new prisoner as the guards had dragged him in and what he’d seen had been thin and pale, dragged down by the weight of chains.

“He’s mad, you see,” the man continued. “We couldn’t leave him with the other prisoners. And with the overcrowding…”

“I’m short on space here, too,” Kurogane said sharply.

“Understood, of course,” the man said, bowing again. There was something slimy about him that Kurogane didn’t like. Erebus was whispering into his ears about various decorative things that could be done with the man’s intestines. “But orders are orders. You understand.”

“I’m not taking in some madman criminal because you can’t figure out anywhere else to put him.”

“I would be happy to take him back, of course, but you see this was an order and I must do as I’m told,” the man continued, all falsely apologetic. The intestine decorations were sounding more appealing all the time. “You are aware, I imagine, that this prison is only one of a vast network that span the country. I was sent from the main prison in the capitol by the governor himself, in the belief that such a small, provincial prison as yours would be glad to have more inmates.”

“This is not just any prison,” Kurogane said derisively. “Your governor should know that.”

“Nonetheless, you will have to take up with my master if you wish to have the prisoner transferred. I would be happy to convey a message to him, if you so desire…”

“The hell you will,” Kurogane snapped. He sighed. “All right. For now, he stays here. But I want him out as soon as possible. I don’t care if you have to shut him in the damn governor’s closet, he can’t stay here forever. So what did he do, exactly? I don’t care how damn overcrowded the other prisons are, I’m not taking in some poor crazy bastard who just got caught stealing a purse from some rich politician or any crap like that. I told you, this isn’t that kind of prison.”

“All you need to know has been lined out in the report,” the man said. “My companion has given it to one of your subordinates. If you’ll excuse me, we must be going. We are to be back in the capitol by nightfall and there is far to go. Should you have any further questions, simply send a missive and we will respond as soon as we are able.” He gave Kurogane another oily bow as he backed out of the room. Kurogane watched him go with thinly veiled disgust as he went back to his desk, staring balefully at the pile of paperwork that had begun accumulating there.

“Sir?” He had barely begun digging through the pile when one of the guards carefully poked his head in. They all learned early that startling Kurogane was not a good idea if one wanted to keep one’s head atop one’s shoulders.

“What?” Kurogane snapped, irritable. He hadn’t expected being warden to involve so much damn paperwork and he sure as hell would have never taken this job if the spectacled bastard had told him he was going to be a glorified secretary.

“We have the prisoner secured, sir,” the guard said with a quick salute.

“Did you find a cell for him?”

“The men who brought him said he was not to mingle with the rest of the prisoners,” the guard reported. “We’ve placed him in solitary for now. It was all we could find.”

“Fine, fine,” Kurogane said. “I don’t care where the hell you put him, as long as he’s locked up.”

“The men who brought him have left,” the guard continued. “I’ve got the report they left with me here.” He handed Kurogane a small stack of papers before taking his leave.

Left alone with the report, Kurogane leaned back in his chair and gave it a quick perusal. The first page was singularly unhelpful, containing only the prisoner’s name and a signed note from the governor ordering his transfer. Kurogane turned to the next page, idly wondering what sort of crime this prisoner had committed, and then swore.

The second page was completely blank. Kurogane angrily turned to the next page but it too was simply an empty sheet of paper. The entire ‘report’ was nothing but scrap paper, save the first page.

“Damn amateurs,” Kurogane muttered. What sort of idiot couldn’t even write a report correctly? Now he’d have to send someone down to the transferring prison to get a proper report, which could take days. This was why he hated prisoner transfers. They were always, without question, a pain.

I could handle them for you, if you’d like, the demon sniggered, which only served to make Kurogane’s mood worse. He hated when the damn thing sniggered.

Unable to get any more information from the report, Kurogane stood and left his office. Very well. He could get the information from the stupid prisoner himself, then. He needed to check in on the new arrival anyway. After all, if the man made any sort of attempt to cause trouble and got himself eaten by Erebus at least no one could say that Kurogane hadn’t warned him.

The Hole was set up in such a way that Kurogane’s quarters and his office were on the second floor with the guards’ quarters, the kitchen and all other such areas on ground floor. The actual ‘prison’ part of the prison was built so that it was in fact underground, like an enormous cellar. Stone staircases led from the ground floor to the prisoners’ cells, with lamps all along the wall to keep the way lit. There were no windows and the air always felt stale and strangely thick the deeper one went down. The entire place smelled of rot and death and something beyond that, something deeper and older and fouler that only made Kurogane think of sick beds and burning homes.

Cells with thick iron bars lined either side of the wall, prisoners moving half-seen in the dark like snakes in an underground nest. Most of them either purposely ignored Kurogane as he passed or looked away. Others didn’t seem to be aware of his presence, muttering to themselves in the dark. One, a red-headed man Kurogane dimly recalled as being some sort of child murderer, even gave him a crooked smile and a thumbs up. The prisoner in the next cell looked up and grimaced, catching Kurogane’s eye as he made an obscene gesture in the warden’s direction.

Kurogane wasn’t even aware of moving then, wasn’t aware of anything but the sudden rage that boiled up within him, white-hot, overflowing like a pan of boiling water. Kurogane barely registered the man’s eyes going wide or the small squeak of fear the man gave as Kurogane slammed against the bars of the cell, metal beginning to bend slightly underneath his unnaturally strong grip. He was consumed by the heat of it, by the desire to make this man fear, to make him hurt, to kill…

—a thing that will always destroy never protect--

With a sudden, shuddering effort Kurogane pried his hands off the bars and moved away from the cell, doing his best to ignore the dents his hands had made in the bars and the frightened prisoner still staring at him in terror. The bars hadn’t broken, at least, and for that Kurogane was grateful. These men were scum but he still had no desire to murder one with his bare hands. That felt too much like letting Erebus win, and if there was anything Kurogane had grown to hate more and more over a thousand years it was letting the damn demon win.

The solitary confinement cell was behind a thick wooden door at the end of the hall. Kurogane pulled his keys off his belt and unlocked the door, taking a lamp off the wall as he stepped inside.

Kurogane heard the prisoner before he saw him. The man was sitting cross-legged in the corner of his cell, singing in a high, strangely tuneless voice.

“Ring-around-a rosie, pocket full of posies.” As he sang he rocked back and forth. “Ashes, ashes.”

“We don’t sing songs about plague in a place like this,” Kurogane said darkly. The man paused for only a moment’s breath and continued.

“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

“I said, shut up!” Kurogane growled. The man paused and finally turned to look at him.

He was indeed as tall and thin as Kurogane had thought he was in that first brief glimpse. Blond hair hung limply around his shoulders, contrasting sharply with the tattered black cloak he wore. His feet were bare and there was a crooked smile on his face. He stared at Kurogane out of mismatched eyes: the right eye sky blue and the left a glittering gold. His arms were still pinned behind his back and bound in iron chains, but he moved as easily as if they were no more than strips of paper.

“You don’t have to shout, Mister Black,” the prisoner said in a curious, sing-song voice. “It’s mean. You’ll scare me.”

“Do you know where you are?” Kurogane said, ignoring the comment.

“I don’t even get a ‘hello’?” the man said, giving Kurogane a look of long-suffering. “You’re so mean, Mister Black. You shouldn’t be nasty to your guests. Come on, smile!”

“My name’s not “Mister Black,’” Kurogane snapped. “It’s ‘Kurogane.’ You can call me warden.”

“Kuro-tan, huh?” The man rocked back and forth again, head bobbing curiously like a sparrow. “Kuro-pon? Kuro-rin?”

“Kurogane.” Kurogane glanced down at the single usable page of the report he had, scanning for the prisoner’s name.

“You can call me Fai,” the prisoner supplied helpfully. “It’s not good to read in low light, Kuro-warden. You’ll strain your eyes.”

“I didn’t ask you,” Kurogane said.

“But you should have,” Fai said pleasantly. “You’ll never find out anything if you don’t learn how to ask politely, Kuro-pi.”

“Kurogane, for the last time.” Kurogane glared down at him and was met with a steady gaze. He had been told the man was mad, but Fai’s eyes were bright and sharp and Kurogane couldn’t quite believe it. Stupid, maybe. Annoying, certainly. But not mad. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Do you?” Fai cocked his head for a moment as if listening to something only he could hear and then laughed. “Kuro-rin is the oldest prisoner here, right?”

“I’m on this side of the bars,” Kurogane muttered.

“Like a puppy in a kennel,” Fai continued. “Hey, do the guards have to take you out for walks, Kuro-puppy?”

“Shut up!” Kurogane paused for a moment and silently reminded himself that hitting prisoners was frowned upon, even if it would be incredibly satisfying.

“You say that a lot,” Fai said, undaunted. He began rocking back and forth again, shaking his head like a wet dog. “You should be more friendly to people.”

“Whatever,” Kurogane growled, giving it up. “You’re not going to be here long anyway. Just stay here and be quiet and there won’t be any trouble.”

“You’re going to send me away?” Fai’s lip quivered dramatically. “But we’ve only just met! I thought we had something special.”

“This isn’t a prison where they send just anyone,” Kurogane stated. “This isn’t a place for the likes of you.”

“But you don’t even know what I’ve done.” Fai’s voice was light as ever, but there was a distinct shadow behind it. Kurogane snorted.

“Annoyed your previous wardens to death?”

“Maybe,” Fai said with another laugh, flopping over onto his side like a landed fish. “Hey, Kuro-sama, do me a favor? My hands hurt. Take these off?” He wiggled his fingers in Kurogane’s direction, chains jangling with the movement.

“The guards should have taken those off before tossing you in there,” Kurogane said irritably. “And why the hell are you still wearing those weird clothes? The prisoners are given clothes.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Fai said conversationally, rolling from side to side as he spoke. “Maybe Kuro-pon should fire some people.”

“If I wasn’t short enough on guards as it is,” Kurogane muttered as he fiddled with the keys on his belt. The manacles around Fai’s wrists were definitely from his prison, which begged the question of why they had unchained him only to put the shackles back on before putting him in the cell. He found the right key and took a step towards the cell. “Move where I can reach you. Any funny moves and you’ll be wearing those all night, understand?”

“You don’t trust me?” Fai made an exaggerated whimper. “Meanie. Maybe I don’t want you to take these off after all.”

“Then I’ll leave,” Kurogane said. Fai rolled back over to face him, eyes wide and full of fake sadness.

“Mean,” he pouted. “That’s why they don’t let you out at night, Kuro-rin.”

“Who told you that?” Kurogane said sharply.

“Someone said something,” Fai said in an offhand tone. “I don’t remember who. I was being dragged along in the chains and they said it. I assumed Kuro-warden must have been a very bad boy and had his dinner taken away and bedtime moved up.”

“No one is allowed out of this place at night,” Kurogane stated. “Keep that in mind if you ever get any damn fool idea of escape in your head, understand? Not in my prison.”

“Escape?” Fai looked scandalized. “Never, Kuro-pin. Would never cross my mind.”

“What mind?” Kurogane muttered as he reached through the bars.

Fai moved so that Kurogane could reach the manacles around his wrists. The metal felt cool and solid underneath his fingers. Fai’s fingers twitched but he didn’t move in the slightest as Kurogane turned the key in the lock and the chains fell open. Fai’s wrists beneath the manacles were raw and red and far too thin, but he moved without any outward show of pain. He stretched one arm upwards as the other went momentarily to his ear and he winced just slightly in a way Kurogane wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been pressed up so close against the bars. After a moment Fai turned his head and gave Kurogane a smile full of false sunshine.

“Ah, so much better!” Fai stretched out his arms again, thin fingers splayed wide above his head. “Kuro-rin’s not such a meanie after all.”

“Whatever,” Kurogane muttered darkly, stepping away from the cell. “I’m leaving now. Behave and you won’t see me again.”

“Really?” Fai leaned up against the bars, reaching one hand through and just barely managing to touch Kurogane’s wrist with one finger. “Maybe I’ll have to cause trouble again.”

“You’ll regret it if you do,” Kurogane said darkly, stepping away from him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Fai giving him a jaunty wave as he exited the room. As the door swung close he could hear Fai’s voice beginning to sing again.

“Ring-around-a rosie—”

Kurogane strode back through the hall of cells, ignoring the prisoners completely as he walked. He knew this would be a problem. No prisoner transfer had ever gone easily. And there had clearly been some mistake somewhere because there was no way such an idiot could have done the kind of crime necessary to get locked in this pit. Thinking back on his conversation with Fai, Kurogane couldn’t help but grimace. That had been one of the singularly most annoying experiences of his life. He supposed he should be thankful that the moron was in solitary right now, as it decreased the likelihood of Kurogane ever having to deal with him again.

As Kurogane began to ascend the stairs back towards his own quarters a thought struck him, and the weight of it caused him to stop still in his tracks.

His conversation with Fai had been by turns confusing, irritating and an all-around bother. The thought of reaching through the bars and smacking the idiot across the head had come to him more than once. And that thought had been all his own.

During the entire time Kurogane had been speaking to Fai, Erebus had been completely and utterly silent.

The sight laid before him was different this time. He was used to this, to flames and screaming and pandemonium all around him, but this was not his village. This place was colder and surrounded by stone buildings and rocky landscape. The people looked different too, even with their faces contorted in pain and their bodies falling apart, wracked by the plague.

The plague was the same. Kurogane would never forget the sight of it, beginning with ash-black fingers and working its way through the rest body, destroying as it went. It was no natural plague, he knew that now. It changed humans into something else, something not quite human, twisted their features and their emotions, turned them into nothing more than pain-crazed monsters shambling ever forward, not caring what was in their path.

The village was burning, but it was not his village. Kurogane was a child again as he stumbled blindly through it, the screams of the injured and dying burning his ears. He remembered screams like these, would never forget them even if he hadn’t spent night upon night being forced to listen to them again. Bodies were piled up everywhere, most torn completely apart, a mess of organs and skin and sharp white bone. Somewhere a baby was crying.

Kurogane walked forward because he did not know what else to do. In a thousand years of deaths, he had never seen this village. A woman dressed in rags darted out from some dark corner, running towards the outskirts of the village, and Kurogane could only watch, numb, as the plague victims converged on her and pulled her down, their hands ripping through her skin with inhuman strength. He felt something in his hands and looked down to see Ginryuu there.

He clasped the sword tight and glanced over at where the woman was still screaming, but his legs wouldn’t move. He could only stand there, ever useless, as they tore her apart.

Why show me this? His thoughts came with abnormal clarity. Why show me this place I’ve never been, these people I can’t help? What good is a sword in my hands anyway?

A high-pitched shriek from behind him made him turn. Something ran by him and the sword was snatched from his arms. A figure all in black fell upon the infected humans, taking off their heads in a single sword strike. The woman’s body fell limply to the ground along with the remains of her attackers. The figure in black did not stop even to look at her, moving swiftly towards where more infected stood. They all screamed as the black figure cut them down, the sounds high and inhuman, mingling with the pained shrieks of the humans still living.

It seemed to go on forever and somehow Kurogane could see it all, even though he was rooted to a single spot. Sprays upon spray of infected black blood splashing upon the stones, mingling with the red of those still human, corpses everywhere lying in piles like abandoned dolls.

There was no one left then but Kurogane and the person in black. The figure lowered his hands and Kurogane could see that they were caked with blood. A pause and a shuddering breath that seemed to shake the figure’s entire body as its hands tightened along Ginryuu’s hilt and it approached the frozen Kurogane.

His entire body screamed to fight back but still he couldn’t move. The figure raised the sword above its head and it cloak fell backwards, moonlight illuminating blond hair and a pair of mismatched eyes shining with unshed tears.

The sword sliced through Kurogane’s stomach and everything was pain.

Kurogane’s eyes flashed open. Instinctively he moved to press a hand against his stomach and was stopped by the chains still wrapped around his right wrist. Blearily he felt around for the key he’d hidden under the overturned mattress, rational thought slowly coming back to his mind.

It was a damned stupid torture, he decided as he irritably unlocked the one still intact chain and ran a hand gingerly along his stomach. There was indeed a scar there and it would be there all day. It stung when he moved.

A damned stupid torture. Kurogane was used to dreams of the day his village was razed, was used to visions of the day his father infected him with this curse before being swallowed by the thing they had called the shadow plague. Used to visions of his mother plunging a sword into his father’s chest and dying with blood on her lips and a hand on his cheek. All these things he had seen a thousand times and in a thousand different ways, sometimes the events as they had happened and more often than not worse, visions where his mother turned on him, where the plague victims ate him alive, where his father threw him into the fire as a sacrifice to the demon that now shared his body. But never before could he remember being shown something like this, a place he had no connection to and a death from a person he had only barely met.

Kurogane stood with only a slight wince, running his hands along the scar. Even worse than the wounds on his back from the night before, the ones that had now healed without a trace. He supposed it could have been worse - he had spent days before with his body covered in scabbed-over burn sores, after all, or days with his mouth burning from a sliced tongue — but still, it was all in all not an auspicious start to the day.

He had only just gotten dressed when there came a tentative knock at the door. Kurogane cursed and felt a spike of high, sharp anger hum through his bones kill him for this who interrupts me this early, break him make him bleed teach him a lesson and the sight of Ginryuu in chains on the wall as passed was enough to make him pause and collect himself before unbarring and opening the door.

A guard was standing there, looking nervous. Kurogane crossed his arms irritably and did his best to block out the rage that was building quietly beneath him.

“What?” His tone was a sharp clear warning and the guard took a half step backwards.

“Sir…” The guard paused, seeming to gather himself. “The new prisoner, sir…”

“What about him?” Kurogane muttered, even more annoyed than before. The stupid new prisoner. As far as Kurogane was concerned, he’d be perfectly happy if he never had to bother with Fai again, Erebus’s uncharacteristic silence be damned.

“Someone needs to feed him.” The words were said all in a rush so that all Kurogane heard at first was ‘summuneedim.’ Noting Kurogane’s face, the guard repeated his words.

“So? That’s not my job.”

“It’s just…” The guard took another deep breath. “I won’t do it, sir. He’s—he’s not like the other prisoners. I can’t go back in that cell.”

“Why the fuck not?” Kurogane snapped kill him for such insolence you know you can. His fist punched against the wall and the guard winced visibly, noting the crack that appeared in the stones. “That’s what you guards are here to do. You’re telling me that all the damn guards who have been feeding and dealing with the rapists and murderers and who the fuck knows what other kind of scum we’ve got in here are suddenly pissing themselves over delivering food to one single idiot prisoner who probably shouldn’t even be here?”

The guard took another step back and Kurogane suddenly noted that the man was actually shaking. Part of him wondered if he truly looked that frightening and the other part didn’t give a crap if he did.

“There’s something wrong with that man!” the guard said in pleading tones, voice raw. “We can all feel it. There’s—there’s something—whenever anyone goes in there--”

“Then send someone else to do it, if you’re so damn afraid of that idiot,” Kurogane said darkly. “Stop wasting my time.”

“No one will go in, sir,” the guard said, taking another step back. “We all feel it. You can’t even step a foot in that room without feeling it.”

“Then who the hell fed him last night?” The guard’s silence was all the answer Kurogane needed. He gave an irritated sigh and did his best to keep the sudden urge to snap the man’s neck under control. He couldn’t have this conversation any more. Any more and he really would—

“All right.” Kurogane made a dismissive motion. “I’ll take the idiot his breakfast, Get the hell out of my sight.”

The guard gave a nervous stutter of gratitude and a hasty bow before hurrying away. Kurogane watched him go with thinly veiled disgust.

You could have simply killed him for that, Erebus purred in his ears.

“Shut up,” Kurogane snapped, long past caring if anyone heard him talking to it. He paused. “But you will, won’t you? You didn’t say anything to me when I was talking to that prisoner.”

The demon was silent again and Kurogane felt a spike of anger so great it made him wince momentarily. He pressed one hand against the wall and waited until the feeling had passed.

He had tried to ask the night before too, to no avail. Whatever had made the demon go quiet in his mind, Erebus had no plans to share it.

After a brief stop in the kitchen Kurogane found himself once more descending into the depths of the prison. As he passed the main line of cells his eyes were drawn to the twisted grooves in the iron bars of the one cell, the ones he had made the day before. The prisoner inside that cell was huddled in a dark corner, arms wrapped around himself, and he did not look up as Kurogane passed.

Irritably Kurogane pulled the keys from his belt and unlocked the wooden door, stepping into the room where the solitary cell was.

“All right idiot, I don’t know what the hell you did to frighten off the rest of the damn guards but--” Kurogane’s words were cut short as he took stock of the sight in front of him.

Someone had at least managed to get into the room to bring Fai some of the gray prisoner’s garments, but the clothes had not been worn. Instead Fai had torn them all into long strips which he had wound all about the bars of his cell. More were wrapped tightly around his wrists, waving in the air as he made strange patterns in the air with his hands. Fai was sitting in the far corner of the cell again, but this time he was not singing and didn’t even seem to realize that Kurogane had walked in.

“Idiot. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Kurogane set the food down and stepped close to the bars, trying to get Fai’s attention. “Hey! I asked you--”

Quicker than Kurogane’s eyes could follow, Fai moved. The blond’s hands darted through the space between the bars, grabbing tightly onto Kurogane’s wrists. His golden eye seemed to be almost glowing and there was a strange light shining in his face. His smile was a thin crooked line.

“The hell are you--” Kurogane tried to pull away but Fai had him caught and held, like an owl staring down a mouse. All of Kurogane’s supernatural strength didn’t seem to be enough to break that hold.

“’Hell?’” Fai repeated, and his words were strange and slurred, as if he was speaking through a thick blanket. “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

His eyes glittered as he spoke and Kurogane was struck with the sudden, undeniable thought: he knew. Fai knew what was inside of him, what happened every night.

With a burst of strength Kurogane pulled his hand away, stepping back out of Fai’s reach without even realizing it. Fai lowered his hands to his sides and slowly walked from one end of the cell to the other, his head tilted just slightly and a broken tree smile on his face, like a cat eying its prey.

“What the hell are you?” Kurogane asked.

“We’re all mad here.” Fai raised an arm and stared curiously at the scraps twisted around it as he quoted the words, smile widening with every word. “I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“Or else I wouldn’t have come here,” Kurogane finished, unimpressed. “What kind of game are you playing?”

Fai’s golden eye slid over to stare at him but he did not move his head.

“We be of one blood, ye and I,” he murmured. A laugh tore itself from his throat and he fell back against the wall, one hand reaching up to clutch at his ear. As he did so Kurogane noticed for the first time that there were scratch marks along the other man’s face and blood in his hair. Fai started to laugh quietly as he tore lightly at his ear, moving backwards until his back was against the wall. There was blood on his fingertips.

“Stop it!” Kurogane spoke without even realizing. Fai didn’t seem to be listening, still laughing to himself as he tore idly at his own ears.

“Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay.” Fai rolled onto his back, staring at the back of his hands. He rolled his head to stare at Kurogane again and the gaze seemed to cut straight through him. “The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

Blood was pounding Kurogane’s ears and he almost didn’t realize that he had begun to back towards the door. He paused, consciously stopping himself from moving any further. He’d be damned if he acted afraid of Fai, of all people. He lived in a place filled with vicious criminals and had a monster inside his head, one skinny smiling idiot should not be enough to faze him madness or no madness. Fai had begun humming to himself as he scratched distractedly at his bleeding ear, slowly unwinding the cloth strips from around his wrists.

“You know, right?” Kurogane said evenly. Fai continued humming. “Answer me, you bastard!”

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads,” Fai murmured, no longer looking at him as if Kurogane was suddenly beneath his notice, “to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” He laughed quietly to himself again and suddenly began gathering up all the scraps he had taken from his hands. “ And all my days are trances and all my nightly dreams…” The laughter rose steadily and Fai didn’t seem aware of him at all anymore, didn’t seem aware of anything but himself and the scraps of clothing wrapped around him.

Kurogane stared at him for a long moment before finally pushing the plate of food at him irritably and sweeping out of the room. He clearly was not going to be getting any answers here.

Why don’t you talk when he’s there? Kurogane quietly demanded of the demon inside his head as he stalked through the prison, ignoring the prisoners scurrying in the dark and the guards slinking worriedly by, clearly aware that the warden was not in the mood to be bothered. You never fucking shut up when I want you to, all day long, and then when I’m talking to the crazy idiot in the cell you don’t say a word. Erebus was silent but Kurogane could feel his presence still, lurking on the edge of his mind, malevolent and dangerous as always. Answer me, damn it! Someone is going to answer me.

Ask him, then, the demon said, its tone edged in knives. You are my servant, human. Not the other way around.

Kurogane stormed into his room, slamming the door hard behind him and cursing the demon, the idiot, himself and anyone else he felt like cursing. This day was not starting out well.

He was attacking a pile of paperwork late in the afternoon when one of the guards timidly poked his head in and reminded him that the prisoners were being fed and once more no one would enter Fai’s cell. Kurogane’s immediate reaction was ‘Let him starve’ but Erebus had been particularly bothersome in the last several hours and even spending time with the crazy idiot seemed worth it for the few moments of mental silence it would bring.

Besides, this time he might actually be able to get some answers.

As he made his way down the stairs to the basement prison Kurogane noted that there was a strange thickness to the air. The prisoners he passed seemed almost lethargic, staring out at him with hollow eyes like lamps in the darkness. Kurogane darkly wondered if there was some sickness spreading below. That was just the thing he didn’t need, an outbreak of infection on top of everything else.

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting when he walked into the room. The first time he’d spoken with Fai the idiot had been, well, an idiot, but one clearly in full possession of his own mind. The second time Kurogane didn’t even know what the man had been doing, full of laughter and quotes and strangely sharp insight held underneath it all. He couldn’t help but wonder if the ‘madness’ had been all an act designed to deflect his questions, but somehow he couldn’t believe that. Fai was definitely hiding something from him, Kurogane was certain of that, but there had still been something genuine in Fai’s previous behavior.

Fai seemed to almost be waiting for him this time, sitting calmly beside his cell door with his hands folded in his lap like an obedient child. There were still a few stray straps of cloth wrapped around his wrists and Kurogane could see the angry red scratches by his ears. Now that he looked closer he noted that those were not all new — Fai’s ears were covered in thin red lines of various age, most barely-healed.

“Morning, Kuro-tan!” Fai trilled happily as he stepped inside. “Or afternoon. Or evening. I don’t really know, since Kuro-rin doesn’t let me have a window or a clock.”

“Evening,” Kurogane said shortly. “I was already here in the morning, remember?”

Fai cocked his head curiously.

“Were you?” There was a thin smile on his face and Kurogane couldn’t tell for certain if the question was genuine or not.

“Why did you do that to your ears?”

“Hmm?” Fai’s smile dropped for just a moment as he stared up at Kurogane in surprise.

“You were scratching at them before,” Kurogane said. “Why?”

“Ah, that.” Fai half-raised a hand to touch one ear and then lowered it, a gesture that seemed to almost have the sense of habit to it. “I told you already, Kuro-warden. I’m mad.”

“So I hear.” Kurogane crossed his arms, unamused.

“I hear things,” Fai said, as casually as if he were telling the time. “Voices. All the time, I hear them.” He touched a finger to one of the angry red scratches on his ears. “Sometimes I can’t stand it anymore and I just want to make them be quiet. But it never works.” The smile was slowly dimming and Fai’s voice had taken on a low, dreamy quality, as if he was a man talking in his sleep. “When I still used to try to sleep, they would keep screaming and wouldn’t let me rest. I can barely hear my own thoughts sometimes, when they speak to me. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember….years and years and I don’t even know their names anymore…” He gave a sudden hard shudder, like a dog shaking off raindrops, and then the smile was back in place. “And now you’re looking at me funny, Kuro-pon. You think I’m crazy now, right?”

“I thought you were crazy before,” Kurogane snorted.

“Mean,” Fai pouted, looking away. “I won’t talk to you anymore if you keep being mean, Kuro-sama.”

“Fine by me,” Kurogane stated, all but throwing the food towards the cell. “There’s your dinner. You’re not getting anything else today so eat it and don’t play with it. Next time I come down I’m bringing you a prisoner’s uniform which you will wear and not destroy and then you are going to stop doing whatever the hell it is you keep doing that’s scaring off the guards from dealing with you. I’m not going to be your babysitter forever. I’ve got better things to do.”

Fai didn’t answer him, continuing to pout.

“I’ll take that to mean you understand.” Kurogane turned to leave.

“You shouldn’t be so cranky all the time, Kuro-warden,” Fai trilled. “After all, you hear them too.”

Kurogane whirled. Fai was standing against the bars, staring at him with an impenetrable smile.

“What the hell does that mean?” Kurogane said in low tones.

“You hear a voice, too, don’t you?” Fai said. His eyes were ringed in shadows. “Something else that speaks in your head and doesn’t let you think.”

“What the hell are you?” In a flash Kurogane was back up against the cell, reaching through the bars to grab Fai by the collar. Fai continued to smile calmly at him, unaffected.

“We be one of blood, ye and I,” he murmured. Somehow he managed to pull back away from Kurogane’s grip even though Kurogane was certain that the other man had been held tight. Fai pressed himself up against the back of the cell, hands behind his back. Both eyes seemed to glow in the shadows. “Hey, Kuro-rin, I’ve been wondering something. Is there a door here you’ve never been able to open? A cellar, maybe, one that even you can’t pull open no matter how hard you try?”

Kurogane opened his mouth to give an angry reply, then stopped as memory struck him. There was one door he had never been able to open, deep in the heart of the prison. It was an old wooden thing he’d assumed led to a long-defunct cellar and even all his demon-cursed strength had not been able to budge it an inch.

“You should keep that in mind,” Fai said with a small laugh. “That’s what we’ve come for.” He paused as the sudden sound of commotion came from outside the door. “Ah, there it is! You’d better go, Kuro-tan. They need your leader skills outside.”

Kurogane was about to tell him to shut up and stop giving him orders when he heard the unmistakable sound of a guard frantically calling his name. He shot Fai a burning glare and was answered by a breezy smile and an innocent shrug.

“This isn’t over, idiot,” Kurogane snapped. “You know something, and you’re going to tell me what it is.” With a last curse Kurogane turned away from the cell and exited the room.

“What the hell is the problem now?” Kurogane strode angrily down the corridor, ignoring the prisoners who were clustered near the bars of their cells, still watching him with eyes like moons in the dark. A guard was standing in front of one of the cells, waving wildly at him.

“I-I’m sorry, sir,” the guard stammered, taking a step back. “B-but this is important. I thought you should see…” He nodded fearfully towards the cell at his right. Kurogane immediately recognized the slightly twisted bars of the cell as belonging to the prisoner he had nearly killed the day before.

The prisoner was still there, hands pressed up against the crooked iron bars. His eyes were glazed and tinged with yellow, and he was breathing in short, rapid gasps.

His hands were dyed an unmistakable black.


It was a constant fear in a place like The Hole, with its close quarters and poor ventilation. A single infected prisoner and it would be easy for death to spread like wildfire throughout the prison, infecting guards and prisoners alike.

Kurogane cursed as he punched uselessly at his desk, ignoring the way the wood broke under his fist, splinters digging into his skin. He stared down at the letter he was writing and cursed again. Sending for aid was an obvious course of action, but what sort of aid and how quickly he could get it, whether he would get it at all…that was the problem. He had tried to be as vague as possible while not underplaying the danger, but there was no guarantee that anyone would listen to his words. Even leaving aside the fact that those in power would likely be happy enough to let the prison become a plague pit so they’d have an excuse to set fire to the whole place, there was the matter of the plague itself. Few people believed that the shadow plague even existed, and fewer still had seen its effects.

Kurogane was one of those few, and he would never forget it. It crept up slowly on its victims, turning the tips of their fingers black. Soon the whole hand would be infected, and then the infection would spread through the body, turning the eyes yellow, the skin pale and rotten, destroying eyes and lungs and bones, twisting the personality until there was nothing left but a deranged husk that might have once been human. The infected person would feed on anything it was able to get its hands on, human or non, alive or not. Destruction always followed in its path.

--His father, hands spreading deep and dark and black and a smile spreading across his face as all trace of humanity left it—

Kurogane gave a heavy sigh and ran a hand through his hair distractedly. They had isolated the infected prisoner as best they could, but space was limited. The best course of action would have been to place the victim in solitary but to do that he would have to move Fai elsewhere and there was nowhere else to put him. Already two other prisoners were showing symptoms. All had been quarantined in a single line of cells on the far end of the corridor, the prisoners from that corner doubled and tripled up in other cells. It wasn’t the wisest course of action and Kurogane had no doubt that even some of the healthy prisoners would be killing each other over minor squabbles before this thing was over, but it was better than the alternative. As for the guards, those not on duty when the infected prisoner was discovered had been sent notices to remain away from the prison until further notice and to contact authorities immediately if they showed any signs of illness. If nothing else Kurogane could at least keep the plague confined to just the prison. The door to the prison had been locked for now, and Kurogane himself had the only key.

There was no need to worry about infection himself. Nearly a thousand souls, and only two had remained uninfected until the very end.

If it was something the demon did, Kurogane didn’t know. Nor did he want to. There was nothing that would make him want to feel in any way indebted to the monster that ate at his insides all day long and condemned him every night.

As for that, the sun would be setting soon. Kurogane shakily pushed the letter away and stood, leaving the room and heading towards his own quarters. The letter would have to wait. When had it gotten so dark outside? He didn’t even remember eating his own dinner.

He had just unlocked the door to his quarters and was unbuttoning his shirt when the sounds of a disturbance from outside the door caught his attention. A voice that sounded like one of the guards was yelling his name. Kurogane’s gaze was drawn immediately to the window. The sky had darkened considerably and he was already starting to feel sore, as if he had a whole body cramp. He didn’t have much time and he couldn’t risk letting Erebus escape the room, not today. In order to be sure that there was no chance of the plague spreading to the town he’d been forced to have all guards currently in the prison remain there for the time being, rather then sending them home at night as he normally did. Even with the main prison door locked, if the demon escaped tonight it would be more than just prisoners who died.

The voice called for him again and Kurogane cursed as a spike of pain coursed along his spine like an electric shock. He didn’t have time for this.

Kurogane stormed out of his quarters, leaving the door ajar behind him as he stepped out into the hallway. The prison was suddenly eerily quiet all around him, somehow feeling hollower and less alive than it ever had before, though he had spent countless nights here alone. There was a strange sense of dread creeping up on him as he turned a corner.

“Sir!” The voice rang sharply in his ears as he moved forward. “Sir, the prisoners—!”

There were two guards standing in front of him in the hall, blocking the way with their bodies, their backs to him. A third was lying on the ground just beyond them, clutching at a heavily-bleeding arm. And in front of the guards, barely held back, were the three infected prisoners.

Erebus was laughing, and Kurogane cursed it all.

“Damn it!” Kurogane crossed the distance in the space of a second, wishing he had his sword and knowing he could never have stopped himself from killing both guards and prisoners if he had. “How did they escape?”

“We don’t know, sir!” the wounded guard called weakly. “They’ve just--” He cut off with a moan, doubling over as he clutched at his injured arm. Even in the darkness of the hallway, Kurogane could see a black stain beginning to spread across the guard’s fingertips.

One of the other guards cried out suddenly and collapsed as one of the infected sunk its teeth into the man’s neck. Their hands had gone completely black by now and their skin was a sickly gray, hanging off their arms in ragged patches, revealing muscle and bone underneath.

“Sir! What do we do?” The remaining guard took a step back as the three prisoners slowly began to shamble forward, stepping over the newly injured guard as if he wasn’t even there. The guard with the wounded arm was beginning to convulse wildly, choking noises tearing themselves from his throat.

“Don’t let them bite you,” Kurogane ordered. “Get away from them, I’ll--”

You’ll do what, little human? Erebus’s laughter tore through him like a gunshot wound and Kurogane nearly doubled over from the sudden pain. There was no time. No time.

“Sir!” The uninfected guard had gone beyond frantic and was reaching terrified. Kurogane couldn’t even look at him, pain digging through his body like the claws of a beast.

“You have to kill them, I don’t care how,” Kurogane managed to choke out the words. Without even a second look he turned and half-ran, half-stumbled back towards his room. Halfway there he collapsed, legs falling out from under him, chest slamming hard against the cold stone floor.

Soon, soon, Erebus chanted in his head. Soon everyone here will be my meal.

“Shut…up…” Kurogane choked out, forcing himself to his feet. A line of blood was beginning to run down his chest and he could feel the thing moving under his skin. It felt like it was tearing his insides apart.

He fell against the door to his room, pulling it open so violently he was almost surprised it didn’t fall off its hinges. He slammed the door hard behind him, locking and barring it with trembling hands as pain coursed up and down his body. He could see the last vestiges of sun disappearing through the window as he stumbled towards where the chains hung on the wall.

There was no time, no time. His hands fumbled for the keys and he fell back down onto his knees, hands pressed against his chest as if he could hold the demon in. Somewhere in the distance he could hear someone screaming but the sound was drowned out by the screaming in his ears.

A soft gasp somehow managed to make itself heard over the roar and Kurogane’s head shot up.

Fai stood there in the corner of the room, staring down at him.

“What are--you idiot, what--” Kurogane forced the words out past the pain tearing through him. “You’ve got to--”

It was too late. The last of the light was gone and Kurogane couldn’t hold back the scream as he felt claws, iron-hot and razor sharp, tearing through muscle tissue and organs, severing lungs, crushing ribs, tearing him open…

The last thing Kurogane saw before the red haze swallowed him were Fai’s wide mismatched eyes staring down at him.


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August 2014

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