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[personal profile] caffeine_buzz
Title: Under
Rating: R
Warnings: Still kinda gorey.
Previous Parts: 1
Notes: Part two! Glad people liked the first part of this, I really wasn't too sure about it. Meant to post this sooner, caught a cold, got lazy. This'll probably end up being 4-5 parts all together, depending on how long I feel like making each part.

Fai died a thousand times in front of him that night.

Each time the manner was different but the end result always the same. It was always the demon or Kurogane, one or the other ripping him apart. Sometimes Kurogane could only sit there unable to move as the demon took its time taking Fai apart, tearing off limbs and pulling out organs while the still-living man writhed in pain beneath him. Other times Ginryuu was in Kurogane’s hands again and he used it to stab Fai over and over again before storming out of the room and massacring everyone in the prison, prisoners and guards alike. There were moments when Kurogane wasn’t even certain who was in charge of his body, uncertain whether it was the demon or himself who slaughtered Fai over and over again without a moment’s hesitation. Through it all Ginryuu was still held tight in his hands.

That sword cannot save anyone. You cannot save anyone.

For the first time in many long nights Kurogane awoke with not quite a scream, but certainly a gasp. His entire body was sore, covered in a variety of healing cuts and scabs. He sat up slowly, leaning against the wall as he stared at the carnage that surrounded him. The meager furniture in the room had been utterly destroyed, lying in splinters on the floor. His clothes were all in tatters and a small dazed part of Kurogane’s mind thought irritably that those had been his best pants.

Memory returned all in a rush and he pulled himself to his feet abruptly. Immediately he felt dizzy and had to lean on the wall momentarily for support as his eyes swept around the room, searching for the sight he had no desire to see but knew instinctively must be there: Fai’s mangled body.

A quiet sound that might have been a laugh and might have been a sob caught his attention and Kurogane stared, uncomprehending. Fai was curled in the corner of the room, arms wrapped around himself as he rocked slowly back and forth, muttering to himself in some language Kurogane didn’t quite recognize. Other than the ever-present scratches on his ears, he was completely unharmed.

“What the…?” Kurogane breathed. He felt Erebus stir in his mind and was dimly aware that the demon was quite annoyed, yet it still remained stubbornly silent. Kurogane took a shaky step towards Fai before glancing towards the door. It was still locked and barred as it had been the night before, though there were deep cuts like claw marks in the thick wood. Kurogane looked back towards Fai, who was in a world of his own and seemed barely aware that Kurogane was even there. Kurogane turned away from him and reached for the door.

“Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?” Fai slowly uncurled himself and stared at Kurogane, head hanging sideways as if dangling from a hinge. He stepped forward, moving jerkily like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and ran one hand over the locked door. “The house reeks of death and dripping blood.”

“What the hell is going on?” Kurogane’s voice sounded shaky in his own ears and it only made him angrier.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Fai fell back against the far wall, scratching at his ear and laughing. He extended one bloodied hand towards Kurogane as if inviting him to step forward. Kurogane gave him one last, dark look and then carefully undid the lock and peered out into the dark hallway.

Immediately his senses were assaulted by the smell of blood. It was everywhere, the stench so thick it was like a presence. Kurogane took half a step into the hall and paused, staring into the gloom. In the silence he could hear the sound of someone— or something — moaning softly. Kurogane took another step, wondering if he should risk a lamp.

Something moved in the distance and Kurogane backed into the shadows as he saw it. It was one of the prisoners, the red-haired child murderer. The last Kurogane had seen him he had been still healthy, cramped in his cell with one of the displaced prisoners. Now he was nothing but a shambling ghost of himself, hands all black, fingernails rotting off, hair lank and matted with blood. His mouth hung open loosely and his eyes were glazed and sightless.

Kurogane backed into his room, careful to make as little noise as possible as he shut the door and barred it once more. His hands clenched tightly into fists. While he had been incapacitated by the demon, plague had clearly spread throughout the prison. He had no doubt that the few uninfected were already dead. It was not unlikely that he and Fai were the only two healthy people still alive in the entire prison.

Kurogane glanced back over at Fai, who had not moved from the corner of the room. Fai was still in the middle of the strange fit or whatever the hell it was, staring at Kurogane with eerie calm as the blond clawed at his own ears, so there would be no help from that quarter for now. With nothing else to do, Kurogane unlocked the inner door that led to his private chambers. He needed to get dressed, at least. As he began to dig out some new clothes he found his gaze drawn once again to Ginryuu hanging on the wall.

A sword in your hands can only kill.

In disgust Kurogane turned away. He pulled on the rest of his clothes and returned to the room where he had left Fai.

Fai had finally moved from the corner and was sitting by the long-unused fireplace. He had somehow retrieved the metal poker from where Kurogane had stored in inside the fireplace behind the grate, as much out of the way of the demon as he could manage, and was poking idly at the ashes on the floor. He looked up as Kurogane entered, a lazy smile on his face. Something about the smile made rage boil up inside Kurogane and before he even knew it he had crossed the floor and was pulling Fai up by the collar, slamming him back against the stone wall.

“How the hell are you still alive?” Kurogane demanded.

“That hurts, Kuro-rin,” Fai whined innocently.

“Cut the crap,” Kurogane snapped. “You saw it, right? Why the hell didn’t it tear you apart?”

“I told you before,” Fai said, his eyes flat but the smile unyielding. “ ‘We be one of blood, ye and I.’ Right?”

“Don’t give me another stupid quote, I’m not--” Kurogane cut off abruptly as the implication of the words sunk in. He loosed his hold on the other man’s collar. “You…”

“Me,” Fai said in agreement, cocking his head slightly, his smile more than a touch manic.

“You have something in you too,” Kurogane said slowly.

“I don’t think Kuro-sama’s demon likes me much,” Fai lamented, brushing out the creases in his tattered clothes as if it would make any difference. “He was very rude.” He gazed at Kurogane sidelong out of his golden eye. “I think mine is stronger, you see.”

“Why the hell didn’t you say something?” Kurogane growled.

“I did, remember?” Fai said with infuriating cheerfulness. “And anyway, it’s not really something you share with strangers, right? If I told someone I had a demon inside me they might think I was crazy.” He gave Kurogane a crooked smile.

“So that was all an act, before.” Kurogane crossed his arms and glared. Fai wilted slightly under his gaze.

“Not all,” he said. “I am mad. Really truly.” The smile returned full force. “But it’s okay! It’s only sometimes. Oh, don’t look so fierce, Kuro-pon! I didn’t lie to you. Well, a little. Occasionally. Not much.” Off Kurogane’s look, he continued, “I did want to come here, but I’m not really sure how I managed it. Something…happened, when I was mad, and they put me in jail. And I didn’t know that Kuro-rin had a demon until I met you. It seemed really strange at first, but it made sense when I thought about it. The door must have called you here too.”

“Door?” Kurogane repeated.

“Ah, you don’t know,” Fai said, downright smirking. “I said it before, remember? That there’s a door here that you can’t open. Didn’t you wonder why?” Fai twirled the poker around in his hands. “I’ve been searching for something for a very long time, you see, and I finally found it here. That’s not any ordinary door. This place sits on top of one of the eight Gates of the Underworld.”

“That’s a superstition,” Kurogane snorted.

“Is it? Like demons, right?” If it was possible, Fai’s smile grew even wider. “I found out about it in a book. The other seven Gates have long been lost, but the last one was supposed to be somewhere in this country. I knew as soon as I came here that I’d found it at last.”

“And if it really is a Gate to the Underworld,” Kurogane said, heavy sarcasm in his voice, “what did you intend to do with it?”

“Don’t be so dense, Kuro-tan,” Fai said, waving a hand at him. “What did you think? Demons like ours can only be controlled by a Lord of the Underworld. As soon as Kuro-pon tells me where it is, I’m going to open the Gate and travel the twisted path so that I can meet with one of the Lords. And once I do, I’m going to ask him to take this demon out of me.”

Kurogane stared at him. He supposed he should be feeling some great swell of hope at those words, but he didn’t. In the first several hundred years since his ‘infection’ he had tried countless methods to purge the demon and all had failed. It would take more than the words of some mad idiot to make him feel any kind of hope.

Is that so? Erebus’s voice almost made him jump. The demon’s unnatural silence had nearly made him lower his guard.

“You look like you don’t believe me,” Fai said brightly. “You’re probably thinking I’m really suspicious, right? And wondering why you should believe me at all, right?”

“Exactly,” Kurogane said darkly. “Why should I?”

“We~ell,” Fai said, drawing the word out, “you haven’t really got anything to lose, have you?”

He was still smiling triumphantly already, as if he’d won. It made Kurogane want to hit him and there was something oddly comforting in the feeling of only wanting to hit someone and not rip them apart. The feeling was his, at least. His, not the demon’s.

It had been a long time since he’d had something important enough to lose. He couldn’t wish that there would be something he could gain, couldn’t dare to hope for that…but there was nothing to lose, either. Kurogane sighed.

“All right. I’ll at least take a look of this door of yours. But if this turns out to be some stupid idiot wild goose chase I’m dragging what’s left of you back to jail.”

“Yay!” Fai gave a happy cheer. “I knew you’d come around, Kuro-rin. Now, if you’ll just lead the way…” Fai took a step towards the door and Kurogane grabbed him by the collar.

“You’re forgetting something, idiot. We’re trapped here right now.”

“We are?” Fai repeated curiously.

“Before the sun went down my men were trying to hold off infected prisoners who escaped their cells,” Kurogane said. “And if the first infected ones got out of their cells then everyone else in this damned place is probably either also infected or dead.” He paused for a moment as a thought occurred to him. “How the hell did you get out of your cell anyway?”

“Ah. As for that…” Fai gave a lighthearted shrug. “You should really stop grabbing prisoners through the bars while your keys are just hanging there where anyone could accidentally take one.” Kurogane glared daggers at him again and Fai gave another shrug. “It worked out in the end, didn’t it? If I was still in my cell I’d be in trouble. I think our demons are why neither of us were able to be infected, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

“I’m not worried about being infected,” Kurogane stated. “But this isn’t an ordinary plague. If we’re seen by someone infected they won’t just let us go by. The main door should still be locked so the plague is quarantined inside the walls, but that means we can’t get out either.”

“No problem, no problem.” Fai waved a hand airily. “You can’t die, right?”

“How do you know that?” Kurogane said sharply.

“Well, I did see a demon rip you apart last night, remember?” Fai gave an innocent laugh. “It was easy to figure out after that. Actually, it’s very interesting. I’ve never seen a possession like that. Not that I’ve seen a lot, of course.”

“Even if I can’t die, you can,” Kurogane pointed out.

“I’ll be fine,” Fai insisted. “I’m sure brave Kuro-sama will protect me!”

“No.” Kurogane’s voice was grim and final. “I can’t protect anyone. I can’t save anyone.”

“We’re perfectly matched, then,” Fai said, smile hung with secrets and eyes like ice. “Because I’m not someone who deserves to be saved.”

They stared at each other for a long moment before Kurogane turned away in disgust.

“We’ll have to kill any of them we come across,” he said as he moved back towards his private chambers. “Can you do that?”

“You don’t need to worry about me,” Fai promised, trotting along after him. As he followed Kurogane into the next room he immediately noticed Ginryuu on the wall. “That’s a nice sword, Kuro-tan. Where did you get it?”

“It was my father’s,” Kurogane said shortly, digging in one of his drawers until he found a small silver key hidden under rows of folded clothes. Kurogane stared at it for a long moment, considering, before walking over to the sword on the wall and unlocking the chains. Ginryuu fell neatly into his hands, the weight and balance of it as perfect as they had always been, as if the sword had been made for him right from the start. Kurogane closed his fist tightly around the hilt and then turned away, moving over to his closet and pulling out two worn knapsacks. “Take this. We’ll need to stop by the kitchen for supplies. If anything attacks, get behind me and try not to get your idiot head bitten off.”

“Of course,” Fai trilled. Kurogane stopped to glare at him.

“Are you sure about this?” he said darkly. “If you have some kind of fit or whatever the hell you call that I’m not getting killed helping you.”

“No problem, no problem.” Fai leaned against him and was promptly pushed away. “Your protective streak is really cute, Kuro-rin.”

“I told you--” Kurogane started to object but Fai had already skipped away, laughing. He stood to one side of the barred door, looking at Kurogane expectantly.

Kurogane felt the weight of the sword in his hands and the silent, stewing presence of the demon in the back of his mind and sighed. He must be the mad one to be even listening to the idiot, but it wasn’t like he had a better idea. He gave Fai one last glare to be sure the idiot was keeping his mouth shut and then carefully unlocked the door.

Outside the door was as quiet as it had been before. Kurogane gazed up and down the hall, letting his senses guide him. Nothing. He took a step out into the hall and indicated for Fai to follow, motioning for the other man to keep his stupid idiot mouth shut. Fai nodded as if he understood but Kurogane did not find the slightly manic smile reassuring in the least.

The first infected person they ran into was dispatched with a single blow from Ginryuu that sliced the man’s head clean off his neck. The body collapsed into a pile of rags and blood and Kurogane stepped over it as if it was nothing, not even bothering to look and see if it had been a prisoner or a guard. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to recognize anyone. They were all corpses now, every one of them, and he wouldn’t slow himself down by remembering that they had once been human. Fai paused only momentarily behind him with a small, sharp intake of breath. Kurogane risked a half-glance backward, but all he could see was Fai’s pale hair and his wide mismatched eyes looking far too bright in the dim light of the hallway.

He kept close to the wall as they approached the kitchen. Light could be seen peeking through the cracks underneath the closed doors and there were sounds of something moving inside. Fai opened his mouth to say something and Kurogane silenced him with a swift gesture. Motioning for Fai to stay back, he pushed open the door with one hand and stepped inside.

Immediately something human-shaped threw itself at him. Kurogane swung his sword, slicing straight through the victim’s plague-ravaged body, moving to one side to dodge a second victim as it dived for him. There were at least three in the room that he could see, including the one he’d just killed. A fourth dark shape was huddled in the shadows of the corner, something that might have been another infected or just a corpse. Kurogane ignored it, focusing on the two remaining victims as they converged on him.

The shadow plague gave its victims strength beyond that of normal humans once it had reached the fullest stage of infection, but Kurogane had no fear of that. He was not, after all, a normal human.

He had just dispatched the last of the infected when the fourth thing — the blob that he hadn’t been sure was alive or not — leapt from the shadows with a speed he hadn’t quite expected. Kurogane pulled Ginryuu from where it was buried in the stomach of the last victim and turned to meet it but it dived towards him and then, unexpectedly, past him to where Fai was still peering in the doorway like a curious child.

“Idiot, run--” The words had not even left Kurogane’s mouth before Fai moved, faster than the infected and —damn it, impossible — faster than Kurogane himself could have been, and there was something black and sharp in his hands that sliced through the thing’s bloated neck. Blood spilled onto Fai’s coat, soaking through the black sleeves, and somehow he didn’t even bat an eye as he easily swept past the corpse and moved to stand at Kurogane’s side.

“That was unexpected, wasn’t it?” Fai chirped brightly, idly swinging his weapon in his hands. It took Kurogane a moment before he realized that Fai was holding the metal poker he’d taken from Kurogane’s fireplace. Noting Kurogane’s look, Fai shrugged. “You said you weren’t going to protect me, right Kuro-rin? Ah! Or are you mad because you wanted to kill them all?” His voice was light but there was a very old bitterness underneath that set Kurogane’s teeth on edge.

“Just surprised that your idiot brain was smart enough to remember to bring a weapon,” Kurogane stated as he walked over to the large wooden pantry and began digging through it for anything salvageable. Fai moved up beside him, trying to see over his shoulder, and Kurogane watched him coldly out of the corner of his eye. “You did that without hesitating.”


“When that thing attacked you. It used to be human. You killed it without hesitating.”

“So did you.” Fai’s eyes were hooded and his smile like a tree in November, all dying branches.

“I was trained to do that,” Kurogane said. “You don’t wield a sword unless you can use it without hesitating.”

“And I’m a dangerous mad prisoner,” Fai said. “It’s not something to think too hard about, Kuro-pi. That’s not human anymore, right?” His smile faded for a moment. “Once that infection spreads completely, they aren’t anything like human anymore.”

“You’re familiar with it?” Kurogane raised an eyebrow.

“Somewhat,” Fai said, bright smile back in place. “Either way, it’s obvious, isn’t it? It even looks like a corpse now.”

Kurogane turned to look at him but Fai had already wandered away, using the poker to try and knock things down off a high shelf for no apparent reason other than he felt like knocking things down.

While Fai wandered around being a general nuisance, Kurogane finished filling their packs with what decent food he could find along with several bottles of water. Even as he packed he felt like a fool for doing so. Who was to say that there was a door to the Underworld in this place at all? Likely it was all just the fantasies of a madman, and he would end up standing with the idiot in a dusty cellar staring at nothing.

“It is real, Kuro-tan.” Fai appeared at his elbow again. Kurogane moved away from him, scowling.

“Does your damn demon read minds, too?”

“You just let all your thoughts show on your face too much,” Fai told him with a laugh. “Don’t worry, don’t worry! The Gate is here. Trust me.”

Kurogane didn’t even grace that with a reply, giving Fai a dark glare. Fai laughed again and waved the poker at him.

“You’ll see. And then you’ll have to apologize for being all pouty, Kuro-sama.”

“I do not pout.”

“Of course you don’t.” Fai patted his shoulder and began attempting to push one of the dead corpses under a table using only the poker. Ignoring him, Kurogane went back to gathering supplies. He moved away from the food stores and dug around inside one of the storage closets, looking for one last item.

“All right.” Kurogane finally turned back to Fai. “I’ve got everything we need. Now we’ll see about this damn mythical door of yours.”

“You’ll see,” Fai sang quietly. He gave a sudden quick shake of his head as if trying to clear something out of it before motioning for Kurogane to lead the way.

“We’ll have to go down to the lower prison level to get to the door,” Kurogane told Fai as they made their way through the darkened halls once more. “Keep close to me and don’t drop the damn poker. We’ve barely seen any infected since we left my quarters. Odds are most of them are still in the lower level.”

They approached the steps to the lower level warily. Someone had, mercifully, left the lamps lit so that they were able to see their way down the steps but Kurogane could feel that there were things moving in the underground level. There was a heavy smell in the air, blood and infection and rotting tissue, so thick it was almost like smoke. As they moved deeper underground he could hear movement in the darkness beyond and the sound of clinking chains. Kurogane hesitated for only a moment on the final stair, eyes half-closed as he extended his senses forward, concentrating on his opponent’s location and then leaping forward even before anything had come into view. His sword cut straight through the outstretched arm of an infected prisoner as it shambled out of the dark towards him.

From that point the rest of the journey through the prison seemed almost as if he was stuck in some never-ending nightmare. The infected were everywhere, pressed together in the tight halls between cells that hung open loosely on their hinges. Kurogane cut through them all almost mechanically, sword slicing through skin and bone, blood staining his hands and face. Ginryuu was like a silver blur shining oddly in the dim lamplight as he cut down opponent after opponent, never looking at their desiccated faces, ignoring the dark shapes of bloody corpses that were scattered like ashes along the floor. Kurogane simply moved forward and killed, over and over again, and tried not to listen to the exultations of the demon in his head as he cut through another enemy that had once been a person.

And yet even through the haze of blood and death he was always aware of Fai at his back, wielding the poker like he had been fighting with one all his life, moving at all times perfectly in tune with Kurogane. When one infected slipped through his defenses to attack a vulnerable spot Fai was there, stabbing it in the eye or the chest with a single smooth movement. When Fai mis-timed his attack and made a non-fatal stab he would still move in perfect harmony to send the wounded enemy straight into Kurogane’s waiting sword. Even as they moved deeper into the heart of the prison and the lamps grew dimmer and dimmer Fai seemed to always be at his back or only a step or two behind, always moving with him, never getting in the way of Ginryuu’s strike or ending up under Kurogane’s feet.

Still the enemy kept coming at him, pouring out from half-open cells, staggering around corners, leaping out from shadows. Kurogane couldn’t even remember how many he’d killed or how many inmates had even been in the prison (and he didn’t dare look too long at any of them, not wanting to see the guard uniforms he was certain at least a few of the infected had been wearing). There was a pounding in his head and a beating in his blood that Kurogane only half-recognized and didn’t dare stop to focus on. The demon inside him was exulting with every kill, and Kurogane could feel himself growing stronger every time he cut through another one of the walking corpses. He had not killed this many people in a very long time and though Kurogane himself knew that he only did this out of necessity, that these people could not be saved — you cannot save anyone with that sword — he didn’t like the feeling of joy that was beginning to bubble up inside him as they moved further down the corridor. There was an infected in front of him and another somehow had gotten behind and Kurogane raised his sword and killed, and killed, and killed.

Then there was nothing more in front of him but darkness and Kurogane whirled, sword raised —

—and just managed to stop himself from cleaving Fai in two.

They stood there for a moment, Kurogane’s sword just inches from Fai’s head. Kurogane was breathing heavily, his eyes wide and the pounding still in his blood, and then Fai smiled.

“If you want to do it,” he said simply, “then go on.”

Something in those words and the tone in which he spoke them — as if he didn’t even care that Kurogane had come so close to killing him, as if he wasn’t standing in a damn tomb covered in blood and guts and who knew what else, with his smile not as false as Kurogane thought it should be and his eyes unreadable -- that made the pounding in Kurogane’s head cease abruptly. It was if Erebus had held Kurogane’s entire being in its claws for a moment and then immediately retreated for some unknown reason. Kurogane slowly lowered his sword.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” His voice was haggard and the sound of it just made Kurogane more annoyed. “I could have--”

“Probably.” Fai smiled and skipped past him without even a backwards look. “Is this where the door is?” He stuck his head into an open doorway, squinting in the darkness. His golden eye seemed to be glowing slightly, despite the low light.

“You--” Kurogane started, then gave up. It was no business of his, whatever was wrong with the crazy idiot. He had gone this far. There was no choice but to continue. “Yes, it’s here. The wooden door in the middle of the room.” Kurogane strode past Fai and used his foot to rub some of the dust off the door. It was set into the floor and looked like nothing more than a normal door that might lead into an underground cellar. “There’s no key. How the hell do you intend to get it to open?”

“I thought I might wish really hard,” Fai said, crouching down curiously beside the door, resting his chin on his hands. “You have to do it too, Kuro-pon. Clap your hands and believe real hard.”

“The hell I will,” Kurogane growled, arms crossed stubbornly.

“You don’t believe me at all, do you?” Fai gave a sigh of long suffering. “And after I let you in on the secret too. All right, well, you’ll see.” He closed his eyes and stood still for a long moment, hands clasped together as if in prayer, then opened his eyes again and smiled. “There we go.”

“That’s it?” Kurogane raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t do anything, idiot.”

“No faith at all,” Fai said, clucking his tongue as he stood and reached for the metal door handle. He pulled, but the door didn’t budge.

“See? I told you, you can’t--” The rest of the words died in Kurogane’s throat as Fai pulled again and the door slowly swung open. Fai gave Kurogane a dazzling smile.

“What were you saying, Kuro-sama?”

“Shut up,” Kurogane muttered, annoyed. He stepped forward and looked down into the empty doorway. “There’s nothing down there.”

“Look closer.”

Kurogane leaned forward and stared into the darkness. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he began to see what Fai was talking about: small dots of light like stars glittering in the darkness. It was if he was staring down into an empty night sky.

“The Night Stair,” Fai said in a low voice. “It was in the book I found, the one that told me about the eight doors. It’s the first step to the place where the Lords of the Underworld gather.”

“I don’t see a stair,” Kurogane said.

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” Without waiting for a reply Fai jumped into the open doorway. Kurogane moved forward without even thinking, reaching out as if to grab him and stop him from falling into darkness, but Fai did not fall. He seemed to be standing on nothing at all. “See?” Fai stomped a foot in demonstration. “Perfectly sturdy.”

“Hmmph. So now you want me to follow you on a damn stair that you can’t even see, into a place I only have your word actually exists.” Kurogane eyed him dubiously.

“That was the plan,” Fai said, and Kurogane suspected that it was the most honest thing the idiot had said all day.

“Wait there. I have one more thing to take care of.” Kurogane reached into his knapsack and removed two items before tossing the knapsack at Fai, who caught it curiously.


“I can’t guarantee we killed every infected person on the way down here,” Kurogane said deliberately. “And I won’t be the one who lets this plague spread.” He held up one a mostly-empty tin of lamp oil, the last item he had taken from the storeroom, and threw it into the hallway. Kurogane took a step back and grabbed the nearest lamp off the wall, throwing it back down the dark hallway and not even bothering to look back as the smell of smoke began to fill the air. He walked back to Fai, who had already moved a few feet down the stairs.

“Let’s go.”

Fai led the way as they began to walk down the Night Stair, skipping forward in a manner that suggested he would be taking the steps two at a time if he could actually see them. Kurogane followed behind at a more deliberate pace, his sword sheathed and his eyes fixed firmly on his own feet.

“So where exactly are we?” Kurogane asked after they had walked for some time in silence. The door they had come through had melted into the night sky the moment it had shut behind them and they seemed to be walking in the middle of space, surrounded by nothing by sky and stars. There was a cool wind blowing but Kurogane couldn’t tell at all where it was coming from. His steps were feeling strangely heavy the further down they went, but Fai seemed unaffected.

“Under,” Fai said, after a moment’s consideration.

“What the hell does that mean?” Kurogane grumbled.

“Well, we’re going to the Underworld, now aren’t we?” Fai replied. “Where else would it be but under?”

“It feels like we’re outside,” Kurogane said. “I wouldn’t expect under to feel like that.”

“I don’t think it’s something humans can really explain, Kuro-pon,” Fai said with a shrug. He raised a hand towards one of the stars as if he could reach out and touch it. “If I had to say something, I guess I’d say below looks like above.”

“That makes no damn sense,” Kurogane snorted. “But I guess I shouldn’t expect any better than that from you.

“That’s mean, Kuro-sama,” Fai said in wounded tones. “After I worked so hard to lead you here.”

Kurogane was quiet for a moment, his eyes straying to the blood-soaked poker that Fai was still carrying.

“You fought pretty well with only that,” he said at last.

“Flattery won’t make me forgive you for being mean,” Fai pouted.

“You used it like someone used to holding a weapon,” Kurogane continued, sharp red eyes doing their best to make a crack in the brick wall of a smile fixed on Fai’s face.

“It’s the same for you,” Fai said, parrying the blow like a champion swordsman. “You’re very good for someone who kept his sword chained to a wall.”

“You don’t forget some skills, even when you haven’t used them for a while,” Kurogane stated. “Ginryuu has been in my family for generations.”

“Ginryuu, huh?” Fai repeated curiously. “So you named it? That’s awfully cute of you, Kuro-tan.”

“It’s not cute,” Kurogane growled. “There were two gods that guarded the country I came from: Tsukuyomi, goddess of the moon, and Ginryuu, the dragon god of protection. The sword is given to the one whose job it is to protect the country.” Something dark and heavy seemed to flow through him and he felt his steps grow slower. His hands felt cold around the sword. “The last one to wield it was my father.”

“Walk faster,” Fai said with unexpected sharpness and Kurogane found himself unconsciously obeying. There was a forced nonchalance in the blond’s voice as he continued. “So it belonged to your father? I bet he passed it down to you in a big formal ceremony.”

“No,” Kurogane said blackly, eyes hooded. “I took it off his dead body.”

“So you killed him?” Fai’s face was utterly blank, his voice toneless. Even so, something about it compelled Kurogane to answer, even when he wanted to say it was none of Fai’s business.

“I didn’t.” Kurogane could feel the demon stirring in his mind, as if it was waking up from some long sleep. “My mother did. To save me, after my father succumbed to the plague.”

“So that’s where you’ve seen it before,” Fai said. “I wondered. It’s not an infection normal humans know about.” He gave Kurogane a sidelong look. “But we’re not normal, right?”

“Speak for yourself, idiot,” Kurogane retorted. A thought occurred to him and he regarded Fai with narrowed eyes. “You said you were familiar with it too. How?”

“I’ve been alive a long time,” Fai said with a noncommittal shrug. “You hear things.”

“I’ve been alive a long time too,” Kurogane said deliberately. “And no matter how much I’ve searched, I’ve barely found a single concrete record of the shadow plague even existing. But you knew all about it.”

“Just because Kuro-min hasn’t found any record doesn’t mean that they don’t exist,” Fai said, yellow eye shining like a star. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

“Don’t quote fucking Shakespeare at me,” Kurogane snapped. A cold wind wrapped itself around him like a blanket and he resisted the urge to shiver. “What is with you and the damn quotes anyway?”

“It doesn’t speak in human tongue,” Fai said, speaking slowly as if reciting a half-recalled poem. “Not so that someone like you could understand. It can only pick things up from other places and repeat them back, like an animal. When I was looking for records of the Underworld I read a lot of books, and it remembers.

The sky around them seemed blacker and Kurogane shook his head to clear it before speaking again.

“I read a lot too, when I first got this thing inside me,” he said, watching Fai closely. “And I’ve never found any records of this damn Underworld even existing. But somehow you seem to know everything about it. Why?”

“Not everything,” Fai said. “You really think too much, Kuro-sama. I told you, I’ve been alive a long time. A very long time.” His smile seemed somehow older than the stars that surrounded them as he paused for just a moment on the invisible step and stared back at Kurogane. “Though Kuro-sama’s old too, of course. I’m impressed you still remember your sword’s name.”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s just interesting,” Fai said. He stretched out his arms above his head and turned on one heel so he was facing away from Kurogane, skipping down another step. “I don’t remember the name of my village anymore. I don’t even remember…well, that one doesn’t matter, right? Anyway, we should keep walking. You never know what you might find, down here.”

“Why would you care, even if we met something?” Kurogane muttered, irritated. His feet felt oddly heavy, as if they were weighed down by blocks of ice. “You didn’t even care when I almost cut you in two up there.”

“In two, huh?” There was an odd strangled sound in Fai’s voice, nearly buried beneath the cheer. “That would be terrible, wouldn’t it?”

Kurogane’s hand reached out and grabbed Fai’s arm almost before he had realized it. Fai glanced back at him, surprised, and there was something hollow and wistful in his eyes.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Kurogane asked him, because he didn’t know what else to say.

“You keep asking that,” Fai said, pulling away. “I’m mad, remember? So you don’t have to worry about me. Mad people will always be mad, you know. The voices in my head won’t stop just because you keep talking to me. That’s why you should just keep walking.” He paused, turning away. “Sometimes, though…sometimes when you talk, Kuro-tan, I can almost hear you. Just you, I mean; no one else.”

Without waiting for a reply he skipped down another step as if suddenly desperate to put some distance between them, and Kurogane followed slowly behind.

They continued on down the stair. As they went lower Kurogane began to be aware that his steps were periodically becoming slower. Each time he slowed Fai would turn and say something to him and the sound of it would bring him back to himself. It was growing colder the farther down they went and Kurogane could see his breath curling in front of him like smoke. Fai somehow seemed immune to the cold, despite his thin tattered clothes.

They had gone on this way for some time when Kurogane recalled the food he had brought. He reached back into his pack and felt around for something edible.

“Kuro-rin?” Fai glanced back at him. For the first time Kurogane noticed that the man’s blue eye seemed slightly dilated and that he was breathing quite hard.

“You should eat something,” Kurogane said gruffly, tossing some of the supplies at him. Fai caught them with a curious look, as if he had forgotten all about food. Kurogane stared dismally at the rest of the food in his hands and then stuffed it back into his pack. It was strange, though Kurogane was certain some time had passed since they’d left the prison he didn’t feel very hungry at all.

“I think that’s a side effect of being in the Underworld,” Fai said as he picked disinterestedly at a stale bread roll. “After all, this is the road that leads to the world of the dead and the dead don’t eat, so why should anyone else be different?”

“We’re alive,” Kurogane snapped with unexpected ferocity in his voice. “Even if you don’t seem to act like it.”

“That’s a strange thing for someone who dies every night to say, Kuro-rin,” Fai said brightly, turning and throwing the roll at Kurogane’s face. He avoided it with barely a move and the roll fell into the darkness below them.

“How much farther down does this stupid stair go, anyway?” Kurogane said, ignoring the remark. His voice sounded strangely weary and harsh in his ears.

“All the way,” Fai said with a shaky, secretive smile.

“Do you ever just give a fucking straight answer?” Kurogane muttered.

“Probably not,” Fai said. Kurogane glared at him and in response Fai gave him a look of sweet innocence. “Mad, remember?”

“Mad, my ass,” Kurogane said. “You’ve been fine since we got here.”

“Really?” Fai replied. “Maybe you’re mad now too, Kuro-rin, and so you just can’t tell anymore.”

“I can still tell that you’re an idiot.”

“But an idiot who knows where we’re going, which is more than Kuro-pin can say,” Fai needled him. Kurogane snorted and pushed him forward.

“Shut up and keep walking,” Kurogane huffed. His fingers were starting to feel almost numb from cold.

“Your wish is my command, Kuro-sama,” Fai said with a mock bow. He half-skipped down another step and then nearly stumbled for a half-second before righting himself, the movement so quick that Kurogane almost didn’t even notice.

Kurogane had only taken two steps to follow when a sharp pain in his stomach suddenly caused him to double over in pain.

“The hell--” The words barely forced their way out of Kurogane’s mouth before the pain hit him again and he fell to his knees. It was a strangely familiar pain, as if—

—as if something was tearing him apart from the inside.

“It hasn’t been a full day,” Kurogane gritted, one hand held against his chest as if he could hold the demon back. “Why--”

“Time flows differently here.” Fai was standing two steps below, facing him calmly. His face was pale white like a moon in the darkness.

“Then get out of here,” Kurogane growled. “It’s--”

“I’ll be all right,” Fai told him, though there was no trace of a smile on his face. He took a step closer to Kurogane, reaching out with one hand. There was neither fear nor pity in his gaze. “Relax, Kuro-rin. It will pass soon.”

Kurogane wanted to yell at him, to ask what he was talking about, to tell him to run, but the pain was too great. Another wave of pain flowed through him and the stars went out.

His father was holding him by the wrist, dragging him through the town. Houses were burning around them and people were screaming in the distance.

“Where are we going?” Kurogane asked through a throat rubbed raw by smoke. His father glanced back at him, face covered in soot. He was holding Ginryuu tightly in one hand.

“It’s not far now, kid,” his father said. “Just stay with me, all right? It won’t be long. You’ll be fine.”

Kurogane wanted to pull away, wanted to yell back at him, but his body wouldn’t obey. It was just the same vision again, the same one he had seen night after night. His father would drag him to Tsukuyomi’s shrine at the top of the hill and then the torture would start. He had relived this night so many times that Kurogane had long ceased being scared of it. It always ended in his death, it was only the manner of dying that changed.

Something seemed strange this time, however, though he wasn’t sure what. His head felt fuzzier than normal and for some reason he kept staring at his own hands, covered in ash and held securely in his father’s white-knuckled grip.

“Not far now,” his father repeated as they began to ascend the hill towards his mother’s shrine. Kurogane glanced back down towards the burning town.

“But shouldn’t we find Mother…?”

“Don’t worry about her,” his father said with a forced smile. “Your mother’s a tougher lady than you think. She’ll be coming up to meet us soon, I’m sure. Just hold on a little longer.”

Something was definitely different this time. Kurogane had repeated this day so many times he no longer remembered exactly how it had truly happened, but this…this seemed too familiar, somehow.

“Into the shrine, quick.” His father herded him inside. “There’s not much time.”

Kurogane did as instructed, unable to control the movements of his own body. His father led him to the altar in the center of the shrine and began to bathe his hands in the bowl of water that sat atop it. Dirt and ash immediately clouded the water, but Kurogane’s fingers were still black.

No. This was not how it was supposed to go. How could he have forgotten this?

“This is the only way I can protect you now.” His father touched a hand to the tattoo that ran along his arms and covered his face and then sliced open his own palm with Ginryuu. He crouched down beside Kurogane and took his son’s hand. “Don’t move, kid. This will only hurt for a minute.”

This Kurogane knew, knew the feeling of Ginryuu’s steel slicing open his flesh. The tattoo on his father’s face twisted and moved under the skin and something seemed to be pouring into him as the blood on his father’s hand merged with his own. The black was falling away from Kurogane’s fingers.

Suddenly his father’s eyes opened wide in surprise and he yelled something Kurogane couldn’t quite hear over the rush of air pounding in his ears. His father dropped his hand abruptly, dropped Ginryuu and staggered backwards, clutching at something black and hazy as it slipped through his fingers and oozed into the cut on Kurogane’s hand.

“That wasn’t—damn it, no, it shouldn’t--” His father’s voice was choked with pain and sorrow even as the older man’s fingers turned black. His father’s skin was growing gray and his eyes yellowing — the same dream as always but there was no smile on his face this time, only pain and shock and a deep, deep sorrow, deeper than the sea, and the words ‘forgive me’ on his lips—

And then Kurogane’s mother was there, as she always was, but this time she crossed the floor slowly towards her husband and took his plague-ravaged body gently into her hands. There was blood streaked all over her torn robes and her hair hung loosely around her shoulders. She kissed her husband’s forehead as her knife plunged into his chest, and as Kurogane’s father crumpled to the ground Kurogane could have sworn he saw a grateful smile on his father’s lips.

“It’s too late for us all.” His mother walked over to him then, her eyes sad and her smile heavy. Blood was dripping from a corner of her mouth and her skin was chalk white. Fire was burning through Kurogane’s body and he couldn’t look at her, could barely feel her arms as they wrapped around him. “I am so very sorry. You are the only one who can save them now. It must be by your sword that they die, do you understand? If it’s you--”

Her words were drowned out by fire and blood as a wave of darkness welled up and overwhelmed him, swallowing them both.

“Good morning.” Fai’s voice was the first thing Kurogane heard upon opening his eyes. He sat up slowly, limbs feeling numb but not painful. There was not a wound upon him and his clothes were perfectly intact. Even the scar on his hand, the one that had been there ever since the night the demon was placed inside him, was still the same old scar as always, neither re-opened nor bleeding. Kurogane stared at it blankly, trying to recall the dream that was suddenly slipping away from him.

“Kuro-tan?” Fai waved a hand in front of his face and Kurogane smacked it away irritably as he climbed to his feet. All around them there was still nothing but cold air and night sky.

“What the hell happened?” Kurogane muttered, half to himself. “That wasn’t the same as usual.”

“Your demon didn’t come out,” Fai told him, slowly unfolding himself into a standing position. He began to walk down the stairs again, beckoning for Kurogane to follow. “Not like it did before, I mean. You fainted and then it talked to me for a bit in your voice, and then you went to sleep. You’ve been sleeping for a long time, I was bored.” He gave Kurogane an affronted look, as if the other man had done it on purpose.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to happen,” Kurogane said. His steps were stiff and unsteady as he followed after Fai. He could still feel Erebus in his mind, but the demon’s presence was somehow even more muted than before.

“I think it’s because we’re here,” Fai offered, not looking back at him. “Your demon said it sends you down here whenever it comes out. So if you’re already in the Underworld it can’t very well send you there, right?”

“But it still knocked me out,” Kurogane said.

“Maybe that’s just how it works.” Fai shrugged. “It’s your demon, Kuro-min. I’m only guessing.”

“Hmmph.” Kurogane straightened his clothes and tried to shake the cobwebs from his mind as he took another heavy step forward. “You said I was out for a long time. How long?”

“Time doesn’t flow right here,” Fai said with another shrug. “Long enough for me to be bored. Your demon’s not very good at conversation, Kuro-pon. Though I guess that means he’s not much different from you, huh?”

“Shut up,” Kurogane grumbled. His head felt fuzzy and sleepy and he shook the feeling off. “At least you got some sleep.”

“I don’t sleep,” Fai said, all smiles. “And I certainly wouldn’t sleep here, which is why you need to keep walking.”

“Whatever.” Kurogane ignored him, not in the mood for teasing. He was having trouble focusing on Fai’s figure in front of him. “Let’s just get going. The damn demon may not have come out this time but I’m not taking that chance again.”

“You don’t need to worry about me,” Fai said, looking back at him. Through the haze in his mind Kurogane was vaguely aware that Fai’s gaze was as steady as it had been before. “I’m not afraid of your demon. I told you, I think mine’s stronger. Yours is just rude. You should teach him better manners.”

“And how would I teach a damn demon manners?” Kurogane grumbled.

“I’m sure there’s a way.” Fai smiled before looking away. “Say, Kuro-tan…your demon isn’t normal, is it?”

“How should I know?”

“Well, I’ve never heard of one that acts like yours,” Fai said conversationally, as if talking about the monsters that possessed them was no different than discussing the clouds. “Usually if a demon rips its way out of you, you die. Most just…stay inside the host, like an infection.” His tone was heavy like a weight. “People who are born with a demon inside have it as a part of them that doesn’t go away and can’t escape, not easily. And if you take one inside willingly it’s not…it doesn’t really work like yours.”

“I don’t know anything about stupid crap like that,” Kurogane said, shaking off the weariness and fuzziness and everything that felt like it was pulling him down. “I didn’t study the damn thing. My father put it inside me.”

“Really.” There was a strange light in Fai’s eyes as he looked back at Kurogane. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Kurogane said darkly. “It was too long ago. I don’t remember, and I don’t care. I don’t think about it anymore.” His hand moved reflexively to the hilt of his sword.

“Did he really mean to put that in you, though, I wonder,” Fai murmured, as if talking to himself. “In that condition, I mean.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kurogane grabbed Fai by the shoulder and pulled him backwards so that they were standing face to face. Fai simply smiled blandly back at him.

“Don’t mind me, Kuro-rin,” Fai said airily. “Just thinking, that’s all.”

“That’s rare, for you,” Kurogane snorted.

“Mean,” Fai sniffed, turning away from him. “Come along, Kuro-tan. Miles to go before we sleep and all that.” He glanced briefly backwards. “And you should not sleep, Kuro-sama.”

As they walked the sky seemed to be growing ever darker around them. Kurogane’s limbs felt heavier with every movement, his arms hanging uselessly by his side. Even the demon in his head had gone near-silent, as if hibernating. He felt cold all over.

“Not far now.” Fai’s voice broke through the haze, his blond hair still wavering in front of Kurogane like a beacon. “Keep walking, Kuro-tan. Not far now.”

Deeper and deeper they went, the stars going out one by one around them. Kurogane could feel drowsiness settle over him like a thick blanket and he did his best to shake it off, focusing on the sound of Fai’s voice.

“Not far now, Kuro-rin,” Fai murmured, reciting the words like a prayer. “Not far now. Nearly there.”

Kurogane wasn’t certain how long they had been walking after that when he suddenly half-stumbled over the final step and found himself crouching on the dark ground surrounded on all sides by arched doorways ringed with white billowing curtains. The drowsiness that had been clogging up his head disappeared as suddenly as if it had never been there.

“What was that?” Kurogane muttered, rubbing at his arms to try and restore some feeling to his frozen limbs. Fai stared calmly down at him. The only indication that the blond felt any discomfort at all was the unnatural paleness of his face.

“The way to the Underworld is full of dangers,” Fai said, oddly serious. “You can’t expect anything less, Kuro-rin.”

“You seemed fine enough,” Kurogane snapped, irritated.

“I’m used to the cold,” Fai said with a smile as frigid as any winter wind. “And the sleepiness….well, I told you, right? I don’t sleep.”

“If you didn’t sleep you’d be dead,” Kurogane said flatly.

“And if something ripped my insides apart I’d be dead too, right?” Fai smiled brightly. Kurogane scowled at him and he turned away, gazing thoughtfully at the curtains that surrounded them.

“So where are we now?” Kurogane asked, getting to his feet.

“There are many Lords of the Underworld,” Fai said. “We need to choose one.”

“So how the hell do we do that?” Kurogane muttered. There were at least ten different doorways surrounding them.

“I was thinking we’d just guess!” Fai said happily. He leaned back on one foot, swinging in a lazy circle with his hand outstretched. “I choose…this one!”

Kurogane opened his mouth to say something caustic but before he could speak Fai darted forward into the doorway and was swallowed up by darkness. Kurogane gave a heavy sigh and followed after him.


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August 2014

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