"A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible"
This is one way to break a man, to discover what he holds above himself, what he puts beyond his own worth, and tear it down, make it worthless, grind him to dust beneath the weight of its value.
This is one way to salvation, to find a faith too strong to be shaken, to put your soul entirely in the keeping of what is unbreakable.
It begins as all days begin, with sunrise, and the roar of morning traffic outside the car's windows, and a job. Ban has misgivings, but they're nebulous doubts, and he didn't sleep well last night, so they're easily dismissed as remnants of nightmares. And they need the money. It's like any other day.
How far would you go for pride? 100 percent success rate (nearly); they can't fail with this retrieval. It's too simple, too pure. Her eyes are so sincere as she makes her request.
"My sister." And neither of them can refuse. Ginji because he has no family, as far as his memory goes, and imagines something sacred. Ban because he has, grandmother by blood and sister and brother by choice, and there are bonds which shouldn't be torn.
So it's problematic, when they locate her, and they know it's dangerous, but they have no choice but to succeed. Their pride as retrievers is on the line, and all the money her sister offered, and more than anything because they said they would.
Her circumstances Ban wouldn't have expected Ginji to understand, but he forgets sometimes how fierce and merciless Mugenjou could be. He never could overestimate his partner, because Ginji will always manage to do what must be done, but sometimes he underestimates him. Ginji doesn't understand art or music or movies or literature, but when he looks at a person's heart and only sees the bright spots, it isn't because he's oblivious to the darkness. He's seen so much of it that he doesn't want to see more, unless he has to.
But there were cults in the Infinite Castle, along with the clans and gangs and all the other shadows of real society. In some ways Volts might have been the greatest of them, for Raitei was more than emperor; the savior, though no one understood why, master of that uncertain reality, and as many fell to his personal...magnetism, as to the promise of safety he offered. Ginji would never have used that, however, wouldn't ever deliberately manipulate those who adored him.
This leader isn't nearly as charismatic, but his lust for control is unslakeable, and he picks his followers carefully, targeting those who are lost, who feel left behind. Out of work, estranged, the sister was any easy mark, and now she's lost behind the white stone walls of that commune building, her voice added to their chants and her savings added to their coffers. When they emerge it's in pairs and trios, twins and triplets by their plain clothes and plain haircuts, inseparable, no individual remaining, and their loyalty to their place is absolute and uncompromised.
A little online digging finds the one boy who did leave alone, at least in part, last year. They go to the hospital where he is now. Drugs, the specialists think. His father comes every day, sits by his bed and holds his limp hand and talks, and never gets an answer.
"Unforgiveable," Ginji says, and one might as well have pushed a boulder off a cliff; that tone, that pronouncement, there is no reneging. They're going to get this sister back. And take this evil down in the doing.
The place gets deliveries every other day, groceries and unmarked packages. Not hard, to borrow a couple uniforms and carry in a few innocuous boxes. The woman who answers the door could be someone's mother by the streak of gray in her hair and the smile lines around her mouth, if her expression weren't so empty. She echoes their good morning but doesn't answer Ginji's friendly chatter about the sunny weather.
It would be simple enough to tap her on the head before she could call for help, but she might be a mother. Ban uses the jagan instead--for a moment she's looking past him, not into his eyes, and it's slipping like water off an oiled tarp, like falling and not hitting the floor. Then it catches, and she sees them out the door in the safety of her own mind, while they amble past the entryway into the corridors.
Ban's fingers itch for a cigarette, the charge of the nicotine to counter the drain of the evil eye. And this time was...strange. Trickier than it should be.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji murmurs, and Ban shrugs it off. "Nothing."
The corridors are empty, he expected people but there's no one, no other footsteps on the square colorless tiles but their own. Every hall looks alike, just a little too narrow, the doors spaced a little too close together. They're all locked. If it were busier it would be like a hospital; empty, it's like a morgue, each door a drawer, holding place for a breathing corpse.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji asks again, his voice echoing off the blank walls. His green vest is life in this dead place, and even the florescent lights can't wash out the yellow of his hair, but it's his eyes that bring Ban back to himself, dark with concern, and the hand on his arm.
"Nothing." He shakes off the warmth of that contact. "I'm fine." But there's something wrong here.
"To hell with it." Ban takes hold of a door handle, summons his strength and wrenches down, twisting the lock from its socket. The door swings open, to a room four meters by four, windowless, with only a narrow cot, a desk, a chair. The blankets on the cot aren't as smooth as they could be; someone slept there. But otherwise it's as sterile as an operating table, and there's no one here.
"Where do you think everyone is, Ban-chan?"
"I don't know."
Get out, something inside him says. Get out of here. But they have a job to do.
The corridors really do look identical. Ginji can get lost on the streets of his own former domain, but even Ban is getting confused now. Have they turned left three times, or four? Ginji is following him confidently, sure Ban knows where they're going, though he's fully aware they had no definite destination. They reach a stairwell and Ban intends to go up, but stops with his foot on the first step. Down.
"Do you hear something?" Ginji confirms that faint murmur is more than his imagination. So they descend. By the bottom of the first flight the noise has resolved into voices, the steady thrum of many speaking as one.
This hall is wide, and without doors save the double pair at the opposite end. They walk down it cautiously, the chanting louder the closer they get, a hair-raising, monotone chorus. So they're having their service in the basement. Whatever that ceremony consists of. The voices resound through the thick metal. "We should look for another way in," Ban starts to suggest.
Then the doors burst open, as if someone had slammed them aside, and they're in the empty corridor, nowhere to run, a hundred expressionless faces turning back toward them. The room beyond is wide as a gymnasium, but the ceiling is low, and the people stand in precise rows, with an aisle left between them, so their view of the man at the other end is unobstructed. Ban recognizes his face from their research, drooping mouth and buggy eyes. He's shorter in person, and his scarlet robes look more ridiculous than sinister.
He raises his arms. "Come in."
His power is in his voice, rich and deep and inviting. And he has a hundred followers, all staring at them.
"Ginji," Ban shouts, but Ginji is already on it. He jams his fist against the fusebox beside the door, in an instant pulls the current to himself and sends it surging back tenfold in a sparking flash. The lights glow brilliant, and then the circuit breakers cut the power, plunging hall and room into darkness.
Ban is moving before his partner reaches the box, sprinting into the room. He spotted their target immediately, standing in the first row only a few feet from their leader. In the confusion of the darkness he hopes to grab her, haul her out before anyone can tell what's going on. He came with a flashlight and now he wields it as a weapon, blinding the eyes he shines it in.
But there isn't chaos, no panicked rushes for the door; they're all just standing there in the darkness, like mannequins, motionless, as if the loss of power cut their lives off as well. Not normal, and yes, he knew they wouldn't be, but there's something else going on here, and if he had a spare second to consider--
"So good of you to join us," and with the leader's smooth bass, the lights come back on, yellow and dim. None of the people have moved a centimeter, save one; the sister now stands at the man's side, head respectfully down, and he holds her hand like a parent with a toddler, reassuring and responsible.
He knew their objective. He knew they were coming. Spy on the outside, or had this always been a set-up?
Didn't matter anyway, if they moved fast enough. Ginji's by his side, ready to grab the girl; if she fights they'll just knock her out and haul her off. The rest of them, seems like they won't do anything without word from their leader. And he Ban can neutralize. He pushes down his glasses, raises his head.
Only as he meets those bulging bug-orbs with his own evil eye, he sees something move in their black, something which doesn't belong there.
The boy in the hospital, drug overdose, they said, in a waking coma, brain there but no mind, no soul. All these people, chanting as one, in blank halls with no decoration, no variation, nothing to feed the spirit, no need, because that spirit was being devoured, slowly ingested until the shell of the body crumples into the vacuum. Their leader might have started out an ordinary, petty, mortal man, but somewhere along the line his lust for power had caught the attention of something far, far more dangerous.
Ban's made a mistake. Somewhere the old witch is laughing, that he was so incautious. The jagan can engulf a rat as easily as a man, capture a snake or a sparrow alike. But demons don't dream.
The eyes are windows to the soul, and he just opened his to a monster.
Somewhere he's screaming, but that's so far away he can hardly hear it. Under his skin slides another spirit, not his and not the serpent he's always lived with, this new presence doesn't fit, there's no room. It's larger than any of him, fiery in his cold blood, scorching him from the inside like acid in his veins.
He knows how to fight this, but he opened himself to the invasion, and that's close enough to permission that the demon can exploit it, accept it as surrender of his own free will. But he's fighting it anyway; otherwise he's not himself anymore or ever. Some fates are worse even than the darkest visions he can give. There's still a little choice left, and he'll take the final option if that's the only one he can grasp.
And then there's light, so brilliant it hurts, and that pain reestablishes the presence of his own body. He can see from his eyes again. But when he tries to move his hand he remains motionless, and when he tries to call out his mouth doesn't open.
He can see Ginji, standing between him and the leader, now lying twitching on the floor, his red robes spread around him like pooling blood. Can't see Ginji's face, but he's glowing, pure as sunlight, his fists clenched.
"Stop it. Whatever you're doing to Ban-chan--stop it!"
The man drags himself up, his muscles trembling from the electric jolt that felled him. He should be unconscious, but there's not enough left of the mortal to matter anymore. "Too late. He's mine now."
"What to you mean, yours?" But Ginji can perceive more than he should, even if he doesn't understand. "What are you?"
The man climbs to his feet, unsteadily, but his eyes are pits, cold and sure. Run, Ban tries to scream, get the fuck away while he's still weakened. But Ginji can't hear him. One hand rises, red sleeve falling back from a skinny, pale wrist.
And Ban's own hand lashes out, a striking snake which Ginji only just dodges in time.
Think, Ginji, the puppet perfume, that bug, you've seen this before--Good. Maybe Ban can't move of his own volition, but he can still feel the building charge in the air as Ginji calls on his power, an aura of firefly sparks circling him. Ginji knows to the kilowatt what jolt it takes to fell him, and with the demon's attention divided between two it would be enough.
But the man's hand raises again, palm out, and Ban's body freezes in place. "He's mine. Strike me again, and I'll stop his heart."
The electricity flashes around his partner like a living thing, but Ginji is paralyzed, not seeing it's a useless threat, when this monster obviously wants him so badly.
"Take the girl and go," the man says, and Ban's relief is so sharp it cuts. The monster comprehends the power which struck his host down; rather than risk battle with Raitei he'll let Ginji escape unscathed. Ginji's safe.
Except Ginji's not moving, not even taking the arm of the girl who obediently trots forward at her inhuman leader's beckoning. But not because he doesn't understand, and right now Ban wishes more than anything that Ginji actually were as dumb as he seems sometimes. A mocking tilt of the man's head, and Ban finds he can move his mouth, work his tongue. At his almost soundless exhalation, his partner looks around, their eyes meeting. One chance. "Ginji, just get the hell out of here--"
--and right as he says it, and the control clamps back down, he realizes how badly he's screwed up. Waltzing right into the demon's trap, again, like a fucking moron. Because now his partner knows how far out of control this situation is, and this is Ginji.
For a moment nothing but horror shows in those huge brown eyes, realization burning like ice, that this might be it. And then, even colder, hard as diamond and just as flawless, there's resolution.
Ginji's mouth might be shaping an apology, and then he's turning away, turning back to the monster. Bowing his head, with all the rough and sincere manners of a boy raised in a manmade hell. And Ban sees the faintest curl of a smile warping the man's lips, and understands that it was never about him after all, that this is what he wanted all along.
That revelation hits like a sucker punch; if he could move he would throw up, but he can't, anymore than he can scream, or curse, or do anything at all to stop what is to come. Ginji doesn't know enough to appreciate the power of the words he is about to say, and why this monster has done so much to hear them. A willing agreement, unbreakable by the old laws, the only ones that matter.
The thing of it is, Ginji might say it anyway, even if he did know, because they're partners, and Ginji is the biggest fool to ever walk the planet, too true to be real, a trusting, pure-hearted, loyal friend. And sacrifice is another of those things that Ginji understands too well.
His voice sounds like the end of the world.
"Let Ban-chan go. Take me instead."
to be continued...