The plague had come again, stripped their colors and left them little more than walking, crumbling shells. Amane asked her mother about it, head tilted up from where she rested it against her arms, and received no clearer response than, "It happened many years ago, when I was not much younger than you. We—we were so sure it would never come again."
She wrinkled her nose, dissatisfied at the not-answer, unwilling to ask more when the reply always seemed to be some variation of the same, like not even the adults of the village knew what it was, what caused it, or why it had come.
"It's getting dark," her mother commented idly—it wasn't, the sky was hardly darker than the flat, muddy gray it'd been all day—and added, "I have a basket for ammu. Are you sure you won't—"
"That old man? No! No one who spends so much time alone can be any good. He's so strange!" she exclaimed, and her mother relented, leaving to deliver the weekly basket of food they sent to the man who lived alone on the very edge of town in a ramshackle cabin. She'd heard stories about him—stories that in truth or falsity could go either way, if the incompleteness of the rest of the town's stories could be considered—that he had been the sole survivor of an expedition, and the village begrudged him his survival when the rest of their sons and daughters had been taken. That was the tamest of the stories, the wildest of which stretched to a war against trolls, and the lonely ammu had turned tail and ran away, a coward. With only one man to contain the truth, speculation was rampant, and Amane wondered as she busied herself cleaning their stark kitchen if any of their neighbors bothered telling stories about herself.
She rewarded herself for her work with an apple, one of the smallest ones in a basket by the counter. She was hardly interesting enough to be the subject of such tall tales. There was nothing to even embellish on. Amane tugged on an errant white curl, watching it spring back in front of her face.
The changes were so subtle that they were hardly even noticed until the day that everyone seemed to fall sick all at once. The sky looked as if it had grown even more dismal, to a milky gray that seemed to smother the sky in all directions, uniform and cloudless, seeming to filter the very air the way it did the sun.
Amane, blessedly healthy, watched as her parents faces grew more and more pinched, and so caught up were they in checking on their neighbors that they grew forgetful about many other things. The basket sat untouched by the kitchen window until Amane reminded her mother to take it to the old man.
"I cannot, habibti, the neighbor boy is sick. You must do it. Take the basket, it's right there. And don't you dare eat any of it on the way!"
There was a napkin draped over the top of the basket, protecting the food within. Amane lifted a corner of it, revealing an apple. She loved apples.
The walk to his cabin was long, but the streets were all but empty, most people shuttered away in their houses so they would not have to look upon the strangely-colored sky or the sick faces of the family across the street. Amane herself felt no different than before, but felt no guilt for the fact; her parents had merely ruffled her hair and called her lucky, while the less fortunate collapsed from lightheadedness and ran fevers so high their foreheads felt hot enough to cause a burn from one brief touch.
The cabin was situated at the top of a small hill, the winding dirt path littered with rocks. Amane climbed it steadily, and considered knocking and dropping the basket on the step. She could probably be gone before he made it to the door.
She set it down lightly and prepared to knock when a voice called out to her, "Bring that inside!"
She nearly tripped over her feet, but scooped up the basket anyway, noticing that only a screen made of fine wire bound his doorframe. She could make out a figure moving inside, and her face flushed from embarrassment over what she'd almost done. And now that he'd called her, she had to respond.
Swinging open the screen door, she entered the cabin, finding its owner in the kitchen, standing below the awkwardly sloping ceiling with a battered cup in his hands; the warm smell of coffee drifted from it.
"Hmm. You must be the daughter, right? Never met you before. About time, though—I was starting to think you didn't exist. Well, take a seat," he said.
Amane set the basket down, and finding nowhere else to sit than the chair the man had just settled into, hopped up on the counter beside the basket and slipped an apple from under the napkin, turning it around in her hands.
She began to ask, "Ammu, are you well—"
"Don't uncle me! Brat. I'm not old enough for you to call me that. And you've gone and stolen one of my apples. Well, just this once." The chair creaked as he leaned, the four legs unbalanced.
"I only call you that because I don't know your name," she said as she stuck out her tongue, "old man."
His left eyebrow twitched and he opened his mouth to speak, hesitating before gruffly commanding her to pass him an apple. She threw it overhand, and he caught it easily. "Kids. You think anyone a few years older than you already has one foot in the grave. And you can call me Bakura."
"But you have—"
"White hair? So do you." He took a bite, and for a moment their conversation was replaced by the sounds of contented chewing. "A lot of the kids have white hair. Ever notice?"
Amane would never have guessed that Bakura could be so chatty, given the opportunity. "So? Does it have something to do with the plague?" She leaned forward, apple momentarily forgotten. "You are feeling well? I don't want you to get sick when you don't have anyone to take care of you."
"What a nice sentiment." He flicked a few seeds out of the core with a fingernail. "You seem oddly interested in something so horrible."
"No one will tell me about it," Amane said. "I'm starting to think no one really knows. But you might! You're…" She searched for a word he wouldn't find insulting. "…Different."
"Don't worry so much about it," Bakura told her. "You'll be fine—at least, if I had to guess, that's what I'd say. It should pass with time."
"And if it doesn't?" She was already envisioning the worst, remembering the sound of the cries the neighbor boy made even with medicine.
"It passed before."
"When was that?" she asked.
"About ten years ago. It struck hard—no family was spared. There is no cure."
"That's awful," she said, wishing the word could convey just how seriously she felt about it.
"Do you have any more questions?" His voice was rolling and indolent; it reminded her of the sky. Suddenly, she didn't want to be there anymore.
Amane shook her head sharply. She had learned more than she wanted to know, and she knew she should leave before her curiosity got the better of her yet again.
"Thank you for your company, Bakura," she said, resisting the urge to call him ammu again, out of habit, "but I should be getting home."
The walk on the way back seemed much longer than before. Unfinished, the bitten edges of the apple turned brown in her hands.
Bakura had long stopped attempting to use the stars for navigation—they had not been visible for some time, not through the fog that seemed unrelentless in its descent from the treetops. He had gotten separated from the rest of his team the day before, and the twisting forest seemed wholly unfamiliar to him now, guiding him around trees with curved, gnarled trunks and pointed branches. The ground tilted up, and as he climbed the hill the sky seemed to get lighter.
It wasn't the lightness of the sun—it had to get dark before the sun could rise—but the sky had taken on an odd, milky hue, creating an atmosphere that was almost artificial. Bakura wondered how anything could survive up here, and for the first time thought about his chances of such if he was unable to relocate anyone else from his expedition. His own supplies were meager but sufficient enough for the time being, and he was considering the possibility of success of lighting a signal fire at the top of the hill when he first spotted the cave.
What was a hillside became a rocky protrusion, flanked by low trees wreathed in fog. With the fog as it was, a teammate could be standing an arm's length away and he'd never even know it.
He could not argue with the shelter the cave would provide, and stepped closer. He hesitated at the entrance, watching the way the shadows seemed to curl over the rocks. A sudden gust of wind rustled the thin leaves on the trees around him, and Bakura pulled his coat tighter around his body, decision made as he entered the cave.
He fumbled in his bag for a box of matches and found it at the very bottom. A few repurposed branches caught light easily, providing him with blessed warmth and casting his shadow in sharp relief against the cave wall.
He held his hands above the flames, turning them and rubbing them together. As he moved, his shadow moved with him, twisting and turning to the sharp crackle of the fire.
Something moved out of the corner of his eye, but when he looked he saw nothing at all, the darkness so profound that it obscured the depths of the cave and rendered them bare and opaque. He decided his mind must be playing tricks on him, and leaned back against the wall.
The surface was hard and cold, and as he shifted to try and make himself comfortable the edges of his shadow crept out and around him, spreading out along the wall. Glancing sharply to the side, he saw it form a new shape, a replica of his body in shadow unfolding against the wall. The edges blurred, growing more indistinct the longer he stared. Finally, the shadow split where its mouth should be and spoke.
"I have been waiting for someone like you."
"For…me?" His voice hitched, his mind still trying to believe that his shadow had indeed spoken to him.
"Someone like you, I said." It managed to sound irritated but still smooth, twisting his own voice into something barely recognizable. "But you will do. You're more than acceptable."
"Wait…who are you?" Bakura asked.
"I go by many names…I am the Darkness. Omega. Zed. Zorc. You may refer to me as hadretak, if you wish."
"None of those sound like real names," he mumbled, and the shadow-creature chuckled.
"I would like to offer you a deal," it said to him. "You have something I want, and I can give you something in return."
"What can you give me?" he asked.
"I can guide you back to your home," it answered. "You'll never find the way on your own. If you agree to my terms, it will be a simple matter to cloud the sky and locate your village. I can promise your safe return."
"And what would you like in return?"
"A simple matter. You see me like this, don't you? I cannot leave here as I am—I require the shadow and the light to exist, and I have been waiting for a host for so very long. Just let me in…I will build a body for myself out of your own. I will not take much."
Bakura pressed himself back against the wall; scrambling elsewhere would be useless, not when the shadow could so easily swing itself around to loom above him wherever he went inside this cave. "And if I do not accept your offer, will I die here?"
"Yes." The shadow's answer was deceptively placid. "That is certain. You will never make it even if you know which way to go."
The edges of the black shadow licked at his arms, sliding across his shoulders and shoelaces and drifting to brush against his hair. "I will not harm you. Of that you have my word. I will only take what I need to build myself a body from yours."
"And what would that be?"
"Your colors." The gesture was almost tender as the shadow brushed against the inky blackness of his hair. "I like your hair, you know. It reminds me of myself. I will be glad to have a body that resembles yours."
Before him, the fire flickered. He would need to add another branch soon, to keep it from going out.
"They will come for me," Bakura said, his confidence dropping with every soft chuckle the voice made in his ear. "The others are out there somewhere. We'll return together…"
"Now, you don't really believe that, do you?" The voice sounded disapproving, and the shadow twisted above him in soft waves, the motion lazy. "How long will you hold out? I bet after a day you will realize the futility of refusing me."
He lasted for two before a single word escaped his mouth, so softly that he could barely hear it echo off the far walls of the cave.
"Bakura-ammu said the plague will pass, soon," Amane spoke up, watching her parents across the table. "That it happened ten years ago."
"That is correct." The clinking of silverware nearly drowned out her father's soft voice. "We are hopeful of the first, at least."
"Does anyone ever recover?"
"Some do," her mother said. "Not many. I had it myself, when I was younger."
"Bakura said that there was no cure. I think he's lying. He looks up when he lies. Why does Bakura know so much about the plague?"
"You should know, habibti"—and Amane knew it must be bad, for her mother only used that name when she had bad news to deliver—"that the village believes Bakura to be the cause of the plague. He returned, hardly recognizable, so they say, and hardly a week later men and women started to get sick. Most of the people would have nothing to do with him, given the choice."
"But…" She looked down, where her fingers were twisting themselves together in her lap. "That can't be true. I'll go and ask him! He should prove his innocence—he can't be responsible if its starting up again, right?"
"Last time," her father added, "the cases stopped when he moved outside the village. I am sure most would say to make them stop this time, he must be turned out into the wilderness. He found his way in it before."
Stricken, Amane glanced between them. "It's just going to get worse, isn't it?" She knew then that no matter the outcome, Bakura would suffer for it. Was there truly no way to offer him redemption? "If the plague came from the wilderness—not Bakura, but the wilderness—then there must be a cure there as well."
"No one would go—to go that far into uncharted land is to risk death. Our village was punished for attempting it before. Who would leave the sick and dying? I must stay to take care of them," her mother said.
"And I must stay to take care of you," her father told Amane.
She did not ask aloud what she should stay for. The number of options was dwindling, the most pressing of which had none at all of his own. If she could give him nothing else, she could do that much.
"Bakura!" Amane called out as she approached his cabin, another basket in her arms. "Bakura!"
When no response came right away, her concern grew, but a moment later Bakura shuffled to the door, his eyes dark from too-little sleep and his clothes wrinkled. He waved her inside, and took up his old, wobbly seat. A second seat had been made up from a few stacked crates, and Amane took up the new perch, setting the basket on the table between them, for the first time wondering what would have become of him if families like her own did not share what they had with him; she could see precious little in the way of food supplies of his own, but as they sat together in silence the basket remained untouched.
"You should eat something," she reminded him gently.
"I know what I should do, and it is not that," he said. "I must return…I do not care for the village, but your family has been kind to me when I had nothing. The plague is not going to end this time—I know the cause of it, and I believe I can stop it."
"The cause? Was it the forest?"
"No…it was the darkness," he said, spitting out the word like it was venom. "I made a deal with a creature of darkness to save my life at the cost of the villagers' when I unknowingly led the creature straight here." It had promised not to harm him, but such an indulgence was not extended towards the rest of the village.
"You couldn't have known—"
"It knew. It counted on that." He paused. "You look curious…would you like to hear about it?"
"You can tell me when you get back," she said. "You'll be a hero! Everyone will know it!"
He began to divide up the food in the basket with a bemused smile, eating second helpings at Amane's insistence.
"What does the cure look like?" she asked. "How will you find it?"
He spent a few minutes thinking. "You'll know…it is something you feel more than something that you see."
The single word was enough of an invitation as the tendrils of shadow began to crawl up his body, moving faster as they raced up his neck, mapped out his fingerprints and traced the contours of his ears.
"Brace yourself," the shadow told him. Bakura thought it was kind enough that he had gotten a warning at all, and his fingers scrabbled against rock.
He could see nothing, then, not even the fire or the dim light from the opening of the cave; the tendrils of shadow were inside his mouth now, slipping behind his tongue. Each of his senses were overwhelmed by it, and then it sucked, and it felt like a part of himself was being lifted away.
When he opened his eyes again, he was staring at himself—his own hair, his own face, his own body. He glanced down at himself and his arms before noticing the white swath of hair over one shoulder.
The shadow looked far too pleased with himself, and extended a hand to help Bakura up. When he took it, strong fingers clamped down over his own, seemingly stronger than what he'd had before.
"I think, for being so accommodating, I'll give you a gift," the shadow said. "Free of charge."
He climbed the hills like the memory had never left him, his feet remembering where to step and which trees to turn at, making a path through the forest, his destination a cave high up on the hillside, nearly hidden from view.
The more he walked, the more he noticed that the thick blanket of fog seemed to be guiding him once again, cutting off paths he knew not to take, keeping him pointed in the right direction. It had been many years alone for the both of them—perhaps the shadow was regretting his part of the bargain as much as Bakura regretted his.
The voice came from behind him, every bit as smooth as he remembered.
"I came to see you," Bakura said.
"Indeed?" If anything, the shadow sounded bored. "I do not believe that. We parted on such poor terms, if you remember."
He took a step closer. "You have something I want." Another step.
"The end of the plague, I take it. Why would I leave? And besides, I'm not interested in making a deal with you."
"Who said anything about a deal?"
Bakura reached out to him, grasping his face with both hands. The kiss was hardly one at all, but what he wanted was inside the other—what the shadow had stolen. He felt the other tense, felt the panic beneath the surface of his skin, and sucked it back, overwhelmed by the sudden influx of sensation as something dark and cold as ice came to rest deep inside his chest.
His arms sank through air, the shadow reduced back to its namesake. He gasped, staring first at his own arms and then at the sky as it began to clear—truly clear, for the first time in his long memory.
The rain had come down in sheets, pouring thick raindrops that seemed to wipe away the smog and cleanse the skies. Amane watched out the window, waiting for it to clear as she munched on an apple.
By the time she had finished it had slowed to a drizzle, and as she walked down the street, careful to avoid puddles and mud, she had to lift a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. With the sun at her back, she was rewarded with a stripe of multicolor sky, stretching from the clouds to some far off place on the ground, and knew they had been cured.