Dear Hideki Fujiwara of “Shiromi Village”,
Thank you for your correspondence. We understand that you are requesting a dispatch of Shinigami, including shapers and healers, to your location in District 46, West Rukongai, for the purpose of “building settlements” and “resolving pressing concerns in the community”.
However, at this time, the Thirteen Divisions have insufficient manpower to accommodate your request. We would also like to clarify, once again, that our responsibility is to ensure safety and security in Soul Society. Should there be any Hollow incursions or serious breaches in law, you may approach any Ninth Division Shinigami in your area. Minor issues are outside of our jurisdiction, and should be settled locally.
Please do not contact us again.
Kazuki Saito (Officer, 10th Seat)
Chiba Yasunobu (Officer, 19th Seat)
Hideki folded the letter and returned it to its envelope. The response was not unexpected, but disappointing regardless.
Hideki had lived here eighty years. He had walked to this very spot, planted a stick in the ground, and declared to any squatters who would listen that this was now Shiromi village. He taught them how to shape, cleared the debris from the streets, and together they raised the first actual buildings in Shiromi. The first twenty years had exceeded all expectations, the village settling quickly and efficiently.
But as Shiromi grew, so did its reputation, and soon people from all over had come, begging for clothes, for shelter. Very soon, there were too many for Hideki to provide for. There were precious few good shapers, both skilled and strong enough to raise a house at a regular pace. Retired Shinigami were ideal, but they were hard to find these days, and even rarer this far from the capital, Seireitei. It was impossible to keep up with demand. Souls fought for priority, stole goods, and sometimes even killed each other. Shiromi village became an administrative and logistical nightmare, as entropy did its best to return Shiromi to the dust whence it came.
But still Hideki forged ahead. Other than Seireitei, Soul Society was essentially one huge slum. One might think that people might stop fighting each other in a land where breathing was all you needed to satiate your hunger, and where material objects could be shaped at will if you were smart enough. But alas, land was scarce, and more importantly, so was status. People lied, cheated, stole and killed, either for their own gain, or to prevent others from doing the same to them. This was not a place one would envision spending the rest of eternity.
Shiromi village had begun to change this, before the thousands of prospective immigrants had come, fighting desperately for resources and shelter and in the process ruining them for everyone else. Hideki had hoped that with the help of some Shinigami, he would be able to increase short-term supply sufficiently to clear the slums and restart development. But now those hopes had been dashed. Hideki would probably pen another letter in a few months, but in the meantime he would need to find another solution.
His thoughts were interrupted by a shout from outside.
“Hideki!” a panicked voice called. “Help!”
The door slid open and Hideki turned to see two men carrying a boy into his study. The boy’s spiritual pressure was weak and wavering. Bits of his soul were flaking off and dissolving in the air. The boy was clearly in critical condition, but Hideki wasn’t a healer, what were those two thinking?
“Drop him!” Hideki commanded, and the two men stopped, startled. Hideki pointed to one of the men. “Rand, go get Midori. Mat, stay here and start shaping a pill.” The one called Rand took off quickly, and the other sat down, a small sphere forming slowly in his palm. Hideki knelt over the boy, his hands glowing red as he tried to recall what little he knew of the healing arts. The boy’s condition stabilised somewhat, the rate of deterioration slowing but not stopping.
“What happened?” Hideki asked Mat. “A fight?” The damage was too severe to be simple exhaustion.
“I don’t know. He was already like that when we found him lying on the street. I think he’s a newborn. We wrapped him up and brought him here, fast as we could.”
“Next time, bring him straight to a healer, and don’t bother with the clothes. He won’t need them if he’s dead.”
A minute later, the healer arrived and Hideki stepped back, deferring to her expertise. She laid her hands on the boy, and a thick flow of energy seeped into him, stitching his tattered soul back together. The flow weakened, and the healer paused to take a pill before resuming with renewed strength.
As she worked, the boy’s condition improved significantly. His spiritual pressure was still weak, but it was at least steady. He was no longer evaporating and seemed more substantial than before. The healer ended the spell, nodded to Hideki and left quickly to her next errand. Healers were in short supply in Shiromi village. Everything was, really.
The two men helped Hideki carry the still-unconscious boy onto a thin mattress before leaving. How long would it take before he awoke? Probably several hours or so, Hideki thought. The healer had only fixed the worst damage, the boy would have to do the rest himself.
Just then, the boy stirred.
“Karin,” the boy murmured…
An ocean of sand. A dark, moonless sky. A smell of death.
A Hollow, its shape midway between a wolf and a gorilla, but with slippery scales in place of hair or fur. There was a dark hole in its chest. Strange markings twisted across its body, and its left foreleg was wrapped around with a length of white fabric, like a bandage. It thrashed in agony as its limbs grew, skin tearing and healing alternately. Its white mask was fluid and not fully formed, presently splitting open as it let out a piercing scream.
The sound was hollow and layered, like several voices in tandem. Despite that, Ichigo instantly recognised the voice.
It was Karin’s.
It was Karin.
Ichigo could still feel her presence, but it was weak. Diminished. Suppressed. The Hollow infection had burrowed deep into her soul and stolen the reins.
Help. A rustling in the wind. Somebody. Anybody.
I’m coming for you, Karin, Ichigo tried to say. Hold on. I’ll get you, no matter what. But he had no body, no voice.
The pain rose to a crescendo and the Hollow reared up, roaring. A final ripple spread across its flesh and its mask solidified. There was agony, and bloodlust. A craving to devour human souls. Go, the mask whispered. Hunt, and perhaps the pain will subside for a while.
The Hollow raised its claws and slashed the empty air.
A ripping sound. Sunlight burst forth. The smell of life.
The smell of prey.
The Hollow leapt through the doorway to the human world.
Ichigo slowly opened his eyes. He was in an unfamiliar room, and an elderly man sat nearby, watching him. Ichigo sat up and winced at the effort.
“Breathe,” the man said.
Ichigo drew in a breath, and was surprised to find it invigorating, replenishing his energy. “Thanks.”
“My name is Hideki Fujiwara. What is yours?”
“Ichigo, meaning strawberry?”
“No, ichi meaning first, go meaning guardian.”
“I see. A good name. You’re fortunate that it’s Japanese; it’s the predominant culture here. The founders were Japanese, you see. My name was originally Hadrian before I changed it to fit in better.” The old man gestured at the room around them. “Do you know where you are?”
“Uh…” Ichigo tried to recall what the girl in black had said. “I’m not sure. A girl tapped me on the head with her sword and then…”
Hideki nodded. “You are now in Soul Society. More specifically, you are in Shiromi village, in Tenryu Ward of Uenohara District of West Rukongai in Soul Society. What the Shinigami girl did to you is called Soul Burial; she sent your soul from the human dimension to this one.” His expression grew concerned. “For some reason, your soul was badly weakened upon your arrival. If two of my boys hadn’t brought you to me in time, you could have died. Might I ask what happened?”
“A Hollow attacked me and my sister. The Shinigami girl drove it off, but it grabbed my sister and left. I tried to pull her away from it, but…” The words stopped short as he remembered. The final, terrified look Karin had given him as the portal closed. What else should he have done?
The old man bowed his head. “I see. I am sorry for your loss. Many of us here in Soul Society have lost family and friends to the Hollows. Though not usually right before our eyes.” He looked straight at Ichigo. “That said, it was unwise to fight the Hollow. If you ever encounter one again, don’t fight. Run.”
What? “You’re saying I should have let her go just like that? Without even trying?”
“Yes. All Hollows are significantly stronger than the average soul, and you are a newborn.” Hideki leaned forward. “Do you know what you looked like when you came in? You burned through all your energy struggling with the Hollow, and then some. Your soul was in tatters. You were falling apart.” He shook his head. “I can’t even imagine how you could stand the pain.”
Had it hurt that badly? Ichigo tried to recall. “I didn’t feel much,” he said honestly. “I wasn’t really paying attention to myself.” A thought occurred to Ichigo. “Do you know any Shinigami? I was wondering…”
“I know a few. I have written letters to some seated officers as well.” Hideki sighed. “But they do not like me. They would not help me, and I doubt they will agree to help a no-name soul like you. And they will certainly not agree to search out and cleanse your sister for you, if that’s what you want.”
“Perhaps I could go ask them myself. Maybe they will listen to me then. Where can I find the Shinigami?”
“There are some Shinigami from the Ninth Division here, but their duties are within Soul Society. If you want a Shinigami that will go to the human world for you, you will need to head to Seireitei, the capital of Soul Society. But they will not help you. They care little for the souls out here.” The last few words were bitter.
“But they normally kill Hollows.”
“They do. But they will not enter Hueco Mundo to search out your sister. They will cleanse your sister only if she ventures into the human world and is spotted by a Shinigami.”
“How long will that take?”
“It’s difficult to say. You need to understand that Hollows number into the millions. The billions. There are only so many Shinigami. There are only so many Hollows they can slay.”
There was a pause as Ichigo absorbed this information. “So you’re saying that she may not ever be cleansed.”
The matter-of-fact tone in which he said it was disconcerting. It seemed that Ichigo was expected to sit idly in Soul Society, and leave to random chance when Karin would be saved. No, if Karin would be saved.
The old man seemed to notice the look in Ichigo’s eyes. “There’s nothing you can do, Ichigo,” he said. “Just hope for the best, and be thankful that you are here.”
No. There were still options. “I can become a Shinigami. I will go find Karin myself.”
Hideki frowned. “You overestimate yourself, and underestimate the Hollows.”
“Listen. The Hollows are powerful and numerous, and the Shinigami have tried to eradicate them for a thousand years. A newborn weakling like yourself will not stand a chance.”
“I can train. I can become stronger than any of them.”
Hideki shook his head. “You are wrong. Come,” he said, standing up. The old man walked towards a ladder in the corner of the room, and Ichigo followed him up through the ceiling, through the roof, onto a small observation platform.
The platform was the tallest structure in the vicinity, and from it, Ichigo saw the village for the first time. There were houses made of sturdy white panels, lined in neat rows stretching out for kilometres. Further out, the houses were less well-built, slowly transitioning into an unruly slum.
“This is my village,” Hideki said. “My friends and I built Shiromi out of the slum it was before.” He raised a palm and a small piece of matter began forming in his palm. “I have shaped for a hundred years, and on a good day I might be able to build one tenth of a house.” He closed his fist. “But in a single day, the Shinigami made all this.” He gestured around him.
Ichigo was confused. “What, the village?”
Hideki shook his head. “No,” he said, “they made this world. This entire dimension.”
“So you see,” the old man said, “The Shinigami could do that, but they could not eradicate the Hollows. What are you, next to them?”
He waved toward the ladder. “Let’s go down now. Forget about the Shinigami. I can help you settle here. Shiromi village is a welcoming place.” The old man smiled. “And you have your whole life ahead of you.”
They descended in silence.
That night, Ichigo dreamed of Karin.
Not Karin, the sister he knew. Karin, the Hollow.
He watched as she stalked the human world, searching for prey. He watched as she devoured a soul, as it screamed and cried. He watched as she charged a Shinigami, only to be repelled. He watched as she ripped open a portal to Hueco Mundo to escape and recover from her wounds.
Through it all, the pain. The hunger.
He awoke, heart racing. It’s just a dream, Ichigo told himself. It’s not real.
He lay back down, on his mattress in the safety of Hideki’s house. It was a long time before he slept.
And when he did, the nightmare began anew.
This chapter was really difficult to write. I wrote and discarded three whole versions, around six thousand words. Turns out it’s difficult to introduce an entire setting and a new character at the same time, who would have guessed. Anyway, although it took a little longer than expected, I’m happy with the final outcome.
If you enjoyed this, or even if you didn’t, please leave a review! I always like to hear what people think.