The world was too bright. The sun had long since set behind the walls of the Seireitei, yet the moon above resolved the streets and structures with an eerie clarity. That wasn't it, though. Shunsui Kyoraku had seen full moons before, more than he could count, but this was not the look of moonlight. There was an unsettling glow about the Court, seeping from every brick and tile. Even the reishii are restless these days. It was a pity, but complaints against the spirit particles could not improve his nap. He found a suitable compromise in pulling his straw hat lower over his eyes.
Before Kyoraku could doze off again, the door beside him slid open with a wooden whisper. "Hanging about other people's front doors, Shunsui? Not very cultured of you," a sedate voice commented.
Kyoraku did not so much as flinch. "Of course, you should've been waiting on me," he replied. "I have a reputation to uphold."
"You seem to have made the best of things. How long have you been lying there?"
"Long enough to be comfortable. Are you sure you're ready to leave?"
In spite of the plaintive note in Shunsui's voice, the other man did not sound sympathetic. "Get yourself someone to come home to, lad, and you might learn to say goodbye properly."
One long finger tipped the hat back far enough to reveal a bestubbled smile. "I didn't think your daughter was old enough for marriage offers, Kijuro-kun."
"Still dreaming of a woman able to put up with you, Shunsui? I rather meant you find a cat."
"Feh. You win," Kyoraku conceded, rising to his feet with simple grace. He gave a lingering sigh, tilting his head to observe the night sky. "We shouldn't keep Ol' Yama waiting."
Kijuro shifted, tugging at the hem of the white haori about his shoulders. The moon was reflected in his wire-rimmed spectacles, while the ghostly light suffusing the Court made the gray in his sideburns stand out amongst his short black hair. "Yamamoto's message was unlike him," he agreed. "I've never seen a hell butterfly so insistent." The two men exited the private garden of Kijuro's manse. He was one of the few captains who maintained a home outside his division barracks. It was little more than an apartment, set amongst a few small rows of trimmed hedges and meticulously laid gardens, but nestled in a quiet corner of the Court it was well away from the crowded commotion of the Gotei Thirteen.
"Everyone's on edge," Kyoraku observed. "The deployments to the living world are taking their toll."
"You seem no worse for the wear."
"What's a little stress with a good bottle of sake at hand?"
Not a young man, the laugh lines in Kijuro's face were well defined, and stood out when he smiled. "You must delight your subordinates with an attitude like that."
"You assume I'm a good enough captain to share."
"The tab? Always."
"Now, now, you know me better than that. I haven't been to a tavern since…"
"The last one stopped serving you?"
Shunsui made a face. "That hurts, Kijuro-kun, really it does. No, it's been since the rotation started. I still think Yama-ji designed it to keep my old drinking company separate."
"I'd be surprised if he hadn't. I don't suppose it's stopped you."
"It's been a long time since Ol' Yama's Academy, but it was you that taught me adaptation, sempai. It's a big world, with so many nice, quiet places to indulge."
"It's well you're such a tranquil drunkard. Dragging you back to your office from all corners of Soul Society would be impossible otherwise."
It was remarkable how little difference there was between amusement and melancholy in Kyoraku's smile. "Masaki was good about that."
"I heard about him. I'm sorry."
As quick as it had gone, the slyness was back in Shunsui's expression. "Sorry enough to let me have Kisuke Urahara?"
Kijuro chuckled. "The two of you in the same plane of existence is trouble enough," he remarked. "Putting you in the same division would be criminal."
"He's overdue for a promotion, and you don't have anywhere else to put him," Kyoraku countered. His heavy-lidded eyes took on a boyish twinkle. "There's only so much damage the two of us can do."
"Is that supposed to reassure me? Besides, he's not exactly your type. Why would you want my third seat for your new lieutenant?" He sounded curious.
"Sad to say I don't have anyone fit for the job. My third is too timid, my fourth is too ambitious, and both are too young. And my fifth seat," Kyoraku concluded, his expression becoming almost queasy, "is an Omaeda."
The other's response to the name was a visible cringe. "Isn't he the one they tried to marry into the Kuchiki family?"
Kyoraku nodded. "They couldn't say 'no' fast enough."
"Just as well. Five Great Noble Families is more than enough, and right now, losing his lieutenant to an unhappy marriage is the last thing Ukitake needs."
Once more, the captain of the Eighth Division sobered. "Have you seen him since we got back?"
Kijuro had no need to clarify which of the other shinigami the question concerned. There was a long pause. "He is not well."
"You don't mean—"
"No," Kijuro was quick to reassure. "The physicians are positive that he's showing no unusual symptoms. They should know; they won't let him out of the Fourth Division Ward."
The lines beneath the stubble around Kyoraku's mouth deepened. The current rotation had the Thirteenth Division as one of the three units keeping order among the swell of new souls in the Rukongai. They were scheduled to return to the living world within the week, though whether their captain would lead them there was still in doubt. Their duties now were hardly safe, but at least they were close at hand. Still, if Shunsui knew his friend, there was no way of binding written that could keep Juushiro Ukitake in Soul Society when his division was moving into harm's way. "I meant to see him, before the summons came," Kyoraku lamented.
Kijuro's smile was cryptic. "I wager you'll see him sooner than you think."
Shunsui didn't quite know how to reply to that. They were at last approaching the headquarters of the First of the Thirteen Court Guardian Divisions, the heart of the collective operations of the shinigami. Even at this late hour, the entrance was open, torchlight from within the building spilling onto the pathway. The sentries to either side of the tall double doors were clear-eyed and scowling, with backs as straight as the pikes they held. They allowed the two familiar faces to pass without contest.
Between the twin rows of torches, the meeting hall was all but filled with a massive table. Even so, it was not the largest presence there. Standing at the head of the table, in front of the only chair in the room, was a wrinkled old man with a flowing white beard twined with purple ribbon. He grasped a gnarled cane in equally gnarled fingers, but no weight was placed upon it. And whatever his appearance, Captain-Commander Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryuusai commanded attention.
"You're keeping odd hours, Yama-ji," Shunsui called. "It's not good for your health."
"Captain Kyoraku. Captain Ise," Yamamoto greeted them. His voice was rolling gravel, and ponderous as his beard. "Enter."
The two captains stepped forward, Kyoraku's eyes sweeping over the table, across which was spread two detailed maps, both maintained through the efforts of the Kido Corps. One showed the portion of the living world for which they were responsible. Swaths of color glimmered about the chart, subtle shifts in hues of red and gold. The golden patches were most noticeable around the collections of tiny numbered blue cones, scarce and scattered though they were. Shunsui grimaced at the sight, which had not grown any less depressing since his last visit to the command center.
The second map, and its ringed layers of sore familiarity, Kyoraku tried to avoid looking at entirely.
It was tough to pinpoint when the plague in the mortal world had begun. Almost overnight its fearsome mortality had overwhelmed the Seireitei's ability to maintain the smooth flow of souls from the living world, filling it with aimless spirits. From that had arisen a surge in the number of hollows risking the trek to the mortal plane, making an already daunting task all the more dangerous. By the time the first of the surge of Pluses had begun descending into hollows themselves, the living world had become a banquet of souls in such proportions as to draw out the menos from their hiding places. Hardly a day went by without report of a gillian, and there had been eight sightings and three confirmed purifications of adjuchas, the ultimate terrors of Hueco Mundo, which had not been seen in the living world for a millennium. There were even stories – not reports, just hearsay – of even greater hollows. (On that front, Shunsui felt they had quite enough problems without making any more up.) In spite of it all, the shinigami had fought long and hard. But just when they had been making progress, a revelation still unexplained to this day threatened to make their challenge an impossible one.
The plague had spread into Soul Society itself.
It was quickly traced to souls which had died of the disease in the living world. This had not helped explain it, but at least helped the shinigami contain it. They had to sequester the infected souls from the rest, and to prevent an epidemic within the Rukongai, three of the Gotei Thirteen were assigned the task. The second map on the table displayed the results of those efforts, with all the appeal of a bowl of rotten fruit.
As a rule, spirit bodies were hardier than their flesh counterparts, so the plague was neither as contagious nor as deadly as it was to the living. That was little consolation to the residents of the Rukongai, however, and not even the shinigami were immune to its effects. Three divisions were on leave at all times, which allowed them to both recover from their stressful assignments and receive preventative treatment. Fourth Division's support efforts on both sides of the Senkaimon since the start of the plague had been nothing short of heroic; theirs was the only division yet to receive any sort of relief.
With seven divisions in Soul Society and six constantly deployed to the living world, the best that could be said of all the Gotei Thirteen's efforts was they were breaking even. It had been so now for ten years.
"I apologize for calling the two of you away from your rest," Genryuusai began. "However, this mission will not require your full divisions, merely yourselves. It is to be undertaken while your subordinates are recovering." The Captain-Commander could be long-winded when the mood struck him, but his tone for the briefing was nothing of the sort. "We have received a request for aid from Avalon."
Captain Kijuro Ise cocked his head to one side, his expression quizzical. "I don't mean to sound callous, but they do realize we have problems of our own?"
"It's a strange time for an interest in inter-regional cooperation," Kyoraku observed.
"It is a request for combat assistance. My counterpart was given details of our current situation and did not relent." The Captain-Commander's eyes opened almost imperceptibly to take in the map of the living world. "They would not say so outright, but I feel Avalon is weathering this crisis worse than Soul Society, and for them it has just begun. This request has not been made lightly."
"What did the Central Forty-Six have to say?" asked Ise.
Yamamoto gave a rather ambiguous cough. "They have decided to allow the Captain-Commander full autonomy to address this matter."
"Don't ask us, we'll ask you," Shunsui muttered, shaking his head. Soul Society's governing body had deferred more and more to the Gotei Thirteen as the conflict dragged on. At first it had been refreshing to avoid the bureaucracy, and the Chambers had also been keen to focus on maintaining order from within the Seireitei while leaving the world of the living to those who knew it best. But as much as he respected Yamamoto, Kyoraku knew the Captain-Commander was not over fond of… delegating.
"The situation and timing are not ideal, but our efforts are making progress," Yamamoto went on. "As your divisions are off of the front-line assignments at this time, I believe you two captains can be spared."
"I would ask that you count again, Genryuusai-dono," a new voice called from the doorway.
Shunsui spun about fast enough that the chin string almost failed to keep his hat in place. "Juushiro!"
"Don't sound so surprised to see me, Kyoraku-kun," Juushiro Ukitake replied. He was smiling, but the expression was strained. His wan complexion was even paler than usual, and his long white hair was limp and slick with sweat. He was leaning upon the doorframe, a pose he was trying hard to present as casual, but no one in the room was fooled.
"Captain Ukitake, you should be resting."
"Thank you, Captain Ise, but I'm not too frail to take an evening walk."
You gallant fool. You look like you ran all the way here with a Rukongai gatekeeper on your back. "Fresh air is the last thing you'll find here, Juushiro. Honestly, Yama-ji, you have enough torches in here to roast a gillian."
Ukitake's expression grew serious despite the jest. "Captain-Commander, I request to join this mission."
Kyoraku frowned. Ukitake was in the Court because he was too exhausted and sickly to leave it, never mind lead his division into battle. Despite his well-known poor health, like the rest of the Gotei Thirteen he had lived ten years in constant battle, and his last foray into the living world had nearly spent him. It was only thanks to Michiko Kuchiki – one of the most capable and respected lieutenants in the Thirteen Divisions – easing his burden that he lasted as long as he had. The most fundamental objectives were placing a destructive strain on the divisions, and the risk of infection was one that kept even vigorous shinigami mindful of their health. Less than two weeks ago, Masaki Koda, Kyoraku's own lieutenant, had become the first officer over fifth seat to die of the disease, and his whole division was still numb from that blow. One of the thirteen captains becoming a casualty would be devastating to morale.
After a long moment, the Captain-Commander rumbled his reply. "Request granted."
Someone who had lived less than a millennium might have spoken without thinking, but while Kyoraku did not bother to temper the look he leveled at Yamamoto, he did hold his tongue. In the next instant, eyes narrowing, he began to wonder exactly what they were becoming involved in that would require the attention of the bulk of the divisions' reserve combat strength.
Captain Ise looked just as uneasy, adjusting his spectacles with his left hand while his right cradled his zanpakuto. "If that's decided, then I suppose we ought to know what we'll be doing. It's not every day residents of Soul Society receive an invitation to Avalon."
"That's so," Yamamoto agreed. "I have only been there twice myself, though I have worked with the Soulguard several times. They are every bit as disciplined and capable as our own Gotei Thirteen." With a resounding thump, the base of the Captain-Commander's staff struck the floor. On the table, the map of the living world began to distort and shift, reforming its report to show a smaller area in greater detail. "Captains, you will depart for the Transfer Gate tomorrow morning, and the particulars will be given to you when you reach Avalon. However, I can at least show you where your task will ultimately lead you."
His geography was a bit rusty, but it wasn't hard to tell that the place in question was not nearby. And judging by its shade of red on the map, there was only one appropriate thought that came into Shunsui Kyoraku's mind: Oh, hell.
"We should go back," James urged as the sun neared the horizon behind them. "The town is dead."
"Do a few bodies frighten you?" Sir John Chandos asked with just a hint of disdain.
James Audley did not rise to the bait. He was the oldest of their company at thirty-two, and no man could question his bravery, no matter who had held the sword that tapped their shoulders. "No more than they do in every other mud-soaked hovel we pass."
Sir Caylen Dare spurred his horse up beside them. "The road is gloomy enough without your appraisals, James. Surely you can enjoy a twilight ride, even if Sir John does make for foul company."
Audley did not return the young knight's smile. "Foul company, foul country, and foul rumor. You might think God would provide some variety in my life."
"Smile now, Audley," prodded Dare, "I thought our charge was to correct two of those! Sir John's manners may be hopeless, but you should not let them sour you so."
"We move on," Chandos interrupted flatly. "Daylight is scarce, and if there are survivors I do not wish to frighten them with a night approach."
Their horses followed the path up the last hill before their destination. The orange glow of sunset burnished the lions and fleurs-de-lis quartered on the banner that flapped above them, and lit the fields to either side. Most of the men kept one eye on the fallow plain to their left, its tall grasses a ripe opportunity for ambush. Sir Caylen was distracted, however, looking off into the well-grazed pasture to their right, drifting several paces ahead of the company.
The spirits were out this evening. They strode through the field in ones and twos, with a few larger groups as well, following the path from a safe distance. With the sun at their backs, it was difficult to make out the chains, but Caylen didn't have to see those to know. The lack of reaction from the rest of the men was enough.
"Your ride heedless for a man in unfriendly country," Audley taunted.
"I heed my eyes well enough," Dare replied, though the retort was half-hearted. Coming to the crest of the hill he stopped, head panning slowly across the long, low valley before them. His smile was gone.
"So solemn now, Sir Caylen?" Audley prodded, joining him at the top of the rise. In the wide valley beneath them, the outlines of structures could still be distinguished in the fading light. Half a mile distant, the town of Esprit appeared darkened and lifeless... to all but one of them, at least.
Sir Caylen Dare had always seen spirits. As a curious youth, too young to know any better, when he had come across people with chains on their chests walking about with never a word from those around, he talked to them. Listened to them. And he had learned from them as well. The most important lesson, when he was still young enough to be dismissed as a child with an overactive imagination, was the difference between those who did and did not see what he could, and the value of discretion. By the time he was a young man, a squire traveling with the armies of King Edward, that knowledge had become second nature.
There was no shortage of restless souls; not in Britain, certainly not in northern France. Caylen had seen peasants tilling fields with spades that moved no soil, listened to old men shouting in the ears of upstart lords who rambled on heedless. He had watched children grasp at the skirts of blank-eyed mothers, and husbands slump against the doors of darkened homes. He had been harried by the furious shades of men cut down in battle, some at the end of his own blade, and shared jests with friends who had died in his arms.
In all that time, the sight of ghosts had never unsettled him so much as it did now. The valley was awash with souls, more than Caylen had ever seen in any one place before. It was a sea of specters stretched out before him, lining the streets of the town below, rolling in the fading light with the pulse of a coalescing mob.
For the other soldiers not a hint of movement could be seen. "As I said, the town is dead, or fled," Audley asserted. "It and many others. Death has reached across the channel now; we should not be surprised to find it here."
Most of the company would have been quick to agree, and even more eager to leave. Plague had spread north as fast as the tales of its existence, flooding Europe with death and fear. Even the war between France and England had found pause in face of epidemic. The pious among them would call it God's punishment, the pragmatic would call it disease, but no one wished to linger where its cold black gaze had swept.
"No," the disagreement came, but not from Sir Caylen. Sir John did not look quite so somber, but his alertness was apparent. "Something isn't right."
Despite himself, Audley was growing restless. "Of course it's not. Plague spreads on the very wind. From Rome to London death seeks lord and layman alike, and we ride into the heart of a dead town chasing stories of bandits from some stricken peasant's fever dream!"
"Graves," Sir John whispered, half to himself.
"What?" Audley snapped. "Speak sense, sir!"
"There are no graves," Chandos explained. "I see no signs of a pyre, and if the bodies have not been burned they must have been buried. The church has been spreading word to bury all afflicted corpses together and away from any wells and sown fields. Esprit's wells are within the town, and it was the western fields through which we just passed left fallow and grazed. So if it was plague that took this town, where are the graves?"
With a few soft sounds, Sir Caylen coaxed his mount a few paces forward. Sir John's horse was even more reluctant, but he followed suit. The rest of their company, some twenty men, began to whisper amongst themselves. A chill that had nothing to do with the setting of the sun had come over them.
"I mislike this," Chandos muttered to his counterpart, keeping his voice below the hearing of the others.
"I like it no more than you, Sir John, but I like the thought of returning to Prince Edward empty-handed even less." He took one slow breath, his eyes drifting to random points all about them, to his companion appearing to focus on nothing in particular. "If this town was plagued, there would have been graves. Just as surely, if it were attacked by marauders there would be some sign. Corpses, at the least, and the town would likely have been put to the torch."
"And what then leaves a town neither burnt nor buried?" Chandos wondered. "I see not one lit lamp, and not one soul in the streets."
For an instant, Sir Caylen permitted a smile to pass across his face. "Don't be so sure." He paused just briefly enough to keep the statement form worrying Sir John before adding, "Esprit is the largest city for twenty leagues, yet close enough to our garrison at Abbeville that it had no guard of its own to speak of. It would make a tempting target to a countryside filled with broken men from King Edward's campaigns. Since Crécy they have shown no hesitation in attacking their own countrymen, and the plague has made better men than they desperate enough to kill."
"Our charge is to preserve the rule of law in this land, but what is law in the face of such death?"
"A righteous challenge," Sir Caylen said surely. "The world may be coming to an end, but we still have the choice of how to face it."
Chandos frowned in the direction of the village. "My choice would not be to lead two dozen men against what could be a force strong enough to slaughter a town and fortify it against us."
"The runner said naught of a force that large."
"The runner said naught of sense. He spun a gruesome tale of fear and murder, but Audley is right; the man was sick, or mad, or both." Two days ago he had reached them at the garrison. Dirty, starved, and more than half-mad, he had cried that death had come to Esprit, among a slew of other senseless ravings. Charged by the King to consolidate England's hold on her new territories across northern France, Prince Edward had sent the two knights and twenty mounted men-at-arms to investigate. With luck, they would garner some goodwill from a conquered peasantry rife with apprehension and fear; at worst, they might better grasp the extent of the plague's northward trek.
"Perhaps. In any case, we can see little from here in this light. Our orders…" Dare trailed off, turning back and forth in his saddle, suddenly alert.
Sir John opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. He cocked his head to one side, as though listening for a sound just beyond his hearing. "What—"
Sir Caylen's eyes were wide and fearful, staring back towards the rest of the company... but not so much at them as above them. He screamed a single word: "RIDE!"
Before the men could even look confused, half of them were dead.
The sickening sound of cracking bones and rent flesh was drowned out by the cries of the survivors, man and horse alike. Not one animal stood its ground. The mounts bolted in primal panic, driven to ignorance of rein and spur even if their riders had wanted to stop them. The two knights' warhorses were the only exceptions, destriers well accustomed to blood and battle. Even so, it was all the men could do to keep them in hand.
"In the name of—" Sir John Chandos never had a chance to finish his curse. He doubled over in his saddle, shaking violently, his eyes wide and vacant. His mouth gaped, struggling for breath. Not even his horse could scream.
Sir Caylen Dare was far worse off. He could still move, could still smell the blood and death. He could still hear the distant shouts of their fleeing companions, and the one howl that overwhelmed them all. It was a hideous, roiling wail of anger, of pain, of hunger. He could hear it, clear as day, and every bit as clear as he could see the white-masked beast from whence it came.
*A/N* - To keep the story in flow, this will be the only author's note you'll see, so please forgive me this one interruption. Though you have already seen some changes from the Bleach canon, my aim is not so much an AU fic as an AE fic – one of alternate events, as opposed to a whole new universe. It will be my foremost goal to preserve continuity, whenever possible, with the canon (and if I succeed, I should be in compliance to everything prior to the Turn Back the Pendulum arc). Right next to that on my slate of priorities is, of course, your own entertainment. Reviews, to help me understand what is and is not helping me accomplish that, are very much appreciated.
There will be a significant number of original characters throughout this story, all of my own creation and design, and as much my property as anything else I post on the internet. If you have an open mind, I hope you'll find them to your liking. If you're dubious, stick around for healthy appearances from series favorites such as Ukitake, Kyoraku, Urahara and Yoruichi, along with teasers and cameos by many more (I hope this will be part of a series, after all!) If you have an intractable disdain for OCs of any kind, you may wish to help yourself to the multitude of other fics available here on FFnet, and I thank you for coming this far.
As you might have noticed, I will also be making occasional use of Japanese in the form of romaji. I do not know the language beyond what I've picked up watching a few thousand hours of subtitles, though I do try my best when making use of translators and other resources. Most terms you're not already familiar with should come with context. If you're still unsure, don't hesitate to ask me.
Since, as I said, I won't be making further author's notes, I encourage comments and questions to be directed via messages or e-mail, links to both of which you can find in my profile. Feel free to get in touch, and while I can't guarantee responses, timely or otherwise, know that any effort you make is appreciated.
So, please, let me be your host on my personal trek through the brilliant world and characters of Tite Kubo, and all the extra possibilities I can hope to imbue within them! Read, enjoy, and review!