Disclaimer: Bleach is not mine, the characters, names and related material all belong to Tite Kubo.
Rated T: violence, language, suggestive themes, cosmic horror from beyond the stars dripping in malice and steeped in pure nightmare.
Author's Note: This has been knocking around in my head lately, so I'm just gonna crank it out. This will be much shorter than The Shining Dark, non-AU, and rated T instead of M. Please enjoy.
Soifon stood still as a statue at the treeline gazing out at the moonlit clearing. Across the wide meadow stood another stand of trees, so closely packed that even the light of the full moon could not penetrate its interwoven branches. While no light could filter in from above, the low orange-red light of a fire could be seen dancing just past the trunks of the trees below. She narrowed her eyes as she felt strange, staccato bursts of spirit energy rolling out of the forest across the meadow, in time with the flares of bonfire light. Straining, she could just make out words spoken in chorus, hoarse voices rising to chant in some harsh, alien language. The breeze shifted, thankfully ending the continual chant. Soifon stifled a shudder down her spine, it would not do to have the men see her unnerved.
"Surround and observe, do not engage. I want a report on whatever's going on in there in an hour," she said. A dozen black-clad shapes around her flickered and disappeared, streaking through the night and into the stand of trees she was intently focused on. She drew a small phone from within her own black clothing and flipped it open, pressing a single button on it and raising it to her ear.
"Twelfth Division, Operations," came the answer.
"Second Division in position, requesting remote status report," Soifon said, her voice low and hard.
"Yes Captain, right away," came the reply over the phone. "The signal remains unchanged in location, but has been spiking in power over the last twenty minutes. We're reading your team, they're moving into position around the signal. Ah, yeah we're getting a much better reading now, but the signal still doesn't match anything we have on record. Huh? What was that Akon?"
Soifon heard some commotion over the phone, people shouting and the rapid clicking of keys on computer terminals. "What's going on? Operations? Can you hear me?"
"We're reading some kind of energy surge, Captain Soifon, get your men out of there!"
Before she could bring the phone away from her ear, she felt a sickening wave of oily, disgusting spirit energy unlike any she'd ever felt before wash over her, the light in the forest sparking to a blinding ruby glare. It was unconscionable, a captain of the court guard squads frozen in place, held there by a sudden overwhelming amount of spiritual pressure, but Soifon found she couldn't move. Screams of terror and pain echoed across the meadow, mingled with inhuman, animalistic sounds of fury and triumph.
Gripping the hilt of her sword and drawing up her own spiritual pressure, she took a firm step forward, moving from the treeline only to blanch and falter before she could take another step. Beyond the trees, something was moving at the edges of her awareness, flickering through the shadows like the remnants of a nightmare just after waking. Though she could see nothing directly, and had never been one for flights of imagination, none-the-less she had the terrible impression of an enormous shape, the moonlight dappling off its hulking form and glinting from pitiless, sinister eyes.
"Captain? Captain Soifon?" yelled a voice through her phone.
"Yes, yes go ahead," she whispered back, her eyes still scanning the trees opposite the meadow. The red firelight was dying down, the sounds of the forest were silent and in the utter stillness her own voice seemed to thunder in her ears. Without realizing, she had taken a step back to conceal herself in the treeline again, and had placed another foot behind the first, intent on backing away from whatever force was moving through the forest across from her.
"Captain, we don't know what happened. The signal surged in power, we've lost contact with your team, they're not showing up on the monitors anymore. The signal is fading now, what's happened?"
"I... I don't know," Soifon admitted before firming up her voice, "Wait, I see something coming from the trees." A dark shape, nearly indistinguishable from the blackness of the forest, staggered from the shadows and into the meadow. Soifon drew her sword from behind her back, the metal ringing a clear note in the unearthly stillness. She dropped the phone to the ground at her feet, her eyes scanning the forest canopy behind the hunched and shambling figure, but could detect nothing anymore. Returning to the dark shape, she realized it was a man dressed in the patrol forces standard uniform. Breaking into a sprint, her footfalls silent even over the dry grass and windblown leaves of the meadow, she met him as he came stumbling halfway across.
"C-C-Captain S-Soifon," he stuttered, clutching at her sleeve, his other hand cradling something against his chest as he stared at her with wide, unblinking eyes. "H-h-help m-m-me..."
"Report, soldier," she ordered, looking back at the forest where he came. There was nothing. No movement, no light, and no more spiritual pressure. She looked back at the man kneeing before her, his head bowed and shoulders shaking with terror. "Report!"
Rather than speak, he gently lifted the object he held up to her. Held in his trembling hands was a tiny figurine, carved of some odd deep greenish stone and flecked with gold that shined even in the moonlight. In exquisite detail, it depicted some type of hideous monster, a grotesque, misshapen humanoid form hunched over and seated on a pedestal. Its elongated legs were drawn up, wickedly clawed hands resting atop its knees and a pair of stunted, malformed wings emerging from the figure's back, curving down to touch the pedestal. Most disturbing of all was the creature's head, akin to the that of an oversized, fleshy octopus, a mass of tentacles hanging from where a face would normally be.
Soifon tentatively reached out to touch the small object but recoiled immediately as another wave of nauseating spiritual pressure washed over her. Feeling like she would suffocate, she found the strength to grip the poor man at her feet and desperately drag him back towards the opposite forest. The stifling, disgusting feeling was lessening the further she moved until she was able to hoist the man and bear him back to where she dropped her phone.
"I'm returning to the Seireitei immediately. I have found a survivor of the original patrol expedition who may have important information," she looked askance at the man, leaning heavily against a tree, his hands still firmly enclosing the figurine. "I want a detailed report of that signal energy upon my arrival."
"Yes, yes of course Captain."
Soifon gently closed her phone and tucked it away, her eyes turning back to the forest on the other side of the meadow. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath, blew it out and took another before she finally tore her eyes away, lifted the patrolman over her thin shoulders, and immediately broke into flash step, moving as fast as she could away from that dark place.
Uryu Ishida leaned back from his desk and removed his glasses, setting them next to the book he had been reading before rubbing his eyes and stretching his back. In the empty silence of his father's cavernous manor house, he very clearly heard the pops in his joints as he flexed his fingers and yawned. He placed his glasses back into position, pushing them up his nose for good measure, before standing and arranging his notes and papers for school. Shutting the book, he carefully returned everything to its proper place in his school bag, then turned and left his study, heading for the kitchen down the hall.
He didn't know why he bothered to try to be quiet, despite the exceptionally late hour. He lived in his own private wing of the house. There wasn't anyone around to hear him even if he blasted his radio or television as loud as he could. Not that he would, of course, especially as he was studying for university admissions. He caught sight of himself in the pane of one of the large windows, a moonless night outside throwing the world into pitch blackness. His shirt was wrinkled and his collar was half curled up from leaning against his hand. He looked positively disheveled, at least according to his own standards.
Attempting to smooth out the wrinkles in his clothing, he continued on towards his kitchen. The sound of thunder rumbled distantly as rain began to patter against the roof. Uryu sighed as he flicked on the lights and made his way to the refrigerator. A house so big meant it had a roof to match, and even a light rain could end up sounding rather deafening. His hand on the handle, he paused as he felt a flicker through his senses, a tingle of spiritual pressure that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Looking from side to side, he sharpened his senses and tried to focus on the sensation, but like a wisp of smoke, it was gone. Thunder rumbled closer, rattling the windows in their casements as Uryu took a closer step towards one of the windows. A crack of lightning arced across the sky, throwing the grounds outside into relief for a moment.
"What the..." he muttered, stepping closer to the window and drawing back the curtain a bit more. For a moment, he was sure there was someone, or something, outside. A shape, blacker than the night, standing motionless in the middle of the grass and looking up at the house... no, looking up at him. Another flash of lightning lit up the sky, but all he could see were the grounds of the huge yard, ordinary and familiar.
Convinced his eyes were playing tricks on him after studying for so long, Uryu shook his head at himself and retreated from the window, heading back to the kitchen. Opening the door to the refrigerator and stooping to grab a bottle of water, a crack of thunder boomed through the huge house, plunging everything into complete darkness as the power went out.
"Oh, for God's sake," he said, straightening up in the absolute blackness and blinking to adjust his eyes. The house's generator should kick on in three... two... one, he thought to himself. True enough, the lights all flickered back on and the fridge hummed back to life. Uryu was about to swing the fridge door shut as he turned, lifting the bottle to take a sip, when he looked right into the eyes of a dark shape, staring at him intently from the other side of the door.
Leaping backwards, Uryu managed to keep from yelling in surprise, however he did manage to manifest his spirit bow and nock an arrow in a single smooth motion, having it drawn and sighted as he landed across the room. Panting from the surge of adrenalin, it took him a moment to realize what his target was.
Nemu Kurotsuchi gently pushed the door to the refrigerator closed. She looked over at him, her face expressionless, as she watched him recognize her and lower his weapon. She lifted her hands and gently brushed her wet hair from her face, her soaked kimono spreading drops of rainwater on the expensive hardwood floor. "Hello, Quincy."
Her voice, as ever, was soft and melodic while still somehow remaining monotone. Wary and perplexed, but not feeling overly threatened, Uryu took a step closer to her. His few dealings with her directly had never truly involved any degree of combat, indeed she was one of the few people from the Soul Society he had met about whom he could say that. "Good evening, Soul Reaper."
"A situation has arisen," she said. "One that requires your particular skillset."
Uryu went from perplexed and mildly interested to affronted in seconds. "I'm sorry, it sounded for a minute right there like you broke into my house in the middle of the night, stood in my kitchen sopping wet, and told me that the thirteen court guard squads had something come up that they need a Quincy to handle for them." He stared hard at her but she neither moved not looked away.
"Yes, that is correct."
"Well you can forget it, I'm not in the business of helping out Soul Reapers just because they tell me to," he said, crossing his arms.
She took a step towards him this time, clasping her hands behind her back and drawing herself up straight as befitted her station as lieutenant of the twelfth division. "Would you agree if I asked you, then?"
Uryu was thrown off by her question. He hadn't considered that Nemu would truly engage him in conversation, in the past she had only ever served as spokesman for her father or the Soul Society. The fact that her posture had pulled her drenched black silk kimono tight to her body wasn't helping him focus either. "I will listen to what you have to say and then make a decision. Here, let me get you a towel first."
A few minutes later Uryu couldn't help but note the surreal situation playing out in his sitting room. A Soul Reaper other than Rukia or Ichigo was sitting on his sofa wrapped in a towel and sipping a cup of tea. If Ryuken found out about this he'd be livid, but Uryu wasn't exactly opposed to the idea of distressing his father. He actually wondered which part he'd be more upset at, the fact that he had a girl over in the middle of the night or that she happened to be a Soul Reaper.
"That was you I saw outside on the grounds, wasn't it?" he asked, coming around the corner and sitting in an opposite chair.
"Yes, the fact that you were able to sense my spiritual pressure even while my powers are sealed," she adjusted the edge of her kimono beneath the towel revealing a small black emblem at the base of her neck, "Speaks highly of your own powers and sensitivity."
"That's kind of you to say," Uryu replied, unused to being complimented on his abilities. "Now, what was this situation you were referring to earlier?"
Nemu set the cup of tea aside and clasped her hands in her lap, looking intently at Uryu with her piercing, liquid emerald eyes. "As you know, the Soul Society is not limited to the Seireitei. Outside the boundaries of the city lie a wilderness, sparsely populated by minor towns and kingdoms. These lands are overseen not by the court guard squads since they are outside the jurisdiction of Central Forty-Six, but by the patrol forces, who report to the stealth force."
"Yes, go on," Uryu prompted. Truthfully, he didn't really know much about the geography of the Soul Society, but it stood to reason that there had to be more to the spirit world than a single city.
"An unusual spiritual energy reading was detected by the twelfth division a short time ago, coming from far outside the city. The patrol force that investigated was never heard from again, and the stealth force that went in with the captain of squad two were quickly annihilated."
"The captain?" Uryu said, shocked.
"Captain Soifon was the only survivor," Nemu corrected. "High Captain Yamamoto has declared the area quarantined and no Soul Reaper is permitted to continue the investigation."
"I still don't know what this has to do with me," Uryu said, leaning back in his chair.
"The spiritual presence is growing at a slow but steady rate, according to my father. If left unchecked it will eventually grow large enough to threaten the Soul Society."
"Is it some kind of hollow or arrancar?"
"The energy signature is unlike something a hollow would have. In fact, we can find no record of this type of spirit energy anywhere in the archives. More troubling is the fact that it seems to absorb the spirit energy of anyone who approaches."
"Which is why no Soul Reapers are permitted to go near it," he concluded. "Still, what does this have to do with me?"
"As a Quincy, your spirit energy differs from that of a Soul Reaper," she said simply.
"Wait, that's it? You want me to go investigate some kind of dangerous spiritual presence in the Soul Society simply because I'm a Quincy?"
"That is not the only reason," Nemu said. "Due to my... unique physiology, it has been concluded that I would remain mostly unaffected by whatever the presence is using to siphon power from other Soul Reapers. As such, I have been tasked with investigating the phenomenon, and I do not wish to go alone."
Stunned, Uryu could find no immediate reply. Nemu was asking for his help, on her own, without orders from the Soul Society or her murderous, insane father? "They mean to send you in alone against something that wiped out a patrol force and a detachment from the stealth force? Something not even a captain could deal with?"
"Yes, that is correct," she said again, her voice flat and her face devoid of expression.
Uryu was unsure if his pride and sense of justice were being used against him, but none-the-less he felt he could not simply stand by and do nothing if she was going to walk into unknown danger alone. He sighed as he looked towards his study down the hall before standing and walking to a nearby cabinet. Opening it, he pushed the contents to the side and opened a concealed inner door, revealing his Quincy uniform and equipment all artfully arrayed, as if from a superhero comic book. Removing the carefully hung white and blue clothing, he turned back to Nemu. "When do we leave?"
Nemu stood from the couch, carefully setting the towel aside before turning back to him. "As soon as you are prepared."
Changing quickly, Uryu could feel the tingle of anticipation driving away his weariness. He returned to the cabinet, adjusting the mantle about his shoulders, before strapping on his other equipment. Testing the flex of his fingers within his gloves, he pushed his glasses up his nose and turned to Nemu, nodding that he was finished. "Will we be using Urahara's senkaimon to get there? I don't normally have a spirit form..." he began but trailed off as Nemu approached him, well within his sphere of personal space.
"I have my own means of returning both of us to the Soul Society. Please do not make any sudden movements while we are in transit," she said, coming to a stop toe to toe with him.
She was so close he could see the water still clinging to her eyelashes, hear her gentle breathing, smell the faint scent of cherry blossom the rain had not managed to wash away. She placed her hands against his chest and closed her eyes and Uryu was struck by just how warm they felt, even through his clothing. A soft light suddenly glowed beneath her hands, quickly enveloping the both of them in a pure white radiance. Startled but unmoving, Uryu looked around at the sphere of shining white light surrounding them as their feet lifted gently from the floor. Wind suddenly whipped and tore at their clothing, sending Nemu's hair swirling around her and his mantle billowing about his shoulders. In a moment, the wind was suddenly gone and their feet touched back onto the ground, the sphere of light flashed and disappeared.
"We have arrived," Nemu said.
Uryu looked down and realized she was much closer now, nearly pressed against his chest. He noticed his arms had unconsciously encircled her and he was holding her tightly. Embarrassed, he immediately released her, allowing her to step back from him as he cast his eyes around the room. "Where are we?"
"My chambers on the grounds of the twelfth division, in the heart of the Research and Development complex."
"Your... your chambers?" Uryu was quite sure he was where he was not supposed to be. Not only was he in the middle of Captain Kurotsuchi's headquarters, he was in the man's daughter's room in the middle of the night. Not that there was much in the small room to denote it was inhabited. He could imagine prison cells having more furniture. Coming directly from his father's lavish house, the comparison between it and this room made the word 'sparse' seem an inadequate description.
"You have gathered your equipment, and now I shall retrieve mine," Nemu said simply, walking a few steps away from him. "I call your name, Genjitsu Suraisa."
Uryu watched her make a deft motion with her fingers at chest level, leaving a small tear in the air behind them. Mystified, he watched her reach her hand through this tear, her arm disappearing up to her elbow, before she drew it back out again, her slender fingers gripping an unusual shaped pommel of a curved katana. Drawing the weapon out fully, the tear promptly closed back up and vanished as Nemu reverently slid the scabbard of her sword through the sash at her waist.
"I am ready," she said. "Come, there is something you need to see before we depart." She slid the door to her room aside and stepped out into the darkened hall beyond.