The girl let out a shrill scream. She sprinted down the street and ducked into a narrow alley. She had to stop to catch her breath, casting a cautious glance about the place. The faint glimmer of hope shattered like glass as the shadows surrounding the girl congealed into the cavernous, slavering jaws of a beast.
She screamed again, but her cries fell on deaf ears as the beast stalked its prey. Cowering before the creature, tears streamed from her eyes. The trembling lamb crawled away, but the beast trailed behind her, closing the gap with each long stride.
She collapsed and let loose a pitiful wail, knowing that her struggle would end here; in darkness without another soul to comfort her.
The girl raised her head and stared into the abyss.
The deep rumbling growl shook her very bones. She closed her eyes and waited for the pain, but no pain ever came. Slowly she opened her eyes and glimpsed a tall figure standing between her and the monster.
"Interesting..." The man muttered, stroking his chin. "These creatures...They are not denizens...What are they?"
The girl wished to warn him of the dangers he faced, but her voice had failed her. The man stood motionless as the demon lunged forward with a ground-shaking roar. Then, suddenly the beast was thrown back as if it had hit a brick wall. A length of metal stretched out from the man's tightly clenched fist. A wicked blade rested atop the pole, slick with dark blood.
"Hmm, they definitely do not recognise us. They cannot be from the Crimson Realm...Oh well. If they wish to stand against me and threaten these innocent souls, I will simply have to destroy them."
The man walked forward casually, one hand in his pocket while the other twirled the hefty halberd like a baton. He chuckled as the beast rushed in for another strike. In the blink of an eye the beast was in pieces, its foul blood splattering the walls of the alley with a wet slap.
The girl stammered as the one who saved her turned around and approached. His blood-stained smile was unsettling but...He had saved her.
She extended her hand uncertainly and he clasped it softly within his own with a delicacy belying the most violent display from before. She could not see his eyes, veiled behind thick sunglasses, but the distinct curve of his thin lips suggested a warm smile.
"It's ok. The monster is gone. He can't hurt you anymore."
The girl couldn't resist. She hugged him and sobbed into his chest.
"Thank you sir! Thank you so much! How can I ever repay you?"
"You don't have to do anything my dear!" His grip suddenly tightened and the girl winced. She felt his nails dig into her flesh. "You needn't do anything. Now sleep!"
She couldn't scream. She could not see, or hear. All five senses went blank in an instant. All became nothing.
The man cradled the glowing ball of light and absorbed it into himself. With a devilish grin he glanced up at the moon and licked his lips.
"I love this city!"
Shana stopped dead in her tracks, eyes widening in surprise.
Ichigo and Rukia had ducked down a side street without warning, leaving her to stumble along the main road alone. She quickly backtracked and raced after them.
"Hey! Where are you going?"
Ichigo sighed and scratched his head, "We're visiting a...Well I guess you could call him a 'friend'."
"Why did you say it like that?" the Flame haze pouted.
"You'll find out when you meet him."
"Huh? Why do I have to-?"
"You want to get into Soul Society to find your friend right?" Ichigo cut in, "Well he's the guy to ask about it."
She fell silent after that, somewhat subdued from the knowledge that she was getting closer and closer to finding Yuji. A thin smile crossed her features but she quickly forced a scowl lest the shinigami catch sight of it.
They passed on through the narrow street and followed along a tapering alleyway into an abandoned lot on the fringe of the town. A large building stood off against the comparably drab backdrop, a great wooden structure that seemed to impose upon everything around it. A hand-painted sign above the veranda read: 'Urahara Shoten'.
Shana stared at the odd shop with a frown.
"Why is there a shop all the way out here? Do people even come here?"
Ichigo smirked, an expression she had already grown to dislike. She didn't like his scowl either but every time he smirked she foresaw irritation in the not too distant future.
"This isn't the kind of shop ordinary people go to."
With that the two shinigami wandered casually inside the store. Shana trailed along a few paces behind, cautiously eyeing her surroundings. Once inside her eyes were glued to the rows of candy lined along the aisles.
"It's a disguise. If anyone accidentally wanders in here they can buy some candy, but the real business is done in the back rooms. Be careful."
Ichigo's warning made her shudder and Shana became far more on edge as she crept further inside the shop. Even after heading behind the main store area and into the living quarters not a single person had approached them. The store was empty bar the three young intruders.
Without realising it, Shana had been tugging on Ichigo's sleeve since they entered. With a yelp she pried her hands away and tucked them behind her back, cheeks blushing as bright as her burning eyes. Blurred memories of Yuji flooded back and her blushing only intensified.
Ichigo stopped at the end of the hall and glanced back over his shoulder. "Hmm? Something wrong?"
"Ah! N-No! What are you talking about?! Just find this 'friend' of yours already!"
Rukia giggled at their trade-off and led them through to a large open room where a slumped figure sat cross-legged at a low table. He looked up at them from behind the brim of his oddly striped hat and the faintest trace of a smile lit up his face.
"Ichigo, Rukia, welcome!" He waved with a paper fan and revealed a blinding grin. His eyes sparkled with intrigue as they settled upon the Flame Haze. "Oh, we have a guest? Might I ask your name, princess?"
Shana's cheeks turned from red to green. "Princess?!"
The man chuckled and feigned surprise, "Hmm? Your name is Princess? What a beautiful name-"
"My name is Shana!" she snapped defensively, crossing her arms, "And don't call me Princess!"
He sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat, "If that is what you prefer, sweetheart."
"What's wrong darling?"
"Raaaagh!" Shana charged at him. She made it as far as a metre away when she was flung back by some invisible force. She tumbled across the floor and hit the wall with a thud. Dazed, she stared at the laughing man who had not moved from his seat on the tatami.
"Quite the spirited one, aren't you? Well, if these two goons brought you here then I suppose it would be fair to assume you want something other than some sweets?"
Rolling her eyes Rukia stepped forward. "This is Shana. She's not like us. Have you ever heard of Flame Haze?"
The man's eyes narrowed. He let out a low whistle, "Well that's a name you don't hear every day. It's been a long time since I've heard them mentioned at all. I thought they were just a myth. But now that you mention it, I got a funny feeling from her the second she entered my store..."
"That's called contempt." Ichigo dead-panned.
"What is a Flame haze doing here then?" he asked bringing the fan to his face, "Surely it must not be good news?"
All expressions turned grave.
Once again, Mayuri Kurotsuchi stared at the monitors in morbid excitement. More souls were disappearing; in fact even the hollows were being wiped clean off the face of the earth. However more human souls were vanishing which disproved the first theory that had come to his mind. Whatever the cause, it certainly wasn't anything he had experienced in his time as captain.
Over the last 48 hours the strange phenomenon had commenced. The incidents first occurred on the outermost areas of the town and had progressively grown closer to the heart of Karakura. Whatever the perpetrator may be, it certainly didn't live in the town, it had wandered in from the outside.
Mayuri tapped away at the keyboard and summoned endless walls of data. No mere mortal could have processed the information as it flashed across the screen at impossible speeds, but the nefarious captain had the eyes of a hawk and a mind as sharp as the sword forever carried at his side. Nothing escaped him, and the perpetrator of these crimes wasn't an exception.
The information made little sense. The disappearances had been occurring so close to the shinigami agents stationed in Karakura and yet no reports had arrived. Were they simply not noticing? Or are they letting it happen?
This matter would require investigation.
Mayuri rose from his seat and wandered into the main chamber of the research and development department. He glared at the other workers and singled out one standing idly by the door, staring intensely at nothing at all.
"Nemu." the captain snarled. The girl turned to him, but her stare remained as vacant as ever. Mayuri handed a ruffled pile of paper to her which she accepted with a grateful bow. "Give these to the Captain Commander. And have him issue forth a team to investigate the World of the Living. Understood?"
"Yes sir." she replied meekly. Without another word she hurried off into the fading light of day.
The strange captain glanced up at the bleeding stain in the sky and his grin grew wider. Whatever specimen had committed these crimes, they would surely be a valuable research subject. The very thought of dissecting such a mysterious creature sent tingles along Mayuri's spine.