On my last day in squad 11 I was out on routine patrol near the outer borders of the rukon district. I was in a small team lead by the fourth seat, Choujiro Kanada. Usually I ran with Ikaku Madarame, the third seat, but he was away on a different mission. There were 12 of us. 7 were new recruits, fresh out of the academy, and the rest of us were already established members with varying degrees of tenure. A usual patrol squad is 15 shinigami, but we ran into a group of hollows. Three of the new recruits didn’t survive the encounter. Two of them were dead before they even saw the enemy. It was a sudden loss, terrible for morale, but altogether a very common experience.
We buried them where they fell and pressed on. If we didn’t make it back to the sereitei by nightfall we’d end up just like them. Nighttime was when the stronger hollows came out to play, and the sun was already starting to hang low in the sky. Choujiro led us to the bank of a small river and stopped to address us.
“Alright listen.” He began somberly. “Losing the new recruits may have been troubling for some of you, especially the newer members, but my objective is to get the rest of you back to soul society safely. Beyond this river is Kusajishi. After that, we’ll be in the safer areas of Rukongai. Shouldn’t be any more trouble then.”
“Will…will there be any…hollows in Kusajishi, sir?” one of the remaining recruits asked shakily. Couldn’t really blame him, I guess. Getting used to the sight of a hollow took years of experience. I’d been with squad 11 for a little over twenty years and I still had nightmares about my first hollow. From time to time I would still hear the grinding of it’s teeth whenever it got too quiet.
“There might be a few, but as long as you stay out of the way, me and the older members will handle it. All clear?” The team mumbled agreement and we crossed the river. The going was fine for a while, and we got through most of Kusajishi without much incident. One of the newbies was a little unsettled by all the winding roads and clustered buildings, but he was told to just suck it up and keep moving.
The sky was just starting to fade from orange to pink when things went sideways. What hit us first was the smell. We hadn’t come across many people in Kusajishi, but we just chalked it up to them being inside. People knew better than to hang about in the open when the shinigami were patrolling the area. Now, with the stench of rotting flesh quickly filling the air, I was starting to consider a different possibility. One I wasn’t eagerly ready to accept.
A recruit suddenly let out a muffled scream. His hand was over his mouth and his eyes were fixed on something a little to our left, at the beginning of an alley. On the side of a building were some claw marks, just barely visible through the thick coating of blood on the wall. Tendrils of it raced down towards the ground, where a noticeably large footprint had cratered itself into the ground. My hand crept toward the hilt of my zanpakuto. There was a hollow nearby.
Choujiro motioned for us to be quiet and started to lead us away from that spot.
“Sir!” a squad member whispered urgently. “I think we should investigate.”
“We don’t have time, Sasaki.” Choujiro replied. “We’ll file a report when we get back and—”
Whatever else Choujiro was going to say next got carried off by the evening breeze, along with his head. The rest of us stood there in stunned silence as our fourth seat’s headless body fell limply to the ground. My instinct to go to him—as well as most of my training—faded into nothingness as my brain struggled to understand the shimmering mass of reiatsu that now blocked our path.
It sat in front of us almost regally, like a cat. A thin jet-black tail whistled back and forth behind it, like a whip. It’s front legs protruded crookedly from a pair of astoundingly muscular shoulders, ending in a pair of vaguely human-like hands with claws so thick and heavy they were practically sinking into the ground. It raised an arm up, it’s claws glinted menacingly as they caught the last precious rays of sunlight and disappeared into a cloud of shadows.
We all followed the motion of it’s arm, utterly transfixed. My neck was craned so far backward I thought my head was going to snap off and roll down my back. The hollow in front of us was easily over twenty stories tall, and it’s face was almost impossible to look at.
A pair of blood orange eyes blazed out of an imperceptible pillar of darkness. It’s mouth slowly hung open, releasing a layer of blood mist so thick it almost obscured the jagged man-sized teeth that curved out of it’s mouth.
I’d only ever heard stories about hollows like this. The veterans used them to scare new recruits in the gotei 13, and the captains would only mention them in passing. They were rare even in Hueco Mundo and it was basically unheard of for one to be in soul society. My hand slowly went slack around the hilt of my zanpakuto. It wouldn’t be much use anyway. A bead of sweat slowly traced it’s way down the side of my face as I tried to prepare for my imminent death at the unrelenting hands of a Vasto Lorde.
To this day, I still don’t know what spurred me into action. Maybe it was a suicidal desire to save the new recruits. Maybe it was the desperate thought of saying a final goodbye to my childhood friend. What I do know is not a lot was going through my mind as I stretched my hand towards the now dimly purple sky.
Even less was going through my mind as I mustered up all the reiatsu I had.
By the time I was ready, there was only one thought on my mind. Perhaps my last coherent thought before the chaos. I took a deep breath emptied out my lungs.
“Hado 31: Shakkaho!!!”
A powerful burst of flame exploded into reality in my palm. I steadied my hand while the fireball spun around frantically trying to build up momentum. It suddenly shot forward with such force it almost shattered my shoulder. A mighty pillar of flame rapidly extended itself into the sky and a brief eternity passed as we watched my spell get swallowed up by the darkness around the hollow’s face. Another brief eternity later, the late evening sky exploded back to life as the spell connected with it’s target.
For a few moments we were all back in the daytime. I could see everything around me with perfect clarity. Whatever small hope I may have gleaned from that quickly faded to nothing as I caught my first proper look at the enemy.
Seeing the vasto lorde’s true form in basically broad daylight was the first moment I regretted being a shinigami. I looked away and tried to repress the nightmare I just witnessed. I barely caught the disheartened mumble of one of the recruits. “No effect.”
A feeling of despair tore itself a path through my soul as the light from the spell faded and the hollow refocused it’s attention on us. It took in a deep ragged breath, so forceful it was drawing clouds closer to itself.
It suddenly leaned down to bellow at us. The sound of it’s scream was a mangled, bitter guttural cry so horrible I fell unconscious the second I heard it. I suddenly felt my body curve to the side as one of my squad mates dragged me away from danger. My consciousness came back and I made the mistake of looking behind me, just in time to lock eyes with the hollow. The mere sight of it in full sprint was enough to make me fall unconscious again.
This time my consciousness came back when I suddenly hit the ground. I could vaguely make out my squad mates running toward the darkness of night a little distance in front of me. My brain filled in an explanation as I hurried to my feet. They’d left me behind as a distraction.
I had just settled into a running rhythm when the hollow bellowed again. The sound made me wish I was never born. This time the bellow got a response. As I caught up to my squad, we noticed that a group of adjuchas level hollows had appeared and were slowly surrounding us.
A recruit yelled “Scatter!” before I could think of a plan. Suddenly it was every man for himself as the remaining members of my patrol squad took off in different directions, seeming to get exponentially further away with each step they took.
Flash step, more commonly referred to as ‘shunpo’, was a basic level ability all full shinigami were capable of. It was the best thing we had to counter the supersonic running speed of the hollows. I pointed myself in the general direction of sereitei and watched space contort itself around me as I borderline teleported forward a few kilometers. Then a few hundred. Another hundred later I had cleared two thousand kilometers in five seconds.
Maintaining speed while also alternating dodging trees and buildings was a challenge, made only worse by the dying screams of my squad members echoing through the area only to be cut off by the sonic boom of a hollow.
We were being picked off one by one. I caught a squad mate by the corner of my eye and dashed over to her. We regrouped with a third person, and then found one more a few districts later. Our squad of fifteen had been whittled down to four, and the hollow pack was catching up.
I noticed we were quickly approaching Sabitsura, the 64th district. The population before the 70th district is much denser than anything beyond it. I shot a terrified look at the only other full Squad 11 member in our group. The look in his eyes told me he understood the situation perfectly. We were leading the hollows to a buffet.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to say the very last word I was thinking.
The other three slid into a defensive line with their backs to Sabitsura. We had to buy the residents enough time to evacuate. I nodded to the recruits, one last show of respect. They nodded back, both fully prepared to give their life for the safety of soul society, like any member of the Gotei 13.
There was a loud boom sound as the hollows scrambled into view in front of us, the vasto lorde leading the charge. A fresh wave of hatred washed over me as I looked into it’s eyes, two flaming orbs floating in an infinite darkness. They narrowed at me like they understood my expression. The vasto lorde had killed my team leader and I wanted blood.
My hand flashed over to the hilt of my zanpakuto. I wasn’t going to give the hollow time to attack. I channeled the rest of my reiatsu into my blade with a defiant scream.
As I drew my katana, the blade flashed and changed shape till a whip of multiple blades sprang out and wrapped itself around the vasto lorde. It gave another bloodcurdling scream as the blades sank deeply into it’s flesh. Serves you right, I thought.
I readied myself and yanked the hilt of my sword as far back as I could manage. The blades jaggedly scraped themselves across the vasto lorde, shredding everything in their way as they returned to their default position. I prepared for another swing, but the sword seemed to be caught on something.
I turned around to see part of my sword firmly in the mouth of another hollow. I barely had time to process that when a second hollow barreled into me, knocking me to the ground and pinning me down. I heard the grunts of my squad mates as they also got knocked to the ground.
The vasto lorde walked up to me and raised it’s massive claws, determined to finish me as quickly as possible. I said a silent prayer, partly hoping the people in Sabitsura had managed to get some distance between themselves and us, and partly wishing I could get the chance to say goodbye to my childhood friend. I closed my eyes, content to let the final sounds I heard be the ragged breathing of the vasto lorde in the early night breeze. A third sound found its way into my ears.
“Scatter,” a voice said calmly, almost with an air of detachment. “Senbonzakura.”
I opened my eyes just in time to watch the vasto lorde disappear in a storm of cherry blossoms. The pained howls of the vasto lorde burned themselves into my memory as the razor-sharp cherry blossoms raced faster and faster around the vasto lorde, ripping into it’s flesh wherever they went.
The screaming soon mercifully died down and the whirl of cherry blossoms with it, not a single trace of the vasto lorde was left when they cleared away. There was a period of silence as the other adjuchas tried to decide on what to do now that their leader was dead.
The calm voice spoke again. “Finish them.” It commanded. A group of shinigami suddenly rushed out of the darkness to ambush the hollows. As I tried to find the voice’s owner in all the chaos, a man came to stand over me. His sparkling white captain’s haori seemed to glow faintly in the moon light, and the sheer force of his spiritual pressure threatened to knock me unconscious for a third time.
“You…” I muttered faintly. Kuchiki Byakuya. I had so many words for the man who’d taken my friend away from me and hidden her behind his “noble family”, but in his presence I couldn’t bring any of them to the surface. His eyes regarded me coldly, giving him a regal appearance. I’d never accepted his authority as a noble, but he certainly looked the part.
“What is your name?” he asked finally. I wasn’t sure what he wanted with a nobody like me, but I was sure he wouldn’t ask again.
“Abarai.” I said, getting to my feet. I couldn’t stand him looking down on me. I looked him straight in the eye, suddenly determined to recover my friend, and spoke. “Abarai Renji.”