Author Note: I modified the first chapter to include a list of important terms and my initial OC's, so if you haven't seen that, going back to check it out might not be a bad idea. Good to hear from people already, though I was kind of hoping to hear from some people whom I did not already know, I guess I just need to give it time. A small part of the reason I am writing and posting this is to expand my readership into a new sector with new fans after all. Never fear, old fans, I have no intention of just dropping TGA in favor of TVC, its just a current craze that has hold of me, an itch that won't quit until I sufficiently scratch it. Which may well not be for a couple hundred thousand words (and really, with me, that ain't so much...), but hey, there's no guarantee I won't be able to update RW in that time, and since I was only one chapter from midpoint and planning on taking a step back for a short time anyway, this is all working out rather nicely. You guys have held out for months before in TGA history without an update, at least now you'll still be getting updates, just not in TGA necessarily.

xxxx

Soul Society, Rukongai District 56, Prefectural Center Township, January 12th, 6:35 pm

With a whisper of displaced air and a blur of motion, Soi Fon materialized in the designated clearing just outside the outskirts of the one town of any real size in District 56, switching from Shunpo to stealth movements with a seamlessness only long decades of practice could allow. Several seconds later, a dozen and a half members of the Special Operations force, selected from the reserve forces at her headquarters, also materialized in the snow covered clearing and moved into cover, black shadows against the pale blue of the dusk lit snow, leaving nary a footprint behind to mark their passing. Their stealth was up to standards, and she supposed it wasn't really their fault that they couldn't keep up with her in terms of pure speed, especially over such a relatively long distance, but she made a note to find fault with them for being slow once they got back to the Sereitei. Complacany with skills was something a ninja could never afford.

Crouching in the boughs of a pine tree, Soi Fon peered through the tangle of branches and needles, her eyes already adapted to the near dark conditions as dusk fell over the Rukongai. This far away from the heart of civilization crowded around the Sereitei, the darkness was more complete than she was used to, as there was no massed glow of lanterns and watchfires to reflect light from the clouds. This suited her just fine, a ninja was most comfortable in darkness after all, the more complete the better. She shivered slightly and felt goosebumps rise on the skin of her arms and back, legacies of the biting chill of the winter night that was fast approaching. She could of course keep herself toasty warm with a simple exercise of her spiritual energy, but to do so would compromise her total stealth capability. Enduring environmental extremes was just another of many tests a Special Operations member was expected to face and defeat on a daily basis. Optionally, she could have opted for a winter uniform, which was thicker and covered more of her body, but if for some odd reason this turned into a combat operation, the warmer uniform would only be shredded if she had to use her Shunko anyway.

Her gaze resting on the darkened hamlet of buildings a mile or so away, through lightly wooded farmland of some sort, now covered in snow to a depth of about a foot, perhaps more, with sheafs of ice crystals hanging from the roofs of some buildings, some of the icicles appeared to be taller and thicker than she herself was... plainly this area had not seen a good thaw in some time. Soi Fon filed this informaton away in her tactical mindset, noting that the footing was likely to be unreliable within the town and especially atop its roofs, and that the snow on the ground might be deep enough to slightly impede movements if an operative was to allow themselves to sink into it. The icicles might break and create noise which could alert sentries and give away a ninja's position inadvertently, though conversely they provided good visual cover and a way for a ninja to get close to the walls of a building without being easily seen from further away. No detail was too small or unimportant to be noticed and considered, that was the hallmark of a true ninja and member of the Special Operations squad.

The town was dark, lacking even a single lantern or candle lit window as far as she could discern, which was irregular for the time of day, as the sun began to sink beyond the horizon and the land became a tapestry of ruddy skies and a patchwork of light blue and crisp white splotches on the ground. In a few more minutes, lighting conditions would be optimal for her and her group to move forward unnoticed, as sentries used to the light of day would be most blind when the sun initially sank and plunged the world into darkness. In the meantime, she would observe the town from hiding and try and gather as much information as possible. She felt a a well hidden presence materialize on the branch next to her, the leader of Patrol Group 23 coming to brief his Captain in more detail than his warning letter had allowed. If he was shocked to see that Captain Fon herself had responded to the missive, it was not apparent in either his posture or voice, she noted with approval. She did not take her eyes off the town even for an instant, but she briefly nodded her head, giving him permission to speak.

"We have been passing through this area infrequently in order to resupply at random intervals, as per standard patrol doctrine, Captain." The ninja reported, his voice barely audible, even to her ears, and he was crouched at all but touching distance. Again, very professional, she was impressed so far. "Our last visit before our most recent one was eight days before this morning, and the town was perfectly in order at that time, save for the minor corruption of a few local tax officials that we included in our regular reports. Upon approaching the town this morning, my unit noticed that there was a lack of sentries on the town outskirts, and we retreated in order to better observe the unknown situation. As time progressed, I discerned that no one was stirring within the town, after some deliberation, sent a pair of subordinates in to recon the area." For just the briefest moment, the patrol leader's voice turned hesitant, as if he was troubled by what he was going to say next. Soi Fon took careful note of this... something must really be wrong, to give one of her officers pause in contemplating it.

"I did not initially believe their report to be true, Captain, so I investigated myself, contrary to doctrine and I am prepared to accept censure for it. However, I did not only find their report to be accurate, but if anything, understated. As I explained in my note to headquarters, I found the townspeople to be massacred, cut down in their homes and the inner streets of the city in droves, men, women, and children alike. Not a single soul was left living, and many of their bodies showed evidence of torture and abuse before they were killed. I have seen many battlefields, many tragedies, Captain, and I do not hesitate to say that this was worse than anything I have ever seen before. At first I thought it to be the work of a rampaging Hollow or Hollow pack, but as my shock wore off, I realized the evidence did not match such a conclusion..." The man continued, his voice bland but she could still sense the disturbance in his spirit energy signature that showed that he was far from as calm as he sounded.

"Indeed." Soi Fon replied curtly, having already come to that conclusion herself. If it had been a Hollow attack, there would have been no bodies left behind, since it was in order to eat living souls to increase their own power and sustain their wretched lives that Hollows preyed upon the residents of the Rukongai in the first place. That there were still bodies, no matter how brutalized or tortured, left behind in the town meant that Hollows could not be responsible for the massacre, though perhaps whoever had massacred the people had meant for an uninitiated or overly emotional observer to think so. Such lawless barbarity was extremely uncommon in the Rukongai, even in the outer 20 Districts, even the infamous 80th Zaraki District, the massacre of an entire town of hundreds of Souls was all but unheard of, and only then at the hands of a Menos class Hollow that had somehow slipped through the normal detection nets in a time before the Gotei 13 was created.

"Realizing that the situation was abnormal, I deemed it wiser to retreat and observe from a distance while waiting on direction from headquarters, but I unfortunately have no further developments to report. The town is as a tomb, Captain, and not even the carrion birds will approach it. I understand that personal feelings have no place in the mission reports of a Special Operations officer, but if I may be permitted the leniency, I must say that I don't like this one bit, Captain." The patrol leader bowed his head, signalling the end of his report.

"Very well, we shall discuss your conduct at a later time." Soi Fon answered, receiving the slight but deliberate exhalation that the ninja forces used as an nonvocal acknowledgement in reply, and then a shifting of the banch as the patrol leader's weight left it, as he shunpoed back to his position amongst his team, spread out in the surrounding wilderness around the town. In truth, Soi Fon was not irritated at the officer's conduct in the slightest... while she was a stickler for the rules, the first rule of a ninja was always "accomplish the mission at all costs", even if that meant bending the other rules that governed their proper conduct. His voicing of a personal opinion rather than bare facts, while not desirable, did serve to further highlight the gravity of the situation, and as such, the breach of protocol was not only warranted, but actually creatively utilized, and thus proper. She made a note that perhaps Patrol Leader 23... the only name by which she knew him... was ready to move up in the Special Operations ranks, if this was a good sampling of his talents and work ethic.

Subtle motions of her hands conveyed her orders and intentions to her closest subordinates, who would then relay them to those in positions that did not allow them to see her, all done in complete silence of course. She was opting for a cautious approach, even though the town was observed to be dead and empty, she could not the shake the feeling that the massacre had been left behind as a deliberate message of some sort, though whether it was intended for the Sereitei or some other group, she did not currently know. Regardless, such blunt messages were usually observed from a distance for signs of a possible reaction from those who the message was for. At least, that's what she would have done if she were the one to leave such a gauche message. She had to assume, until evidence proved otherwise, that whatever foes were out there possessed at least as much skill and cunning as she herself did. Better to assume the worst than hope for the best, another of many maxims a ninja lived by.

As the sun reached the proper angle, so that it would cast few shadows and those only for a short distance, Soi Fon initiated her infiltration of the town, in concert with Patrol Group 23, who had better local knowledge of the town and the best routes to enter it unseen, while her reinforcement group took up overwatch positions around the town, keeping eyes and ears open for signs of potential observers or ambushing forces, and to serve as reinforcements or messengers if need be, depending on how combat, if it were to break out, looked to be shaping up. If by attacking they could shift the balance in the favor of allies, then attacking was proper, but if those within the town were on the verge of being overwhelmed, it was proper to retreat and spread the warning to headquarters, even if Captain Fon herself was to fall to the enemy thusly.

She moved in short, rapid bursts of speed that carried her from one piece of cover to the next, here a clump of frost dusted bushes, there a hummock of snow, and then a low wall of icy stones, perhaps a garden boundary. She halted behind the wall, assessing her next move, which would carry her across a wide stretch of very open ground, with little to no cover, in full view of the town and any potential watchers. Even someone as small as her, which was normally an advantage for stealth operations, could not effectively hide in only a foot a snow, and the idea of trying to belly crawl beneath the freezing blanket of moisture was extremely unappealing to her. She opted to rely on her speed, second only to that of Yourichi-sama, blitzing across the intervening space so quickly even the most perceptive of Soul Reapers would see little more than a suggestion of a blur, materializing between a wall of icicles thicker than her thighs and the actual wall of the house beyond, an artificial cave of translucent darkness. Keeping her steps small and careful, wary of the hard frozen ground and ice puddles beneath her feet, as even a minor slip could be a terminal mistake, both in terms of her life and her pride, Soi Fon edged around the wall of the house and peered out down the main street of the town, a view she had been denied from her previous treetop perch.

The slight widening of her eyes was her only overt reaction to the scene revealed, but that in and of itself was the equivalent of a shocked yell from most anyone else. It was exactly as Patrol Leader 23 had insinuated... she was no stranger to the bloody aftermath of conflicts or tragedies, and had seen death leave people in more pathetic and debased forms than she could easily recount or wish to remember, but there was just something about the wanton violence that had been inflicted upon the townsfolk that chilled her blood. On the surface it appeared to be little more than a barbaric berserker frenzy, as one might assume the brutes of the 11th Division to inflict, but her analytical eyes quickly noticed that there was definite guiding intelligence behind the placement of bodies and the infliction of wounds. This was not just a slaughter, this was painful death done as an art form upon the canvas of helpless victims!

No single body was left whole, and most she could see were missing multiple limbs, especially heads, which were often piled or dumped in mounds or even stacked in some sort of grisly pyramid. Others were missing vast swatches of skin, which looked to have been removed almost delicately, with the aid of small but extremely sharp knives or claws, the strips and banners of human hide hung from the eaves of houses and nailed to walls like perversions of heraldric banners, symbols and words that Soi Fon did not recognize painted upon them in the blood of the victims, though the symbol of the grinning, fanged skull was fairly obviously a death totem of some sort. The winter chill had dried the skin into a parchment like consistency, and the evening breeze made eerie flapping noises like the wings of ghostly vultures as it stirred the dangling folds and rustled the ghastly banners nailed to the walls. There was so much blood on the ground that the snow within the streets of the town was bathed entirely crimson, a swathe of blood-ice that looked thick enough to slide upon without cracking underfoot!

Some of the bodies looked to have been partially eaten, signs of chewed bones and half eaten organs lying discarded like half stale meat buns on the ground, and several of them appeared to have been bound and restrained at the time of their murder, one or two even crucified to the walls of a house, using the jagged bone splinters of their own loved ones as nails, others appeared to have been strangled with their own entrails as rope. A monument of broken and splintered wooden beams and planks, the remnants of some sort of small shrine and some farm wagons, had been erected in the middle of the town's central market square, the young residents of the town, none older than forty or fifty and most, barely older than toddlers by Soul Society standards, impaled upon the spars while seemingly still alive and left to slowly die through massive blood and spirit energy loss, hanging like morbid berries from a deathly thornbush.

Arrayed around this grisly monument to evil were the young women of the town, their bodies curiously whole at first glance, until one noted that their hands and feet were all lopped off, their bodies naked and showing signs of abuse both physical and sexual, turned into playthings for their attackers before they were maimed and forced to fight each other to the death on their bloody stumps, egged on by the pitiful cries of their younger siblings and children, bleeding out on the monument above them. Soi Fon felt herself becoming a little dizzy as each new horror presented itself to her all too perceptive eyes, and she had to duck back around the corner, close her eyes and take a meditative deep breath in order to re-center herself. This was bad, worse than anything she'd ever expected, but she couldn't let it get to her, couldn't let herself become angry or disgusted or bothered, as to do so would be playing right into the hands of whatever monsters had done this. Steeling herself, she stepped out of cover, deliberately exposing herself to scrutiny or attack from any hidden foes.

No alarm was shouted, no attacks were sent her way, only the papery rustling of the cold-dried skins could be heard, and Soi Fon tenatively determined that the town really was empty and abandoned. Slowly following her example, the members of Patrol Group 23 also emerged from cover, though they were plainly as disturbed as she, if not more so, and none of them ever ventured far from a convenient shadow or piece of cover to leap behind and disappear from sight within at the first sign of trouble. They silently picked through the abbatoir the town had become, sometimes neeling by a particularly gruesome corpse, sometimes peering into one of the houses, only to turn away with closed eyes as some new atrocity or horror within all but blasted their senses. They'd all be having nightmares about this, they knew this and accepted it as just another job hazard. The way the wounds were inflicted, the positions of the bodies, the predations on young and old alike, it was all calculated, precisely, chillingly calculated to have the maximum possible emotional effect on anyone with even a shred of decency and human compassion in their hearts, and several of the operatives were unconsciously crying in rage or distress, only noticing when the moisture started to freeze on their cheeks.

Soi Fon noticed that her weapon hand was clenching tightly at her side, and she made a conscious effort to relax it, not wanting her subordinates to see that she was as bothered by the scene as they were. Even Aizen's treachery had not involved this level of sadistic violence, and even Hollows or Arrancar might have trouble emulating the scale of this atrocity, simply because they were too hungry for Souls to waste so much time and effort on torturing them first. This kind of barbarism was like nothing she'd ever had the misfortune of seeing before, even the grimmest tales of civil wars in the distant past of the Soul Society, long before the Gotei 13 was ever established, only hinted at war crimes as vile as what had been done to this town and its people. Such acts could not help but turn the people who were slain into Hollows themselves, it was an act that no Soul Reaper could have ever possibly condoned or committed, at least not one in their right mind! And even accounting for the evil and deranged sorts, what was the point behind targeting this town, with no resident Soul Reapers or inherent value of any sort? It was just a town, one like any of ten thousand others across the Rukongai.

The thought that this massacre had been levied at random was, if anything, more chilling than the fact of the massacre itself! Soi Fon did not like random events, as they made it almost impossible to figure out if there was a greater purpose to something. Without being able to understand the motivations and reasons of those who would do such things as this, it was that much harder to get inside their heads and plans to pre-empt them from striking again! Striding forward, Soi Fon crouched by one of the bodies of the slain young women, her eyes doing their best to both pass over and focus upon the brutal violations done to her body. She dispassionately noted that, contrary to first glance, the hands and feet of this victim and the others had not been cut off but rather torn and twisted off by application of brute strength of some sort, leaving jagged juts of bone protruding from the stumps, which had been put into use as improvised weapons by the desperate and dying women, judging by the puncture wounds each of the women sported in their faces and chests and backs.

The girl, certainly no older than seventy, was lying face down on the street, her limbs splayed with perverse intent, as if to pridefully display the evidence of her sexual violations to those who came later, the skin of her back and thighs deeply bruised and lacerated from rough handling by multiple assailants. Though she knew it was pointless and a needless show of emotion, Soi Fon still did her best to nudge the poor girl's legs together with one foot, trying to grant her at least some dignity in death. However, even this gesture was at first denied, because the girl's limbs were frozen to the blood slicked ground, and it took quite a bit of kicking to break the ice around her leg enough for Soi Fon to slide it over to rest against the other. She looked around challengingly, daring any of her subordinates to be staring at her actions, but they were smarter than that, and indeed many of them were doing their best to give what dignity to the dead they could unobtrusively manage as well, even if it was only closing eyes or arranging limbs into less wanton or depraved postures. Leaving the bodies of the dead in the open to rot like this went against every notion of cleanliness and honor for the fallen that Soul Society had, even the worst of enemies in the civil war had the courtesy to burn the bodies of enemy dead after a victory, rather than just leave them to decay!

Crouching down at the dead girl's side, Soi Fon steeled herself and began working to break the ice that glued the corpse face down to the ground, having noticed an odd black mark on the girl's cheek that seemed to extend across her face, which was currently pressed against the ground. It looked like a sort of scar or slash mark, but there was no indentation in the flesh. Perhaps it was a tattoo or some other distinguishing mark, or perhaps, and she hoped this was the case, it was some sort of marking or icon from those who had done this crime, which could be used to track them down or identify them. At last working the girl free, aided by the efforts of Patrol Leader 23, who knelt on the opposite side of the girl's body and did his best to avoid his Captain's gaze, Soi Fon carefully flipped the body over, trying not to wince as several sections of skin tore and ripped free, remaining frozen to the ground, exposing dark red and purple musculature beneath, with gooey trails of semi-slushy blood cnnecting the surface skin the muscles beneath.

She frowned, because the mark was nothing more than a long, straight slash of darkest black, that diagonally bisected the girl's head and one side of her neck, looking almost like a brand seared into the skin, but when she tenatively touched a finger to the mark, there was no burn or wound there, just cold, stiff flesh. The front of the girl's body was just as abused as her back, if not more so, especially around the breasts and genital areas, causing Soi Fon to grimace unconsciously. She was no stranger to sex, it being a potential part of any female ninja's duty that they might be asked to seduce a target under observation in order to obtain intelligence through pillow talk, though she did not enjoy nor seek out such diversions except at extremely rare and highly secretive intervals, to the point where most of her peers thought of her as asexual in most cases, or at the very least, extremely lesbian. She did not appreciate such rumors, but was content to let them keep their misapprehensions and idle fantasies about her and Yourichi-sama's true relationship if they liked, it would only lead them to underestimate her in the future, which was to her advantage. But the sight of this girl's abuse made her suddenly want to stab Patrol Leader 23 in the face, just because he was a man and men had done this horrible thing.

She held off from this urge of course, recognizing it for what it was, an aberrant surge of misguided emotion, and fortunately, Patrol Leader 23 seemed unaware of her briefly murderous thought as he carefully inspected the girl's head, noting signs of battering abuse from punches or kicks that had been used to initially subdue the girl. The wounds were deeper and more severe than mere bruising, the flesh as torn or lacerated in some spots along the bruising, leading him to believe that the attackers, whomever they were, wore armored gauntlets and boots of some sort, which suggested more than simple bandits or barbarians. One of her eyes was pulped and smeared across her cheek and broken nose, probably legacy of a particularly hard punch or kick, but the other was still intact and staring slightlessly into the sky. There was something off about the pupil, and Patrol Leader 23 leaned closer to peer through the darkness to make out the detail.

The last thing either of them were expecting was the girl to show any signs of life, her heart clearly had stopped beating, her blood was more on the ground than it was in her body, and she'd been lying naked in freezing temperatures long enough for her body to stick solidly to the ground, there was simply no way for her to be alive. But that didn't stop the pupil in question from suddenly widening and swiveling to stare at Patrol Leader 23, the milky blue orb displaying a slitted pupil, like that of a cat, rather than the round orb of a human. Frozen lipps jerkily peeled back from a mouthful of broken and shattered teeth that began falling out to reveal even more jagged fangs pushing forth from the gum tissue beneath in welters of sticky, oozing blood and pus, and the corpse-girl lunged at Patrol Leader 23 even as he was still blinking in shock at what he was seeing, impaling him through the thigh with one of her truncated arms even as she locked her fang filled jaws around his bent close face, her jaw muscles distending and warping like those of a serpent as she all but swallowed the bottom half of his head whole!

The male ninja reflexively jerked away from the pain of the wound in his leg, but succeeded only in literally getting his face, including eyes, nostrils and lips, ripped off by the corpse-girls fangs biting into his cheeks, leaving him staring through shockingly empty and blood filled sockets for a second, the entire front of his skull, painted red with gore, visible for a second before he collapsed backwards and died of shock, mercifully if anything, his last words more a incoherent wheeze than a scream. Soi Fon re-engaged her mind and leapt away from the thrashing corpse in time to avoid being gashed by another bony stump, noting that it wasn't only her chosen corpse that was beginning to move and moan, but all of the female corpses and a good few of the more complete bodies of the other townsfolk as well! Reanimation of dead tissue wasn't normal by any means, even for souls turning into Hollows, and besides, the girl had no mask nor hole, she was plainly not a Hollow. Yet it was clear from her bloodthirst and the way she scrambled to fall upon her fallen officer and began tearing at him with her teeth in obvious hunger, that she was no longer the Soul she had once been!

Drawing Suzumebachi, Soi Fon pounced forward with vindictive grace, and cleanly seperated the corpse's head from her shoulders. The girl's fang filled jaws continued to gnash and masticate chunks of cannibalized flesh in a disturbing manner for several seconds after being seperated from her body, but at length, both head and body appeared to once more be dead and inanimate. Shown that the creatures could still be killed, despite being reinanimated corpses, the remains of the Patrol Group followed their Captain's example and fell upon the reviving creatures, all of whom possessed the black slash mark on some portion of their bodies, with blades in hand. Beyond the initial surprise attack, the creatures were clumsy and handicapped by the mutilations that had first killed them, and they were easy prey for the skilled and agile ninjas. Not wanting to chance a second ressurection, Soi Fon ordered that the defeated bodies were to be chopped to pieces, grim work, but better than getting more faces eaten off! Still, she was deeply troubled by all of this, even as her subordinates began spreading through the town, re-executing every body they could find, just to be sure. This was outside her experience and knowledge, and she did not like that one bit.

Casting only a single look at the maimed body of the promising Patrol Leader 23, and that only to order that the body be retrieved and sent to the 12th Division for potential analysis along with several other items of evidence, including pieces from the body of one of the reanimated corpses as well as one that hadn't come back to life, Soi Fon left her minions to their duties and shunpoed to the edge of town, to call in her reinforcements to hasten the clean up process so that she could return to the Sereitei with due haste and spread the word of this atrocity. There was sure to be an emergency Captain's meeting in her near future, and for once, she found herself looking forward to a congress with her peers. This was bigger than something she could handle just by herself, though precisely how so, she could not yet say. Raising her arm to make a signal, Soi Fon froze in shock, staring out along the suggestions of the snow covered road that led to the town and conencted it to other towns in the District and beyond. There was a man, an unknown, strange man dressed in a style that was utterly unfamiliar to her, standing in the road a few hundred feet away. He appeared to be studying the town, and it was plain both that he saw her and that he was as surprised as she was to do so.

Between blinks of her eyes, before she could call out or signal her subordinates to surround and subdue the intruder, he was gone, only a few gusting particles of snow showing where he had once been standing, legacy of some sort of high speed movement quick enough to bedevil even her keen senses through the intervening darkness. It had all happened so quickly that if she were not her usual, paranoid self, Soi Fon might have thought she had imagined the whole thing. But she knew she hadn't. That man had been there, and he had been watching the town, and he obviously did not belong in the Rukongai, just by his style of dress. Was this perhaps another invasion by Ryoka? How was that man connected to the massacre in the town? And what were those corpse-creatures, and how had they come to be? So many questions, too few answers. Soi Fon stared into the darkness searchingly a while longer, but it held no answers for her. Then she too disappeared, without even a gust of snow from her footprints to mark her passing, as she began heading back to the Sereitei, pushing herself for speed as much as possible. For once in her life, the night no longer seemed quite as friendly as it once did...

xxxx

Soul Society, Sereitei, 1st Division barracks, chambers of the Captain-General, January 13th, 5:12 am

"Describe this man you saw, Captain Fon." Captain-General Yamamoto ordered, in his gravely and wisened voice that he so rarely used to string together more than a single phrase or sentence at a time. Only the most dire or joyous of circumstances could prompt him into speaking more than a few words at a time, unfortunately, this was much more the case of the former. Rarely had he ever seen his 2nd Division Captain so distraught, for lack of a better term, though only those who knew her well and had a keen eye for detail would notice her distress. Though the terms hysterical or spooked could never be reasonably applied to Captain Fon, she was nonetheless clearly bothered by what she had seen, and that was more than enough to encourage him to consider this situation truly grave. His slitted open eyes passed around the gathering of his Captains, and he was both proud and somewhat saddened to see them all so focused and intent. Truly the Winter War had hardened many of them before their time, and what would normally have engendered outbursts of rage and vitriol had now been greeted with little more than expectant silence and cold glares.

Even Shunsui, that irrepresible rascal, seemed to be discarding his playboy mein for the time being, an unusual scowl replacing his normal laconic expression, as Captain Fon explained in great detail the scene she had found at the town in the 56th District, and displayed the artifacts of evidence her squad had retrieved from the site. Young Captain Hitsugaya had looked briefly ill as the parchmentlike roll of freeze dried human skin with its incomprehenisble symbols painted in blood was unfurled and displayed by Captain Fon, but the youngest Captain had not requested to leave and had not reacted further, clearly retreating within a sense of detachment rather than risk letting his emotions get the better of him. He had even pointed out that it seemed clear that some of the symbols were a form of writing, forming words in some arcane and unknown tongue, in addition to the skull-like heraldric symbol. The letters were somewhat like those of some languages found in the Living World, such as "english", but the way they were arranged and used was different from english, and none of the Captains were an expert in Living World languages, so that was as far as the analysis could go on that particular topic.

Captain Kurotsuchi was all but drooling over the other samples that Captain Fon had retrieved from the massacre site, especially the pieces of corpse from the body that had apparently reanimated and killed one of Captain Fon's subordinates with monster-like teeth. That was also troubling to him, because the creature, according to Captain Fon, displayed no hallmarks of being a Hollow, lacking a mask or heart-hole, or even the spiritual energy of a Hollow, though she had recalled that the faint energy emitted was at least kin to the negative energy that Hollows used. Having only recently recovered from the last conflict involving creatures that were "kin" to Hollows, Yamamoto was not best pleased to find out that they might be on the verge of yet another conflict with an unknown foe with unknown but also unprecedented abilities. At least Captain Fon and her soldiers had caught this disturbance early, while it was yet still far from the Sereitei itself, that was the only saving grace to this disaster, as far as he was concerned.

"Of course, Captain-General, I was just coming to that." Soi Fon replied, marshalling her trained memory, which was close to photographic when she needed it to be. It would have been more convenient if she'd had one of Kurotsuchi's arcane picture recording devices with which to capture the scene, but perhaps it was better that her peers only had to experience the horror secondhand, through her careful and emotionless descriptions. She could see that Ukitake and Hitsugaya were feeling a little green around the gills as it was, and though Komamura was generally impertuable to her because of his anthromorphic wolf-like face, he too seemed to be all but simmering with rage, no less than expected from a man so caught up in a love affair with honor and justice themselves. Spirits only knew how they would have reacted to seeing it all first hand. A part of her wanted to scoff at their softness, but she wasn't quite that heartless. Innocence was a precious thing in Soul Society, stealing it from them was too cruel even for her to do unless there was no other choice.

"He was tall, perhaps as tall as Captain Kuchiki, and of relatively similar build, not excessively muscular though clearly not frail either. His skin tone, as best I could tell, was pale with the tanning color consistent with having spent a great deal of time outdoors, and his skin seemed either rough or more likely marked with a variety of small scars, much as anyone who spends time in battle will eventually accrue." Soi Fon forbore from mentioning that she herself had few such scars, merely because she was so fast she was rarely hurt in battle, at least, rarely hurt enough to scar later. His hair was brownish in color, a shade that I have not seen before except on humans in the Living World. Yet his spirit energy was clearly not that of a living creature, he was a Soul, like us. I could not get a good look at his eyes or other distinguishing facial features, though I will submit a sketch of his face as soon as the meeting is adjourned. He looked... different... than anyone I have ever seen before. Perhaps a different race of Souls? Do such things even exist?"

"Captain Kuchiki, Captain Korutsuchi?" Captain-General Yamamoto prompted, as Kuchiki and the 6th were responsible for historical records, and Korutsuchi was a surprising store of trivia on many matters. However, neither man looked to have the answer that the others were seeking at this point in time.

"I will order a search of divisional records and my family personal histories, but it will take time." Captain Kuchiki replied with a slight deepening of his trademark frown.

"Tch." Korutsuchi sneered, though nobody took real offense, Mayuri didn't have too many facial expressions beyond sneers, leers and maniacal grimaces. At least not that he displayed in public anyway. "I am not familiar with any subraces of Souls that would look physically different from the general specimens all around us. That is not to say they do not exist, merely that I have never encountered one. This could be quite intriuging..."

Seeing that her peers had nothing further to add, Soi Fon continued with her description. "His clothing was also of unfamiliar make and style. He did not wear a kimono or any variation upon a Soul Reaper uniform, nor did his garments appear to be made from silk or cotton or other cloth. If I had to venture a guess, I would say his clothing was primarily tanned leather of some sort, either painted or dyed black or dark brown. His main garment was a large, heavy looking coat of that leather, somewhat similar in cut to a Captain's haori but also more of a complete garment all its own rather than an accentuation. It featured what looked like buttons or ties along one flap, indicating to me that it could be closed to provide additional protection against elements or even attacks. It seemed to feature a variety of external pockets of varying size and utility as well. It may have been armored with some sort of metal chain links on the interior side, I could not get a clear glimpse. It has a high collar that covered him almost to the lower lips, reminescent of the short jacket worn by the Terca Espada during the final conflict in Fake Karakura Town." She explained, drawing on previous memories to help her peers accurately picture what she'd seen. Though she hoped that the men wouldn't get too caught up in the memories of the Terca Espada's rather expansive breasts that her jacket had studiously failed to entirely cover.

"He wore additional clothing beneath this armored coat, more dark fabrics, perhaps wool or cotton, though not in a style I was familiar with, including long trousers and a tunic of some sort. Perhaps slightly like the garments worn by the Quincy Ishida during the Ryoka Invasion prior to Aizen's betrayal, though this man's clothing was anything but white, rather it was dark black or brown or grey. Stealth tones." Soi Fon considered that, and combined with the man's speed and his apparent ability to evade her energy sensing skills and those of her soldiers, was forced to conclude the man must have been a spy or scout of some kind. And a fairly accomplished one too. Eyes narrowing, she continued with her description. "He carried no Zanpakuto that I could discern, and seemed armed only with what I might charitably call a large walking stick, though it was made of some sort of shiny, almost metallic substance that I am unfamiliar with. Perhaps something like that liquid metal that Captain Korutsuchi once showed us for a lark."

"Mercury is the term, Captain Fon. It's a metal that has a melting point below that of normal room temperatures, existing normally in a liquid state. It's very toxic stuff, causes hallucinations and dementia in living creatures in surprisingly small prolonged doses. It's also fairly rare, the only samples I've managed to get come from the Living World, I do not think it is naturally found in Soul Society." Mayuri chipped in, both helpful and disturbing at the same time, par for the course with him. "I highly doubt his cane was made of mercury, as unless it was frozen it has no structural strength, and when frozen it is too brittle to be used to bear weight or use as a tool or weapon. Not to mention it would poison his blood merely to hold it. No, that cannot be the case. It must be something else. This just keeps getting better and more interesting..."

"Other than what I have already said and noted about his stealth abilities and movement techniques, I have nothing further to add to my descriptions other than my own opinions." Soi Fon concluded, once Kurotsuchi was down with his tangent.

"And what would those be, Captain Fon?" Captain Ukitake asked respectfully, his eyes still slightly distant as he divorced himself from the descriptions of the atrocities that Soi had described, especially the treatement of the children. Joushiro Ukitake had always had a very soft spot for children, given that he was the elder sibling of a large family, and he would have no mercy nor pity for those who would do them harm.

"It is plain to see that the massacre was staged with the intent of being found, by either us or some other party." Soi Fon continued, after receiving the go ahead nod from the Captain-General. "This was not so much a crime as it was a violent message, a declaration or challenge even. Perhaps somewhat similar to the way a large and hungry predator will mark its hunting territory by gashing a tree or scratching a rock, something or someone has just left their mark on the Rukongai, declaring it for all to see that they consider it their property now, not ours, to do with as they see fit. The involvement of these strange not-Hollow monsters spawned from the corpses of the villagers, coupled with my sighting of a male figure that neither looks nor dresses like anyone any of us have ever encountered or seen before preturbs me greatly. There is too much we do not know, and furthermore, how could we miss the presence of a large force that could even committ this atrocity in the first place? I would estimate an attacking force of no less than twenty assailants, and more likely three or four times as many, to be responsible for the state of the town!"

"I agree with Captain Soi Fon's assessment of the situation. Clearly there has been a major failure in our security apparatus at some point in the past, perhaps during the chaos and confusion in the wake of the Winter War." Captain Kyoraku said, tilting his straw hat down over his eyes as he ruminated for a second or two. "This complicates things for us, it certainly does. How troublesome. Well, I guess there's nothing else for it, some sort of response is required, if nothing else, we need more information, desperately."

"Then it is decided..." Captain-General Yamamoto intoned, once he saw that his Captains were in agreement, indeed, all but twitching with the desire to tackle this problem before it could grow any worse. "I am declaring a new state of emergency for the entire Sereitei until this issue is brought to a satisfactory close. All Court Guard companies are ordered to be on full alert, war footing, and I want patrols in the Rukongai to be doubled in strength and frequency for the immediate future. We have a duty to protect those Souls, even if their assailants are not Hollows. Captain Fon will provide us with her drawing then we will adjourn and reconvene tomorrow evening to discuss the day's findings." He announced further, and then leveled a gimlet eye at his most troublesome Captain, Kenpachi Zaraki. "Unathorized forays into Rukongai by those of fifth seat and above will not be allowed or tolerated at this time. We cannot afford to spread our forces out piecemeal when we don't even know the nature of this threat."

"You're no fun, old man." Zaraki replied with a tectonic shrug of his shoulders and a unhappy look on his face. "Is that all, or can we go now? I get bored when I don't got any actual targets to kill."

"There is nothing further. You are dismissed to your duties." Yamamoto answered, satisfied that his point had been made. He would probably have to make it again at that evening's meeting, but he was used to such methods when dealing with Zaraki. Honestly, sometimes it was less like he was leading his Captains as he was herding them like overly willful cats.

xxxx

Soul Society, Sereitei, 10th Division Headquarters, January 13th, 7:15 am

Captain Toushiro Hitsugaya, the youngest man to ever become a Soul Reaper and a Captain, was feeling every short year of his life as he eased himself down on the couch that he kept in his office. He almost never used this couch, it was ostensibly placed there for any visitors or guests that might need a place to sit for whatever reason, and realistically Matsumoto, his lazy Vice-Captain, spent a good portion of each day snoozing on it rather than doing anything helpful, such as her actual job. However, Matsumoto wasn't in yet, since she'd had the night to sleep, unlike him, who had been woken up at an ungodly hour for the emergency Captain's meeting and hadn't been able to go back to sleep afterwards, so the couch was free. He tilted his head against the backrest and wished he could just let his eyes drift closed for a short nap, but he didn't dare. Both because Matsumoto would do something humiliating to him if she happened to catch him sleeping on her couch, and more pressingly, because if he closed his eyes, his overactive and all too vivid imagination would start placing images there in response to what Captain Fon had described as seeing at the village in the 56th District!

Though she had delivered her report in her usual clinical and dry tone, revealing no hint of whatever emotional response was boiling beneath the surface of her thoughts, even such a detached recital of facts had been enough to turn his stomach, so much that if it weren't in front of all the other Captains, he might have bowed out and find a restroom to puke his dinner out into. He didn't know if the others had this problem, but his imagination was all too good at conjuring up images of the mutilated and abused bodies, the scent of frozen gore, the sound of the flayed skin flapping in the breeze... only by retreating into a near trance with Hyoinmaru had he managed to shake it off before he did something unforgivably childish. Every day of his professional life was a battle against the image of him as being immature and too young for his position, but for once he'd realized that he really was young and unprepared in some ways for the horror of what one Soul could inflict upon another.

He had thought he would be jaded to things like that, since he'd grown up persecuted and despised by almost everyone else in his town in the 1st District of the Rukongai, save for Granny and Momo, but the abuse he suffered through looked like little more than the friendly hazing some divisions put their new recruits through for initiation ceremonies in comparison to the bloodbath that had been unleased in the 56th District! What had happened to him had been mean and emotionally scarring... what had happened to them had been evil and far more than just scarring! Hitsugaya palmed his face, feeling sweat standing out on his brow, as he massaged his face trying to clear away the bad memories.

"I know that pose." An unwelcomely cheerful voice commented from the doorway. Matsumoto. Great. Just what he didn't need. "Someone's got a BEASTLY hangover, don't they, Captain? How late did you and Momo stay up last night? Things musta got pretty wild... I want ALL the details!"

"No. Simply no. To all of it." Hitsugaya replied irritably, slowly taking his hand away from his face, feeling an all new headache start to come on. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just insinuate what I didn't just hear you insinuate, because I am SO not in the mood for such utter crap right now, I can't even express it properly! Momo and I did not get drunk together last night and NOTHING crazy or wild or interesting to the likes of YOU happened, so just lay off, alright?"

"Oooh, someone's grouchy this morning. Not get a goodbye kiss after rolling out of bed?" Rangiku could not help but needle her too touchy Captain further. He didn't leave himself this open very often after all.

"Matsumoto, I am warning you, do not push me right now. I just got a whole bunch of bad news at an emergency meeting that kept me from getting more than three hours of sleep last night, and I don't need this friviolous BULLSHIT RIGHT NOW!" Hitsugaya yelled the last three words, his voice echoing around the office as Matsumoto froze in mid stride and gave him a surprised and almost hurt look. "Sorry, I didn't mean to blow up at you." Hitsugaya apologized with a sigh, rubbing his scalp self consciously. "Its just that, well, the news was REALLY bad and things are about to get complicated again and I was really hoping we wouldn't have more crap like this happen so soon after the Winter War was over. I still don't feel like we've really recovered from it..."

"Well..." Matsumoto carefully eyed her pint sized Captain and decided that perhaps she could treat him to some real seriousness for once, he looked like he needed someone to talk to. She pulled up the little used chair from behind her desk and plopped down in it in front of him. "Why don't you tell me about it then? Don't keep it all to yourself, Captain, its obvious that its bothering you."

"I can't tell you about it, Matsumoto." Toushiro replied woodenly, almost gagging as his thoughts tried to go back to those conjured images.

"Captain-General told you to stay mum huh? That's inconvenient. How about charades then? I'm good at guessing things..."

"NO! Not charades. Never charades, not for this!" Toushiro flinched from the mere idea of acting out such things. "I haven't been ordered to stay silent, I just don't want to revisit what I was just told, okay? I feel like I'm going to vomit as it is! Somehow I'm supposed to brief the entire division on this matter in another thirty minutes, and I can't even bear to think about it!" He looked at his busty, overly friendly and far too relaxed Vice-Captain, and had to fight a real, aberrant urge to ask for a hug. His pride would never allow such a thing though, not from Rangiku Matsumoto anyway. Though perhaps Momo might be of some succor in that regard. Just thinking about his childhood friend, who had recently become more than that, was enough to calm him down a little bit. A personal relationship, even with someone he cared for as much as Momo, had never been in his plans, certainly not this early in his life and career, but after nearly losing her twice to Aizen's treachery, he wasn't prepared to wait any more. Some things were too precious to chance losing when he had the opportunity to enjoy them now, and might not in the future.

Besides, it had been obvious that Momo herself had been floundering in the wake of the Winter War, cast adrift from all that she had formerly held as constant in her life, her mind confused and addled and betrayed by Aizen's manipulations, both hypnotic and emotional. Toushiro still lay awake some nights, trembling as he heard Momo accusingly ask him way he'd tried to kill her in the Fake Karakura Town, while he'd been under the influence of Aizen's Total Hypnosis power. He'd stabbed her right through the chest, just barely missing her heart, and she was already badly hurt even before that. The look of utter betrayal on her face had stabbed him with a pain that couldn't have been any less than the physical wound he'd given her, and though of course she'd forgiven him... Momo always forgave him, and too easily... he didn't think he'd get over that look for a LONG time. He would gladly kill Aizen a thousand times over, helpless prisoner or not, for making him put that look on Momo's face! But in seeing that she was lost, he'd finally realized that he could still help her, by providing something for her to latch onto until she could get her feet under her once again.

It wasn't easy, and the good intentioned but still embarassing encouragement and teasing from his friends and subordinates didn't help matters much, but he and Momo had managed to at least build a semblance of a relationship, helped by spending so much time together in a professional capacity, now that the bulk of the 5th was seconded to the 10th for the time being, while it was determined whether to rebuild the tarnished division or disband it and distrubute the members to other divisions and start from scratch with a entirely new 5th Division. Toushiro wasn't sure which solution he favored, on one hand he knew Momo and many other 5th Divisioners were loyal and capable Shinigami that had merely been tricked, just as everyone else had, by Aizen. On the other, they were unquestionably tainted by association, and only a complete dissolution and reassignment could ever really banish that taint, and there didn't seem to be anyone jumping to take the spot of 5th Division Captain at the moment. Momo was still Vice-Captain, but she was still very much struggling with her personal issues, and didn't have much time to spare for her Division, which meant much more paperwork for him, but for her sake, it was no serious burden.

And contrary to popular belief and supposition, his and Momo's relationship, while undeniably romantic, was not yet intimate, nor did either of them plan to take things to that level so quickly. Yes, they did spend time together in private, and even sometimes slept together, but it was for mutual comfort and company only! Not that he really expected the crew of perverts and scandal-seekers that Matsumoto liked to hang out with to understand something so sublime as a non-physical loving relationship! He'd slept with Momo more times that he could remember when growing up with her after all, it wasn't like this was strange or new or different or especially lewd! Even if she was rather more developed now than she had been back then, even if the difference probably wasn't noticable to most people. He certainly had noticed, could not fail to notice and did not care to not notice... it was actually something of a relief to regard her with more than just friendly admiration, and he privately wondered just how long his attraction to Momo had been headed towards more than "just friends".

"That bad, huh?" Matsumoto commented, with more uncharacteristic seriousness. Then again, ever since Gin Ichimaru's death and sort of redemption at the close of the Winter War, she herself hadn't been nearly as carefree as she once had been. Toushiro just nodded in reply. It was that bad. So bad he felt soiled just thinking about it. They sat there in a not so uncomfortable silence for a time, before a soft and familiar tread from out in the hall announced the arrival of none other than Momo Hinamori herself, Vice-Captain of 5th Division, subordinated to 10th. Shooting Matsumoto a warning glare to keep her trap firmly shut so as to not upset Momo, Toushiro smoothed his face of any outward signs of stress and worry, and didn't have to make much effort to cause a glad smile to cross his face as Momo stepped into the room after politely knocking and requesting permission to enter, still observing formalities he had time and again told her were unnecessary between them. Well, whatever made her happy, he guessed.

Of course she ruined it a few moments later by grinning back. "Good morning Shiro-chan. I hope you slept well. I certainly did." Momo commented, her words, though innocent, causing Matsumoto to all but choke to death on restrained giggles as her too filthy mind filled in all sorts of reasons for why Momo might have slept so well. Toushiro felt his eyebrow twitch a few times as Matsumoto had her little laugh, but did not deign to rise to the teasing. He even decided not to protest, for once, the use of that most hated nickname Momo had coined for him long ago. Just because she was a few years older than him, didn't mean that she could refer to him by such a cutesy moniker! At least, that was how he'd felt prior to the end of the Winter War. Now, he didn't so much care what she called him, as long as she would talk to him and stay with him.

"It wasn't... I slept okay." Toushiro said, hedging his original sentence, hoping Momo wouldn't be awake enough to catch his slip. He really ought to have known better by now, there were no two people in all the world that knew him better than these two women right here, except maybe Granny, and even she didn't see him as often as Momo and Matsumoto did. Her smile turning into a pusing of her lips, Momo fixed him with a "fess up" look, and when that didn't work, she moved to sit by him on the couch and put a hand on his chest to hold him in place when he tried to get up. He could have stood anyway, but that wasn't the point. Momo wanted him to stay. He stayed.

"Now tell me what's wrong, Toushiro." Momo ordered sternly. "And don't even bother trying to dodge my question, I know all your tells, I'll know the moment you try and stretch the truth or fib." She reminded him, causing him to close his mouth and scowl, swallowing his attempt to assure her nothing was wrong. He ignored Matsumoto making whipcracking noises in the background, and stared Momo in the eyes.

"It's bad. So bad I don't want to have to say it twice. I'm going to make an announcement to the divisions at the morning assembly, you can find out then. Please, just trust me on this, Momo. I don't want to tell you. I wish I hadn't heard myself. The entire world feels a little less clean and safe now that I've heard this news. But the entire Sereitei is going on full alert, war footing status, so I don't have any choice but to explain the reasons why. But to speak of such things here, in my office... I can't tolerate the idea. Its too foul for words." Toushiro explained, begging her with his eyes to understand. Fortunately, she was good at recognizing when he was being childishly stubborn and grown up stubborn.

"Okay then, Toushiro, we'll wait." Momo replied, in utmost seriousness. Then, apparently deciding that the current somber atmosphere wasn't to her liking, she hugged him, hard and close. Caught off guard, Toushiro did the first thing that came to mind, and hugged her back. It felt good. Not quite as good as an erased memory and a full night's sleep perhaps, but a very close second. Even Matsumoto's "Awww..." exclamation wasn't enough to sully how good it felt, though he did shoot her a icy glare worthy of Hyoinmaru himself nonetheless. "Don't stress out so much, Shiro-chan, we'll beat this too. I know we will." Momo said encouragingly, brushing the tip of his nose with her lips before she pulled away, both of them flushing a bit pink, Toushiro far more than Momo, as Matsumoto hooted and hollered fit to shame a convent of nuns.

"Right then, Matsumoto..." Toushiro said at length, recovering his wits and his poise from Momo's display of affection. "You seem to have lots of energy this morning, and its obvious you don't have a hangover and aren't sick, judging from how you are acting, so why don't you put some of that energy to good use and get a head start on our paperwork for today. I need to go prepare my speech and all that stuff. Momo can assist me."

"Captain, that's not fair!" Matsumoto complained, looking aghast at the piles of paperwork all but covering both desks. She shot her superior an arch look as he began to lead Momo out the door by one hand. "You're leaving me to do all this work while you go off and snuggle with your girlfriend? Captain, that's a blatant..."

"And fully acceptable delegation of my power as CAPTAIN of the 10th division, isn't it, VICE-CAPTAIN Matsumoto?" Toushiro filled in for her with a steady look. "You don't like being ordered around by me to my advantage every once and a while? I hear they're still looking for new Captains for the 9th and 3rd Divisions. I could put in a good word for you at the next meeting... of course you'd have to train really hard to get your Bankai first, but I could put you through the wringer, I mean, I could help you train if you wanted to put forth the effort..."

"You've become a cruel man recently, Captain." Matsumoto commented mournfully.

"No, Shiro-chan's just in love, and now has more appreciation for taking personal time off from work." Momo answered for him.

"Momo..." Toushiro commented irritably, blushing again. Well, it wasn't like it wasn't true after all...