Shallow Hilt

Drool, glimmering in the orange light of lanterns, dripping onto a grey, stone floor. A low growl rumbled through the iron bars, humming with spiritual energy themselves, and shook the teeth of any nearby. It fell from the teeth-filled maw of a monster, clad in a mask of white, as it stared through its cage at the man outside of it: well-built, with long, golden hair tied into a single tail. He stood with a wooden-hilted Zanpakutō at his waist, a hand rested idly on what would be the pommel.

A finger tapped at it, silently, as he stared forward at the monster before him. Its breath seeped through the entire area and mixed with the others further in either direction. Row after row, cages of what had to be dozens, Hollows all. Some screamed, some shook at the bars reinforced by Bakudō, others slept, and some few gnawed—fewer still gnawed on themselves.

That was how the Ninth knew they needed to use it quickly, before it expired.

An underground facility of Hollows gathered from Earth. Some questioned, others studied, while a select subset were used for a variety of other purposes—such as by the Tenth Division, or the Twelfth. A place everyone knew the Ninth possessed, though few spoke of it, and the Thirteenth staunchly opposed.

“Sir?” A voice called out to the golden-haired man. An older man, thin and almost spindly, with another Zanpakutō at this hip—this one with a proper hilt and guard.

“Third Seat Nakamura?” He repeated when the larger man failed to answer.

He glanced once to his guest in confusion. Only then did Nakamura turn his head, lay eyes on the Shinigami who had brought the Ninth’s guest, and then onto the man himself:

Fourth Seat of the Sixth Division—

“—Hidekawa, I’ve brought him,” he explained, then turned to the superior officer of another Division, bowed, and excused himself.

Nakamura’s green eyes studied Takahiro for a few, brief moments in silence.

“You’ve quite the reputation, Fourth Seat Hidekawa,” Nakamura greeted him, albeit in his own way. “It has grown since the Academy.”

Another, lower growl, as if threatened by the presence of two Officer-class Shinigami, rolled out of the Hollow before the man. The others in the prison of sorts began to protest more loudly themselves. One grabbed at its bars, shaking them like an ape, while another chewed clean through its own wrist and its hand fell onto the floor. Blood poured from the stump as it started to eat more of its own limb.

Nakamura sighed.

“I apologize for calling you to such a strange and unwelcoming place,” he turned his full attention to Takahiro. “It’s something many know of, speak of, but few seldom ever see. I believe it best like that.”

His eyes lingered on Takahiro’s own Zanpakutō for a few moments.

“Are you well, after what happened there?” Nakamura suddenly asked.

“After all that I saw inside that place, you’re one of the few I can meaningfully ask.”
The summons had been swift and unceremonious in its delivery, but entirely expected. Following the events at the Academy the prior day, a stunned silence had rapturously enveloped the whole of the Seireitei and its leadership. For hours after the cleanup started, not one word was uttered about why or how such a thing had happened. There was simply no place to start asking questions from, no basis to speculate with. Those who heard the news secondhand outside of the Seireitei surely had more varied opinions. It was a farce, they would say, a cruel, senseless, completely baseless rumor that only served to further sow the seeds of fear planted in troubled times. Some believed it, to be sure, but for such destruction to occur within the only place, even during the greatest of crises in the world of the living, that the Soul Society considered the pinnacle of safety, was simply unthinkable.

Those who had witnessed what occurred, or rather, the aftermath, had utterly no recourse or reason for speculation. Six future generations of Shinigami and the millenia-old school from which they had been learning, completely and totally erased from history. In the advent of such tremendous tragedy, Takahiro woke up to a still world, light beaming in through his bedroom window. It was a hot, beautiful day, the sun sailing above a cloudless sky, but there was no warmth to it.

For once, Takahiro mused, this world so focused on death has been shaken to its core by the loss of life.

The messenger came moments after Takahiro stepped out of the door, greeting him on the front steps of the Division's barracks with a piece of parchment that detailed what would become surely the first of many meetings that day. It read, "Come to the facility within the Ninth Division as soon as possible. Signed, Third Seat Nakamura Ryūichi."

Takahiro nodded his head affirmatively, both a dismissal to the messenger and a confirmation that he understood his orders. Within minutes, he found himself within the sprawling white complex of the Ninth, and after a few questions about where he could find the facility in question directed at unseated and lower-seated Shinigami who seemed to all respond with disturbed looks and raised eyebrows, he did manage to make his way to the spot of the meeting, assisted by one of the hapless men at the Ninth's disposal.

After a stuttered, fearful introduction, Takahiro was left alone in the dry, dark, room, with the Third Seat...and a veritable sea of other guests, to whom Takahiro only paid a single glance; rows upon rows of caged Hollows, all brought from the living world. Their ilk ranged from furry, matted beast-like creatures to those that took more abstract forms, monstrous things with monstrous features. While their combined energy was sure to frighten and perhaps even terrify most who walked outside around the compound, all that came of reaching out into the prison with his spiritual senses was a feeling of vague, distant dread. Not one of these abominations held a candle to the towering behemoth he had faced yesterday.

He had been called fearless before, but a wise man would be certain to fear the contents of this room. Takahiro's battle at the Academy had stripped him of the common man's wisdom.

As for the Third Seat, his words were relatively welcoming, if clinical in their nature. Nakamura was an honorable man whose actions did not befit those of his family's name, and in this case, that was a good thing. Had it been any other member of the clan that called him there that day, Takahiro would have waltzed into the room with his hand on the hilt of his Zanpakutō. But, in spite of his reputed decency, the long-haired blond was still a man who lived by his work, through and through. He was a thorough, calculating person.

Takahiro was certain that today, he was the one who's presence demanded that hands be placed on the hilts of swords. Allowing himself a light smile at what he knew was a backhanded compliment in reference to his past prior to becoming a Shinigami, the Fourth Seat replied gracefully with a brief bow of his head.

"It is a honor to have my work recognized. Fifty years of duty have done me no disservices, Third Seat Nakamura. In these times I simply wish to keep my edge sharp for the Gotei."

On that note, Nakamura's eyes drifted from his for a moment to look to a self-cannibalizing ape-like Hollow who had gorged himself on his own arm, only to apologize for his choice of setting.

"Certainly, most shouldn't dwell in a place like this. But it is a morbid place to speak of morbid events, so I believe the shoe fits."

And somewhere where a conversation is guaranteed to remain private, Takahiro silently added.

The blonde man's question came out of the blue, cutting straight to the meat of what the pair of Officers were there for. It was a question with a seemingly obvious, but admittedly pertinent answer. Takahiro shook his head as he recalled the details of what he had seen that day. Charred, butchered and gutted corpses colored the walls of his mind in a way that he, for once, was not used to.

"Well might not be the best word for it. I am lucky to be alive, and surely better men than me are not after that massacre. Buildings can be rebuilt but the lives and futures that we have lost are irreplaceable. I did all that I could but I admit that the whole of last night, I couldn't shake the feeling that I desperately need to get if it's my fault that I could not do more."

Takahiro paused for a moment, carefully aware of the fact that Nakamura's eyes were placed not on his own, but on the scabbard of his Zanpakutō. Then, he spoke again, giving perhaps a more clear answer.

"I have been wracked, consumed by the fear that an event so sudden cannot be the culmination of these troubling times but instead the beginning of an even more tempestuous disaster. Something that I, nor anybody, could have a hand in preventing."

And now, he allowed his hand to idly rub the hilt of his sword, to which he looked at the blade contemplatively.

"So, I must dig deeper into myself for the power to uncover more, to strike first, before we are forced to weather the storm."
The entire time Takahiro spoke, the Hollow contained within the bars bashed its body—skull, limbs, mask, it hardly seemed to matter—against the bars. Each time, a faint glow of golden Kidō appeared, reinforcing the iron against the monster within. Nakamura never once looked at it and, instead, gave the Fourth Seat his undivided attention.

The tantrums were nothing new, and hardly worth his attention.

“Admirable, especially for one from Sixth,” Nakamura answered in a warm voice and with a nod. “Prevention is difficult, in your line of work. Impossible, in mine. Only the Eighth can aid us in saving the very first victims of a tragedy. More frequent by the day.”

Everyone knew it, of course. Ever since the disease that gripped much of the world first began to take lives in great numbers, the number of Hollow attacks on the Soul Society grew. Individual Hollows that crossed the realm between worlds and devoured what souls they could within the Rukongai. Some few Shinigami had been unfortunate enough to perish in their defense, as well—something once unheard of.

“But never quite like what the Academy endured, isn’t that true?” The man asked as he reached to his sash and gripped his scabbard tight.

With a lift, he brought it free, and then bumped the hilt against the bars just once. The Hollow within roared, leaped back, and pushed itself hard against the reinforced wall of sekkiseki opposite of Nakamura. The metallic ring echoed down towards the other Hollows, but only the one before the Third and Fourth Seat reacted so strongly.

Nakamura returned his blade to its place.

“No one within the Gotei understands the soul of the Hollow better than the Twelfth,” he continued. “But their behavior? No one understands that better than the Ninth, now, and the Thirteenth.”

With his other hand, he gestured to the Hollow that still refused to approach the bars again.

“The souls of men, but the minds of animals. They’re predictable,” his explanation went on. “And never once, in the history of Soul Society of which I am aware, has there ever been such a clearly coordinated assault. Hollows do not act in such a manner—until now.”

Nakamura’s eyes flicked from Takahiro to Hollow, and back again.

“What do you believe has changed, Hidekawa? What has changed about the Academy to draw such an unprecedented event?” Nakamura finally pressed the question. “I’ve read your report, as well. The Hollow presence, with power like a Captain. A monster neither Ninth nor Thirteenth has ever reported before.

“What has changed about the Academy, do you think, that could end centuries of precedent in such a manner?”