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The grass was cold and wet against his skin. He blinked slowly, staring up at a sky the color of a fading bruise, devoid of stars or moon or clouds. Just a flat expanse of purplish gray that seemed to curve oddly like an unimaginably massive dome overhead. It was sort of freaky, the way it played with his perception of distance.
"Weird," he whispered and stretched his fingers, feeling blades of grass slide under his palm. Sharp and little prickly. It smelled like sod and green earth. Not an unpleasant scent. He rolled his head and saw a dark expanse of a forest to the right. To the left was downslope of the slight hill he was sprawled out upon, and what looked to be a narrow dirt path.
He looked back up at the sky, half recalling falling, but not quite sure where he'd fallen from. Lifting a hand, he stared at spread fingers against the backdrop of bruised sky. Long fingers, blunt nails. A solid enough hand. There were the faint marks of bruising about his wrists and forearms. He couldn't quite remember how it had happened. Another place, he thought - - a horrible, stifling place the whispers of which were fading from his mind like cobwebs blown away in the breeze.
A breath of cool, moist air and he sat up, taking more cautious stock of the present place in which he found himself. A hill at the edge of a forest, with a road, if a sodden little dirt track could be labeled that, running parallel it. A baffling place to find himself. He curled his toes in the grass, looked down at his feet and realized he was naked.
"Well - - fuck - -" A surge of annoyance rushed up. He curled a fist and stood up, glaring at the twilight countryside as if it had had a hand in his current state of affairs.
"What the hell is going on?" He demanded of the world in general. The forest stared back silently and the road had no opinion of the matter whatsoever.
"Where am I - -?" As soon as he formed the perfectly reasonable question, another considerably larger one popped inconveniently into his head. The where was not nearly so vital as the who. The terrifying realization that he was a stranger in his own body drove him back to the ground, legs folding beneath him like a deck of fluttering cards.
"Crap - -" He wove his fingers through his hair, nails scraping his scalp, staring blindly at the grass between his legs. Seeking - - desperately seeking some scrap of memory - - some breadcrumb of a clue as to who he was.
He didn't know. It wouldn't come to him. The only clue he had was the fading recollection of the whispery voice in his mind that had drawn him out of the abyss. Calling a name over and over. The name had no meaning to him. No connection he was aware of, save that something had been insistently yammering it inside his mind.
"Ichigo," he whispered it and it sounded strange on his tongue. But it was something. It was a lifeline.
"Good enough," he set his jaw and climbed to his feet again, trying to decide. Forest or path, and there was a faintly ominous chill emanating from the woods, so the path it was.
A rutted dirt tract, that wound through undulating grassy hills spotted with thickets of wood and no sign whatsoever of civilization. It made sense that if there were a path that it had to lead eventually to something. A village or a town or a farm at the very least that might have a phone he could use to call - -
He stopped, breathing hard, hands shaking as the blank at the end of that thought hit him like a fist in the gut. He knew what a phone was - - could almost feel the shape of it in his hand, but that was the extent of it. What good was a phone if he didn't know who to call?
He wrapped his arms about his ribs, shuddering, colder than he had been. The hair on the back of his arms prickled. He looked to his left, towards a distant copse of twisted black trees and felt a faint sense of presence. It made his gut clench and sweat break out on his skin. Every instinct he had screamed to get himself as far distant as he could. To run as if his life depended on it. But he stood there, staring towards that dark little grove in morbid curiosity, until something shifted against the black of the trees, separating itself from the twisted trunks and flowing across the wild grass like a wraith, white featureless face against a black body, gaping black mouth issuing a moan that almost sounded like wind whistling through tree limbs.
And heading towards him. Drawn to him and more the fool he had been to stand there while it had made up its mind to make an introduction.
He did run then. Forgoing the meandering trail and pelting up the hill as if his life depended upon it. Sharp grass cut at his feet on the upside, and on the down, when he lost his footing in slick, wet grass he went tumbling, a half controlled roll that ended up with him in a shallow brook, muddy and wet and panting after breath.
He scrambled up and stopped short, staring in shock at the pair of women on the other bank. There was a small cart behind them, attached to a sleepy-eyed little animal that might have been a mule, or might have been something else entirely. He really didn't have the leisure time to look closely, what with two women in front of him and something decidedly frightening behind him.
"Run," he gasped it, splashing across the water.
The women recoiled, staring at him as if he were the monster in the dark. But then he was a naked man, come rushing up upon them out of nowhere. He jabbed a finger at the hill behind him in desperation.
"There's something - -"
It crested the hill before he could find the words to describe it. And he didn't know what to do - - when his head screamed run - - but every other instinct he had cried in outrage at the thought of taking flight at the expense of two startled strangers.
He clenched his fists, eyes scouring the ground for something - - anything he could use as a weapon, but it was just grass and muddy brook, rocks no bigger than pebbles shifting under his bare feet.
"Boy - - come here. Now," one of the women hissed.
He stood rooted to the spot, calf deep in cold water, staring up at the apparition flowing down the hillside. Twice as tall as he was, armless, legless, the tatters of its body fluttering around it as it came, the only break in the black the white of its face. If a face could consist of a gaping mouth and nothing else. Almost like the shell of a mask.
He didn't need to see the details to feel its hunger.
"Unless you want to be supper for that thing - -" The woman added, very calm, very soft voice.
He backed up a step, another and one of them grasped his arm, the other one murmuring nonsense words, fingers making subtle gestures.
The thing on the hillside stalled, drifting, as if it had lost its sense of purpose. As if it had lost track of its prey. The wind whistled through the aperture in its maw and he realized that he could see sky on the other side through the hole. Finally, it began moving away, back up the hill. The woman kept up her whispery chant until it had disappeared and some minutes after.
The other one dug her nails into his arm and said shortly. "Come on with you. She can't keep this up for long."
She pushed him, then grasped the animal that wasn't quite a mule by the ear and got it moving, the cart creaking along behind.
"What - -? What was that? How did you - -?" he didn't know where to start with the questions, so many of them crowded his head. He had the presence of mind to put the animal between his naked self and the two women.
"Shut up," the one said, looking over her shoulder.
The older one stumbled and the younger caught her under the arm, shoring her up. Neither one was particularly spry, but the oldest seemed ancient. A doddering crone if ever there was one. But it had been her words and whatever she'd done that had confused the thing descending upon into retreat.
"I'm okay, Dltha. Just took a little out of me," the old one said, leaning upon the swayed back of the animal as it plodded along.
"You wouldn't have had to bother, Eltha if this fool hadn't brought trouble upon us."
The old woman cackled, turning sunken black eyes towards him. "Worth the trouble though, eh, to enjoy the sight of such a fine young buck in his altogether."
The other one raised a brow and looked his way with a bit more consideration. He felt his face heat, moving his hands to cover the important bits.
"What happened to your clothes boy?" the younger one, Dltha he thought, asked with sly insinuation. "Get caught in the middle of something nasty by the hollow?"
"What? No! Just no. By the what? What the hell just happened? What did it want? What did you do?" The questions tumbled out in a confused jumble.
"The hollow boy, are you daft? Or did you hit your head and knock the sense right out of you?" Dltha snapped. "And she saved your pretty skin, which you damned well didn't deserve, leading it right upon us like you did."
He blinked at her no less lost than he had been.
"What's your name, boy?" the old one asked.
He drew a breath. "Ichigo?"
"You don't sound certain."
He shut his eyes, drawing breath. "Yeah - - I'm not. But – it's the closest thing I have."
"Ah," the old one said as if she'd figured something out. "He's new dead."
The younger one snorted.
"What?" he stopped walking. "What did you say?"
"You're new dead," Dltha said with no small bit of malice in her voice. "Fresh meat from the land of the living and no luck at all if you ended up here instead of the Rukongai proper."
"What do you mean, dead?" The chills that ran through his body were almost incapacitating. His hands shook from it, his teeth rattled so hard he had to clench his jaw. Dead. Dead. Dead. Impossible. As impossible as the flickering nightmare memory of the place before, or as the faceless wraith that had slipped out of the shadows to pursue him.
"That's what I hate about the new dead. Ignorant as rock and twice as likely to end up trod underfoot, or eaten up by hollows." Dltha waved a hand and kept on walking, the cart trundling along behind her. The old woman looked at him, rheumy eyes taking him in. He was too shocked to even care.
"How can I - - ? How can I be dead if I'm standing here, talking to you? The dead don't talk, or walk or feel like they want to throw up, right?"
"The dead eat and they drink, they piss and they fuck, boy and you're one of them," Dltha threw back over her shoulder.
"It's the afterlife," Eltha patted his arm, peering up at him. "Not what you expected it to be, eh?"
Her hand slid around to his ass and all he could do for a moment was stand there, stunned into incapacity by the realization that he just might be dead and existing in the afterlife at the same time. Having his ass squeezed by a crafty-eyed old woman that looked like she was pushing a hundred was simply icing on the cake.
He wasn't entirely sure he believed them, he didn't want to believe them, but part of him knew it was true. He felt just a little dizzy. Just a little drained, as if the will to go on had spilled out of him somewhere on the path behind.
Carefully, gently, he caught the old woman's boney wrist and separated her hand from his ass. He asked numbly. "Do you have any clothes I can wear?"
The old woman cackled. "Clothes are over rated, boy."
* * *
But they found something for him regardless. Not much more than rags. Threadbare, drawstring trousers and a ragged buttonless shirt stained with what seemed suspiciously like old blood. The dead could bleed. And the dead could die all over again. That was one more numbing revelation.
"I don't know how I got here," he said softly, more to himself than either of the old women, as he trudged behind the little cart, no place else to go. No place else to be.
"None ever do," Dltha said. "It's the way of things. Come here from the other side, slate wiped clean, ignorant as any newborn, until you learn the way of things. If you survive long enough. Maybe a hundred years or so and you'll be wise enough to understand the way of it here."
"A hundred - - years?"
The old one cackled.
He stared at their backs, the bent old crone with her grey braid, and the broad hipped woman who kept casting him wary, resentful glares over her shoulder.
"What was that thing?" he finally asked that, because it was easier to wrap his head around the concept of something he'd actually seen with his own two eyes bearing down upon him, than the other things they'd hurled at him.
"Are you slow, boy? Told you, was a hollow?"
"I don't know what that is."
"Dumb as stone," the broad one muttered.
"Souls gone bad," the old woman said. "That turn into things like that. Or worse things. That was a little one."
"How did you make it go away?"
"She masked the scent of our souls. That's what they like to eat, you know? The spiritual energy of our souls."
"They eat - - souls." It wasn't quite a question. He felt too numb to question. Acceptance was an easier option at the moment.
Dltha laughed. "More souls they eat the stronger they get. The longer they exist the more dangerous, 'less a reaper does their job and cuts them down. 'Course, the reapers don't come out here to the outskirts much as they do Rukongai proper. Don't care as much about us as they do those that live in the proper districts."
He shook his head, only able to process one thing at a time.
They walked for a long while, him plodding along in the wake, numb to the pain in his feet from the rocks on the path, numb to the world he found himself in - - swallowed up by the inconceivable notion that somewhere, somehow he had died. And ended up here - - alive again - - because dead meant nothingness - - and there was too much fear and confusion and discomfort here to qualify as that.
He blinked, jerking his head up to look at the women, who'd stopped some ways back. He thought they might have called to him more than once as he'd ambled along in his daze.
"Fool," Dltha shook her head muttering. They'd pulled the cart to the side of the tract, near a pool of dark water that gathered at the foot of a little jumble of rocks from which water trickled.
"We camp here," Eltha said.
Not much of a camp. Just them throwing a couple of blankets to the ground, and unwrapping clumps of cold rice. Dltha made it clear she'd just as well have him go hungry, but Eltha handed him a ball of rice from her own portion, chiding her younger companion. "You were new here once, you shrew. Give the boy a day or two to get his bearings."
"He'll never get his bearings out here, weak as he is. Practically no spirit energy at all. They'll eat him alive, looking like he does."
He looked up at her warily, licking the last of the rice off his finger, hungry despite himself. "Who's they?"
Dltha grinned at him. "You'll find out soon enough."
"The outskirters," Eltha said. "Those that live here at the edges, because the powers that be in Rukongai don't want them there."
"What is Rukongai?"
Eltha waved one bony hand. "This is Rukongai, or the edges of it and the edges are always shifting. Always changing, growing because there's never a shortage of souls pouring in from the human world. Here in the outskirts – we get the brunt of it - - because we're always at the ragged edge between here and there and the shadows of other places where the walls stretch thin."
"Until it stabilizes enough for them to want it for themselves," Dltha said bitterly. "And then the reapers push us further out."
"It's worse lately, though," Eltha said. "Less stable. More tears in the walls where things slip through than there used to be. Something happened a while back that shook all of Rukongai. Tore it up bad and its not the same as it was."
They sat there for a while, the two old women silently dwelling on things Ichigo had no concept of. He could barely grasp the notion of his existence here.
"Make yourself useful." Dltha tossed him a stoppered jug and jerked her chin towards the little spring fed pool.
He pushed himself up, knelt in the grass by the pool while he submerged the clay jug. There was just enough wan light to cast a reflection in the clear water. A young face looked up at him. Haunted brown eyes, a shock of unruly hair that meandered somewhere between red and blonde. A few years shy of twenty, if he were to guess. He leaned there, hands fisting in the grass, staring down at his reflection, feeling a pang of loss that he could hardly understand, because he couldn't recall the life in question.
"Young. I died so young," he whispered.
"Maybe. Maybe not." Eltha said. "Some live long lives and come back reborn as infants. Some come back old as the hills. The soul manifests itself how it sees fit."
He shut his eyes on the face in the water, not wanting to think about it. Hardly able to do anything but think about it.
He slept fitfully, dreaming of things grasping at him, tearing at him, drinking from the wellspring of his soul until there was barely anything left for him. When he woke he was drenched in a cold sheen of sweat. He lay there in the grass, staring up at a sky that was no lighter than it had been when he'd shut his eyes.
"Doesn't the sun ever come out?" he asked later, when some of the shell shock of the nightmare had worn off and he was of a mind to talk again.
"Not here." Dltha snorted. "What we get on the outskirts is this miserable murk."
"Well that's just delightful." He cast a wary look into the ink black shadows of the woods the path cut through. The path itself emitted a sullen, dirty glow, but beyond it the wood was sheathed in utter dark, save for patches of purple sky seen through the foliage above.
"But it does come out in other places, further in the Ru - - Rukongai?"
"It does. Those that live in the proper districts have it good. And at the center is the Seireitei, where only the elite dwell. The Soul Reapers and the nobles and those with the spiritual power to rise up above us common folk. They say its like true heaven behind the walls."
"Quiet now," Eltha said softly. "There are things in the wood. Let me concentrate and keep them from our scent."
Maybe a few hours later, or maybe a day - - it was hard to tell time when the light never altered - - they came to a village. A run down, flea-trap of a town, that sat squat and ugly at the end of the tract. The buildings were all wood and weathered, huddled together as if to ward off the things that might drift out of the twilight to assault them. The streets were tight and awful, littered with excrement that might have been animal and might have been human. The people that loitered on the street, or in doorways or within the shadows of the all too narrow spaces between buildings watched their passing with dead, hungry eyes.
He got a half block in and wanted to turn around and leave.
"Could this place be any more depressing?"
"It's Deddoendo," Eltha said. "Dead End. And it's bigger than it looks on first sight. When the outskirts shift, so does it. The people come and go though. Frequently."
He hesitated to ask what she meant by that. He had the chilling suspicion he knew all to well.
"What do you have there, you old hags?" Someone called out.
"Nothing for you, slackard," Dltha snapped back. "Unless you've the means to pay."
"We take trades," Eltha cackled and the man slunk back into the shadows, apparently not liking those terms.
Other people stopped and watched them pass, like scavenger animals gauging their chances.
"What do you trade in?" he asked finally, side stepping something suspicious on the road. He'd never seen what lay beneath the tarp covering the cart.
Dltha grinned at him. "The things men leave behind."
"What does that mean?"
"Do you have it?" A man stepped onto the street in front of the cart. A very large man. Fists the size of Ichigo's head were loosely clenched at his side. A face that looked like somebody had taken a few slabs of granite and chunked them together in a human-like facsimile, scowled down. Leather banded his waist and legs, but his torso was bare, rippling with muscle and covered with a thick layer of hair. Behind him stood a boy, maybe younger than Ichigo looked, with pale skin and lank dark hair. A scar ran from forehead to jaw, crossing the puckered edges of an empty eye socket. The other eye stared bleakly ahead, little spark of human emotion registering within.
"Do we ever fail, Dothu?" Eltha grinned and held out a boney hand. The big man growled, but he reached into his belt and brought out a handful of coin, placing them in the old woman's palm.
Dltha who had been rummaging about under the tarp brought out a jar. Suspended in faintly greenish liquid was an eyeball, trailing tendrils of nerve. Ichigo stared at it in surprise that turned to shock as the pupil dilated, seeming to look directly at him.
"What the hell - -?" He took a step back, jerking his gaze back to Dltha who was repositioning the tarp, but not so quickly that he didn't catch a glimpse of what lay beneath it. Jars filled with questionable contents weren't the worst of it. There were limbs wrapped in rune covered strips of cloth, hands and feet that occasionally twitched, as if the life still lingered.
"What the fuck do you two do?"
"What's this?" A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. If the grip hadn't been so firm, he might have jerked away, as it was fingers bit into his flesh like living vises.
"New dead," Dltha said. "Too pretty to peddle in bits and pieces. Worth more whole."
"You bitch - -" He ground his teeth, slamming his heel into the shin of the man standing behind him, which might have been an effective method of escape if he'd done anything but bruise his foot.
"Fucking - - fuck - -"
The hand tightened on his shoulder a split second before it lifted him off his feet and he found himself a foot and half off the ground staring eye to eye with the big bastard who held him.
"He's not merchandise, Dothu," Eltha said. "Just a boy we met on the road."
"Who owes us a debt," Dltha reminded her. "For his life and the clothes on his back and the food he ate."
"The hell - -" Ichigo's shoulder burned. He smashed his fist square into Dothu's broad face. The granite analogy wasn't far off. All he did was bloody his knuckles. What he got for the effort was Dothu slamming him down onto the street. Mud spattered, Vision wavered as pain exploded across the back of his skull and shoulders. He got hauled back up, the massive fist around his neck this time. All he could do was pull ineffectively at the thick fingers in an effort to keep from strangling.
"I like him. He's got spunk. I'll pay his debt. I'll take it out of his flesh."
The big man kicked the jar with the eyeball towards the boy cowering behind him. "Go have old man Thei put that in for you. You can take your time. I've got other entertainment."
The hell. Just no. Fucking no. Panic laced his struggles, fueling his strength. He got in a good kick in a sensitive spot. Dothu grimaced, the fist tightening momentarily before he flung Ichigo away from him. He bowled into the gathering crowd of onlookers, knocked over a few men before hitting the post of a rickety overhang. A few pieces of rotting wood showered down. He sprawled there, stunned, tasting blood at the back of his throat.
People shifted around him, but the way his vision was tunneling all he could see where legs. Someone stepped down off the wooden grate that served as a porch of the building behind him. From the smell it might have been a bar. A mud spattered black boot brushed his arm, when most of these folks wore peasant trousers like his own and went barefoot or wore rustic sandals. The man paused, looking down for a moment, before padding on.
"I'll pay his debt." A handful of coin got tossed towards Dltha. It fell in the mud at her feet. "That cover it?"
Dothu whirled, face twisted in outrage. "You can fuck off. I saw him first."
"You think? You really want to fuck with me, big man? Is he worth it when you've got your own toys?"
They were creating a scene. A larger crowd was starting to gather, drawn towards the prospect of bloodshed, watching in lurid curiosity. Ichigo pushed himself up, shaking off the lightheadedness. He spat out blood laced mud and made his feet, his back to the post he'd splintered with his impact.
"You can both fuck off. I'm nobody's toy."
The second man glanced over his shoulder, pale blue eyes gleaming with the sort of amusement one might expect to find on the face of a kid who enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies. The grin when it curved across his face just amplified the creepy.
"Oh come on, Ichigo, I'm thinking that if anybody deserves to have a go at you, its me right?"
Ichigo blinked, staring at the lean face, what might have been emerald green tattoos undercutting his long eyes, the sweep of gunmetal blue hair, searching for a sign of recognition that didn't come.
"You know me?" he whispered.
The head tilted slightly, pale eyes narrowing in consideration, sweeping over him like he was a piece of art he was contemplating the deeper meaning of.
Ichigo caught the movement of Dothu rushing the man from behind. The guy didn't even turn. And one split second to the next Dothu's big body was staggering, falling headlong into the mud past the guy, even as a dark round object sailed skyward in a surprisingly graceful arc before it came down with a splat in a mud puddle some thirty feet down the street. Dothu's head rolled a little, before settling, eyes wide and staring, mouth still twisted in rage. Ichigo looked down at the corpse almost at his feet, cleanly deprived of a head, blood leaking from the stump of a neck onto the muddy street.
"You had to fuck with me." The grin had turned just a little maniacal. Terrifyingly so. The guy flung blood off the edge of his sword, before sheathing it. When he moved, carelessly stepping on Dothu's back on his way back towards the bar, people scattered to make way for him.
"So we're good, right?" the man glanced back at the pair of old women. Dltha nodded, hands muddy from where she'd gathered up the coin. Eltha said nothing. Just shook her head and got the cart moving without even casting Ichigo a parting glance.
Ichigo stood there, wide-eyed, frozen against the post. Scared. Just scared. Things were spiraling beyond his ability to cope. He thought he'd had some semblance of understanding. He thought he hadn't been traveling with a couple of body peddling butchers. He'd thought once he reached some sort of civilization he'd have a chance to get his bearings, instead of ending up the object of contention between two psychotic assholes.
The guy caught his collar in passing, jerked him away from the post, hooked and arm around his neck and pulled him towards the open doorway of the bar.
"C'mon, let's go have a drink."
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