Prologue – Memories in the Rain
He heard his mother call his name behind him, even above the sound of the rushing waters of the river. Ichigo didn’t stop, his concern for the little girl overriding his usual instinct to listen to her. He reached, trying to stop her from falling, but she vanished before his eyes. He was left straining for nothing, grasping at empty air and seeing the splashing river right in front of him.
Ichigo slipped, shoes slick against stone and grass, falling forward. He could feel the rain beating against his back and on his head; it was so loud. Confusion attacked his young mind.
Where had she gone?
And then, he slipped. A hand grabbed him, his mother’s voice just behind. She pulled, yanking him away from the raging waters. Ichigo let out a startled squeak and stumbled against her. She tripped on something, he wasn’t sure what, and the two of them went tumbling down. There was something in the air, a heaviness. It stole his breath.
Ichigo gasped as he hit the ground, a weight falling on top of him. He could feel his mother’s warm arms wrapped around him, enclosing and safe.
“She’s disappeared,” he exclaimed in his surprise, still looking to where the little girl had been. She had seemed so sad and lonely, like she needed help. “She’s not here, kaa-chan.”
His mother didn’t move. He could feel her weight and her warmth. Ichigo knew she was there, but she didn’t speak. She didn’t move at all.
Ichigo shivered, feeling rain splash on his face and soak into his clothes. It was so wet.
“Kaa-chan?” he murmured again. Tentative. Suddenly frightened as something inside of him screamed.
That feeling of pressure rose again, making him gasp. It felt as though something was trying to squash him down. He’d felt this before; he was sure. It was the same sensation when he saw those monsters but never this close before. Like one of those ugly things stood right next to him.
Rain trickled down his face, and he could see the soft brown of his mother’s hair right next to him. A smell, sharp and metal-like, rose in the air. Even above the scent of the rain and his mom’s favorite perfume. Ichigo whimpered, unable to help the fear that grabbed him.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t move at all.
Ichigo crawled out from beneath his mother and grabbed her shoulder, shaking her briefly. She didn’t respond, and he struggled to turn her over, trying to see her face. Blood was everywhere, so bright in the dimness of the storm-clouded day. Everything blurred red, swimming in surging tears. His hand, cold already, patted her cheek where a few specks dotted brightly. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t move. So very still. Just like the old lady from across the street had been when they went to her funeral last year.
His hand clenched on his mother’s shoulder tightly, his breath hitching painfully. “Kaa-chan!”
Behind him, or maybe above him or even both, there was a sudden burst of strange laughter. It was raspy and rough, like the old men with really bad breathing problems in his dad’s clinic. Ichigo looked up and found one of those scary creatures hovering over him. Its body was covered in shaggy hair, and the bone-white of its face was even more frightening this close. A tongue emerged from its mouth, slurping over dangerous-looking teeth.
And didn’t even see the attack coming. Something whipped towards him, slamming into his chest. His body went flying several feet backwards, and he crashed into the ground, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Ichigo coughed, little body wracked with pain as he tasted blood. He had bitten his lip.
Slowly, Ichigo tried to get a hold of himself, paralyzed by a gripping fear. His hands slammed into the slick grass, attempting to push himself up. It was hard to breathe though, and as he shifted, he heard a strange clank. Looking down, Ichigo saw that there was something metal hanging from his chest. Dropping back to his knees, he touched it with trembling fingers.
Smooth and cold. It was a really thick chain, and it was attached to him. It clanked loudly as he moved. Really scared, he noticed that it led somewhere, and he followed the path with his eyes. It twisted across the ground, leading right back to where his mother was still lying. And he saw himself there with her on the other end of the chain.
Why? What was going on?
He didn’t understand.
The monster, it was still there, too. It hunched over like a dog preparing to pounce. It was looking right at something, and Ichigo realized that his dad was standing there between the monster and his mother. He was wearing strange black clothes, white fluttering over one of his shoulders. And he didn’t look like the happy, goofy man that Ichigo knew but something more serious and just a bit scary. That feeling of being pushed him down grew stronger, and Ichigo struggled to keep from falling back into the mud.
His dad held something shiny, pointing it towards the creature. It was a sword, like in all the anime he watched or the manga his mom read to him. Just like the heroes. His dad was protecting them, Ichigo thought.
Then, Ichigo needed to do his part, too. He needed to protect his mother. He had said he was going to. That he was going to be strong enough to protect his mother. And his little sisters. And everyone he could.
Resolve gathered, he attempted to crawl forward, despite feeling so tired. He didn’t understand why it was so hard for him to move or why he couldn’t seem to breathe either. The chains clanked as he went, and he worried the monster would look, but it was too busy fighting his dad.
It made a horrible noise as his dad hit it with his sword. And there was a terrible sound every time the blade scratched across its claws. His dad grunted and cursed, going so fast that Ichigo didn’t even see him move at all.
Slapping his hand against the ground, Ichigo pulled himself forward. It was so dark and dim, but he could see other things starkly. The red of blood. The orange-brown of his mother’s hair. The pink of her sweater. The fallen umbrella. The clash of sword and claw.
And fear covered everything.
The monster laughed that grating, old-man laugh. There was a wet thud, accompanying a sound of a loud. Audible even above the rushing river and falling of the rain, which was growing heavier and heavier, but it still couldn’t wash away the blood. Something scraped and slid through water and mud.
Ichigo stared in horror as his dad hit the ground and bounced a few times before not moving, water splashing up around him. Seconds later, his sword smacked into the grass in several pieces, far away from the outstretched hand of his father. His dad groaned, tipping his head to look at him. His lips moved, and blood slipped from his mouth.
His hand slid out from under him, and Ichigo fell forward, getting a mouthful of mud and rainwater. The weight of the chain kept dragging him down, and it didn’t help that something else was pushing him towards the ground. He couldn’t feel his fingers anymore, and it was harder to concentrate.
“Heh, heh!” The monster cackled, seeming not to notice the blood that streamed down its sides. “Quite the feast!”
Ichigo’s eyes widened in fear. He didn’t know that those things could talk! Shivering, he tried to move, to back away from it. But he couldn’t. His body didn’t want to obey, paralyzed by fear. Tears streamed down his face, but it was impossible to tell in the rain. He could see his dad and his mom, just there. He could reach them if he just tried.
With a loud groan, Ichigo’s father tried to get up. He slapped his palm onto the grass, forced himself onto his forearms, but he didn’t manage anything higher. Before Ichigo could blink, a massive claw came down, slamming against his back. The ground cracked as his father was crushed beneath.
His dad coughed up a lot of blood as Ichigo heard a wet crack. The monster laughed again, and just like his mother, his father didn’t move either. He could barely see his dad in the crater that the creature had made.
Ichigo whimpered, his entire body going colder and colder. Something slammed into him from the side, batting him across the ground. He went skidding over grass and mud, but the length of the chain was no longer with him. Ichigo felt his arm give an uncomfortable crack, and he cried out in pain, black dots dancing in front of his eyes. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t move his arm.
There was a terrible rending feeling. And his chest felt as if someone had punched it. He sucked in a sobbing breath, choking on his own cries and peeled open his eyes. That thick chain, that strong metal. It had snapped like a twig. He wasn’t connected anymore, Ichigo realized with a growing sense of fear. And somehow, he just knew that fact was important. He wasn’t connected anymore.
He was going to die, just like his mom and dad. Ichigo had that sudden revelation. The monster had killed his parents, and it was going to get him, too.
The creature turned towards him, licking its mouth again. There was blood on its claws. It licked that, too.
And Ichigo cried out in terror.
With a loud sucking sound and a strange tapping, Ichigo heard someone coming closer. He forced himself to look, though he didn’t want to. Instead of another monster, however, it was a man wearing an ugly striped hat and a pair of geta. He carried a cane in one hand, and a black butterfly hovered on one of his fingers. Despite his fear, Ichigo thought for a moment that it was a rather beautiful thing.
As the stranger approached, the monster seemed to sense something. It whirled to face the newcomer, snarling angrily. One claw lashed out at the geta-boushi, but he shifted to the side, easily dodging. The butterfly took off from his finger, black wings flapping strongly despite the pounding rain.
Ichigo watched as the man easily sidestepped another attack and calmly drew a sword out of his cane. The stranger said something, but Ichigo couldn’t make it out above everything else. The sense of power grew strong in the air, filling around him on both sides.
He tried to move forward, but his broken arm didn’t want to obey him. It hurt so badly. And he could hardly breathe. Ichigo reached out with his good hand, trying to get to his mother. It was too far. She wasn’t moving, and neither was his dad. There was so much blood, despite the rain. And the remnants of the chain attached to his chest rattled and clanked. The remaining weight of it was beginning to be painful, tugging on his chest and making him feel hollow.
Ichigo heard clacking teeth, strangely close to him. And then, it felt as if something were gnawing over his entire body. He tried to cry out, but his breath was stolen from him, his body curling inwards. The chain was making a strange, horrible sound. And it hurt so badly, more tears squeezed from his eyes. Darkness beckoned to him, promising that it wouldn’t hurt anymore if he just gave in. And somewhere in it, he heard a grating laughter, and there was a brief image of golden eyes, swallowed by black.
It was harder for Ichigo stay awake. He was cold and hurting, heart aching just from the sight of his mother. He collapsed against the mud and grass, shivering pitifully. He couldn’t see anything, but her hair, spread out like a halo. It was becoming dirtier and dirtier with each passing second.
A scream pierced the sky, but Ichigo didn’t even have the strength to jump. His heart pounded in his chest with fear, though he couldn’t understand how that was still possible. He felt a strange weight lifting from his back, but he still couldn’t move. He didn’t even bother to try.
The sound of footsteps squishing through the mud and grass floated to his ears. He forced his eyes open, catching sight of those geta approaching. And then, the strange man, his hat missing, was coming closer.
He crouched, gray-green eyes seeming so kind for all their sadness. Shiny and bright with moisture. A hand reached out, settling gently on Ichigo’s hair.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” the man whispered quietly.
His hand was so warm, voice gentle. Ichigo sniffled loudly, his outstretched fingers clutching at empty air. He wanted to feel safe, but all he could think of was that monster’s cutting claws. All he could see when he closed his eyes were blotches of bright blood. That thing was cackling again, the thing that was inside of him but wasn’t. His chest hurt, the remaining chain tugging on him as if it were alive.
It was too much for him. The cold and the wet and the attack and the little girl who had vanished into nothing. The hungry coils and the dark, dark eyes gleaming maliciously at him. A pale hand capped with black nails, reaching and reaching.
The last thing he remembered before he slipped into darkness was that stranger’s warm touch, a comforting trickle of power tickling across his skin. And fingers sliding through his hair and chasing away the fear.