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|Black Sun: Evening||Black Sun: Nightfall||Black Sun: Dusk||Black Sun: Nadir|
Seated on his massive throne immersed in the dense darkness of the throne room, Kōken'nin was waiting patiently for his would-be opponent to come. Hikari Maebure, a rogue Togabito who had since become a mock-Yōkai, an entity known as Tsumikami, had disposed of the Warden's subordinates and after a while began approaching the immense fortress. Sensing that, Kōken'nin calmed his Reiatsu, and the building ceased quaking due to its ungodly might. However, the air was still thick with hot, overwhelming power.
All of a sudden there was a strong tremor, and one of the walls of the throne room exploded violently. Dust and debris showered the brimstone floor, and a cloud of smoke concealed the brand new opening in the wall of the castle. Soon afterward a large silhouette flickered among the dust, and then Hikari Maebure casually walked inside.
"It seems that good manners are not one of your qualities", stated Kōken'nin, his incredibly low voice reverberating across the spacious room.
"Good manners?", said Hikari, halting abruptly. "You shouldn't lecture me about good manners, Daemon."
"Oh?", replied the Warden with mock surprise, but there was also a hint of threat present.
Maebure fixed the stare of his faintly gleaming scarlet eyes on the interlocutor. Most of the latter's bulky body was obscured by tar-like darkness, but an actual collar of flames outlined the Yōkai's elongated, oval head. Two small, but very bright vermillion lights were deep-set in his otherwise empty eye sockets.
"You'd offered me a challenge, and then set up a trap with the use of your underlings once I came to your realm", said Hikari. "Astonishingly underhanded for someone of your status."
"We do not care about pride and honour", retorted Kōken'nin gravely. "As long as our duties are fulfilled, all means are justified."
Maebure smirked. His fleshy wings flapped, dispersing the streaks of dust that had started accumulating around him.
"Fair enough", he said. "Still, since your underlings have failed, it appears you'll have to take matters into your own hands."
Kōken'nin stood up, and the pair of glowing eyes shot toward the ceiling, nearly reaching it. Then, he took a few steps forward, descending on a couple of stairs before reaching the floor. He walked toward Hikari in a slow, measured manner, and eventually stopped a few metres from the intruder. At last his form was distinguishable, thanks to the ambient light of the volcanic realm seeping in through the clearing made by Maebure.
He was an immense, humanoid being towering over Hikari even in his transformed state. Broad-shouldered and inhumanly muscular, he had rough, grey skin. The gleaming vermillion eyes gazed from the elongated, exposed skull that constituted his head, small collar of flames almost encircling it. He donned a heavy set of white and black plate armour adorned with numerous skull and skeletal motifs. There were several oily, rusty chains wrapped around his chest, waist and limbs.
"You will regret slaying my subordinates. You will regret everything you have done so far", he declared in a severe tone.
Subsequently, he reached over his shoulder and grabbed a bar protruding from behind his back, which turned out to be the hilt of a massive, cleaver-like blade. In the meantime, the chains wrapped around his left arm elongated without a warning, their ends dropping to the floor with a clatter.
"Chains...", murmured Hikari with a grimace on his face.
Suddenly, there was a loud hiss. Nearly caught off-guard, he barely managed to dodge a broad slash of Kōken'nin's blade, which would have certainly bifurcated him otherwise. Whilst still on the move, he then noticed the bundle of heavy chains lashing toward him like a bone-shattering whip, and escaped being crushed with the use of Shunpo. The chains crashed into the floor, smashing the brimstone with alarming strength.
Maebure landed softly a short distance away. Barely had he glanced in the enemy's direction, he noticed a large flash of vermillion light as a fireball bigger than his body darted toward him. Although, a sphere of solidified Reiatsu enveloped him and intercepted the abrupt attack, dispersing it all around him. Then, without wasting a single moment, he disactivated the shield and pointed his sword at the Yōkai. A beam of dense, jet black energy erupted from its tip and narrowly missed its target, who managed to evade it despite his massive stature.
A strong explosion followed quickly at the other side of the throne room, and a new clearing appeared in the thick walls of the fortress. Hikari noticed that Kōken'nin's throne had been damaged as a result, and could not help but smirk faintly.
"It appears your underlings did not overestimate your power", he stated. "The gap between you and them is astonishing."
The Daemon straightened up and faced him directly, his moves calm and measured despite the intensity of their brief confrontation. The stare of his shining eyes was fixed at the Tsumikami.
"There are countless lesser Yōkai, and a group of elite ones. However, there are only nine Wardens, and I am one of the strongest", he declared in a grave manner.
"Most intriguing", replied Maebure, now grinning menacingly. "Let's verify the extent of your strength then, shall we?"
Saying that, he sunk into the fabric of reality and vanished completely. Virtually within the same instant he reappeared behind the massive Yōkai, his crude blade already swinging to decapitate the latter. To Hikari's mild surprise, Kōken'nin turned around with impressive speed and blocked the sneak attack with his cleaver-like sword, the two blades clashing with a powerful clang and a shower of sparks.
Undeterred, Maebure followed up with a flurry of potent slashes. Despite their speed and ferocity, the Yōkai blocked all of them whilst holding own sword with only one hand. After several seconds of such a vicious exchange he swept with the blade in a broad motion, pushing the Tsumikami back. Subsequently, he swung the chains wrapped around his left arm. Due to their extendable length, Hikari had little choice but duck.
With his opponent in an inconvenient position, he then swiftly slashed his exposed torso. However, the blade virtually bounced off the plate of armour, leaving only a slight dent. Somewhat shocked by the utter ineffectiveness of the attack, he then barely evaded another strike conducted with the use of chains. The cleaver sword sped toward him immediately afterward, and Maebure blocked it with his Karadawaru in the nick of time.
Due to the immense impetus of the attack, he was launched in an uncontrolled backward flight that sent him crashing through the previously damaged throne, completely destroying it in the process. Kōken'nin seemed imperturbed, and swiftly turned around in the opponent's direction.
In the meantime, Maebure recovered from the hit and prepared for the next strike. The Warden lifted his head and a torrential wave of flames erupted forward, incinerating the rubble that had been his throne and surging in the Tsumikami's direction. Seeing that, the latter rose his left hand and aimed the palm at the incoming attack.
A sped up command resounded within his mind, and Hidō #1, Shōhi, emanated from the hand in the form of several circular waves of bright white energy. Once it clashed with the blast of fire, the flames were disrupted and dissipated by the special spell, albeit with some difficulty. Unwilling to lose the initiative, Hikari quickly recited a full Naiteki Eishō. Thus, an amethyst sphere of electrified energy formed in front of his palm and rapidly shot forward in the form of a lightning bolt. This time Kōken'nin was unable to escape nor block the attack, and took the brunt of the resultant explosion directly.
The violent release of destructive energy quaked the entire black fortress, whose top storey disappeared in the explosion. Maebure emerged from the sizeable cloud of dust and halted high in the air, enclosed in an orb of solidified Reiatsu, with the shroud of storm clouds above and the volcanic landscape below.
Soon afterward Kōken'nin rose above the ruined castle as well. Even though his black and white armour had been slightly singed, he did not show any other signs of damage sustained from the strong Hadō spell. He stopped at the same altitude as Hikari, giant blade in one hand and a bundle of oily chains in the other.
"Magnificent!", commented Maebure with excitement. "Ever since my return to Hell I've been seeking genuine challenge, but found only disappointment. Now, finally, there is someone against whom I can use my full power and test all the tricks I've come up with during the last couple of decades."
The collar of flames encircling Kōken'nin's skull-like head intensified noticeably.
"Use all the power and tricks you want", he said with a booming voice. "In the end I shall crush you, and then I shall break your will, time after time, until you are reduced to a squirming, hopeless wretch."
Hikari smiled ominously in response, and assumed a fighting stance.
"That's the spirit", he said, and then the fight resumed.
Kōken'nin attacked first, shooting a blast of fire from his skeletal maw. Maebure dodged it with a Shunpo leap to the side, but found himself facing another projectile of raging flames speeding toward him. Without hesitation he swept it away with a broad swing of his Karadawaru and ended the swift motion with his left hand aimed at the opponent. Hadō #35, Aikadan escaped his clawed palm clad in an armoured gauntlet and darted onward, but collided with a fireball on its way and the two exploded.
This initially sparse exchange of fire escalated rapidly, and numerous miniature explosions began blossoming below the leaden vault of the realm. Hikari was running circles around his enemy, constantly changing positions, evading the blasts of fire and shooting his own Aikadan spells in response. Conversely, Kōken'nin stood firm, not moving even a single step from his position, limiting himself to turning around to keep up with the highly mobile Tsumikami.
Fed up with the stalemate, he then unleashed an entire barrage of fireballs simultaneously. Suddenly surrounded by numerous projectiles, it seemed that Maebure was caught up in the attack. However, he had vanished with the use of Kageho, and subsequently materialised right behind the Yōkai. The former's crude blade descended rapidly upon the joint of Kōken'nin's armour, intending to cut off his right hand. Nevertheless, a slight movement proved enough to thwart the attempt, and the Karadawaru smashed violently into the shoulder pad, leaving a dent in its black surface.
Hikari's shock was very brief, but sufficient for the Daemon to counter strike; the elbow of the bulky Warden crushed into Maebure's chest, squeezing the air out of his lungs and launching him uncotrollably in a backward flight. He regained balance quickly, yet immediately afterward was struck by a fireball and disappeared in the outburst of vermillion flames.
Kōken'nin swung the Hell's Chains attached to his left arm, splitting the cloud of ash in half, but nothing else. Hikari had moved behind him yet again, this time maintaining a considerable distance. Just as the Yōkai was turning to him, the Tsumikami pointed his blade at him and fired a Kurayami Taihō beam. The technique scored a direct hit, and the Daemon was briefly obscured by the explosion of dark, dense energy. After a couple of moments he emerged largely unfazed from the smoke, his right arm lifted in a defensive stance.
"Power, toughness and speed", said Maebure. "This is a rare combination."
"You may be strong, but you cannot hurt me with such techniques", declared Kōken'nin in a severe tone.
"Of course not!", agreed Hikari with odd fervour. "What you've seen so far are basic Zankensoki skills and powers of my Karadawaru. I've yet to show you my specialty in all its glory."
Saying that, he assumed a rather relaxed pose with both his arms hanging loosely to his sides. His fleshy wings spread, and he looked provocatively at the opponent.
Kōken'nin grumbled. Then, a noticeably bigger sphere of flames burst forth from his maw and sped toward the Tsumikami. The latter waved his left hand seemingly unhurriedly, and a flickering, scarlet energy shield stood in the way of the impending attack. Despite the strength of the resultant explosion, the barrier had withstood its force and vanished once it had served its purpose. Immediately afterward Hikari swung his Karadawaru and launched three Aikadan blasts, but none of them was aimed at the Yōkai. Instead, he launched Hadō #58, Tenran, straight in Kōken'nin's direction.
Violent flames enveloped his cleaver sword, which he then swung at the incoming spell. The fire erupted forward and clashed with the potent whirlwind, the two techniques cancelling each other out. Then, virtually within the same instant, all three Aikadans Maebure had fired earlier struck the Warden from various directions, cumulating in a sizeable explosion. In the meantime, the palm of Hikari's outstretched left hand glowed with a crimson aura.
"Hadō #70, Hisame Akahi", he recited.
Mere two seconds after the previous explosion the beam of highly condensed flames hit Kōken'nin with full force, unleashing a tempest of torrential fire whose gleam momentarily lighted up the dark storm clouds above.
Without a warning, there was a second outburst of flames. Maebure raised his eyebrows, and a split second later he was targeted by a column of fire similar to the spell he had just used. Unwilling to stand in the path of the attack, shielded or not, he jumped to the side, avoiding it. However, right afterward he noticed the massive silhouette of Kōken'nin approaching him with frightening speed.
The cleaver blade plummeted toward Hikari with lethal force. The Tsumikami managed to narrowly escape what could have been a killing blow. Still, the blade cut cleanly through his left wing, separating a third of it with one swift slash. The Yōkai continued the vicious assault undeterred, and smashed his left fist into Maebure's abdomen, prompting the latter to groan in pain and spit blood due to its tremendous power. Then, the Warden struck him with the pommel of his giant sword, once again plunging the Tsumikami in an involuntary flight, falling toward a river of lava below.
Hikari regained control and halted abruptly, only to see a large wave of flames sent behind him by a sweeping motion of the opponent's sword. A menacing frown contorted Maebure's face as he prepared himself to counter the technique.
"Ha!", a short exclamation escaped his lips once he swung his Karadawaru.
Potent wave of smoke-like dark energy escaped the triangular blade and sped on a collision course with the wave of flames. Subsequently, the two clashed in a powerful explosion which shook the nearby rocky formations. Without wasting a single moment, Hikari immediately fired Hadō #50, Gaki Rekkō, from the tip of his sword. A circle of amethyst energy shielded him momentarily before unleashing a barrage of strong energy blasts that showered Kōken'nin. Pinned on his spot by the volley, he had no time to react to Maebure's next move.
"Hadō #73, Sōren Sōkatsui!", exclaimed the Tsumikami.
The high level spell burst forth from his left palm and struck the enemy a mere second later. As the Warden was being immersed by the destructive light of the technique, Hikari plunged toward him with great speed. Even before the cloud of smoke could disperse in the wake of the recent explosion, he attacked the Daemon with his Karadawaru, which shone crimson as the gleaming, crackling outline of Hidō #4, Kakudai, enveloped its edges. The blade clashed with Kōken'nin's cleaver sword with a defeaning clang, which was soon followed by a series of thunderous sounds of incessant collissions.
Empowered by the custom spell of his own design, Maebure was now able to match the overwhelming physical strength of his opponent, and the two engaged in a furious sword fight. Pressed by the relentless onslaught of the Tsumikami, the Warden had no time to utilise the Hell's Chains, for he was too occupied with defending himself. Then, after a few moments Hikari's blade eventually passed by the enemy's defences. Still enhanced by the Hidō spell, it sank into the ornate chest plate of the daemonic armour. Alerted, Kōken'nin wrestled the Tsumikami away with an abrupt swing of his muscular hands before any serious damage could be done.
Relentless as always, once he regained the initiative he immediately sallied and slashed at Maebure in a powerful vertical strike. However, the latter evaded it with the use of Shunpo, which he then used again to avoid being hit with a bundle of Hell's Chains. The two attacks forced him to increase distance between the two combatants, and as such Kōken'nin launched a wide blast of flames from his maw.
Hikari gazed at the fire with his eyes narrowed slightly. Then, a Dankū rose without a warning to protect him, and vanished the instant the tremendous energy of the attack was dispersed. Dark energy wrapped around his Karadawaru with several gaseous tendrils.
The tendrils burst forth, scattering slightly before finally homing in onto the Daemon. The resultant explosion prompted Maebure to retreat even farther. When he halted, he started breathing somewhat heavily; a single streak of sweat was flowing on his temple. In the meantime, his damaged wing at last regenerated itself.
What transpired next was unexpected, but fortunately for him, Maebure remained vigilant. Kōken'nin had shot toward him with astonishing speed, only slightly damaged by the attack. His cleaver swung in a broad horizontal slash that could have cleaved Hikari in half. The Hell's Chains followed suit, their trajectory adjusted to Maebure's evasive manoeuvre, but thanks to the agility granted to him by his wings, he somehow managed to not only avoid being hit, but also dealt a blow whilst doing so.
There was a brief sound of cut metal, and the Tsumikami stopped several metres behind the Yōkai, who halted abruptly himself.
A long, narrow chip had appeared on the left side of Kōken'nin's chest plate. After a mere moment of stillness, both combatants rapidly turned around to face one another. The Warden swung the Hell's Chains, which burst into violent flames as they were speeding toward Hikari. The Tsumikami snickered.
Hadō #58, Tenran, resounded within his mind.
"Bakudō #8, Seki!", he exclaimed aloud.
As the chains were quickly approaching him, they suddenly clashed with a torrential gust of wind that instantly extinguished the fire and repelled them with great force, prompting mild surprise from the Yōkai who wielded them. Still, Kōken'nin did not hesitate to attack again even a second. This time, a large, triangular blast of vermillion flames erupted from his maw.
Hadō #50, Gaki Rekkō, recited Maebure in his psyche.
"Bakudō #39, Enkōsen!", he shouted.
Big, spinning disc of scarlet energy materialised in front of him to block the impeding attack. Merely had the fire dispersed, multiple narrow beams of energy burst forth from the shield and showered the Daemon with numerous medium-sized explosions.
Whereas taken off guard by the unexpected defence-turned-offence, Kōken'nin was quick to counter. He leapt at the opponent with terrible speed, nearly cutting off the latter's left arm with an abrupt swing of the cleaver sword. Hikari dodged, and then struggled to move from the path of several chains descending speedily upon him. Thus positioned, the Daemon used the opportunity and punched him with his right fist. A loud thud followed and Maebure was forcefully pushed backward.
Then, the Yōkai waved his blade in a broad motion, unleashing a wave of torrential fire in the enemy's direction. The flames immersed and consumed the Tsumikami, leaving no trace of his body as they dissipated into the hot, vibrating air of the realm.
Or so it seemed.
"Hadō #31, Shakkahō", he heard from far behind.
Hadō #70, Hisame Akahi, added Hikari within his mind.
A crimson sphere of energy shot toward Kōken'nin, who had no time to evade it. Once it struck his side as he was turning around, an astonishingly large explosion of fire enveloped him whole with a roar.
Maebure was watching from a distance, breathing rhythmically and smiling. At last, the smoke cleared and revealed the Daemon's form; several light wounds had appeared on his body, and the heavy set of armour finally started showing the signs of the heavy punishment it had been taking during the confrontation. Kōken'nin himself seemed unperturbed, though.
"What was that", he demanded rather than asked in a severe tone.
"It appears you're familiar with Kidō to some extent. What you've seen recently is my own creation, however. I call it "Dōji Eishō". One Kidō command pronounced aloud, another in my mind. The result's an empowered, composite spell whose properties and nature are never fully known to the enemy until it takes effect."
The air around Maebure began undulating visibly. Streaks of dark Reiatsu were emanating from his body, expanding gradually as they were wrapped by constant surges of scarlet currents of electrified energy.
"The warm-up's been finished, so I started using my higher-level techniques", he continued after releasing reserves of his enormous power. "I've yet to show you my best moves, though, and unless you've got a trick up your sleeve, you may find this fight growing increasingly more... difficult", he finished menacingly.
The Daemon straightened up and faced him directly, even though the distance between them was substantial.
"Very well, Hikari Maebure", he began ominously. "I shall show you the true meaning of Hell."
"What do you mean?", asked the Tsumikami, one eyebrow raised in a somewhat condescending expression of mild surprise.
Kōken'nin did not reply. Instead, a shockwave emanated from his body, momentarily defeaning Hikari and tousling his jet black hair. The Daemon lifted both of his hands, clenched his fists and flexed the immense muscles hidden underneath his black and white armour.
Suddenly, a wild blaze erupted from beneath the Yōkai and enveloped him in a raging inferno that rose his toward the dark, shrouded sky with an itmidating roar. Kōken'nin himself remained eerily silent, but the volume of power he had begun emitting was speaking for itself. Now with both of his scarlet eyes wide open, Maebure was observing as the Yōkai's body swelled briefly, and subsequently became enlarged. Still within the tempest of flames, the Daemon grew two curved horns from his skull-like head, two rows of spikes sprouted from his back and blade-like protrusions erupted from his elbows. His cleaver sword changed its shape as well, and like his body turned noticeably more elongated and streamlined.
Then, another shockwave finished the transformation, this time its force sufficient to nearly throw Hikari off balance. Kōken'nin emerged drastically empowered, and for a while, the rumble of volcanoes in the background once again became the only sound audible in the vicinity.
"You must have seen my subordinates using this transformation", said the Yōkai, his voice even deeper and slightly reverberating. "Did you think I was incapable of using it?"
Maebure did not reply. A frown appeared on his face, and his pale lips narrowed into a slit. Despite the fact that he was now utilising nearly the entirety of his Reiryoku, the Reiatsu emanating from his adversary seemed tremendous. In fact, it was the single most powerful spiritual pressure signature he has ever felt in his life.
Even higher than his own.
"You have forgotten what does it mean to be damned for eternity", continued the Daemon. "Let me remind you of the universal punishment that every Sinner is subjected to: no matter how much you struggle, in the end you always fail."
He vanished the following instant.
Maebure reacted the moment he realised that fact, but it had been too little, too late. Kōken'nin was suddenly in front of him, his now less unwieldy blade descending rapidly upon the Tsumikami. Then, a part of Hikari's left wing and the left forearm were separated from the rest of his body with one swift slash. Subsequently, the spike growing from the Yōkai's elbow darted forward to finish the job. However, Maebure used Kageho to sink into the fabric of reality, evading it by a hair's breadth.
He emerged very shortly afterward about twenty metres from his ruthless opponent. Nevertheless, ere he was able to do anything else, the bundle of Hell's Chains struck him with enormous strength, stunning him momentarily. Launched into a fast, brief flight he crashed into a nearby rocky pillar with great force. Subsequently, a fireball followed him and hit the hole he had punched in the stone wall, erupting violently as it did so.
The rocky formation shattered and crumbled under its might.
Kōken'nin was watching the column fall apart, ready to intercept Maebure should he emerge from the rubble. However, all of a sudden he found himself being surrounded by countless small lights. Before he was able to react, all of them shone abruptly with blinding glow, bathing the entire area in eye-burning light.
Temporarily blinded, he could nonetheless rely on his spiritual awareness and instinct. He sensed Hikari approaching him rapidly from behind, and swung his chains to swat him away. The bundle of metal seemingly split the Tsumikami in half, but his silhouette flickered and dispersed soon afterward. Not fooled by that trick, the Warden slashed with his sword in the opposite direction, impaling Maebure who had materialised in front of him.
That one vanished as well.
The real Hikari attacked from the side, and with both of Kōken'nin's arms aimed in opposite directions, he nearly succeeded in delivering a devastating blow to the latter's head. However, the Daemon somehow managed to block the attack with his cleaver blade. Still, enhanced by a Kakudai spell the Karadawaru carried enough force to repel Kōken'nin's weapon, exposing him once again.
"Hyaaah!", exclaimed Maebure.
He swung his right leg in a broad side kick aimed to the head of the enemy. Within a fraction of a second it crashed into the skull with a thunderous sound, and Kōken'nin swayed to the side due to its sheer impetus. He quickly regained his stance, though, and pushed Maebure back with a rapid strike of the Hell's Chains.
Unwilling to go on the defensive, Hikari leapt forward and crossed his blade with that of the opponent. Then, the two stirred a genuine tempest of swirling blades as they were trading innumerable blows per second. Despite his speed and ferocity, Maebure simply could not get past the Yōkai's sword, and had to block and parry much more than he would like to.
Increasingly infuriated, he abruptly sped up his onslaught with the use of Senmairoshi. Kōken'nin withstood the vicious shower of jabs and slashes with inhuman composure. Subsequently, Maebure followed up with an Agitowari, nearly effortlessly brushed aside. Then, he lifted his blade in preparation for Suikawari, but was punched in the chest before being able to deliver the attack.
Kōken'nin's chains swept him away with force that saw him plummeting toward an ashen plain below. Like a meteor he crashed into the grey surface, quaking the area and stirring up clouds of smoke to rise. Unrelenting, the Warden plunged toward his fallen enemy with great speed.
"Hadō #88, Hiryū Gekizoku Shinten Raihō!", he heard a bellow from the shroud of ash.
Then, a wave of torrential energy immersed him whole with its devastating might, consuming the entire world in its purple-tinted glow. In spite of his momentum, the ungodly amount of energy took him with it and launched him into a rapid upward flight as it dissipated a part of the eternal shroud of stormy clouds obscuring the realms vault.
Maebure was standing below, gazing upward and breathing heavily. The wounds inflicted by Kōken'nin began healing, and after several second they were no more. However, so was the energy used up to regenerate.
After scarcely a few moments more something descended fast from the dark sky and landed violently on the ashen plain, not that far from him.
"This is what I've been looking for", declared Hikari, now calm again. "Ever since my death during the confrontation with Seireitō Kawahiru, I haven't met a single being who could challenge me, let alone overpower me. I've been working hard to improve every aspect of my combat prowess, and then bring my mastery of Kidō to a level unheard of before. Although, without someone to test and try me, my progress has been inevitably decelerating."
The pillars of ash dispersed at last, revealing Kōken'nin's form. The Daemon did not seem particularly injured, and stood there virtually motionless and silent, observing.
"You shall be my milestone, Kōken'nin", continued Maebure with a predatory grin. "By fighting with you I shall gauge my skill and determine whether I'm worthy of facing the Soul Prince again."
"This will never happen", retorted the Warden with deep, resonating voice. "I will beat you into submission, constrain your body and break your spirit. You shall never escape Hell again."
"Blade against blade, power against power, will against will", said Hikari whilst assuming a fighting stance, his face now stiff in a frown. "Only one of us shall prevail."
There was a short period of tense silence.
Then, Maebure swung his sword impulsively. Without a warning a shower of jet black energy projectiles showered Kōken'nin, quaking the entire plain with countless explosions. Ash quickly rose high into the air, shrouding the surroundings with a dark grey veil.
The Warden waved the Hell's Chains in a broad motion, cleaving a large part of the cloud. Right afterward he swung his cleaver blade, unleashing an arch of flames that dissipated the rest of the ash. As such, there was only one direction left from which Maebure could attack.
Kōken'nin lifted his head and within the same instant spat a giant fireball. Hikari, descending upon him with considerable speed, countered with the dark wave of Higure. The two techniques clashed mid-air, cancelling each other out in a potent outburst of energy.
Subsequently, he plummeted through the resultant chaos and slashed downward at the enemy. Still, the Warden blocked the powerful strike with his cleaver blade in the nick of time. Maebure landed in front of him and leapt forward, beginning a vicious sword fight. Focussed entirely on the blurred blades, he was swinging his Karadawaru in an intricate web of slashes, jabs and parries, seemingly erratic and frantic, but in truth carefully measured and seamless in their delivery. Nevertheless, his opponent's prowess was most impressive, and the two appeared evenly matched.
Whilst their skill could be argued to be equal, the disparity in physical strength eventually made itself manifest. With an abrupt motion of the giant blade, Kōken'nin repelled Hikari with no visible effort and then the Hell's Chains lashed at the Tsumikami. Struck hard by the chains, Maebure crashed to the ground and carved a long ditch in the ashen surface. Nevertheless, he stood up rapidly and dodged a large fireball that exploded on the spot he had left just moments earlier.
All of a sudden, a number of flickering copies of the Tsumikami emerged from his body and plunged in various directions, quickly surrounding the formidable Yōkai. Kōken'nin immediately proceeded to get rid of the distractions, but as they were feinting attacks and disappearing under his blows, none of them seemed to be the original.
Then, the real Hikari materialised right behind him.
Hidō #1, Shōhi!, resounded within Maebure's mind.
Several circular waves of white energy immersed his adversary, disrupting the flow of his energy. Thus stunned, he was rendered vulnerable for a brief moment.
"Hadō #89, Hyōga Seiran!", exclaimed Hikari as he was leaping backward.
Immense wave of ice erupted from his blade and consumed the Daemon. A large glacier formed rapidly around him, so out of place in the realm of ash and fire. Cracks began appearing in its purple-tinted, semi-translucent surface soon afterward, and then it shattered with a thunderous noise.
Kōken'nin was still there, barely affected.
Whizz of speeding energy blasts, roars of incinerating flames, defeaning staccati and thunderous booms of explosions drowned the background noise of the Fifth Circle. The ground was quaking and cracking, large rocky formations were crumbling, columns and clouds of smoke were rising toward the clouded sky. The air was sultry and undulating, both due to the heat of lava and the intensity of the Reiatsu exerted by the combatants.
In spite of his clever manoeuvres and ferocity, Hikari was constantly losing ground. Many tricks and straightforward attacks were simply foiled or ignored by the Warden, and those which he had managed to conduct successfully proved ineffective time and again. The bone of Kōken'nin's skull darkened, chips and dents were appearing on his armour and the blade of his cleaver sword became somewhat serrated, but nothing seemed capable of defeating the unrelenting Daemon as he was launching constant, vicious assaults with inhuman tenacity.
"Hidō #9, Shikei Senkoku!", exclaimed Maebure.
The Yōkai was halted abruptly whilst advancing toward the Tsumikami by a number of bright energy pillars erupting from the ground to form a polygon. Then, walls of semi-translucent, pink energy connected the pillars and enclosed him in a Kidō cage. Before he was able to react, the walls shone and exploded promptly with a defeaning peal.
Still, there was no stopping him. Kōken'nin quickly emerged from the resultant cloud of dust and paced forward with speed that saw Hikari caught off-guard. The cleaver sword descended rapidly and cleaved the latter's body in half, and subsequently crashed into the ground with a dull noise.
The Utsusemi clone flickered and disappeared. All of a sudden, absolute blackness immersed the Daemon and stunned all of his senses. Cut from any and all external stimuli, he had been rendered utterly unaware of his surroundings for a short while. Then, he felt his body freeze as he stood.
"...Bakudō #79, Kuyō Shibari!", Maebure's voice emerged from non-existence as the darkness receded abruptly.
Several black orbs with purple outlines appeared around the Warden's body, and another one materialised in the centre of his chest, pinning him firmly on the spot. Hikari was standing a medium distance behind him, singed, bloodied, and with streaks of sweat flowing on his stiff face.
"Hadō #90, Kurohitsugi!", he exclaimed.
Crackling currents of black-and-purple energy surged over his left palm and burst forth in the Daemon's direction. A powerful torrent of gravity enveloped the incapacitated Yōkai, forming a towering box of energy not unlike a giant coffin. However, before the spell could strike with full force, it was unexpectedly torn apart from within.
Hikari winced as the raging tempest that was Kōken'nin's fiery Reiatsu destroyed the Kidō and immersed the Warden in a wild, intense blaze of energy that stirred up a potent gust of wind. Without wasting a single moment he charged at the Tsumikami, who desparately launched an Aikadan blast at him. The spell did little despite achieving a direct hit, and Kōken'nin approached his opponent in no time.
First, he slashed diagonally with his cleaver blade wrapped with flames, swatting Maebure's Karadawaru to the side. Then, he punched him in the abdomen with his left fist. As Hikari bent forward and groaned in pain, Kōken'nin punched him in the face with terrible force. Knocked to the ground, the Tsumikami carved a long ditch in the ashen ground before stopping eventually. The Hell's Chains lashed and struck him, cracking the ground around him due to the monstrous momentum. And then, a large blast crashed down upon him and immersed him in a whirlwind of fire.
The flames cast an ominous, vermillion glow on the Daemon's bulky body.
Morning breeze, become a raging tornado! Feeble spark, strike down as a lightning! Gentle stream, flood with your mighty breakers! Faint flame, incinerate in your fiery inferno!
Maebure emerged from the Warden's large shadow, his hair tousled and his armour cracked in several places. The Karadawaru was gleaming bright with a crimson aura, wrapped with currents of electrified energy. Then, the blade descended upon the Daemon and with a loud creak split the hind plate of his armour. The force carried by the sword unleashed a brief torrent of wind, and Kōken'nin slanted under its might.
Still, he was quick to react, and swung his chains backward to push the enemy aside. Much to his surprise, Hikari managed to grab them with his left hand.
"Hah!", he shouted afterward.
The Tsumikami lifted his leg and delivered a lightning-fast, powerful kick to the Warden's back, aimed at the crack in the armour. For the first time during their confrontation the Yōkai utterred a grunt of pain, and swayed forward. A smirk of satisfaction appeared on Hikari's face, but it vanished just as fast when the Hell's Chains burst into flames.
He let them go, unwilling to fry his arm in the immense heat, and by doing that freed Kōken'nin. The Warden rotated rapidly around his axis, rising his blade wreathed with flames in a broad diagonal slash. Maebure blocked the sword with his own, albeit with obvious difficulty. Subsequently, the two exchanged some fast and fierce strikes, before the Daemon's strength overpowered the Tsumikami and pushed him back.
Hikari prepared to blast the opponent with a Kidō spell, but Kōken'nin simply disappeared the moment he pointed his blade at him. Without a warning, the world rocked in its foundations. Then, a paroxysm of pain surged through his body and blood gushed from his mouth as he was blindsided by the enemy, whose attack sent him flying uncontrollably.
Struggling to recover quickly in spite of the shock and his depleting energy, Maebure rotated in the air and landed clumsily on the ashen plain. The moment he lifted his head, he saw a large, dark blur approaching him with tremendous speed. Subsequently, another blaze of pain immersed his body when the figure passed him swiftly and his right arm and tip of the right wing were cut off cleanly.
Hikari swayed and groaned involuntarily. Fury busted through the shroud of astonishment and suffering as he turned around rapidly and noticed that Kōken'nin had been already on the move, preparing for the next strike. The Tsumikami leant and clenched his left fist.
Hadō #73, Sōren Sōkatsui!, reverberated across his mind.
"Ikkotsu!", he exclaimed.
With a lithe manoeuvre he evaded his opponent's blade. Then, his fist crashed into the skull face encircled by flames with frightening strength. At the instant of impact, blue light and electric currents erupted from Maebure's fist, immersing the Yōkai in light blue devastating light that carried him away with its force. A potent shockwave stirred a gust of ash and quaked the earth.
Panting and slanted, Hikari was watching as the Kidō spell exploded, hopefully with the Daemon within its epicentre. The incredible strain exerted on him due to the sheer ferocity of the confrontation was beginning to take its toll, and he knew that he would not be able to keep up such a pace for long. This was the first time since his damnation that someone forced him to utilise his full power, and the effort required to stand his ground against such an adversary was strenuous to say the least.
"Limit of the thousands hands, respectful hands, unable to touch the darkness. Shooting hands unable to reflect the blue...", he started the incantation of Hadō #91, Senjū Kōten Taihō.
Suddenly, the Warden emerged once more from the aftermath of a destructive attack, unyielding and ruthless. Even though the glowing spheres of the Kidō spell had already begun materialising beside Maebure, he knew he would not make it in time. For a moment as brief as the blink of an eye he thought back to his fateful confrontation with Eijisai Shigekuni Yamamoto over two thousand years ago: bitter and desperate, he blasted the enemy with his fury, only for the latter to evade the attack and deliver a devastating one of his own.
Kōken'nin closed in within an instant and slashed downward in a swift killing blow that cleaved the Tsumikami's body in two vertical halves.
The parts flickered and glowed, unleashing a mass of rusty chains of Sajō Sabbaku that wrapped themselves around the Warden's massive form. Whereas not durable enough to constrain such a powerful being for longer then several moments, the sheer surprise at being bound by what seemed as his own Hell's Chains proved invaluable, for it slowed down his reaction for a few, precious seconds.
Kōken'nin turned his head to the right, rapidly noticing that Maebure was standing not that far from him. Five bright orange spheres of crackling energy had appeared around him in a formation, emitting a sound not unlike the chirping of innumerable small birds. Then, he placed his only remaining arm in the centre of the formation.
"Hadō #92, Akarui Kiiro Shisenkō", he declared in an almost elated manner.
The five spheres of energy erupted inward and then burst forth in one accumulated wave of tempestuous power. The Warden tore his cleaver blade from the Bakudō spell that had confused him so and it burst into flames as he placed it on the path of the impending attack. Subsequently, the flood of energy immersed him, his sword coated in hyper-concentrated fire initially splitting the torrential wave of devastation. However, he was soon overwhelmed and consumed by the Hadō.
The following explosion was one of truly enormous proportions, and the entire area felt its effects dearly. After the last echo of the thunderous boom faded away, Hikari found himself standing at the tip of a vast valley the spell had carved in the ground, with a whole cloud of dust rising high from the surface.
Barring the use of Myobatsu during the ill-fated confrontation with Seireitō Kawahiru, he could not remember where was the last time he used a Hadō of such proportions in battle. Very few opponents throughout his life were able to prove demanding enough. Maebure smiled.
Then, a fire blast erupted from the shroud of ash and struck him unexpectedly, briefly engulfing him in flames. Confounded, he fell limply to the ground, his left arm, wing and half of his face burnt beyond recognition. He dropped on his back, and his sight was directed toward the storm clouds high above.
"This is the end", he heard Kōken'nin's voice.
The realisation of his imminent defeat came to Maebure completely unanticipated. After so many years spent on perfecting his combat prowess ever since the fight against the Shiroyasha, he had regained the confidence in his strength and once again considered himself a first rate warrior. Although, it now seemed that no matter what he tried to overpower the Warden of the Fifth Circle, every and each attempt failed ultimately, and he was laying there, his energy drained and his body broken.
He heard slow, heavy footsteps as the Daemon was approaching him unhurriedly.
"What I swore, I have fulfilled", stated Kōken'nin. "This is the end of your rebellion, Hikari Maebure. To think you could escape the eternal perdition of Hell was arrogant and foolish. No-one is exempt from its rules."
He halted right beside the fallen Tsumikami and gazed down upon him with his bright eyes. His armour had been damaged and his skull-like head slightly cracked in some places, but he stood firmly and showed no sign of fatigue nor pain. Then, he kicked Maebure abruptly, lifting him into the air and prompting him to drop limply several metres farther.
"You have almost succeeded in defeating me, but I have prevailed", he declared solemnly.
Hikari was barely hearing him, pondering about the situation. The sensation of defeat he had felt so few times throughout his life was as crushing and overwhelming as ever. He could not help but reminesce all major failures he had suffered in his extremely long life.
He remembered the first time he had used Bankai in battle, whilst still genuinely young. So proud and cocksure about the recent attainment of the state, he rushed to duel the enemy leader and was soundly beaten in full view of both participating armies.
He remembered a bloody war many years later, the army he was part of led by his own father, Head of the Maebure Family. The devastating shock and sorrow at the news of his father's death, and the absolute silence when he found his body slumped in a pile of corpses on the battlefield.
He remembered his growing dissatisfaction with the changes taking place in the Soul Society, and his decision to reinstate his kind, the Sōzōshin, as the rulers of the realm - and his own firstborn son's decision to oppose him.
He remembered the rebellion itself, the massacre of his race, the death of his beloved wife and defeat at the hands of Shigekuni Yamamoto. He had wanted to restore his kind to greatness, but all he achieved was to exterminate his own people and lose his family in one fell swoop.
He remembered his confrontation with the Shinigami two millennia later, the difficulty with which he defeated half a dozen of their Captains and the two young Soul Reapers who managed to match his Sinsaeng Jeongsu. The quasi-death at the hands of his own great-granddaughter.
And last, but definitely not least, he remembered the frantic and futile struggle against the Soul Prince, the frustration at being outright ignored or swatted away like a fly, and his senseless sacrifice, stemming from overwhelming desperation, that had achieved nothing.
"I shall break your body and take to my castle", said Kōken'nin, staring at Hikari intensely. "Then, I shall inflict untold tortures upon your inflated ego and shatter your very soul."
Maebure rolled on his stomach with the help of his grievously injured wings.
"Only after I am finished with you, I shall kill your avatar and thus send you back to the Ninth Circle", continued the Warden.
Hikari moved his left arm, charred and skeletal in its appearance, and clutched its claw-like fingers into the ash. Afterward, he pulled himself forward, in the direction of his adversary.
"The Warden of the Lowermost Circle will be waiting for you there", stated Kōken'nin menacingly, observing Maebure as he was crawling toward him with mild interest.
Maebure did not say a word. Instead, he kept pulling himself onward, the stare of his gleaming scarlet eyes fixed at the feet of the giant Daemon. After a while he eventually reached him, and grabbed his ankle with the severely burnt hand.
"At last, you have experienced and comprehended the true meaning of Hell", said the Warden.
Hikari remained motionless for a moment, until he began twitching. Kōken'nin was then somewhat surprised to hear his growing chuckle, which briefly turned into a short, bitter laughter.
"Yes", replied the Tsumikami at last. "And for this, I am most grateful."
"What?", bellowed the Yōkai, shocked and infuriated by those words.
Then, his astonishment increased even further as he saw several scarlet streaks of glowing energy run across the length of Maebure's scorched arm.
"Hadō #96", proclaimed Hikari with great solemnity. "Ittō Kasō."
"Nnngh...!", blurted Kōken'nin in response.
It was too late.
The ungodly power erupted upward, engulfing his entire body with incinerating heat. His heavy plate armour was ground to dust and dispersed in the torrent of devastating energy. His tough skin boiled and peeled off in charred flakes. His immense muscles were scorched to charcoal and swept away by the current. Then, his bones were burnt to cinders and shattered, vanishing in the towering pillar of scarlet power that rose high above the landscape of the Fifth Circle. Its sharp tip pierced the shroud of storm clouds, its blinding light immersed the entire area, and a tremendously potent shockwave reverberated across its expanse with earth-shattering might.
It was the end.
All his existence had been ridden with suffering, and little changed once he returned to Hell. Pain had been an ever-present companion in his long, wretched life, and the eternal perdition was but another chapter. He had prevailed the hardships alive, and was prevailing them in death.
The Warden of the Fifth Circle was a tenacious and creative tormentor. For many decades he had been doing unspeakable horrors to his body, and barely had the incessantly regenerating wounds healed, new atrocities were committed upon his flesh, time and again. However, his dark soul proved completely immune to torture, and the two had reached a stalemate of sorts.
Times of relative peace like now were rare, for Kōken'nin was a dutiful individual. His prolonged absence was becoming increasingly more intriguing, until a dark Reiatsu began approaching. It was cold and murky, different than the concentrated and incinerating, but suppressed heat of the Warden's spiritual pressure. After a time footsteps could be heard, and eventually the massive stone door to the room opened slowly.
"I've hoped to find you", spoke a hoarse voice.
Zetsubō Usuguraiboshi, naked and chained over a vat filled with lava, lifted his head with apparent effort to gaze at the visitor. The split, crimson pupil of his left eye focussed and discerned the shape of the newcomer's silhouette.
"Maebure... Hikari...", wheezed the Togabito.
The Tsumikami was in terrible state; his black-and-scarlet robes had been reduced to tattered rags, the entire left side of his face was burnt beyond recognition, and he was missing his whole left arm. The right one, exposed due to the absence of a sleeve, seemed hastily welded to the rest near the elbow. The right corner of Maebure's lips outstretched in a friendly smile, but the scorched side remained dead-still.
"You see, I've got quite used to living alone", said Hikari, now pacing unhurriedly around the vat. "But during my endeavour to improve myself I realised that I require someone to train with. The Sinners proved to be satisfactory test subjects from time to time, but at this point they simply won't do anymore."
Then, he at last halted right in front of Zetsubō and lifted his head, staring directly into the Togabito's many eyes.
"I was most impressed by your invasion on the Soul Society, and the fact you managed to kill Shigekuni Yamamoto in a duel", he continued calmly. "Thus, I've recently decided to find and free you from your damnation and appoint you as my disciple."
"Free... me...?", Usuguraiboshi spoke in a hoarse voice.
"Indeed", confirmed Hikari. "You're the only person worthy of that position I know of. Also, in my quest to obtain ultimate power I've sparred with your tormentor and killed him."
A faint glimmer flickered in Zetsubō eyes. Afterward, his body began twitching mildly, and it took a while for Maebure to realise his interlocutor was laughing.
"Excellent", he remarked. "Even though your body is broken, your will has persevered. This only confirms that I've chosen correctly."
The Tsumikami waved his only hand and the chains holding Usuguraiboshi dissipated into nothingness. He began falling, but a platform of Kidō appeared beneath his feet before he dropped into the vat with hot magma. Zetsubō swayed in his struggle to maintain balance, and succeeded. The platform floated a few metres and landed on the floor beside Maebure.
"It will take some time before the Yōkai realise what has transpired here", said Hikari, glancing at the manifold instruments of torture scattered across the room. "We shall retreat to my refuge, which is as safe as it can be in Hell. But first...", he added as he fixed his stare on something and walked forward.
He approached one of the walls and lifted his head slightly. A half-grin appeared on his grievously injured face.
A nodachi with ebony blade and a guard with downward-curved tips was hang amongst the tools of the late Kōken'nin - Zetsubō's Zanpakutō.
"You will need this", stated Maebure, smiling.
Hell, the Ninth Circle.
The Lowermost Level of Hell was similar, but at the same time fundamentally different than the Fifth Circle. Whereas the vault of the realm was shrouded by a thick mass of dark clouds as well, it was cold and snow that tortured the Sinners rather than heat and fire. The black sphere of an inverted sun hang high on the dark heavens, outlined with bright white light.
Hikari Maebure was standing at the top of a battlement of his small fortress, located high on the slope of the realm's many mountains. The perpetual gusts of wind were lashing his scarred face and tousling his hair as he was watching the vastness of the Ninth Circle from such a magnificent vantage point.
It had been a week since his epic confrontation with Kōken'nin, the Warden of the Fifth Circle. His extensive wounds had been healed, and except for a significant change in his mind, nothing remained to remind him of the incredible experience.
Zetsubō stood beside him, silent and brooding as usual. He wore robes made of black leather, full of straps and belts, created for him by Maebure himself. The frighteningly long form of his Zanpakutō hang in an ivory sheath rested on the Togabito's right hip. And, once again, his face was covered by an eerie mask.
"I can see it now", said Hikari, staring into the vastness of a dark valley. "In my death I've fallen to the lowermost depths of failure and desperation, but now I can see the peak again. I can see the glimmer of the Soul King's might high at the top, and the figure of his son on my path toward it."
Then, he turned around to Usuguraiboshi and smirked.
"Now that we have both fully recovered, we shall initiate the true training sessions. But, firstly, we need to uplift you from the status of a wretched Togabito to something more appropriate", he said.
"Yes, master", replied Zetsubō with a slight nod of his head.
Hikari Maebure's scarlet eyes glowed momentarily at the prospect of power, satisfaction, and vengeance.