This article, Challenging the Imawashī: Duel For Freedom!, is a companion piece to the larger Challenging the Vices Saga, which belongs to Part I of Bleach: War of the Worlds. It features the first confrontation between Kentaro Hiroshi, Akiye, Riki Nagakura and Shinzō. Shigeru Yūdai, Naibu Shizuka, Jinta Kanō, Ashni and Harumi Kazuki serve as support.
Ash blew past Kentaro's cold features. In one motion he and Riki had demonstrated very well how little mercy they possessed: Kyū Senshi was dead, his entire body blown to pieces by Kentaro's unorthodox -- and potent -- usage of the fabled spell of sacrifice, whilst Yajuu was lying with a snapped neck courtesy of Riki. Akiye, meanwhile, wasn't taking any chances. She proceeded to stab Yajuu through the heart "just to make sure".
There wasn't any words spoken by Kentaro or Riki nor any signals exchanged. But their shared vision fell on the figure -- Shinzō -- who was currently holding Shigeru aloft by his throat.
The words where spoken by Kentaro and a guttural growl from Riki served to accentuate the threat.
"I won't ask again."
The reply was a goading smile. "Make me, boy."
Three blurs approached Shinzō and even he reacted with mild surprise. Or was that feigned? Riki certainly thought so. "Guess time will tell," he thought grimly. Kentaro had approached from the front and grasped his wrist whilst Akiye had moved to his back and plunged her blade right through him! While he was pinned between the pair Riki ripped Shigeru from Shinzō's grasp and retreated to the floor, where he proceeded to lay Shigeru down. Once accomplished Riki showed his wolf-like speed once more by rapidly appearing above Shinzō and punching him square in the jaw!
The blow resounded -- enough that Kentaro felt the force of it travel up his own arm -- and Shinzō was sent flying to the floor as Akiye ripped her blade from his body.
"I connected... but he didn't even fell it."
It was clear that Riki understood their opposition on a higher level than either Kentaro or Akiye did, for the other two where shaking their fists in the air as if they had scored a major coup.
"You don't know the meaning of the word 'restraint', do you?" Akiye asked of the blond-haired youth.
Riki narrowed his eyes. "Says the woman once feared as a 'Shadow of the Imawashī'." Riki's smile was all barred teeth. "Next to you I'm toothless."
"Oi," Kentaro sounded. "Enough of that."
"What, are you supposed to be a 'white knight', now? Give us both a break, Kentaro." Riki chided. "You've enough red in your ledger to put most assassins to shame. Now instead of biting my head off how about you look to our opposition instead and focus? Because he didn't feel my punch."
Kentaro's eyes widened as a voice rang out clear and distinct.
"Listen to your wolfish friend, boy. I seriously hope you don't think you've triumphed?"
No, they hadn't. What Kentaro and Akiye had expected however was some form of damage to be done to Shinzō. The man hadn't a mark on him! The only indication that he'd been harmed previously at all was the rip where Akiye had punched her blade clean through him.
"No way...!" Akiye remarked.
"What the hell is this guy?" Kentaro asked.
Riki, however, had noticed what the others had missed. "It's just like how Shin described Averian...!"
He clenched his fist. "I might regret this... but I need to make sure beyond any shadow of a doubt."
He shot off without waiting for his allies and Kentaro called after him in surprise. But Riki was fast -- faster than Kentaro remembered him being, and he reached Shinzō in short order, long before Kentaro could hope to reach him to intervene and stop him. The young Fōrun-juu rained blow after blow down on Shinzō; the force of his blows, coupled with the sheer speed, ensured that lasting damage should have been done.
"As I thought. Our attacks are connecting; I can see that! I can feel that! But he doesn't even register it -- I don't care what you are or who, any sentient creature reacts to pain. So what makes this dude different!?"
From the outside Kentaro heard Shinzō's goddamned bones crack but all the bastard did was smile! Blood poured from his nose and mouth and yet the man looked completely at his ease, and he was back to normal so quickly that Kentaro initially thought Riki kicking him to the kerb was an illusion.
And then suddenly Riki was flying through the sky!
Kentaro reacted quicker this time and slowed his friends trajectory enough that the pair eventually ceased moving some several dozen meters away from Shinzō's location.
"What the hell was that!?" Kentaro demanded. "You can't shoot off half-cocked like that, Riki! You'll get yourself killed!"
"Did you see it?" Riki asked, ignoring him. "Or was my telling you to focus earlier wasted breathe?"
The anger in Kentaro's eyes died. "See what?"
Akiye seemed to grasp what Riki was saying faster than Kentaro did however. "How he healed, I'm guessing?"
"Exactly!" Riki shrugged out of Kentaro's grip. "It's not like an Arrancar's High-Speed Regeneration, or even my own healing factor. No... this guy heals similar to the way my brother described Averian."
The comparison chilled Kentaro's blood.
"My father says that Averian is practically immortal." Kentaro conceded. "My father and Van have thrown more at Averian than anyone; and what they brought to bear against him so far was enough to level the Soul Society several times over! I've seen them fight him! So how do we win!?"
Shinzō appeared amongst the three with a gust of wind heralding his arrival. "What where we honestly expecting?" Kentaro suddenly thought. They had been standing around talking instead of focusing! His parry would also come too late. "Ah, shit."
Only Riki's fantastic reflexes stopped the older combatant killing all three there and then.
When Shinzō attempted to sweep his wind-wreathed blade through them in a wide arc Riki kicked out at the elder's hand, and Kentaro, who now wore a slight smile, subsequently trapped the blade with his own lightning-wreathed Zanpakutō. Akiye, meanwhile, used the opening to seemingly cut through Shinzō's windpipe!
The threesome retreated.
"And she goads me about restraint!" Riki growled.
"Can we focus, please?" Kentaro interrupted. "Or did no one else notice how close he came to killing us just now!?"
"Just shut up, Kentaro." Riki replied. "I've been noticing things this whole fight that you usually see too."
"You both need to shut up." Akiye interjected.
"Yes, you do." Shinzō answered. The annoyance in his tone was clearly evident.
Just like before Shinzō approached the three at a casual walk and his windpipe -- which Akiye had certainly sliced through because Kentaro saw the bastard bleed! -- was whole and healthy once more. And he was actually smiling!
"You forgot to keep your eyes on a certain someone."
Kentaro was the first to see who Shinzō was talking about and Akiye and Riki weren't far behind. The three had retreated enough that Shinzō was now standing over the unconscious body of Shigeru, and he had his Zanpakutō raised aloft.
"You have lost."
Riki attempted a lunge from the front but was suddenly blasted by cutting winds! He fell to the floor hard and in quick order the ground beneath him was bathed in his blood.
Akiye was moving and her Kidō barrier slammed into place between an air cannon and Riki just quick enough to save the blond-haired Fōrun-juu from certain death.
"Kentaro, he's in bad shape!"
Time slowed. Kentaro seemed to be viewing everything in slow-motion. Riki's charge, Shinzō's reprisal, and Akiye's intervention. Even Shinzō's follow-up that very nearly sent Akiye and the heavily bloodied Riki sprawling was slowed to his vision.
"Let go." A voice whispered as if in Kentaro's ear.
And something inside Kentaro snapped.
The red mist descended and a Hollow-like roar escaped Kentaro's mouth! And it was the first time that Shinzō opted to dodge and Riki, even injured and bloodied as he was, noticed. "Now, that's interesting. He's tanked everything up until now, so why suddenly decide to dodge? Unless its dangerous? But what makes Kentaro a threat to him now compared to a moment ago?"
Riki centred every instinct -- heightened as they where -- and trained them straight on Shinzō.
"What do you see?" Akiye asked. Riki was at this very moment resting on her back.
"Thanks for earlier, but I need to focus. And my injuries aren't helping."
Akiye regarded the blond-haired youth with heightened respect. She remembered Riki with disdain; he was loud, rude, and prone to confrontation. That certainly hadn't changed since their last meeting. He was also a womaniser and a flirt. Yet he seemed to possess an uncanny eye for detail; he had certainly saw things that neither she nor Kentaro had picked up on, and she was loathe to admit that he had saved their lives once already.
"Kentaro has formidable friends." She thought, and the look with which she measured Riki held quite a bit more respect than it had previously.
As the two engaged in their brief talk Kentaro had streaked past Shinzō as a blur, long white-coloured hair trailing out behind him, the top section of his uniform shredded by the reiatsu that clung to his shoulders. The sudden air pressure tore Akiye's attention from Riki right back to Kentaro. The transformation was known to Akiye for it was the same form Kentaro accessed when he attempted to stop Iba and Yajuu taking her back to the Imawashī, but something was different. Then he had been completely lost to his anger and rage. Now he seemed to have some marginal control; there was an intelligent look in his once bestial eyes, and he had them trained on Shinzō.
"Riki, if I covered you, could you get Shigeru clear?" Akiye said.
"... You do know what that form is, right? If I approach him now he's as like to cut my head off. Any movement made on Shigeru -- whether to help him or not -- will invoke a reaction."
"He's more in control than you think."
"... No he isn't." Riki responded through gritted teeth. "Trust me on that. He's channelling his Inner Hollow -- Kage! You think just because you've seen him cut loose in that form once that you know what he's capable of? Stop being stupid! The initial stage of that form frightened even Kenji! Hollow are often compared to mindless animals yet they still manage to kill Shinigami and gorge themselves on Souls! Why is that? Instinct. Kage cannot be trusted."
Akiye was about to open her mouth to protest but again Riki's instincts proved correct and her rebuke died on her tongue. Kentaro had succeeded in driving Shinzō away from Shigeru's body and now he was standing over him like a loyal canine protecting his fallen master, and the cry was as bestial as it was the day he had challenged Iba and Yajuu.
"I know beasts." Riki continued. "I'm part wolf myself."
"I'm beginning to see how you killed my Shadows so easily." Shinzō acknowledged. "However, you don't even know what the power that courses through you is, boy."
In that instance Shinzō's location was engulfed in a massive inferno! The Hollowfied Kentaro roared at the sudden blinding light but he knew no more. Naibu Shizuka impacted him hard in the stomach with a palm-strike and just as quickly as it appeared Kentaro's Hollowfied form dispersed. Sitting large on Kentaro's chest was a paper-tag emblazoned with the same three tomoe design that comprised the tattoo-like seal Kenji initially placed on his son previously. Kentaro recognised the seal and knew that his father and mother had designed it as a fail-safe.
"Leave this to us." Naibu said.
Kentaro didn't have to look. Naibu rarely acted alone and right now his companion -- Ashido Kanō -- was going toe-to-toe with the increasingly angry Shinzō.
"Events have been put into motion that we did not plan for." Naibu began. "You have heard of Heisekai, correct?" Kentaro nodded. "Good. Kenji learned from Rosuto that the Sansōzoku are mobilising. They will be here presently, and it would be best for us not to be when they do."
Kentaro felt himself being hauled to his feet. Jinta Kanō steadied his friend before running over and hoisting the larger Shigeru onto his back. It seemed that he had been responsible for the inferno earlier. Harumi Kazuki appeared at Kentaro's flank to support him and Ashni oversaw the situation from afar with a disinterested expression.
"Ino gave you the means to leave this place." Naibu said to Kentaro. "Prepare it. Ashido and I will buy you the time required, and then we will all leave together."