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East Rukongai, late fall

The full harvest moon burned a fiery orange in the night sky. The air was clear, crisp, with just a touch of the bitter wind that signified that winter was on its way.

All across the small farming district quiet lights could be seen, dotting the landscape with small circles of yellow. They were bonbori made of grass and rapeseed oil, silent sentinels on tall poles that watched over the farmers who were still laboring past dark. Here and there the quiet murmur of a lone voice or two could be heard, but there was very little conversation as rough hands worked steadily, dragging wheat back and forth across the threshing floors. The oracle had told them that rain would come by tomorrow, even though the sky was perfectly clear now. They had yet to prove the old woman and her bones wrong, and the prediction had sparked a frenzy of activity across the land. If they did not store the dried wheat in time a season’s work would be wasted. With winter biting at their heels, a spoiled harvest spelled starvation for many.

The fields themselves lay still and barren, the wind blowing dust and chaff over the hard, naked ground. Kana felt the cold through her bare feet as she walked alongside her husband, Natsuo, across a small path that divided two fields. Both of them carried heavy loads across their backs, a pile of wheat stalks that they were transporting to one of the threshing floors. His steps were slow and heavy, and she felt the same exhaustion. They had been at work since the first rays of dawn that morning, with a scant break at noon for a quick meal of barley bread and pickled fish. Then it had been back to their toils. Every muscle in Kana’s body was stretched to its limit across her slight frame. Her shoulders where tight and there was a burning pain in her spine. Yet she had born it all without complaint, Natsuo had done the same. He was a good man. They had been married that spring, and though he was stoic and spoke little to her, he had a strong and kind strength of character. Perhaps he even loved her. She smiled a little at that.

From the corner of her eye she caught some form of movement in the shadows at the edge of the field. She stopped, straightened up a bit, and peered into the darkness. The moon bathed the dark earth in golden light, casting strange, long shadows across the berms.

There was a presence there, something lurking just beyond the edge of her perception. And, narrowing her eyes, she caught a faint, bluish shimmering of light. A ghostly aura, hovering above the ground.

“Natsuo…” she began, her voice cracked and dry in her throat. But then she trailed off. It seemed to her that there was a faint, barely audible song. A lullaby. Listening closely she thought she could remember the tune, but just barely. Some caressing melody that her mother had sang to her as a child, playing at the back of her mind…

Calling her into the field.

She let her burden of wheat slip to the ground and her tired, spent body carry her into the darkness. Her mind was already far away, drifting in some comfortable, hypnotic dream.

By the time Natsuo realized that Kana was no longer behind him he had gone some distance down the path. He turned, saw the stack of stalks lying on the ground, and panic seized his chest. For some time now he had been uneasy, the atmosphere did not feel right. There had been a nagging, insidious throb at the back of his mind, ever since the sun had started to go down that day. He knew what dangers could lurk in the wild lands of the Rukongai to the east, he had seen a Hollow take its fill of souls, and there were desperate men at large as well, some more deadly than Hollows. He could not allow anything to happen to Kana. Not now.

He dropped his own bundle and with staggering, limping steps ran back to where she had been just a moment before.

“Kana!” he called out. There was no reply. His heart was pounding in his chest as he searched the fields frantically. She could not just disappear into thin air…

There. Something had moved from across the field, shrinking into the dark shadows of a dry creek bed. He took off once more, ignoring the pain in his stiff limbs as he ran. That subtle menace he had felt all along was no longer subtle, the danger was real. Palpable. An unhealthy, dank sweat dripped from his temples and his ragged breathing filled the silence. Nothing else could be heard, he was utterly alone in the stillness. Natsuo reached the tangled brambles of the creek bed and stopped.

“Kana!” he cried again, and then he listened. Nothing. Except…

The breeze moved through the stripped branches of the trees, a shadow seemed to fall across the land. And then he heard a song. Faint. Haunting.

Eyes wide he entered the thick mass of dead woods, his feet thrashing noisily through the blanket of brittle leaves on the ground.

“Kana,” he repeated her name over and over to himself softly. “Kana,”

The branches seemed to part before him and he entered a clearing. There, in a sickly pool of yellow moonlight, her body lay. Black blood smeared across her mouth and chest. All his strength drained suddenly from him and he collapsed to the ground, crawling to reach the body of his wife.

“Kana,” he cradled her gently, murmuring soft nothings in her unhearing ears. He rocked her back and forth as harsh tears dug trails through the dust on his face.

It had been too swift. There had been no warning. He could not comprehend it. Her death terrified him.

And then, from the corner of his eye he saw as a shadow moved. He turned, and was suddenly frozen in place as the darkness moved across the clearing. It blotched out the moonlight with inky fingers, reaching for him, growing ever darker and looming over him, like a wide, yawning chasm.

Then, the shadows swallowed him.

The Assignment

The controlled rustling of papers disrupted the otherwise silent office of the Thirteenth Division Lieutenant. A single man paced to and fro retrieving the documents littered across the floor. The hectic placement of paraphernalia clearly pointed to the owner's negligent attitude, or otherwise indicated a man much too preoccupied to tend to his quarters. Once the man was finished collecting the documents, he neatly piled them atop the only desk in the office and sat himself on its chair, leaving alone the countless scrolls and books of every sort that comprised the mess alongside the documents.

With a satisfied smile, the man reclined on his seat, allowing the sunlight from the tall windows behind him to highlight his features. His shoulder-length emerald hair was tied back into a low, ponytail. His amber eyes shifted to and fro to indicate his lack of focus. His slender, youthful figure indicated a Shinigami who had perhaps spent more time as a recluse rather than battling alongside his peers. The white-coated dog which lay beside the desk in rest perhaps indicated a love of animals; but with this particular dog's massive black-tipped tail, it was surely a warped love indeed. Renewed by his fleeting reprieve, the man carefully rose from his seat. Upon gently patting the dog to bid farewell, the man directed himself toward the exit, firmly clenching his fist and breathing heavily to prepare himself for a more uncertain moment. Without a doubt, this man was the Lieutenant of—

“Did you just touch me?” called a rather deep, but refined voice from behind the Shinigami. Sweating profusely, the Shinigami creaked his head in the direction of the dog, who slowly opened his sky blue eyes and looked in the direction of the Shinigami, his disappointment evident from the repetitious slamming of his tail onto the wooden floor.

The Shinigami responded to the disrupting noise by promptly facing the dog's direction. “W—what? O—oh, I was just—”

“Silence,” the dog command with a harsh tone. As he raised himself, the Thirteenth Division badge could clearly be seen hanging from his collar. He leaped onto the chair of his desk as if ready to pass judgment to his poor aide. “What do you think you are doing? Did I not express that you were to do something about this mess in full before I awoke from my meditation? Why have my personal belongings not been addressed as well?” Indeed, being a dog as a Shinigami Lieutenant would have many disadvantages, including the inability to handle important documents by oneself. And so, being as stubborn as he was, this one-of-a-kind hound elected to hire an aide to perform tasks that he would be incapable of performing on his own without needless effort, as he so deemed it; and ideally, only he would ever be aware of this arrangement.

The Shinigami's eyes shifted across the mess on the floor. “Oh? Well, I thought you told me you didn't want me touching your books, so I—”

“I will not repeat myself,” the dog interjected with a modest tone, “so you had best listen carefully. I will be leaving on an important 'errand' that you have no right to speak of. All that I require of you is that you finish your chores before I return. And if you must place your hands on my possessions, you may do so with gloves; I would prefer you don't damage anything with your corrosive stench. Is that understood? Then I believe we're done; you are dismissed until I depart.”

The strain on the Shinigami's face slightly lightened at the idea of leaving from the Lieutenant's office. “Very well, sir. Should I retrieve your Zanpakutō from Captain Honoria?”

“That will not be necessary,” the dog firmly replied. “I have no intention of parading my identity in handling an issue of a more delicate nature.”

And with that, the Shinigami bowed before his Lieutenant and gleefully skipped on his way out of the office, however brief his respite would be. The eccentric Lieutenant, going by the name of Glacies Fidus, lightly growled at such a pitiful sight before closing his eyes once more. His “errand” was in fact a mission of utmost importance to him, for he had been assigned to fulfill it by none other than the Captain Commander. Why a mysterious Shinigami such as himself would be given such an important task, he did not know for sure; but perhaps, he hoped, an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the Gotei 13 had finally come. Of course, only the wagging of his tail at the thought of silencing the naysayers displayed his excitement; were he not a dog, such would have been entirely impossible to detect from him.

As wary as he was surly, Glacies had carefully organized an effective means to complete the assignment, which he had immediately deemed would require more than his efforts alone. As such, upon being given the assignment, he promptly sent a message, via Jikokuchō, to both the Sixth and Fifth Divisions to request two officers from the former Division and one from the latter; the message sent to the Sixth Division differed in that Glacies had requested one officer by name. He would meet the chosen officers in a selected location to brief them on the mission himself. He had pondered recruiting a few more officers with appropriate abilities but decided that it would ultimately be unneeded. And so, all that was left was to await a favorable response, which came faster than he had anticipated. Materializing from tiny wisps of light, a single Jikokuchō landed on his nose and prompted a moment of silence.

Upon fully receiving the message, Glacies opened his eyes. “Is that so?” he spoke in a barren tone, clearly unaffected by the favorable nature of the response he had received. With the impressive agility he was known for, he dashed out of his office with the intent of rendezvousing with the selected officers and carrying out the assignment that would make known the mettle and honor he had acquired as a human of legend back in olden days.


6th Division Headquarters, Midday

Takashi Sakuma was seated on the veranda outside the Lieutenant’s office, in an uncharacteristically relaxed state. He cupped a chawan of steaming green tea in his hand and watched two sparrows chatter at each other on the wall across the lawn. The day was bright and warm for the season, and Kohaku dozed lazily in the sunlight, perched in the tree that lay directly across from his office.

He savored his tea. It was a robust, late season aka-bancha, a hallmark of autumn. The hearty flavor reminded him of seasons gone by, and in particular his old Kenjutsu instructor. The old man had preferred bancha over other kinds of ryokucha, and had drank it zealously. He could still recall the smell of Hotake’s breath when he would take his hands in his own, directing him in the proper manner to hold his shinai. There was a touch of sadness in the memory: he and his sensei had not parted on good terms. Perhaps, someday, they would meet again. He would have to be sure to give the old man a package of the best bancha in the Soul Society, he mused.

All too soon the tea was gone and his brief respite over. Takashi placed the cup on the small tray beside him and sighed as he stood up. There was a stack of paperwork awaiting him, and if he wished to finish before dinner he could not procrastinate a moment longer.

But just as he turned to go inside he caught a glint in the sky, and as he watched a black butterfly emerged from a thin slip of light and floated gently towards him. A Jikokuchō? He wondered who had sent the message. Kohaku seemed to sense the movement of the delicate creature through the air and roused herself, blinking sleepily as Takashi extended his hand towards the butterfly. It landed gently on his finger, and there was a brief moment of soft static as the Jikokuchō established a connection through Takashi’s own nervous system. He heard the voice of the 13th Division Lieutenant, Glacies Fidus, as he made an official request. He sensed as Kohaku’s mind linked with his own, allowing her to hear the message as well.

An official assignment from the head Captain? She asked as soon as the message was over. So it seems. He replied. But why would Glacies choose you to be on the task force? Takashi shrugged. It could be that he is aware of my experience in the Rukongai, and wanted someone who could serve as a guide of sorts. He suggested. Still, she added, it seems strange to send two Lieutenants out on such a minor mission. Takashi frowned. It may not be as minor as you think. It is always better to be cautious. Kohaku chuckled. You are such a bore. No wonder none of the females in the division notice you. You’re too serious. Takashi glared at her, indignant. The reason why I can never find a date is because you scare them all away. He retorted. And besides, romantic associations are outside my line of duty. He finished firmly. She laughed. You should just admit that you’re too shy to ask any of them out. Takashi gave up and turned sharply, striding into his office.

So, what will be your response to Glacies? Kohaku asked in a more serious tone. He did not reply at first as he shuffled through a pile of papers, checking a division schedule.

“The Captain is not planning to leave for any reason, as far as I know,” he said aloud, “and I can leave our Third Seat in charge while we’re gone.” He quickly formulated a response and transmitted the message to the hell butterfly that was still resting on his hand, wings beating expectantly as he finished the reply. Then it rose gracefully into the air before disappearing in another soft flash of light, on its way to deliver the affirmative to Glacies. I want to take our Fourth Seat along. He told Kohaku. He could use the experience, and as he is a new member I would like to become more familiar with him.

Do you mean Sasada? Kohaku asked. Yes. Takashi replied, beginning to like the idea more as he thought about it. Sasada is strong, and possesses a high amount of spiritual power for his rank. I have seen him in training sessions, and can say that his Zanpakutō would be useful in a fight. He would be good for support.

Kohaku, who was generally uninterested in the daily mechanics of the division’s operations, paid little attention to members they did not interact with on a regular basis. If you say so. She said as she picked a loose feather from her foot. Glacies wants us to meet at the East Seireimon Gate right away, if possible. Takashi quickly surveyed the office. He felt guilty at the pile of papers stacked neatly on one corner of the table, reports needing to be filed. But at last he shrugged as he left the room, sliding the door closed behind him. The Third Seat will have to handle that. He thought. He walked quickly down the veranda, his footsteps thudding evenly into the polished wood. Kohaku left the branch and glided alongside the covered porch, keeping pace with him although it was cumbersome for her to travel at such a slow speed. Where are you going now? She asked. First, to inform the Captain and Third Seat of the transfer in the chain of command. He stopped for a few seconds at the end of the boardwalk to put on his waraji, then continued his journey across the division’s headquarters. Then I’m going to find Sasada. He told her. Where do you suppose he is now? Kohaku asked as she took her signature position on his shoulder. At this time of day, probably at the training grounds. He said. He is a diligent man.

Kohaku cast a sly glance in his direction. Unlike you. She said. I bet the reason you're so eager to be off is to avoid that stack of paperwork sitting back at your office. Takashi grimaced at her comment. As usual, her sharp hawk’s eyes had left little undetected. You know me too well. He said with a wry grin.


It was such an uneventful day, a peaceful day where everyone can simply relax after such varying activities done within the morning, simply laying one's bones and nerves to ease by sitting on a simple chair with one's sleepy eyes foreseeing an afternoon nap coming along with a warm tea sitting beside them provide enough entertainment through varying methods like this...

Unfortunately things were not the same within the barracks of the Fifth Division. Where others are to enjoy such beautiful and peaceful day, Tyler Ryūdō seems to spend his time enjoying not the sunlight, oh no. Not the birds chirping around as the wind blows through their feathers, no no, not even calm atmosphere others are enjoying right now. He spent his entire morning enjoying through the warm breeze that went inside his barracks by small windows and fading lights that came from the exact same windows behind his office. The same would work for him, but is it really wise to neglect his work? Indeed, his work; mountains of papers stacked on top of his table, not to mention the same amount of papers stacked beside him with wooden chairs supporting them. One's mind couldn't simply bear all those papers sitting around.

But for some reason a smile was reflected across his face; a true sign of happiness. How bizarre indeed, to think that not a single person can withstand all of those papers overwhelming oneself, not even spending a minute with them. But in his case, it is different; Tyler was always the cheerful guy, the guy who reminded everyone about what the word "happiness" is all about. He didn't bother getting stressed; Why bother? he would ask.

With his fingers moving around a pen he bought from one of the famously-known shops around Rukongai, his handwriting began to defect slightly: he was all fine the entire morning, his smile was wide, his handwriting was good, but still, after hours of work like this, even the happiest among people cannot stand it. They were simply unbearable. Just looking at the papers left on his desk, his face began to twitch. With an instant sigh, he let go of his pen. Finally he gave up. The words Why bother? were regretted by him. If only he had rejected those papers his captain left for him, he would be enjoying the warm and fresh day.

“Ryūdō-kun?” a soft and mature voice called out. Tyler's body instantly stiffened. With his eyes wide open, it was as if a predator was there, to hunt him down and devour him. No, it was worse than that. It was way worse than that. His blue eyes searched around as mountains of papers blocked the entirety of his sight. Indeed, all he could see for the past hours were stacks of papers surrounding him along with the light illuminating oneself, nothing more.

“What is it, Captain Ryūren?” Tyler asked, his voice began to crumble, he put his efforts altogether within to do a simple thing such as talking back, or in his case, answering a question. It may seem as if he is simply talking, but believe him when he says that all of his energy, throughout his body, was all directed to his voice.

“You may leave work now,” the soft voice answered. What a relief it is to hear those words as they came to his ears. But is it one of his captain's tricks to see his reaction? He wouldn't know. He wouldn't answer right away. That aside, he couldn't simply answer this right away.

“Is something up, Captain?” There. That was truly the best answer, or question, he could come up with. If his captain was truly testing him or tying to find out what his answer is, indeed, he has provided the perfect defense for that. He gulped quietly, silent approached through his quarters. He was shaking indeed, but his smile, as always, were sturdy enough to withstand such a thing. “Ryūdō-kun,” his captain called out again. A brief pause between his captain's words already ensnared Tyler through many ways. He was afraid that his captain wasn't testing him. Whatever the cause, Tyler wasn't truly ready for whatever comes next within his words.

“You are needed in the East Seireimon Gate within few minutes. Please make it there carefully. Await you are experienced officers, but I don't exactly know the number of them. I have enlisted you within a special task force to investigate some mysterious stuff,” his captain followed his words, his tone being critically more serious than before. Such a thing never happened right before Tyler's ears ever before. But why him? Among all the officers of the Fifth Division, why the third seat? Lieutenant Kazuryū can go, if his captain was truly correct about the information regarding experienced officers. In fact, the captain himself could simply go. “Ah, dramatic pauses,” his captain said aloud. “I do believe you are asking yourself, why me in particular? Indeed, I've enlisted you in such task force with some lieutenants. I could send Succubus to assist them, but I'm more interested in you now. Are you capable of exceeding my expectations, Ryūdō-kun?”

Bizarre indeed, but who is Tyler to object such wise decision of his captain who analyzes things before saying so? There must be a critical reasoning behind such weird events like this, but he wouldn't mind it that much, would he? In fact, this would be his first actual mission within the Gotei 13, an impression to those who believe in him as a Division's third seat. Must he accept it? Of course he must, he will, and he wants to do so. His smile widened after such shrinking through the papers he had done earlier. Part of him was still curious about how his captain got this information from, but still, anything that can make him happy would make Tyler happy as well...and it looks like this won't be another peaceful and uneventful day at all.

“Of course, Captain Ryūren,” he exerted his words aloud. His captain's terrifying presence no longer holds him in captive. He is truly happy about this one, and aside from that, he gets to skip his papers! Such a wonderful timing indeed; he bowed before his captain, only to be ignored by him as a barrier of papers blocked his captain from seeing him. A thump can be heard as his left leg emerges from its stiffness, his right hand grabs his Zanpakutō.

Sakushū, while I don't completely like you, let's make this our best!


Down. Up. 156. Down. Up. 157. Down. Up. 158...After each grueling pushup, Masaharu uttered a number, marking the amount of push-ups he had done. Come on, Masaharu! Faster, Faster! After these two hundred push-ups, you must do two hundred pull-ups, then do two hundred more pushups! As soon as he reached the two hundred mark, Masaharu took a small break to wipe the sweat off of his brow. Within a few moments, he began to do the sets of pull-ups, counting in the same way as he had before. His sleek black hair was spiky, out of the way of his eyesight; he wasn't wearing anything on his upper body, displaying his hefty muscles.

It was a typical day for the Fourth Seat of the Sixth Division, Masaharu Sasada. On the average, Masaharu would wake up early, get ready, then do some light exercise. When most Shinigami are reporting for his/her duties, he would show up to greet his superior officers, Lieutentant Takashi Sakuma and Captain Byakuya Kuchiki. He gave these two his highest respect and carried out the duties they assigned him with the utmost precision and care. Eventually, if at all, he would proceed to train for the remainder of the day.

On this day, the work he had to do had not taken him very long. He had hoped he might find another Soul Reaper to train with, but today the well-used training ground was barren. His plans were to start with running fifteen miles, then two hundred push-ups, two hundred pull-ups, and so on. However, this day might not turn out to be as common as most.

Before long, something caused him to momentarily pause his exercise. What is that? Masaharu thought as he craned his head to look over his shoulder. A figure was approaching the training grounds, slowly growing larger as he neared Masaharu. Expecting an important message from another officer, Masaharu hurriedly put on the remaining pieces of his Shihakushō, and confronted the figure.

"Hello There!" he called out. He could make out the figure now, it was his Lieutenant Takashi. Yes! Hopefully he will assign me an exciting mission! I will proudly prove to everyone how the Sixth Division is the greatest of them all! I will impress him... His thoughts went on and on until Takashi began to speak.

"I thought I would find you here," Takashi said, peering around the rather deserted training grounds. "You've been training hard as usual, I see." Masaharu bowed to his superior officer.

"Yes, sir. I want to stay in top form, so I can perform my duties." Takashi nodded appreciatively.

"Your diligence is to be commended," he paused, rubbing the scar across his brow for a moment before adding: "To cut things short, I am here because I want you to accompany me on a mission. I am sure you can agree?" he asked in a rather formal tone.

"Of course, sir. I would be more the happy to assist you."

"Excellent. We will meet Lieutenant Fidus at the East Seireimon... we leave at once." Takashi turned abruptly and strode out of the training grounds.

Masaharu buoyantly used a short step of Shunpo to catch up, then kept a steady pace right beside Takashi. His thoughts wandered… I wonder how long we are going to be away? Takashi-san explained that there will be other high ranking officers coming along as well... this must be pretty important. I have heard the name Fidus before. I guess I will find out more about him soon. Hmm... I have to stay respectful. Being humble is key. Masaharu remembered the wise words that one of his old senseis told him. His mind delved in thought once again. Where are we going on this mission? Into the human world? I quite like the human world, even though humans themselves can get quite pesky at times.

"So, sir, do you know what the plans are for this mission?"

"The details were scarce, but I gather that we will be somewhere in the East Rukon districts." he responded. Slightly disapointed that they wouldn't be making the trek to the Human World, Masaharu nodded. Takashi glanced over at him, before he asked: "Sasada-san, how familiar are you with the Rukongai?"

"I know a fair amount. I am from Southern Rukongai myself, so I may not know much about the Eastern Districts."

"Fair enough." They continued in silence for sometime before Takashi said: "I have to warn you regarding Lieutenant Fidus. He can be rather... skeptical at times, and is not entirely fond of new recruits. Make sure you address him properly, and try to avoid getting on his bad side." he cautioned.

"Yes sir. I will be sure to represent the Sixth Division as it is: one of the top divisions out there." Takashi smiled at the enthusiasm shown by the Fourth Seat.

Eventually, they arrived at the Eastern Seireimon Gate. The gate stood tall as Masaharu looked up to admire it. Masaharu scanned the surrounding area, looking to find other members of his party. It appeared that they were the first to arrive, so Masaharu patiently waited under the shade of a nearby tree.


The wind breezed around the vicinity with such peaceful and undisturbed atmosphere enveloping the entirety of the Fifth Division barracks. Though something is wrong out there, nothing can disturb this atmosphere. A peaceful atmosphere would remind Tyler of his days as a simple soul within the Rukongai, all alone,...before his so-called "grandfather" approached him and took care of him. With that, he closed his memory off his mind and looked the grounds bellow. His mind is finally at peace, he will no longer feel as a burden that allowed his "grandfather" to be murdered. The actual light of the day began to illuminate his features; the same, wide smile was still reflected upon his face.

With his mind at peace and his body at its full potential, he jumped off the roof of the barracks belonging to his Division, which left an apparent crack upon its facet; something which he has to fix later, of course. Riding among the winds with such graceful position, he raced against the forces of the wind through the use of Shunpo, flashing from a place to another, rooftops to rooftops.

In mere minutes he landed upon the tile floors before the ground began to deform showing a mark that he is close to Rukongai; upon him is a gigantic gate that would seemingly prevent anyone from entering without any proper permissions. It is truly one of the most beautiful sights among Seireitei to which Tyler admired upon its designs. His brown eyes began to scan the area surrounding him; the peaceful and undisturbed atmosphere was there no longer, brought by a group of Shinigami awaiting others to fill in by the distance, but he was prepared for this. He moved his slender body towards them, in a single instant ending with him reaching them...his smile widened by every step he took.

“Hello,” he said calmly. “I am Tyler Ryūdō, Third Seat of the Fifth Division. I am here by means to help and support you, and I am sent by Captain Ryūren of the Fifth.”

“Is everyone finished prattling amongst themselves?” spoke a familiar voice from a distance. On a nearby roof sat Glacies, having quietly observed the trio up to that point; but nay, this was not only to evaluate his companions' interactions. An act of cloaking one's presence from such competent individuals would normally be impossible for one with such volatile Reiatsu as himself were it not for the addition of a personal concealing device disguised as a studded bracelet around his left front leg. Satisfied at the results, Glacies leaped to join the assembled task force, carefully eying them as he stood directly in front of them. “Perhaps I could have been more specific as to whom I wished to accompany me, but the lot of you should serve me well enough. It would seem that, as I had requested, none of you were informed of why you were to present yourselves here. I, Lieutenant Fidus Glacies of the Thirteenth Division, was selected to lead a small 'expedition' to the outskirts of Rukongai for a task I'd preferred to explain in full myself. Now, are there any questions?”

Takashi had just opened his mouth to acknowledge the newly arrived Third Seat when Glacies appeared on the rooftop suddenly. Startled, he watched him closely as he padded gracefully across the sloped tiles before hopping down to the ground, tail swinging behind him for balance. Although he may have missed detecting the Lieutenant’s spiritual presence, his keen eyes did not miss the strangely shaped band around Glacies’ front leg. Interesting. He mused. Kohaku chuckled. You didn’t see him sitting on the roof? He was there the whole time. Takashi did not need to be embarrassed by his own hawk, and ignored her. Instead, he focused on Glacies’ brief, gravitas-imbued speech.

“… are there any questions?” he asked at last.

“Lieutenant Fidus,” Takashi interrupted, “before we begin I would like to explain that I was the one who requested our Division’s Fourth Seat to accompany us. I would ask that you allow me to personally handle any frustration that might arise regarding his inexperience.” He turned his gaze towards Ryūdō— what was his first name again? Takashi could never pronounce it correctly, and thus often forgot it. “Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for a member of the Fifth Division.” He hoped Ryūdō would catch his subtle caution before he addressed Glacies once more. “And as for questions,” he allowed his frustration to rise to the surface for a brief moment, “how about explaining why we’re here in the first place, as opposed to beating around the point.” he growled.

“Very well, Lieutenant Sakuma,” came Glacies' calm response as he sat himself on the ground, clearly pleased with Takashi's laconic attitude. “I will be brief, so do pay careful attention to what I say. The reported disappearance of two peasants situated in the East of Rukongai occurring last night has aroused suspicion within our ranks. Of course, were this more likely a crude prank or a minor crime orchestrated by some plebeian party, there would be no perceived need for us to involve ourselves; however, there have been... interesting reports of around the same time and locale of the crime. Most interestingly, numerous locals reported a fleeting, inexplicable 'presence' looming over them; others noted the movement of shadows in the distance, seemingly without any reasonable cause. The answer is clear—the assailant, whomever it was, possessed some sort of profound power. That is why I, a Lieutenant and an experienced tracker alike, was assigned to investigate the crime scene. If, in doing so, I happen to prove that it was all indeed the doing of a malicious entity, I am to either eliminate this threat on the spot or apprehend it, depending on whether or not it is a common enemy, such as a Hollow. The general consensus is that we are dealing with a Hollow that someone of my power would have little trouble addressing, but I elected to take slightly more cautionary measures than at first instructed, and that is why the few of you stand in front of me right now.“

With a deep breath, Glacies stood up and began pacing to and fro, his eyes not once losing focus on his recruits. “The victims themselves did not seemingly possess notable spiritual power, nor were their possessions pillaged in any way; but let us ignore the assailant's intentions for now and focus on the fact that two supposedly insignificant individuals had somehow made themselves into a target. The assailant is not looking for beings with substantial spiritual power, and so we must carry out this investigation accordingly." Upon saying this, Glacies briefly averted his gaze, suggesting a more passive concern. "Preferably, the assailant should remain unaware of our activities until it is too late—we are not to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves until we have learned exactly how to draw out this hidden foe. To this end, I have rectified my lack of control over my Reiatsu with the help of this accessory. Assuming I am not hindered with more pressing matters, I intend to monitor the East for as long as it takes to unravel this mystery; I expect all of you to do the same.” Glacies paused to look directly at Takashi. “Is that understood?“

Takashi seemed to relax after the debriefing. Now that he had some details regarding the mission, he could at least predict their next course of action, and this meant he did not need to worry about variables, instead focusing on the task at hand.

"Yes." he answered Glacies' question without the brusqueness of his earlier remarks. "What is our plan as of this moment?" he asked.

"Hmm..." Glacies paused to contemplate his plans. "At present, it is within our best interests to evaluate the crime scene with our own eyes; it is highly unlikely that the assailant left no traces of its presence. Following this, we are to question any and all witnesses for additional details. As I have spoken, we are not to divert our attention from the East until we have solved this issue."

"I see," Takashi said, "Although there is one thing I would like to ask.."

"Go on."

"Why is this mission so urgent? I understand that preventing further casualties in the Rukongai is one of our main priorities here, but if there have only been rumors I don't see why we would need to react so rashly."

"I agree." Glacies again averted his gaze to consider the orders he had been given. "Even if this were the certain doing of a Hollow, I would rather not involve myself directly; the uncertain nature of this attack, however, beckons our intervention. As guardians of the Human World as well as Soul Society, it is best to act with caution as well as an open mind; this is a lesson I once learned the hard way."

The last phrase caught Takashi's attention, and he wondered what Glacies meant by that. You should ask him. Kohaku urged, but he brushed her aside. It is not my place. He responded.

"Very well," Takashi threw back his shoulders, suddenly ready to be off. "What are your orders then?"

"If the lot of you are ready, we may disembark right now; if not, I will allow some reprieve before our departure. Keep in mind the potential danger of this assignment, and be prepared accordingly. What say you?"

"My Fourth Seat and I are ready to leave at once," Takashi said, speaking for Sasada, who had been silent this whole time. He did not know what the young man thought of all of this, and he was unsure whether or not Masaharu was prepared for the assignment ahead of him, but that was unimportant. They had a job to do, and he could not be concerned with the feelings of his subordinant. He would in no way coddle him. As for Ryūdō, he too had not spoken up during the two Lieutenant's exchange.

Glacies turned his attention to Tyler. "Is this something which we can all agree on, then?" he spoke, not addressing Tyler directly. His deeper tone clearly pointed to his disdain for this particular officer, the cause of which could thus far only be speculated.

After his Lieutenant had spoken, Masaharu nodded in agreement. Without a doubt, he was ready to take on anything that laid ahead of them. Takashi-san is so well-spoken...Masaharu thought in admiration. Even if I am unexperienced, like Takashi-san said, I still will do my part. If I work hard enough, we will be able to solve this crime in no time at all.

Tyler smirked; his eyes quickly flashed over Takashi then over to Glacies. It's true as they say: one who wasn't invited to another's party would always be considered as, what humans would call, 'party-pooper', or in his current case, unworthy of joining a team such as this. Of course, it was his first task and two lieutenants who he is yet to know stood before him as they give their suspicious expression over him. But the captain's orders come first.

Tyler nodded upon his gaze to the creature-like lieutenant, followed with his widened smile, but it is indeed crooked as his thoughts raced regarding the two lieutenants, especially Lieutenant Fidus. Tyler has heard of the creature before, but has yet to see him through his very own eyes; he is truly a creature worth admiring at, along with his admirable and vast prowess over the Shinigami arts compared to his own lack of skills at some points.

The Rukongai

Without further ado the group made their way through the East Seireimon and entered the Rukongai. They followed Glacies, who gave them further instructions along the way. Apparently, there was business he needed to attend to in the 12th District, and while he was away he wanted the rest of the squad to do two things: the first was to purchase supplies for their journey, the second was to gather as many rumors about the mysterious attacks as possible. The latter assignment seemed the more difficult, as the murders had occurred in the countryside, which was far away from the closely packed city districts close to the Seireitei. It would not be impossible, but one needed the know-how to navigate the streets in order to find any information of value.

They soon reached District Twelve, and were forced to push their way through the bustling crowds of the marketplace that filled main-street. At last Glacies stopped and, with a brief parting took off on his own, leaving the rest of them behind. They would regroup later at the Emerald Lotus, a small tea house on the eastern-most section of town. They had two hours, and Takashi turned to the other two to add his own instructions.

"To be as efficient as possible, we're going to split up." he told them. "Third Seat Ryūdō, Sasada-san, I want you two to purchase the equipment necessary for the mission. We will need food for the journey, and I would suggest you also find some plain-clothes in case of any covert operations we may need to complete." he paused and reached into the folds of his sleeve before removing a small pouch that Glacies had given him earlier. He handed the purse to Masaharu. "There is some five thousand kan in there, which is half of our entire budget. I would suggest you barter as much as possible, and spend wisely." Takashi looked around the crowded district. "As for me, I'm going to try and find more information regarding these rumors, hopefully I can unearth something of help in such a short amount of time... We will meet back at the tea house as planned. Good luck."

With that the group split up, Tyler and Masaharu heading off in one direction while Takashi went off on his own.

Unexpected Arrival

Takashi quickly left main street and trailed through dusty, winding back-ways and side alleys, searching among the rabble that was swept to the shadows for signs of those who carried stories, whether they be a fortune teller, a traveling peddler, or a puppet-performer. He met with little luck, most cast their gazes away and avoided him when he asked for directions. Apparently a Shinigami was too far above their class to associate with them, which was an ironic twist on the term "snobbery." He was quickly growing frustrated, and even more so as Kohaku seemed to be distracted at every little detail that passed by. She had not been out of the Seireitei for some time, and was drinking in the sights and smells while largely ignoring the person whose shoulder she rode upon. Another factor contributing to Takashi's bad mood was that, for some time now, he had caught a vague sense that he was being followed. One specific reiatsu remained a constant amongst the mass of bodies in the streets. But it was just barely beyond him, and rested at the back of his mind. Nagging him. He couldn't place his sensation, could not follow that thin thread of awareness. And yet he knew that someone, or something, had been watching him for quite some time now. Anxiety began to gnaw at him, causing him to lose focus of the task at hand. He sighed, knowing all too well that these would be a long, fruitless two hours.

"Look's like you're becoming a little compromised there, Takashi-kun."

The voice of the individual who had been tracking him finally whizzed down to Takashi's ears, originating from the roof of the building that was on his right side. It was the Vice-Captain of the Eighth Division, Naomi Shirogane, one whom Takashi would recognize almost immediately upon seeing her. She was known for practically spear-heading her way into the Gotei 13 through sheer stubbornness alone, but also has a reputation of being rather nosy, especially when it comes to the affairs of fellow Gotei 13 officers. But at that same time, she does appear in a good light to the Gotei in that she serves as a great caretaker for an entire division, one that is, so far, without it's own Captain.

She hopped down from the building to land a few feet away from Takashi, folding her hands behind her back and smiling casually. "Not exactly a good thing to have going on in this part of the Rukongai. Whatcha doing this far out of the Seireitei anyway?" she asked with her consistent tone of curiosity.

Takashi immediately stiffened when he heard his name called. Naomi. Of course. He should have recognized her presence immediately. Rather unobservant today, aren't we? Kohaku's pointed comment rubbed him the wrong way, adding to his irritable disposition. "What I am doing is none of your concern, Lieutenant Shirogane," his tone was perhaps a bit sharp, "the more apt question is what you are doing here: why were you following us in the first place?" It was more of a reproach than a question, and Takashi set his jaw in a firm line as she answered.

Naomi's lips became a slight pout upon hearing his retort. How rude of him to talk to a lady that way, she thought to herself. With a huff, she tilted her head up and closed her eyes, retaining the pout. "Hmph, well in that case, what I'm doing out here isn't any of your concern either, Lieutenant Sakuma. I've had a pretty hard day, I'll have you know, so I deserve some time to go and do as I please. You just happened to be out where I was heading too."

Of course, Takashi was instantly skeptical. "Is that so?" he began, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "If that is the case, then where exactly are you headed?" he asked. "Highly coincidental, it would seem.”

One of Naomi's eyes cracked open slightly after he spoke, the emerald orb keeping itself fixated on his expression. "I thought I told you that it wasn't any of your business, egghead." she jokingly poked at him. She was fighting the urge to smirk or even smile in the face of her fellow officer. "Tell ya what: You tell me what you're out here for, since it's clearly more important, and then I'll tell you why I'm here. Simple enough?"

Takashi sighed, forcing himself to relax. He did not have the time to deal with Naomi's antics or insults, and needed to be rid of her as soon as possible so he could continue with his assignment. He smiled as pleasantly as possible and said: "Unfortunately, that won't be possible. As you yourself said, Shirogane-san, it is none of our concern to discuss each other's business." He brushed past her, continuing to walk down the street at what he hoped was an even pace, while trying his best to quickly put some distance between them. "Now, considering that we are both incredibly busy and have our own things to attend to, I say it is time we part ways. Have a nice day, Shirogane-san."

"Ugh, you are so difficult. I daresay you and Captain Kuchiki-sama are a perfect match." Naomi sneered as she started to close her eye again before she caught a glimpse of her fellow Shinigami beginning to walk away. This caused her eyes to snap back open before she quickly paced to keep up with him. As she came to his side at an even pace, her expression resumed into it's pouty origin, staring at him as they went on. "I have a first name y'know, it's Naomi; it'd be a little nice if you could at least call me by that, Takashi. A lot less of a mouthful too. Sides', I don't have anything else going on today, and this part of town can be pretty... well, uncertain, to put it lightly. I'd hate to see anything happen to a fellow Vice-Captain, y'know?" she finished with a teasing smirk.

Takashi was irked beyond measure that she had referred to him by his given name, and so casually at that. It took considerable effort to ignore the offense, but he somehow managed to stifle his anger and regain his composure, although he was still having trouble formulating a suitable reply. Perhaps if I ignore her, she'll go away. He inwardly hoped. And now you're just being delusional. Kohaku replied. It wouldn't hurt you to be a bit nicer to her. Takashi grit his teeth at that. "Females." he muttered aloud. He glanced over at Naomi, who was walking right beside him, staring at him with what he took to be an expectant expression.

"I appreciate your concern, Lieutenant Shirogane," he said, "but your assistance here is unneeded. I assure you, we are completely capable of handling any problem that may arise without... additional assistance."

Naomi grinned, keeping her pace with Takashi as a show that she had no intention of leaving his side just yet (or at all for that matter). "Just cause you think I won't be of any help doesn't mean that I actually won't be." she said, folding her arms behind her back as she continued. "An extra pair of hands never hurts. Besides, I'm good at investigating things, especially when I'm outside of the barracks. Who knows? You might even learn something from me." She briefly sniffed the air and exhaled in a relaxed fashion. "It feels great to get out of there, let me tell ya..."

Takashi ground to a sudden halt, stopping in the middle of the street. He closed his eyes in consternation and rubbed the scar that ran through the center of his forehead. He had several rather scathing remarks he could have made at that point, but he took Kohaku's words to heart and bit his tongue, although it took most of his willpower to do so.

"Shirogane-san," he began, "Exactly how much did you overhear, regarding our mission I mean?"

Naomi took on a more serious expression in response, straightening herself up as they continued. "Not much really. I know that it involves the murder of two farmers out near this area and that it's pretty suspicious, especially considering that you, Glacies and those other two have all set out to investigate it."

Takashi groaned. What would Glacies say to this? He squared his shoulders and turned to face her directly.

"First of all, the murders occurred some distance from here, they were in no way near the Seireitei. And you must understand, Lieutenant Shirogane, that this makes any attempts at investigation that much more difficult. The information you have managed to pry is essentially the extent of what we know so far. The mission is as follows: determine the cause of the deaths and dispatch any enemy encountered in the area." he spoke rapidly, bluntly, trying his best to get it done and over with. "If that is clear, and you are satisfied, I suggest you return to the Seireitei. Lieutenant Fidus is not known to be tolerant of impudence, and I must say that at this point, I am beginning to agree with him rather strongly."

"Pfft, Fidus will get over it. I'm sure he understands that a little extra help isn't going to impact him in a negative fashion." Naomi retorted, making sure to keep a close eye on her surrounding environments. "And I love murder mysteries! Not that they're fun or anything because, well, you know, death and such, but still, serving out justice to whoever robbed those people of their happy after-existence will help me to sleep better at night." she happily jeered as they continued. "And I'll have you know that when I find a new mystery, I stick with it until it's resolved. Looks like me and you get to be partners... well, us and the fella on your shoulder of course." she playfully winked at the hawk in question.

Kohaku blinked at her, rather clueless, while Takashi resisted the urge to repeatedly slam his head into the closest wall. Invariably she had managed to weasel her way into the thick of things, stubborn as always. Look on the bright side, Kohaku interrupted his train of thought. At the very least she can serve as bait for the Hollows. Takashi chuckled, but then shook his head. You're right, little one. I don't know how I allowed myself to become so aggravated. It was a mistake. He breathed out, slowly, and picked up the pace. He could not allow Naomi to get under his skin, he alone was in control of his own emotions.

"As you are probably already aware, Shirogane-san, I am searching for an information broker, someone who may have heard rumors, something regarding the incidents in the farming districts." he looked around, once more taking stock of the crowds surrounding them and attempting to analyze the individuals they walked past. "So far, I have met with little success."

"Well no duh," Naomi started, glancing over at him with an upraised eyebrow and somewhat of a dumbfounded expression. "Look at you dude; you're a Shinigami with a hawk on your shoulder wandering out in the open in one of the shadiest and crime-infested parts of the Rukongai. Do you really think people are going to cooperate with you like that?" she continued before looking around at several structures in the distance, seeming to recognize one of the larger buildings as she did so. "You need to be more subtle and sneaky, like I was when following you. I wasn't trying to sneak up on you per say; I was trying to make sure that I wouldn't get caught in any... conflicts that could be started with the locals."

"Subtlety has very little to do with it," Takashi replied coolly, refraining from commenting on her earlier attempts at what she had called being 'sneaky.' "We only have a limited amount of time here, and need to gather the information as quickly as possible." he followed her line of sight, and saw that she was scouting out a row of rather shady-looking buildings. From the faded and stained signs above the doors he gathered that one was a small, greasy restaurant, and another was a Bakuto Parlor. He assumed the unmarked buildings were either apartments or attached to the gambling establishment. He nodded towards the parlor. "And I assume your 'investigative expertise' extends to card games?" he asked.

"My expertise extends to a lot of things." Naomi winked at him before pointing out towards the larger building that the two of them had taken notice of just prior. "Right there is a gambling joint that I used to go to for leads and information. One patron there in particular has dirt on roughly everything that goes in and out of this district, and beyond. If anyone has leads on our murder mystery, my money is on him."

"In that case, please lead the way, Shirogane-san."

"Thank you, kind gentleman." Naomi teased once again with a slightly outstretched tongue before picking up her pace towards the gambling joint. The place on the outside was only somewhat crowded, with several dirty and greased up patrons standing near the front door and giving them both suspicious stares. "Never enter a gambling joint through the front door, you're practically putting crosshairs on your forehead." Naomi said as her hand took hold of his and began guiding him to the back of the building, leading to a back door where there was apparently no one. "Always look for a back door. If you know your way with words, it's a certainty that you'll get in..."

But whatever plans she had in entering the place were complicated as their path was blocked by a towering, muscle-bound bouncer. He was bald and had numerous scars crossing his glistening red scalp, and the telltale blue ink tattoos across his arms suggested he was, or at least had been, involved with a local gang. He scowled deeply when he saw them, and Takashi used the distraction to quickly extricate his wrist from Naomi's grasp.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked gruffly. Takashi stood up straight, no doubt attempting to make himself look taller, and cleared his throat. But before he could say anything he stopped, caught off-guard by Naomi's reaction. She simply folded her hands behind her back and made a cute expression while looking up at the very imposing bouncer, teasingly walking around him slowly.

"Aw gee, me and my boyfriend here were walking me back to my parent's house and we must've taken a wrong turn. We've never been through this part of town ya see..." she continued before she was around the guard's left side. "My uncle comes here all the time ya see; his name is Junpei, Junpei Katsura, a regular attendant. You wouldn't mind if we pop in real quick to get proper directions, would ya?"

The bouncer's eyes narrowed into thin slits as he sized her up, folding his arms across his chest.

"And what self-respecting Shinigami runs through this part of the Rukongai in the first place?" he growled. "You're story is very convincing... Now get lost." Takashi felt their chance slipping away and quickly spoke up, attempting to salvage the opportunity.

"I'm sure many Shinigami have visited such a fine establishment in the past," he began, speaking too quickly. Hopefully the bouncer would not notice. "You have probably heard many alibis before... granted ours isn't too original, but our money is still as good as anyone else's."

The bouncer frowned, looking between him and Naomi. He seemed unconvinced.

"Eh, I tried." Naomi sighed before she started to turn away from the bouncer and Takashi, her head down in a defeated fashion, but just before one might assume that she had given up trying to get into the building, she pulled off unexpectedly. She immediately twisted around before bringing her left heel to slam right straight into the man's left leg, the force of which was enough to bring him straight to his knees. She followed this up by twisting around once again and placing her palm in front of the man's face. The center of her hand briefly shined with a white light and a forceful exertion of energy was released at point-blank range; a Shō spell, knocking him out almost instantly. "Thanks for letting us in" she teased with a smile before opening the door and holding a hand out to beckon Takashi inside. "In you go there, Sakuma-kun."

Takashi gaped in shock, and it took a moment before he could finally manage to put his thoughts into words. "What the hell... was that much violence really necessary?" he growled. "He was about to capitulate."

Naomi deadpanned, staring at him blankly. "Really? You don't get out much do you?"

"That is beside the point," he had to pause a moment as he felt his anger stir once again. "Normally, in these cases, a simple tip would have sufficed." he glanced at the prone body of the bouncer, and shook his head. "At any rate, we don't have much time now, considering he'll probably come to his senses soon."

"Mhm, sure it would have. Now I would appreciate it if you shut up complaining and get inside." she jabbed as she started to go into the building herself. "Well? Hurry up then if we don't have time to goof around." she continued to beckon him inside. Takashi quickly dragged the body of the bouncer out of the way of the doorstep, hiding him behind a stack of crates in the alley and hoping no one would notice him there, at least for a while. He then followed Naomi inside.

The interior of the gambling parlor was dim, and smoke filled the low rafters of the ceiling. Murky green light cast a soft glow over all the inhabitants, creating a close, comfortable atmosphere. Still, Takashi could not help but feel uneasy. He scanned the faces in the crowd closely, and none of them seemed like entirely honest characters. While some stragglers clung to the shadows, or hovered close to the bar, the majority of the gamblers were concentrated around the tables positioned in the center of the room, in between the pillars that stood as rough divisions marking each dealer's domain. He counted three tables total. Not an overly large establishment, but crowded nonetheless. The distinctive sound of dice rolling across the tables and rough voices mingled together as one, granting Takashi and Naomi some degree of anonymity.

"Who are we looking for?" he asked, low enough so only Naomi could hear.

"Fat guy, balding, has a ponytail." Naomi started to describe as she scanned the interior of the building carefully. She made an effort to make both herself and Takashi look as natural as possible, should anyone happen to turn their attention towards herself and her partner. "He's probably near one of the back rooms, over by the bar." she said, pointing at one of the doors in particular. "At least, that's where he should be if he isn't over at the bar. It's hard to miss him; he usually has two girls by his side at all times when he's gambling, so we should keep an ear out for laughter."

Takashi raised his eyebrow, but said nothing. They began to make their way towards the back wall. The rooms in question were about a foot higher than the main floor, a short step leading to each one, and sliding screen doors divided them from the rest of the gamblers. They were mainly for high-stakes card games played between only a few "wealthy" participants, although other more questionable activities--such as secret gang meetings-- were also not uncommon. Considering this, it was important that they avoid stepping on anyone's respective toes.

"Which one?" Takashi asked, with an uncomfortable feeling that they were about to play a game of Russian Roulette. "I would suggest we avoid 'gambling' here, if possible."

Naomi put her ear to each door that they came in front of, moving quietly to avoid drawing attention from the wrong room.

Just then, a skinny man with a bloated nose stumbled across their path. He blinked heavily as he watched Naomi move in front of the doors.

"Eh? Watcha... doin?" he asked in a slurred voice.

"Hm?" she quietly muttered as her attention was diverted towards the drunk patron noticing them. Normally this would break her composure, as this could quickly lead to a brawl or drama, but she kept her cool; she was used to dealing with people like this. "Searching for a friend of ours." she said calmly before digging around in her pocket, her ear still put up against the door to listen for activity. From her pocket, she pulled out a handful of Kan and held it out for the patron to take. "Think you can lend a hand?"

The man stared at the money in his hand, took a moment to blink, and hicupped. Slowly he raised one of the coins to his face, studied it, and bit down on it with his teeth.

"Say, this here ain't no... forg-ad horse tooth." he grinned. "Watcha... be handin' these out fer?" Takashi recognized Naomi's unspoken plan, and jumped in by adding:

"Because we know you're a helpful individual. You would help out a friend, wouldn't you?" he asked slowly, hoping the man would catch his words. He nodded with some effort, and Takashi continued, "We are looking for a man who comes here a lot, I'm sure you know him. He's a big man, bald, with a ponytail." The drunkard blinked, thought for a moment, and then nodded.

"Last I saw... he was, hic, over thar." he threw out his arm, pointing at the room in the corner. But he seemed to hesitate, "Although, hic, partner... I don't know... why you would want to have business with him." He dragged his hand across his nose with a loud sniff, and looked at the glittering kan in his hand once more before shoving it down the front of his jacket. He chuckled. "Good luck, hic, you might... need it." Then he stumbled off again.

"Good luck getting him to talk you mean..." Naomi muttered with a slightly frustrated tone, having moved to the third and supposedly last door as the drunkard left their sight. She finally heard what she was looking for; feminine laughter, from two people it seemed, along with cooing sounds coming from a thicker, masculine accent, which was in turn followed by a series of coughs from the same person. "I'd recognize that cough anywhere; we found him." Naomi said, looking at Takashi with a nod and smile. "Just play it cool like you usually do, and whatever happens, don't interrupt him when he's talking. He despises that." she went on before stepping back from the door, her hand on the handle and ready to open it when Takashi was ready.

He nodded, already storing the bits of information gathered about the man for future reference. He was careful, on the other hand, to keep himself from forming any assumptions about the informant until they actually met. This should be interesting. Kohaku commented. I just hope we can learn something of value. He responded, still a bit skeptical.

With that, Naomi slid the door open, and sure enough, their target was sitting in the room, with his two female compatriots. He was at the end of a fairly larger table, compared to the ones out in the main building, playing what appeared to be a standard game of dice with another, more nervous looking patron. Based on the latter's expression, as well as the larger man's, the game was clearly not going in his favor.

"Hm?" he uttered loudly as he looked over at Naomi and Takashi both with a raised eyebrow. "Shiro? You're back? The hell are you doing in this part of town again?" he asked through a huffy voice, the females and the other patron looking at the pair of Shinigami too. "I thought you said we'd seen the last of you when you finally got in with the big 13?"

"Turns out business for 'The big 13' seems to take me places I wouldn't normally want to go to." Naomi replied, crossing her arms and staring the man straight in the eyes. "What, you don't want to talk to lil' ole' Shiro anymore, Junpei-kun?"

"I certainly wasn't expecting you, that much is for sure." Junpei replied, his expression relaxing as he turned his attention back to his game, though his tone and words were still directed at Naomi and Takashi. "So, how have you been doing? I see you picked up a boyfriend on the way over." he continued, glancing at Takashi and smirking. "She giving you a lot of trouble, I'll bet?"

This, of course, caused Naomi's cheeks to turn a light red and her expression to become very annoyed as her eyes turned away from Takashi.

Takashi lifted his gaze to the ceiling, "You can't imagine." he said.

The man chuckled, as did his two female "friends" as he resumed his game. "So, what do you need there, Shiro? I'm always available to help, for the right price of course."

Naomi rolled her eyes before sticking her hands in her pockets, hoping she had enough money left over to satisfy the man's bargains. "We're investigating a rather... unique murder case. My partner here, can explain it for you better." she went on as she beckoned for Takashi to elaborate, causing Junpei to turn his attention towards him.

"Naturally, the case is rather clandestine," he said with a pointed look towards the nervous-looking man who sat at the other side of the table. He licked his lips as he looked between Junpei and Takashi. "Although I would hate to interrupt your game, of course." Takashi quickly added.

"Tis fine, tis fine." Junpei chuckled, glancing devilishly at his opponent, who merely shivered in his seat. "It's hardly an interruption at all. My friend over here could consider it a bathroom break, if he were wise..."

For his part, the man hurriedly gathered up his meager amount of playing chips on the table and stowed them away, moving in hasty jerks. But his face showed obvious relief, and as he passed Takashi on the way out, he gave him a weak smile. Takashi slid the door shut behind him, doubting that the man would return any time soon.

"Have a seat," Junpei said, sweeping his hand towards the now unoccupied side of the table. Naomi and Takashi quickly found comfortable positions on the floor. Junpei was still staring at Takashi, who cleared his throat before he began.

“Just yesterday, we received a report regarding two murders that occurred in one of the farming districts. What is unusual about these instances is that the victims possessed very low reiryoku, and so-far no traceable reiatsu has been found at the location of their deaths. This of course seems to suggest that the murders were not in fact perpetrated by a Hollow.” Takashi paused, glancing at Naomi from the corner of his eye. Already he felt as though he was saying too much, he did not know if this man Junpei could even be trusted. All he had to go on was the fact that Naomi seemed to know him, although this did little to quiet his concerns, and in fact may have contributed to them.

“We have heard a few rumors describing a faint, looming presence and apparently strange ‘shadowy’ movements in the area, but that is currently the extent of our information.” he said. “We were… hoping that you could provide us with more of a lead, to be honest.”

There was a brief lull in the conversation, and Takashi took it as an opportunity to more closely observe their surroundings. The room was small, with the table taking up the vast majority of the floor-space. As there were no windows a low-hanging oil lamp served to illuminate the room, casting a soft yellow glow on their faces. The walls were minimalist in design, although there were a few obligatory decorations such as a badly penned, stained kakemono here and there to interrupt the monotony. The most visually interesting feature was the ceiling, as it was carved with intricate, dark wood latticework. A shamisen leaned against one corner, and Takashi assumed that it belonged to one of the two women.

The rather drab atmosphere contrasted with Junpei and his two companions. The large man took the center of attention, practically filling his side of the room, which made more obvious by the vivid, gold-lined jade-green jacket he wore. His thick fingers were heavy with a plethora of gaudy, wide rings set with bulky gemstones. This detail did not escape Takashi's attention, as it suggested someone who was concerned with either the accumulation or the display of wealth, which could serve as a useful bit of information later on.

"Oh?" Junpei mused briefly before motioning his two female companions to leave the room, and then turning his attention back to Naomi and Takashi. "Things like that happen around the Rukongai all the time there, kid." he began, his expression somewhat perplexed. "What exactly happened that caused this particular sort of 'movement'?"

"That's just it: normally in these sorts of situations we would expect a Hollow to be behind the attacks. But as I said, that doesn't seem to be the case. Obviously we are dealing with something far more insidious.” Junpei said nothing, so Takashi continued. “As for the movements of the shadows in the area, they were described as being 'thicker' than usual. Darker. Moving in an autonomous manner; is what we’ve heard. There was also mention of strange, blue lights that hovered above the fields." Takashi paused before he said, "Of course, nothing can be determined for certain until we can carry out a proper investigation."

"Does this have anything to do with that farmer couple that was found dead a few days ago?" Junpei inquired.

"Yes, those are the same deaths that were brought to our attention." Takashi said. "You don't mean to say that there have been others?" he asked, suddenly growing tense.

"I'm sure there have been." Junpei continued, getting up from his seat and calmly walking towards a small cabinet that was near the back of the room. He opened the door and poured himself a small shot glass of reddish alcohol, before drinking it slowly. He seemed to think for a moment before continuing: "People have been noticing strange shifts in the weather around that area too, as well as others from what I can tell."

"What does the weather have to do with anything?" Naomi asked with a raised eyebrow.

Junpei scratched the side of his face. "There's been an unusual amount of rain in that area for this season. It's put a lot of folks in a tough bind, with the harvest and all. Some have put it as 'uncanny,' you know, some sort of atmospheric disturbance."

Takashi frowned. Why would an increase in rainfall have anything to do with the murders? He thought back to the years spent in the Rukongai, and remembered the season of late harvest, with the stacks of gleaming, dried crops. Of course. People would be staying out later than usual, working hard at putting up the grain. The unknown attacker most likely took advantage of that, striking when the victims had been distracted or weary, hounded by the threat of rain.

"So whatever you two are looking for, it probably had some kind of control over the weather, or something along those lines." Junpei went on, pouring himself another glass. "There's been more than just those two murders happen as well. Some folk around here have noticed their family members getting extremely ill with things like stomach flu, bad headaches and the like."

"It's like a disease," Takashi murmured, "something that's affecting the entire district."

"Something like that." Junpei brought the bottle back over to the table and sat down. He stared at the liquid in his glass, studying it as he swirled it around. "The place seems to have a certain... attraction to it." he said. This, of course, instantly grabbed the attention of both Naomi and Takashi.

"What do you mean? What sort of an attraction?” Naomi questioned.

“It’s the dry riverbed that runs through the center of the district. Lately, many people have said that they feel drawn to the place, mostly because they say you can hear the lullabies of your childhood there.” Junpei cast his gaze side-to-side before he leaned forward and said: “But, if you ask me, it’s the Nageki On'na.”

“The wailing woman? But isn’t that just a legend?” Takashi said.

“Granted. But you know, most rumors have at least some grain of truth to them.” Junpei said with a heavy wave of his hand. “In this case, the Nageki On’na has been blamed for the curse on the land: the heavy rains.”

“Wait, what’s the Nageki On’na?” Naomi asked.

Junpei stared at them. “Don’t you know the story?” They shook their heads, and Junpei placed the glass on the table before folding his arms across his chest. He closed his eyes, then opened one to a narrow slit and peered at them. “It’s a rather gruesome tale. They said it took place nearly a century ago.”

“What happened?” they asked, wishing he would expound. There was a long moment of silence as Junpei seemed to gather the threads of his thoughts together, preparing to weave the storyteller’s cloth. The light in the lamp flickered, shadows dancing across the walls as he began.

"It is said that there was once a beautiful woman who lived in that land. She fell in love with a young noble, who at first would not love her seeing as she was common. But love conquers all, does it not?” he asked with a wry smile. Junpei cleared his throat as he went on. “Eventually the man fell for her. Their night visits soon led to the conception of a child, and another. But for one reason or another, the man eventually grew tired of her, and cast her aside. Devastated from being separated from the one she loved, she threatened to drown the first son unless he would have her back. He refused, not realizing how compounded her insanity was. She drowned the boy, and the other child, one night in the river when the moon was full. Even after her terrible, drastic act, the man refused her. Hysterical, she too drowned herself in the river. But her soul was unable to pass-on, and she became part of the land, part of the river. That river is dry now, but it is said that on nights when the moon is full the Wailing Woman will emerge once again, screaming out the name of her lover while she searches for the remains of her dead children. She is dressed in white, the color of death, with long, wild black hair that hands over dead eyes." ending his story, he added, "Of course, all of that is really just a myth. But it is somewhat coincidental that their bodies were found in that very same river bed."

"But has anyone seen her?” Naomi asked. Junpei’s shrug was his only answer. “What about the floating lights? What exactly did they see?"

Junpei shrugged again. "Who knows. Hallucinations? Those folks out there can be a bit," he waved his finger around his head, "It could have been a trick of the moonlight. Or a lure, if you believe the story."

Takashi had remained silent for some time, deep in thought. Nageki On’na? He was skeptical, for many reasons. Death in the Soul Society meant passing on. There was no way a soul could linger in a world of souls. But the legend must have started somewhere. Kohaku, who had been perched quietly on his shoulder the entire time, pointed out.

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” he asked Junpei.

Junpei shook his head with his eyes closed. "Nope, sorry. That's pretty much all I have for ya." When his eyes cracked open, a somewhat devilish smile creeped onto his face. "Now... regarding any sort of repayment for all this information..."

"Oh jeez, I knew this would come up." Naomi sighed, crossing her arms in annoyance.

"It would be best to give him what he wants; there's already been enough conflict for today." Takashi said in a low voice to Naomi.

"Trust me, his demands are just plain stupid." Naomi pouted, before exhaling. "Alright Junpei, what do you want? We have some Kan on us if that's it, but don't expect me to empty my pockets out for some sketchy tips..."

This caused Junpei to laugh, scratching his nose as a tint of red began to appear on his cheeks. "Well Shiro, I remember some of the... services you were instructed to provide before you went off to be a military girl-scout. Maybe I could see some of those skills for myself in the back...?"

Naomi's hair began to rise and her eyes widened, her entire face turning blood red. In a bright flash, her foot imbedded itself into Junpei's face, sinking deep inside of his head in an outright comical fashion. The force of the strike sent him flying backwards, straight into the wall containing the various drinks and bottles, where he remained with a star-struck expression. Alchohol of various colors spread throughout the wooden floor.

Takashi shot to his feet. "Damn it Shirogane, not again!" he exlaimed.

Naomi crossed her arms, her bangs covering her eyes before she turned to walk out of the room. "C'mon... let's get out of here." she said lowly to Takashi. He stopped, suddenly aware of her intense discomfort. But just then, at the worst possible moment the door was thrown open. It was the two consorts from before. They stared at the scene before them and one of them shrieked. Takashi did not need a second urging as they barged past the two women.

"Violence isn't always the answer," he lectured her as they made a quick exit of the room. "Sometimes it is better to restrain your anger, to wait until the proper moment..."

"There they are!" someone shouted from across the room. It was the bouncer from earlier, and he was pointing in their direction. "50 kan for the first man to pin those two to the floor!" the bouncer roared. In the same instant they were jumped by those surrounding them, the promise of a reward lending strength to their attacker's arms. They began to fight them back viciously.

"Shirogane-san," Takashi continued, raising his voice so he could be heard above the noise. "You must understand that tranquility of mind is often a warrior's greatest..." he was interrupted as he fought off a man who grabbed him by the neck, slugging him hard in the nose before continuing. "Strength. Emotions often serve to only..." he grabbed another two men by the collar and threw them into the ground. "Hinder your ability to..." he kicked someone, he didn't know who, in the stomach. "Think clearly." he finished.

At that same time, three more men came for Naomi, who still appeared to be somewhat upset with what Junpei had requested of her. "Hey Takashi..." she muttered lowly, before her gaze, angry and threatening, snapped up at the charging trio. She thrust both of her hands forward, her palms emitting light blue spheres of energy out at them, a duel Shō spell. The sound generated from this spell could be compared to a deep pulse, one that sent the three goons flying across the building interior, straight into another group of angry patrons as well. "Shut the hell up."

"What was that?" Takashi called as he utilized a series of quick jabs to leave an opponent lying incapacitated on the floor. The frenzied assault seemed to have sparked chaos in the entire gambling parlor. They quickly realized what was happening as tables were overturned and people began to fight each other over the money that had spilled on the floor. At last they managed to cut an opening through the mass of bodies and made their way towards the door. The bouncer scowled deeply as he barreled towards them, his hands formed two claws as he reached out to grab them.

"I.... said..." Naomi started to scowl, before she twisted back around towards the oncoming bouncer. Both of her palms reached out again, before unleashing another duel Shō spell upon the bouncer at point blank range as done before, this time the invisible force of energy slamming into both of his biceps, cracking the wooden floor underneath him before sending him flying outside where he had come from once more. Naomi didn't finish her sentence immediately after doing this, instead remaining where she was for several seconds, before turning around and smiling at Takashi.

She held both her middle and index finger up towards him. "....wasn't that fun?!" she cheered before looking around at the various incapacitated patrons and guards. "Wow, they didn't stand a chance! And look! They're still going at it. I might just leave them the rest of my Kan just for giggles." she chuckled with a devious grin. Takashi was taken aback by her drastic change in demeanor, but there was no time to wonder about that now.

"I suggest we get the hell out of here... now." he said as he eyed a group of rough looking men approaching them with spiked clubs. Of course Naomi would want to stay to meet the incoming challenge, but Takashi had had enough. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of the Bakuto parlor. Once they reached the street they set off at a fast pace, long, swift strides carrying them far away from the gambling hall.

"Whew!!" Naomi squealed, her form unnaturally floating in the air around Takashi, her demeanor bright and cheerful and her cheeks colored pink. "I haven't had that much fun in... holy shit, forever! Ever since I joined the Gotei 13 I hadn't gotten to see any real action outside of the training grounds. You and I make a badass team!!"

"Oh?" Takashi asked. "Don't get out much, do you?" he remarked rather pointedly. But the corner of his mouth was curled in a wry grin. For once he was smiling.

"Well no duh." Naomi replied, sticking her tongue out at him jokingly. "That's the thing that sucks about not having a Captain to run the Division; all of the busy work gets left up to me and I don't get to do much like you and the others do." she smiled more pleasantly as she glanced back at the path ahead. "I finally got a chance to get out of there and, well, do something useful with myself, and I'm having an awesome time so far."

Takashi seemed not to hear her, his serious expression returning as he checked the position of the sun.

"There's still a half hour left before we need to regroup." he said. "And I'm not so sure how reliable the information we gathered is." he looked at Naomi from the corner of his eye. "Especially considering the source." he added. "Perhaps it would be best if we found a second informant."

Naomi's expression lowered, glancing over at him with a cocked eyebrow. "Junpei's a sick old pervert, but his information is solid most of the time. And considering how much detail he went into when talking to you, I'd say that even a dimwit like him knows that something is up."

"Still, it is better to err on the side of caution." he said evenly.

"If you want to waste more time." Naomi quipped, huffing and turning her expression back to the path ahead of them. "But I'd say Glacies is waiting for you right about now, well, us I should say."

Takashi sighed. "He isn't going to be happy, you know."

"Since when is that guy ever happy?" she responded with a low giggle. "You really need to loosen up, Sakuma-kun. We have half an hour left, let's enjoy a little peaceful and quiet walk before we have to deal with his crap."

Takashi cleared his throat. "And how exactly do you plan on doing that when we're in the middle of a city?" he asked.

"Oh c'mon!" she said cheerfully, her hands both taking hold of his own and looking up at him with slightly brightened eyes. "We could walk around and see some of the crazy things people around these parts are capable of. I know a lot of performers around here who have some pretty sick magic tricks that even you would enjoy, and they don't charge a dime either."

Takashi quickly extricated his hand form hers and frowned. "Shirogane-san, we are here on assignment," he said gravely. "This is not a holiday, and should not be treated as such. We need to focus on the mission at hand."

Quickly, Naomi wrapped her arms around Takashi's own before practically pulling him off of the ground and towards a fairly sized crowd gathered around one of the street performers she had mentioned earlier. "Come on you miserable oaf, we got an entire half hour left before we get back to that stuff!" she finished as they both disappeared within the crowd.

5,000 Kan

Two hours, Tyler thought as he walked past crowds of people either passing around, shouting, or simply standing. Earlier he thought this mission would be something very special; instead, he and the guy beside him just had to walk past these heavy crowds that may as well steal the money instantly while he is not looking. For a second there, he and Fourth Seat Sasada stopped on their tracks as little children ran directly before them. The smile upon his face was about to fade, it it came back; those kids reminded Tyler of his childhood around Rukongai, that is, before his so-called grandfather died due to the evil creatures that he is supposed to be hunting right now.

"What are we going to buy once we're at the shops, Sasada-san?" Tyler finally opened his mouth to his fellow Shinigami, although with a faint smile he knew Masaharu wouldn't talk much, since he's part of the Sixth Division and all. He had never met Masaharu before, or heard of him through various types of the new Seireitei Monthly. Among the allies they've walked through for the past few minutes, they interacted with to each other with pure silence; that is, without the crowds all shouting around.

Through the kindness he had asked Sasada, and with nothing Sasada replied Tyler. It was truly unusual; being a tasked soldier in a rather important mission, Sasada displayed an unusual expression. With his gaze fixed upon his surroundings, he was amazed by the Rukongai. Tyler didn't notice up until now that the Shinigami besides him was simply there to walk with him, nothing more. It is as if Sasada was nothing but a mere shell; nothing is inside of him. Perhaps the sights of the Rukongai would be very interesting to him, who knows? Tyler just left him all alone; after all, his captain told him a hundred times, if not a thousand, that he or the rest of his Division members should never judge those simply by appearance. Tyler figured Sasada would have a past of which reminds him of something, causing him to be like this. Of course, Tyler knew the feeling; the one who he loved the most was killed around here, after all. It was obvious.

Tyler and Sasada merely walked through the thick crowds; Tyler couldn't remember of how long they have been walking, but so far, nothing but weird and unwanted shops were there, shops that sell nothing they were supposed to buy. Tyler's legs began to feel sore. It's been so long ever since Tyler had done something very energetic with his work. But a mission is a mission; if his captain chose him, that means he saw something within Tyler. That is simply why Tyler regained his strength through such instance. He must make a good impression for the Fifth Division, after all.

At one point Tyler stopped on his feet as his head was tilted slightly into a more open area; free of crowds, yet the markets around there sell rather important and valuable items. For one instant, he figured that the poor people of Rukongai would never be able to buy such valuable goods, which is why they left these markets wide open. Tyler couldn't stop feeling bad, but it's not the time to do so; he hurried to one of the markets, quite far from the crowd, ensuring their safety if anything or anyone tries to catch Tyler and Sasada off-guard through the heavy crowds. Sasada followed with his blind gaze still around, looking for anything surrounding them.

Instantly, Tyler snatched the purse of money that Sasada was holding, "I'll be taking this, Sasada-san, if you don't mind. You can relax and enjoy yourself now. Just don't forget to keep your guards on. Lieutenant Takashi wouldn't like if we got injured."

Tyler opened the purse to see golden coins reflected upon the lights of the day; of course, the clerks surrounding the markets were also interested in them. All these times, they were ignoring both Shinigami. Now Tyler has their attention. Through such instance they began shouting, calling, for the Shinigami to buy their goods; the crowds looked at the clerks, who began surrounding the Shinigami, shouting costs and explaining the materials of their goods. This may be bad, Tyler said to himself. His mind began to think negative things; what if one of them snatched the purse from him? What if one of them stole his Zanpakutō away? What if one of them was one of the enemies they are facing and instantly killed him and Sasada? Calm yourself, Tyler. You're a Shinigami. Make your Grandaddy proud.

"One at the time, please!" Tyler yelled with all of his strength. In a moment, the crowds surrounding them calmed down, and stayed away from them. Tyler was surprised; he didn't think that a single yell would terrify them so bad. At least the crowd calmed down and they can continue their mission. That's some progress, yes?

Tyler's smile widened again. He glanced at Sasada, who looked at him with the gaze of a man as if a father is proud of his son. And with that, his happy heart carried on to one of the shops, the clerk already stationed all of her goods; she was a rather old yet refined lady, one of many that Tyler didn't see surrounding him earlier. Maybe she was very old to walk and decided to stay, who knows? One by one, Tyler looked at the goods that she served; buckets of soups, vegetables, and other food seemingly worth enjoying at a nice place, not at a mission like this. Tyler began asking for the costs, of which the lady replied.

Lieutenant Takashi said something about bartering wisely, didn't he? Tyler asked himself. Why would I even ask this? Almost everyone says that now. Even Captain Ryūren. Tyler glanced at the other goods, the clerks being very anxious to be visited. After some time, Tyler thought that soups or some vegetables wouldn't suit their needs as food for travelling; they were rather...risky. What if the soup fell and made a huge mess? He decided it was the time to check on the other counters. Before leaving, however, Tyler would show a sign of thankfulness and respect towards the old woman, who was seemingly angry due to the fact that he did not buy any of her goods.

He moved onto the next counter; with a single glance, he was surprised. Not just the fact that the clothes of this shop was rather pricey, but to the fact that Sasada was checking on other counters as well. Through such instance his blue eyes were set wide open, he smiled. Perhaps Sasada was serious about this task, after all. With that, his foot began to go straying away from the clothing counter of which he instantly deemed the clerk to be greedy; who would sell such normal clothes with normal materials with such price? Of course none would go there.

The next counter had some meat of various animals. Indecisive, Tyler decided to check upon the golden coins reflected inside of the purse he was carrying. The clerk was interested, of course. He had grey hair and was in fit condition, perhaps a hunter, that would explain the meat he was selling. And of course, such kind of meal would never come in low price; the clerk had told Tyler stories and stories of his hunting progress. what he used, or whatever he said earlier on. Tyler wasn't actually paying attention; he was there simply to buy the meat, after all. Through such instance, Tyler ended the clerk's story by simply dropping a certain amount of coins onto his table and snatched some of the meat into a bag he also grabbed earlier.

Nuts and mochi, huh? Tyler said to himself after seeing rolled buns of what appears to be colorful bread, though they are indeed rice cakes, placed along with amount of nuts neatly and equally contained within several plastics. A small snack would be good, they were for travelling purposes as well. The clerk's eyes reflected upon seeing that Tyler was interested in his goods. He was glad. After all, he hadn't got any customers for hours, days even. Stating the price, Tyler grabbed a certain amount of golden coins from his purse and counted them as he held them within the grasp of his left hand, his right index finger was pointing one by one at the coins. After a minute or so, he dropped some amount of the coins, quite the amount distancing from the amount he had given earlier to buy some of the meat. The clerk instantly reacted to give him eight packs of nuts along with a bag filled with a certain amount of mochi.

Tyler the moved onto multiple other counters with some amount of coins still left within the purse; he was obviously pacing forth and back to find which shop sells the cheapest, yet of good quality. Shops like these are not easy to find, and if there are any here, there would be people streaming the districts over here. That's what Tyler thought, at least. For the last, he encountered some normal farmer clothing, four is the required number. Tyler wouldn't think of Lieutenant Fidus wearing one of the clothes; he figured the Lieutenant would simply act as a guard dog to them, but what's the harm of buying one more? Once the transaction is over, Tyler calculated the golden coins left: all he bought were worth the total of two-thousand-five-hundred Kan. Half of the budget he and Sasada was given. That's enough, I guess, Tyler said to himself. And with that, he tightened his grip upon the goods and pulled Sasada by his hand, with the latter being surprised. Finally, he calculated the time they had wasted on this...apparently more than two hours, if he had counted all the numbers he had wasted correctly. They were late!

"Sasada-san!" Tyler yelled at his fellow Shinigami, who ran alongside him. He wouldn't know if Sasada answered or not, or even if he acknowledged the fact that he is talking or not, but he said it anyway. "I think we wasted more than two hours, so let's hurry to the tea shop, alright?" As he finished the sentence, Tyler initiated a shunpo, leaping up higher than any building there, followed with Sasada, and continued to leap between building rooftops.

Emerald Lotus

The Emerald Lotus was located on the corner of two intersecting streets, one a wide cobblestone thoroughfare and the other a busy dirt side street. As a result it was hedged by an elevated wooden boardwalk to keep the dust and mud at bay. The building was not a large one, consisting of two stories. The lower level was of course the place of business while the upper floor, Takashi assumed, serviced as a residence for the shop owner and family. After a moment’s deliberation he and Naomi decided to enter, as opposed to waiting outside for the others. They had arrived early, mostly because Takashi had insisted that they be there on time. In reality he too had been disappointed over leaving the display of Nankin Tamasudare before it had ended, as the performer had indeed been a skilled one. But what must be done must be done.

The two of them stepped inside and were immediately greeted with the sweet, grassy scent of tealeaves. Takashi breathed in deeply and instantly felt himself relax. The place had an unusual layout, with beams and alcoves seemingly scattered here and there at random, with small tables tucked away where there was space. There were wide windows at each of the alcoves, but the ceiling was low and dark, creating an interesting, soft contrast and lending the place a rather comfortable atmosphere. Apparently the shop owner was also an avid horticulturalist, as potted plants filled the windowsills and hung from the ceiling, feeding off the steam that came from many small, well-used tetsubin. But the only way in which the shop bore resemblance to a ceremonial chashitsu was the tatami mats that covered the floor. It was actually quite similar in design and function to a chálou, and the place was filled with people who had come to socialize, drink tea, and eat dim sum. It actually took some difficulty for Naomi and Takashi to find a table large enough for five in the crowded establishment, and they were obliged to choose a back corner. But there was still a view of the street from the window, and from where he sat Takashi could see the front door. So they waited for the others to arrive, pouring themselves cups of tea from the tetsubin that had been brought to their table. Feeling peckish, and with the aroma of ginger and garlic mixing with the scent of tea, Takashi also ordered several small plates of dim sum, noting appreciatively that the price was cheap, but not too cheap. From the quality of the tea and the taste of the food, there was no need to wonder why the place was so popular.

"Well, what did I tell ya?" Naomi said as she smiled towards Takashi, sipping her tea afterwords. "Some of these street performers around here can do things that give even us Shinigami headaches, and that's saying a lot considering the things we have to put up with."

Takashi simply glanced at her as his mouth was full of food, and he shrugged. Kohaku too was distracted by the food in front of her. Let me try some, she asked. He found her a piece of pork dumpling and held it up so she could sample.

"Here, help yourself," he said to Naomi as he waved his hand towards the tempting dishes of delicately prepared dumplings, steam rising from their gossamer wrappings. Distracted, he did not notice the presence of a powerful individual appear near the teahouse.

The exchange of curious glances between nearby patrons drew attention to a rather bizarre addition in their eyes. Quietly sauntering forward to the table of Takashi and Naomi was Glacies, having appeared seemingly from out of nowhere just as before. Having thoughtfully seated himself on the floor at a distance from the duo so as to not draw too much attention to himself, he bobbed his head to highlight the addition of a necklace with a small, transparent blue cube underneath his Lieutenant badge. With his own business dealt with, it was time to question his partners.

"Aw, aren't you just so sweet?" Naomi giggled before slowly sliding the plate back to him. "But no thanks, Romeo; Junpei back there kinda ruined my app-" she went on before she found herself cut off when her attention diverted to an eerie presence next to them. When she turned, she groaned slightly, for the presence was Glacies Fidus himself.

"I presume you have done everything as instructed?" he asked, even though his question was not intended for Naomi, whom he sharply glared upon the entire time. Although clearly displeased with her presence as he hoped she would realize, Glacies would not outwardly express his frustrations—at least not within the confines of the restaurant.

"Lieutenant Fidus," Takashi addressed with a slight incline of his head, "We did manage to find one rather interesting individual who was able to provide us with some information regarding the district." he said. "Although, I for one am not certain of its credibility, as it consisted mainly of a rumor surrounding the place."

"Is that so? Ryūdō and Sasada will need to hear of this as well. Where have they run off to?"

"They went to one of the markets in order to purchase supplies for the mission," Takashi looked out the window with a frown, "It was clear that we were supposed to meet here after an hour, so as to where they are now I can't say."

"Perhaps I should have anticipated this," Glacies spoke in a gruff tone, clearly indicating his impatience. "I have no intention of loitering around here for longer than I had planned. so... I will simply lay in wait outside if my presence is no longer required."

"Come now Fidus-san," Takashi interjected, "You should at least try the dim sum; it's well past noon afterall." He was firmly of the impression that food was essential for clear thinking, and also hoped that Glacies would be in a better mood once something was in his stomach.

Upon carefully eying his surroundings once more, Glacies slowly seated himself without another word. "Perhaps this is a tempting opportunity to indulge myself by questioning the meaning of Shirogane's presence. Why are the two of you really here?"

Takashi refrained from grabbing another piece of food to occupy his mouth as Kohaku chuckled, a soft, rolling series of clicks. He looked between Naomi and Glacies and cleared his throat.

"Well," he began.

"I was already in the district, tying up a few loose ends and happened to catch Takashi wandering around." Naomi said plainly, taking another swig of her tea and crossing one of her legs over the other. "He wasn't exactly sure where to look for information, so I gave him a few nudges in the right direction." she continued, finishing her last sentence by giving Takashi a brief wink.

"She insisted on accompanying us on the mission," Takashi responded with a pointed look in her direction. "It was apparent she had already obtained a significant amount of information about the assignment beforehand. There was not much further damage left to be done." Although stern, his tone had a touch of resignation to it.

With a quiet grunt and deep exhalation, Glacies prepared himself for a controlled rant. "Brilliant; fantastic; phenomenal. What could possibly be detrimental about a few more recruits? Indeed, perhaps I should have requested the aid of Captain Honoria. Even better, why did the Captain Commander not choose to lend his own powers to our cause? And truly, if he were to get involved, why not mobilize the entirety of the Gotei 13 for the purpose of hunting a man who may, if I heard right, very well be little more than a fabrication?"

"Good question." Naomi chuckled.

Glacies slowly narrowed his eyes at Naomi, clearly struggling to contain his anger at this point. "Shirogane Naomi, is this little more than a joke to you?"

"Hm? What you said just a minute ago sounded like some form of humor, at least to me." she regained a little of her composure. "But in all seriousness, no, it's not a joke, but I don't see the harm in having an extra pair of hands along for the ride. You never know if you may need them." she smirked slightly. "Plus, I helped get us this far, right? Our... contact had some pretty enlightening things to say regarding this mystery."

"And were I not forced to tend to other matters, I surely would have made similar progress with my own efforts. No harm in an extra pair of hands, you say? I say, with your disobedience, you have done little more than endanger your own life. I did not assemble this task force purely according to my own preferences, and I certainly would not have ever considered you essential for our assignment."

"And I may not be essential." she responded calmly. "But again, it doesn't hurt to have more help. Plus, you never know; I haven't gotten a chance to show anybody what I'm capable of accomplishing outside of the 8th Division barracks. I just might surprise you."

Takashi nearly choked on his tea at that, but remained silent aside from a muffled cough.

"Unthinkable; I already know what it is like to babysit a grown woman in a child's mindset. I will have no part in that. Sakuma, I expect you to take full responsibility for Shirogane's actions."

Takashi stiffened at that. While he shared Glacies' concerns, he also realized it was a hopeless case. Naomi was stubborn and persistent, but so was Glacies. He just hoped the two obstinate individuals could reach an impasse before things got out of hand.

"Excuse me for disagreeing, Fidus-san," he said, "But I hope you have not forgotten that she is also a Lieutenant of the Gotei 13. The consequences of whatever action she decides to take will fall completely on her shoulders." he said. Then, turning to Naomi he added, "Shirogane-san, you must remember that Lieutenant Fidus is the commanding officer for this mission. His orders are to be followed, and are not to be brushed aside lightly."

"Yeah, I gotcha." Naomi replied with another wink. Takashi chose to ignore her.

Following a period of silence, Glacies spoke, "Then so be it; but it is as I said, and I will not burden myself by coddling an officer I had never even summoned. Her protection is entirely your responsibility." Takashi groaned inwardly. He already had a wayward subordinate to worry about, and his troubles seemed to be steadily increasing. As expected, Glacies had been unable to persuade Naomi to leave, and the last hope within him died: it seemed she was now a permanent part of the task force.

As the conversation had progressed, Takashi had continued to glance out the window periodically. He had caught no sign of either Ryūdō or Sasada, and was starting to get anxious.

"Perhaps they are lost?" he questioned aloud.

Glacies rose from his seat and spoke with a hint of sarcasm, "In which case, I suggest we depart in search of them right away... if the both of you are finished indulging, that is. This was a one-time exception for splitting up—from this point forward, we act as a single unit."

Takashi stood up quickly, and the tension in his movements betrayed his thinly veiled concern.

"We should leave at once," he said. Kohaku was rather annoyed as she had not finished tasting from each of the plates, and was sore to leave. I'm sure they'll be fine. She soothed. I'm worried about Sasada, little one, Takashi replied, And besides, this food is too rich for you anyway. He left a generous tip on the table nonetheless and they made their way towards the door. Naomi quickly followed suit.

Once they stepped outside, they began to search for the spiritual pressure of their comrades, trying to determine their location in the crowded city.

"They were headed south when we split up," Takashi said, concentrating his attention in that direction.

Glacies sniffed the air in search of any familiar traces of Reiatsu. "It may prove difficult to locate any particular Soul with so many others running amok." With a slight twitch of his eyes, Glacies led on to a familiar Reiatsu at a controlled speed, expecting the other two to follow him. They set off at an even, quick place, weaving through the streets as they made their way south.

Can you pick out their Reiatsu yet? Takashi asked Kohaku as they jogged. Yes, Glacies is on the right track. She said. The area they were in soon began to grow thin of both crowds and people, slowly transitioning to a cleaner, wealthier section of town. Takashi frowned.

"Our budget is limited," he growled, "Why did they come to the markets here?" The group found themselves in a wide, open courtyard that was paved with large, rectangular slabs of gray stone. The square was surrounded on all sides with two-storied, brightly painted storefronts. As if that alone wasn't enough to accentuate the affluence of the place, there was a small, circular fountain in the center of the plaza that sparkled and gurgled in the sunlight. Only a few people milled about, a change from the tight-packed streets of the rest of the 12th District. This particular marketplace was called Nikkō, and it was known for its rather ordinary goods sold at largely inflated prices.

Glacies grew noticeably more frantic as his progress locating Tyler and Sasada seemingly reached a halt. "How awk," he spoke as he slowly turned to face Takashi and Naomi. "I was aware of their presence only a little while ago; but now they seem to have vanished."

"What?" Takashi frowned. "That can't be possible." he muttered under his breath, furrowing his brow even deeper with worry.

"My thoughts exactly. Perhaps I need not say this, but we haven't all the time to be searching for them."

"Maybe one of the vendors saw them." Takashi suggested.

Glacies groaned. "Such a boon this has become... Very well, but I have no intention of interacting with these plebeians myself, as you surely know why."

"At this point that should be the least of your concerns." Takashi replied rather sharply, at the same moment heading towards the nearest store.

"Do not mistake caution for negligence—if my senses have been rendered inadequate at such a convenient moment, I say that we may very well have become a target ourselves at this very moment. I will not be deceived by the games of whomever may be observing us, and I intend to do my part as the overseer of our task force."

Takashi seemed to not have heard him as he approached a gray-haired man who stood behind a butcher's counter.

"Excuse me sir," he said. "Have you seen two Shinigami, both young men, that could have passed by here a while ago?"

The man thought for a moment, his hands continuously working with a large knife, and nodded.

"As a matter of fact," he started, "A couple o' them came buy and bought some jerky off me. They headed off in that direction last I saw," he pointed with the knife.

"Thank you," Takashi said with a very brief bow. "He said they went this way." he told Glacies as he headed towards the west side of the plaza.

As the Lieutenants wandered from store to store, searching for the two subordinates, a sinister presence appeared at the edge of Nikkō. Two powerfully built, rough-looking men and one woman stood in the shadows of an alleyway and closely observed the movements of the group from a distance. The woman extended a bony finger in their direction.

"See my brothers... the seed of evil." her voice was hoarse, scraping just at the surface of her throat. The two men continued to stare in their direction, although they seemed to become visibly disturbed at her words. One of them grunted, a guttural, animal sound, and then they collectively emerged from the shadows, shuffling towards the group slowly, steadily.

Mysterious Attack

As the trio continued to inquire of the location of Tyler and Sasada, Glacies remained at a distance behind Takashi and Naomi, intent on standing guard. The repetitious digging into the earth with his claws displayed his suspicion and worry. "I don't like the look of this," he muttered under his breath, too quietly for the others to hear. A novel "stench" of ill intent only served to irritate him further in his attempts to rationalize a cause for such bizarre occurrences. He dared not express himself to his partners, for quite possibly he had somehow even lost his mind.

The group reached a corner of the plaza that was filled with vendors and their hand-carts, hawking their wares from the small, portable booths. Light, brightly colored silk tarps served to diffuse the sunlight, and it cast deep, soft shadows over the area. Absorbed in his task of searching for Ryūdō and Sasada, Takashi did not sense the mysterious presence that had appeared behind them, but he noticed as Kohaku suddenly bristled, aware of something beyond the reaches of his senses. We're being followed. She told him. Takashi looked around him, but saw nothing. He noted that Glacies had fallen some distance behind.

"Is everything alright?" he asked.

Naomi's movement stopped, her feet slightly digging into the ground and her eyes sharpening. Slowly, she turned around to look behind Glacies, and then back down at him, but her words were directed at both him and Takashi. "Do you guys feel that?" she said, referencing the eerie disturbance that had suddenly swept over them.

Takashi started to respond, but he stopped suddenly, his eyes widening as a towering figure appeared behind Glacies. The man had emerged from one of the narrow alleys formed by the stands, the tarps and corpulent merchandise of the carts blocking him from view until the last moment. He was incredibly tall, with bulging muscles visible beneath the cheaply spun, threadbare kimono he wore. The dirt that streaked his face only served to highlight his wide, white eyes and gnashing teeth as he swung a sharpened sickle down with immense force towards the canine Lieutenant.

"Watch out!" Takashi shouted, fearing the warning would be too late.

"What are you tattling on about now?" In his bout of paranoia, Glacies had remained ignorant of the man's presence until the sound of sudden movement caught his attention. With haste, he rolled away from the man's direction, yet the abruptness of the encounter left him unable to consider a more active response. "What is the meaning of this?" he growled. Without shifting his focus on the man, he called out to his companions. "There may be others. Stay on guard!"

Instinct demanded that Naomi reach for her blade. This assailant was much larger and clearly stronger than the goons that she and Takashi had dispatched earlier that day, but more so than that, she could feel a malevolent aura about him, as if something much darker and more sinister was controlling his actions. Her first thought was to whip out her Zanpakutō and lunge at the attacker, which she nearly did, but she stopped when Takashi's words echoed in her mind.

"Tranquility of mind is often a warrior's greatest strength..."

With that, she calmed her stance, but kept her hand wrapped around the handle of her weapon, and quickly looked around for other potential assailants. Sure enough, another individual who was of equal size and stature as the one who swung at Glacies crept out of the darkness from the alleyway to her right. He held what appeared to be a large, thick piece of wood over his head and swung it down to strike upon her. Unsheathing her Zanpakutō as quickly as her reflexes would allow, her blade blocked the strike. Her arm flinched from the man's strength, but she didn't falter. With her left hand, she fired another Sho spell directly into the man's gut, but he didn't go as far back as she had hoped; it only forced him to stumble away for a few feet.

"This isn't right." she commented to Takashi, gripping her sword with both hands. "These aren't just ordinary thugs..."

The man Naomi had hit stumbled back against one of the carts, and it teetered back, causing several large pieces of pottery to shatter on the ground. He used the resistance to stop his backwards motion and propelled himself forwards, chopping at Naomi's shoulder in silent rage. The second attacker was identical to the man who had struck at Glacies, with the exception of a long, jagged scar that ran in a gash across his temple. He too had thick, un-kept dark brown hair, and wore the plain, ragged clothes of a farmer.

Her attention snapped back to her attacker, his clumsy, yet powerful, strike all too easy for her to avoid, but a thought occurred to her. There was no way that these attackers were ordinary thugs; that much was certain to her and (hopefully) her two comrades. Instead of taking them out of the game, Naomi decided that it would be better to at least detain one of them, and find out what they know, if anything.

Her hand reached out towards the oncoming strike, her palm containing a small blue sphere of energy, and when the piece of wood connected, the orb released a burst of pure force, repelling the plywood board out of the man's hand. The Seki spell's strength was enough to force the man's body to twist around to where his back was facing Naomi, who then quickly dug the side of her foot into the man's knee, forcing him to drop to the ground. Her finger then dug into his back, and before he knew it, the attacker's arms twisted and turned, and uncontrollably locked behind his back. As an extra measure, her foot slammed into the back of his head and dug his face into the ground. With him out of commission, the only one left was Glacies' attacker...

"Just a silver of my power should suffice in crippling your body," muttered Glacies to his attacker. "But one way or another, you will answer my questions even if I must wait for your cries of agony to subside." With little change in his posture, Glacies clenched the paw of his left front leg as a quiet, swirling blizzard took from underneath. With an explosive leap that punctured the ground on which he stood and left a cloud of dust in its wake, Glacies swiftly closed the distance from his opponent with his paw extended. His intention was not to swing at his opponent directly, for the moment he zipped past his enemy, his ice-imbued paw narrowly missing his throat, a vigorous blizzard from behind, directed by Glacies' seemingly meaningless gesture, advanced to engulf the man in a frosty torrent. The innumerable, tiny shards of ice woven into the blizzard would serve Glacies to efficiently disable his enemy by carefully directing their assault, assuming the blizzard connected at all.

The shards of ice slammed into the man's body, collecting and building into a solid mass until he was frozen behind a solid wall. The skirmish ground to a halt as both foes had been incapacitated. The actions of the two Shinigami had left the narrow street they were in in utter chaos, with smashed carts on the one hand and a blanket of ice covering others.

"Don't you think that was a bit excessive?" Takashi said as he walked over to the man Naomi had pinned to the ground. He knelt down and placed his hand on the man's forehead, turning his head so that he could look him in the eyes. The man was breathing heavily, and there was an unhealthy sweat across his skin. He did not seem to see Takashi, as his pupils were rolled back into his head.

"Who are you?" he asked, "And why did you attack us?"

The man's tongue lolled in and out of his mouth until finally he spoke. "It... it is... spreading, my brother." he mumbled, and Takashi was confused by the delirious statement.

"Exactly how hard did you hit him?" he asked, presumably directing the question at Naomi.

At that moment, there was an inexplicable and sudden spike in spiritual pressure as the man's body jerked, seeming to spasm uncontrollably. He began to scream, a drawn-out and other-wordly scream, and twisted violently, somehow managing to break free of the Sai spell. Takashi was pushed back by the sudden burst of spiritual pressure, and he fell back. Scrambling to his feet his hand fell to his sword, but he did not yet draw it. In the same instant, the ice shield that incased the other man cracked suddenly, and with a horrendous screech, like glass sliding against glass, the cage burst and shattered outwards, releasing its captive. His Reiatsu had also risen dramatically, and he turned his full attention towards Glacies, growling and working up foam in the corners of his mouth.

Naomi in turn was also taken aback from the sudden release of energy from her captive. She was flung backwards several feet, but regained her footing as she quickly returned to Takashi's side, her sword held up defensively. "Not hard enough apparently..." she muttered lowly. The man lurched to his feet stiffly, and seemed to size them up for a moment, as if undecided on what to do.

"Don't use your sword," Takashi said to Naomi, "Even though he is clearly attempting to harm us, he does not seem to be in control of his actions."

"It... grows near, looming like the nightshade..." the man continued to ramble as he suddenly charged towards them. His action was mirrored by his twin, who rushed towards Glacies at the same time, swinging his sickle wildly with violent strength.

Glacies' eye twitched at the sight of his opponent shrugging off his attack. While not entirely discouraging, this man would clearly require a carefully calculated amount of effort to subdue without killing; but was it even possible? His eyes briefly shifted to Takashi and Naomi, who had both clearly encountered some form of otherworldly resistance themselves. But alas, he had little time to consider a more meaningful approach than to fend off his own attacker, who was already lunging at him with intimidating might. Upon smoothly evading the man's assault thanks to his small frame and canine agility, Glacies aimed his lengthy tail below the man's feet, intent on disrupting his balance and providing an opportune moment to subdue him once again. The man did indeed trip over Glacies' tail, but he caught himself and whirled around, his heavy, mud-caked sandal kicking out towards his ribs.

With a quick huff, Glacies braced himself to take the attack head on and slightly tilted his tail to set up his next move. The moment the man's leg collided with his chest, Glacies bit the man with just enough force to hold him in place. In the same moment, his tail once again impacted the man's other leg, effectively tripping him and binding him in a hold. If imprisoning him were not an option, then some amount of force would be necessary to ensure his capture. And so, demonstrating impressive strength, Glacies wasted no time pivoting his body whilst still gripping the man's leg in an attempt to break it at the joint. In response, the man gave no resistance, turning his body so that he followed the motion of the pivot. At the same time he grabbed a handful of the fur at Glacies' neck, and twisting the skin so as to not lose his hold, brought his sickle cutting towards the dog's throat.

"Dark circles... reaping..." he said in a monotonous, distant voice.

"How troublesome," thought Glacies the moment his opponent caught a hold of his neck. Similar to his first action, Glacies had laced his claws with the power of a raging blizzard prior to his previous move; in pivoting, he had drawn an arc of the chilled energy which would serve to both defend himself from his opponent's weapon while setting up another means to subdue him. Just before his opponent's weapon impacted his neck, a massive ice pillar of about 90 degrees erupted from the ground at Glacies' right, emerging from the trail left behind by his claws. Both of his opponent's arms, which had passed the range of the newly generated tower of ice, were completely frozen in place before Glacies could sustain serious injury, allowing him time to fall back to a distance. Alas, such liberal use of his soul element would undoubtedly inflict massive damage to his spiritual body, and Glacies was already beginning to feel it. "Revealing my Bibliotheca now could present a disadvantage later, and it would be difficult not to kill this man were I to unleash my Zanpakutō, so... I must end this swiftly." The man thrashed and writhed, trying to break free of the ice that bound his arms, but to no avail. With a mighty roar, Glacies telekinetically loosed a chunk of ice from the center of the pillar, just above the man's head. Hopefully without causing too much damage, the ice heavily impacted the man, knocking him unconscious, and the remaining ice structure dissolved into a passing blizzard.

In the meantime, while Glacies had been dealing with his attacker, the other man lunged at Naomi and Takashi. The latter gauged the distance and, with a sudden leap took to the air, somersaulting over the man's shoulders before he landed in a crouch behind him. The man, in a trance-like state, continued to rush forward blindly, and at that moment Takashi struck. With a single step of Shunpo he dashed forwards, extending his palm so that the heel of his hand contacted the man in between the shoulders, sending him crashing into another cart.

"Bakudō number four," Takashi said as yellow energy began to gather around his hands, "Hainawa." The Kido snaked out and enveloped the man as he tried to get up, immobilizing him. Unexpectedly, the man began to scream once more, clearly in agony. What the hell? Takashi was distracted by the man's antics, and did not notice as another figure emerged from the tangle of handcarts behind him. Without warning a thin, tensile hemp rope slipped around his neck, and he was jerked back viciously. The cord was pulled tight and the tip of a knife was pressed into the skin at his throat.

"Nobody move!" the raspy voice of a woman said. It was she, the third member of the group that had followed them, who had wielded the rope. "And as for you, hands in the air so I can see them." she whispered to Takashi before giggling madly. Surprised by her level of strength, he did as he was told, all while keeping a sharp eye out for an opportunity to break free from her hold. Kohaku had taken to the sky at the start of the fight, as space was cramped to begin with and she had wanted to get out of Takashi's way. Now her thoughts shot into his mind, laced with clear threads of worry. But she too kept her distance, eyeing the woman from above the canopies of the handcarts warily.

"Ren, Tsuguo." she called out, apparently the names of the two men. They responded to her voice, one tearing through the Hainawa that bound him while the other's unconscious form began to move, slowly rising to its feet once more even though the man was clearly dead to the world around him.

"Sister Anzu," the conscious brother, the one with the scar, murmured.

"Come Ren," she said, "It is time to uproot this evil... to end the dream of the precipice." her head snapped around to stare at Glacies, with wide, wild eyes looking at him as if in sudden fear of something far beyond whatever it was she saw in the physical world.

"Stay back!" she screeched, "I said stay back!" As if to emphasize her point a trickle of blood ran down the side of Takashi's neck, and it was clear that she was the tiniest movement away from plunging it into his throat. With two robotic, pain-impervious fighters and an unpredictably insane woman to take into account, the three Soul Reapers found themselves in a difficult and delicate situation, to say the least.

As if the place was not cramped already, two other figures joined in within the fight abruptly, increasing the amount of Reiatsu bathed all across the area. Through sudden and seemingly unnoticed movements, sounds of flashing occurred in the midst of silence as time progresses; the figures emerged, one was behind the woman, and one was behind the other figure. It was such a swift movement, none noticed at time to see... a curved, silvery blade appearing at one instance around the woman's neck, pressing against it. The blade was attached into a staff of which was held by the figure behind her, his hands were ready to pull the blade to cleave the woman.

She gave a horrendous shriek and, heedless of the consequence, jerked the hand that held the knife back. But Takashi had had time to gather his wits and he caught her by the wrist, his own hand moving lightning fast as he intercepted the blade before it could bite into his throat. With the other hand he held back the cord that was eager to strangle him, and in one smooth motion he swung the woman around to the side, moving back so as to create space between her neck and Tyler's blade. Using her own momentum against her he rolled his shoulder forward and managed to throw her over him, the force of the maneuver causing her to let go of the rope. Her own weight caused her to flip upside down and she hurtled into a stand selling paper lanterns, which fortunately broke her fall. Takashi gasped in air and rubbed his neck, watching as she stirred and removed herself from the wreckage.

"No... no... the hyacinth withers my brothers." she whimpered. The two men once again reacted to her words, the unconscious one that held the sickle, Ren, moving towards Naomi while the other man, Tsuguo, picked up one of the bamboo poles that had fallen from the lantern cart.

"It is here..." she moaned in an uncanny tone. "It is here..." she began to blubber indecipherably.

At that moment the woman fell to her knees and screamed, pointing the knife she still held under her chin, her knuckles turning white as she gripped it with both hands.

"Stop her!" Takashi shouted with some difficulty before he began to cough, obviously still trying to catch his breath.

Upon disabling his own opponent, Glacies had quietly stood in rest while awaiting an opportunity to entirely control the situation. With his own stamina restored, the time to act once again had come. On cue, he swiftly tackled the woman, holding her in place at the arms and preventing her suicide.

She screamed and struggled against him, and the two men came to her aid, rushing forwards to attack Glacies. Ren brought the sickle towards his head once more while Tsuguo swung the bamboo pole, both weapons about to painfully intercept his body.

Before their attacks could reach the canine Shinigami, two rope-like streams of fire shot out from a distance behind the attackers. The energy whips wrapped around the two targets with ruthless strength, binding both of them separately and forcing them to drop onto the ground. The Hōrin spell wouldn't be enough to restrain the two possessed farmers, but it gave Naomi, the caster, a chance to take the heat off of Glacies.

She appeared between the two immobilized farmers, pointing both of her fingers down at them. Around each of the attackers appeared three widened beams of light that served to only further keep the two attackers from doing anything else. "Try and break out of that, assholes!" she snarled in frustration.

Driven into a sudden rage as her two companions were captured, the woman that had been pinned to the ground by Glacies suddenly lurched to the side with a surprising display of strength, managing to slip out of the Lieutenant's grasp and crawl away. She half stumbled, half ran to the side of the nearest captive, and in a frenzy began to tear futilely at the tight ropes of light that bound him.

By that time Takashi had regained his breath, and he followed her in an instant, grabbing her by the wrists and pulling her arms behind her back before she could do any damage to Naomi's spell. Using the rope that had once served as her own weapon, he swiftly and skillfully bound her hands behind her back, using one of the knots common to the Onmitsukidō to ensure she would not escape again. She fought him back viciously, swinging her head around and trying to bite him as a last resort. He took hold of the back of her neck in response and held her in place as firmly as he could as she continued to resist.

"Is there any way to put an end to this madness?" Takashi asked Glacies.

"If a lingering presence is the cause of their corruption," Glacies replied, "it may be possible to sever that link by transporting them into my Bibliotheca, if only temporarily."

"That seems a bit drastic," Takashi said. But as the woman finally succeeded in sinking her teeth into his hand he added quickly, "But we don't seem to have another choice."

The Appraisal

One by one, Glacies seized friend and foe alike, consuming them in a flash of light. Once only he remained, Glacies himself vanished with a flick of his gargantuan tail, which illuminated at the tip with an unusual energy.

Glacies had transported himself and the others into a world truly apart from reality in its design. A seemingly bottomless black mansion towered within the depths of an endless body of water. The ocean itself would have been entirely empty otherwise were it not were the presence of filled book pages scattered somewhat densely about, floating and ascending to the surface, beyond what any eye could see from so far below, without any damage sustained from the water. Even the "visitors" of this world would find themselves in a similar state, able to breathe and speak even in the hold of this supernatural liquid. Upon reaching this world and arriving kilometers away from the mansion just like the others, Glacies simply kept his eyes sharply focused on the seemingly possessed party, awaiting a favorable outcome to their presence in this isolated world.

"If there were any other way in my power to free these people," Glacies muttered, addressing both Takashi and Naomi, "I would certainly never have done this. Do not touch anything and stay where I can see you."

The suddenness of the transportation startled Takashi. He had not expected such a powerful medium could be used in an instant, yet Glacies had easily taken them all to this realm of his. He looked around and took stock of their watery surroundings. The place reminded him a little of the Dangai, at least in the way its weighty atmosphere felt.

"I think I'm gonna be sick..." Naomi said in a comically distressed tone, holding her stomach with both arms. She clearly hadn't taken the transportation as well as Takashi.

As for the three captives, the two men drifted in limbo while the woman had at least stopped thrashing about, although Takashi still held on to her firmly. Eyes wide, she began to screech at them again, spitting at Glacies and cursing.

"How long is this going to take?" he asked, obviously somewhat perturbed that the woman had not been as complacent as the other two.

"Any spiritual connection held to whomever subjugated this group should have been addressed the instant I transported them here, so... perhaps some period of wait is necessary." Even having said this, Glacies did not entirely deny the possibility that this act had been for naught, given the previous oddities that had occurred regarding the use of his abilities during the assignment.

Takashi seemed crestfallen at that, especially as the woman, apparently now acclimated to her new location, began to struggle vehemently once more. His patience taxed to the limit, he delivered a swift blow to the pressure point in her neck, and her body went limp. But before he could even begin to relax she began to speak, apparently still conscious.

"A bane... A curse..." she muttered. "Fall to oblivion... flee the black dog..."

"Whatever is controlling her must be incredibly strong." he noted through gritted teeth.

"But no matter how strong the influence, it surely cannot sustain itself here if I do not allow it," Glacies growled, becoming impatient himself. "Fie, if this does not work, a less... simplistic approach will be necessary."

All at once the woman's body went rigid and she screamed, louder and longer than she had before. It was a piercing, haunting sound, shattering the silence of the dimension. If Takashi had his hands free he would have covered his ears. But as suddenly as she had began, she stopped, and her head lulled forward.

There was a long moment of silence before she asked: "Where... where am I?" Her voice, while still somewhat hoarse, seemed softer. Normal even. Taking a chance, Takashi released his hold on her neck and held her up so that she leaned against his shoulder, able to see around her as they drifted through empty space.

"It would seem that the worst has come to pass," Glacies spoke in a lighter tone before swimming closer to the others, no longer wary of his own safety. "Fret not, we have no intention of harming any of you, but I must ask how much you can recall from yesterday up to this point."

"You're... you're a talking dog?" she asked weakly. "Is this a dream?"

"As of now, you swim within a world of my creation. I brought the lot of here to free you from your possession—yes, for a period of time I have not yet ascertained, your actions have not been your own. It is my mission as a Shinigami to hunt down this assailant and liberate your district from his influence."

"I... don't understand..." she began.

"It may be best if you took this in a bit more slowly," Takashi cut in, with a pointed look in Glacies' direction. "What is your name?" he asked gently.

"It's Anzu." the woman said.

"What is the last thing you remember before now, Anzu-san?" She thought for a moment, the lines on her face wrinkling into a frown.

"I was... washing the laundry," she began, "In the river."

Chills ran down Takashi's spine at that. The river... Junpei had mentioned it as well.

"Then what happened?" he coaxed. She shook her head, her expression confused. But her eyes lit up suddenly when she saw the two men who floated some distance away.

"Ren! Tsuguo!" she cried. "What did you do to them?"

"Well, we... were forced to restrain them, at least until we could ensure our own safety," Glacies nervously spoke while glaring at Naomi, hoping she would read his silent plea to release them.

"Safety?" Anzu frowned. "Is that why my hands are tied too?"

"Yes, unfortunately." Takashi said as he worked to untie the knots. "You and those other two attacked us in Nikkō District." Her eyebrows jumped.

"That's so far away!" she exclaimed. Rubbing her wrists she added, "But why on earth would we attack you?" Then, seeming to grasp something, she pushed Takashi away and growled: "If we attacked you at all."

Glacies tilted backwards slightly to reveal a large bruise on his chest, hidden under his ruffled fur. "As you may be able to tell, this was sustained quite recently; and I assure you, I do not bruise easily. The lot of you were under the command of a profound force which also augmented your power."

"What do you mean 'power,'" she still seemed suspicious. "I ain't got any." motioning towards the other men she said: "And they just push a plow back an' forth all day." Anzu seemed to have become her normal self, falling into the easy, earthy vernacular of her district. "So even if we wanted to attack ya, we couldn't've." she finished, crossing her arms. Takashi held up his hand, showing where her teeth had broken through the skin.

"This came from your own mouth." he said. "What more proof do you want?" she looked around, drawing her arms even closer to her body. Although she had spoken with casual confidence, her posture suggested that she was intensely uneasy.

"Well, 't would be nice to see this 'Nikkō' place," she began. "And I want to talk to Ren and Tsuguo, once they come-to."

“That sounds like a reasonable request,” Takashi turned to Glacies, “so unless you have a secondary motive for keeping us all here, it may be best to return us to the physical world.” he said. Like Anzu, he too was uneasy in the unearthly, disembodied realm, and wanted to be out of it as soon as possible.

"Just as I was enjoying the sight of trepidation," came Glacies' morbid attempt at humor. And with a single sway of his tail, his captives were all transported back to Soul Society in exactly the same position Glacies had originally siezed them. Glacies, in contrast, calmly sat at a distance from the others, surveying his surroundings. "It would seem that my senses have been restored, at least."

"What do you think was causing the disruption in the first place?" Takashi asked. He went over to the two unconscious men and knelt down, placing a finger to each one's neck to check their pulse. They were steady and normal, but he doubted the men would be sentient anytime soon.

"It was as though I were being smothered by an unidentifiable presence; that was it." Glacies continued to speak as he strolled closer to the others. "While we're on that subject, it is time we put an end to this assignment once and for all, staring with the investigation of the initial incident we received reports of, as I first described."

Anzu, who had been staring around with wide-eyed curiosity, taking in as much of her even newer surroundings as possible, suddenly turned her attention back towards Glacies.

"Eh? What's this 'incident' yer talkin' about there?" she asked. Despite the onset of the gentle wrinkles of middle age that creased her face, her eyes had a playful spark to them that suggested a child-like innocent inquisitiveness. Takashi felt, even considering what had just happened, that Anzu was someone they could trust.

"There were two murders that occurred just a short while ago," Takashi said. "In your own District. I'm sure you've heard of them."

Anzu crossed her arms and gave a short nod. "Hmph, of course I've heard of them." she snapped. "I thought as much anyway." she scrutinized the group in front of her before adding: "So they send a posse of Soul Reapers to investigate, five no less. What's all the fuss about?"

"In truth, even we cannot make sense of what had supposedly occurred," Glacies replied. "Perhaps it is even unnecessary to have so much backup, but caution is above all else as far as I am concerned. If the first assault truly did take place in your home District, then that is our next destination. Knowing this, what do you intend to do now?"

"Goodness ye speak in mouthfuls" she threw her hands in the air. "And what do ya expect me to do? It's my home... I'm goin' back of course. And I'm sure the twins will say the same." she said, motioning towards Ren and Tsuguo.

"Lieutenant Fidus has just warned you of the danger," Takashi pointed out. "Perhaps we should accompany you and your two friends; at least while you travel back to Bankawa."

"Oh?" she asked in a surreptitious tone. "To me it sounds as if you are all the ones who be wantin' some "accompaniment."

"Oh, why not?" Glacies replied in a sarcastic tone. "Perhaps fortune truly does favor us, and the swing of a pickaxe is very much our enemy's greatest bane."

"Actually, Fidus-san, she makes a good point." Takashi said. "Someone who knows the area well, such as yourself, Anzu-san, would greatly assist us in the investigation. At the very least you could guide us to Bankawa. You will be compensated for any inconvenience, of course." Anzu shrugged, and a grin spread across her face.

"I don't mind at all. I'll take ya there all right, and lucky for you I know my way from here to home, so we can take the short-cut." she said. "That'll be a couple hours travel... we can get there by tomorrow morning at a good pace. That is, if that four-legged old wind bag doesn't hold us back," she said, referring to Glacies. Of course Takashi did not point out the fact that they could have reached the 60th District in a few hours using Flash Step. It was for the farmer's own protection that they would travel together. But then, they were also the ones responsible for knocking out Ren and Tsuguo, so it was only fair to help them get back home.

"Fair enough," Glacies replied. "It was not as if I truly objected to the idea regardless."

"Then, if there is nothing else to be done here, I suggest we head out." Takashi said. Looking around him at the destruction they had caused to the vendor's carts he quickly added, "After we pay for a few damages here, that is."

Into Darkness

The rains had not come that night as they had come the night before, and the night before that, for once allowing the land to breathe without drowning it in an endless downfall. The temperature had dropped significantly, frost covering the ground and trees, and a sharp wind came from the west.

With it came a shadow.

He emerged from the depths of night and paused for a moment, staring up at the wide, slightly misshapen moon. The air was cool and bitter, and the cutting wind carried with it the scent of the hinterland. He had wished to remain hidden, biding his time for a few days before making his way into the district, but a certain, biting hunger had driven him from seclusion prematurely. Something, or rather someone, was calling him, drawing him from his hiding place and deep into the night.

It was the call of his master.

He held up his skeletal fingers to the light and found that they were shaking, an indication of his weakness. He needed sustenance. A living soul. Perhaps for that reason he was not as cautious as he normally would have been, following along the riverbed in plain sight. His one desire was to find a concentrated, easily accessible form of energy, one that required minimal effort to consume.

And he knew where he could find that source.

He paused when he came to the edge of the fields and, staring across the valley, caught sight of a few, solitary dim lights shining in the night. The village was there. And from that village he could sense the collected presence of dozens upon dozens of souls. He cupped his hand over his mouth and nose to try and distract himself from the scent, excited by the prospect of a meal.

Crouching low to the ground so his tall frame would be harder to spot in the open field, he began to approach the town.

No one saw as he wound his way through the clusters of buildings, clinging to the shadows of the eaves and alleys. He was breathing heavily at this point, his mouth hanging open as he panted, the sound filling the stillness. He stumbled and fell against the side of a building and had to regain his sense of balance before continuing, following the subtle presence of his prey.

The spiritual pressure was weak, wavering like a dying flame. But it did not matter as long as it was spiritual pressure. He followed the spirit ribbon to a small, run-down structure on the outskirts of town. There were only three people inside the house, and all were old men. One of them, lying furthest away from the door, was trembling incessantly. Each breath rattled in his lungs, and his skin was pale, almost translucent in the dim light. He was clearly lying at death’s door.

He entered the building soundlessly and crept towards the old man until at last he was crouching over him. He felt for a pulse, a faint, fluttering thing under cold skin, and then stretched out on his stomach so that his head was level with the man’s neck. He opened his mouth, and two, pearl-white fangs extended as he sunk his teeth into weak flesh. Blood and Reishi filled his mouth, its consistency was too thin and the taste was almost acrid, but he ignored that fact as he drank deeply.

The old man moaned once as he had felt the bite, but then his life was quickly extinguished without another sound.

But still, whether it had been from that noise, the movement that could have been sensed in the room, or the sudden change in ambient Reiatsu, one of the other men stirred, and lifting his head saw what was happening.

Or rather, he saw glowing yellow eyes staring evenly at him from the shadows in the corner of the room. The eyes of a predator.

“Mon… monster!” he yelled, his voice cracked and hoarse. He reached around to find his crutch, or any object that could be used as a weapon, as he crawled back towards the door. When he had at last found it and turned to face the intruder, it had disappeared. The body of his friend had vanished as well. The silence of the night closed in once more, suddenly stifling and heavy, and the old man broke out in a cold sweat. He shook his remaining companion awake and, in panicked whispers, tried to explain what happened. At first he did not believe him, as the only sign of what had occurred was a tiny pool of blood left on the floor.


The day wore on as the now rather sizeable group of souls made their way through the Rukongai, passing through district after district and steadily growing ever further away from the concentrated city-mass that bordered the Seireitei. Gradually farmland became the dominant land feature, with seemingly endless fields stretching on to the horizon. Most were still full with amber-colored wheat or other grains, the stalks swaying in the wind as they waited patiently for the harvest. The roads were packed and dry, and a trail of dust followed the group. It was hard to believe the weather could change so drastically for only one district, and when they questioned Anzu about it she explained at length all the problems the heavy rainfall had caused for the farmers of Bankawa. Takashi supplied most of the conversation, as Naomi had been mysteriously quiet since leaving Nikko and Glacies seemed to detest the woman’s commonplace vernacular. Masaharu had been occupied with the heavy pack of supplies that had been designated to him, while Takashi and Tyler had carried Ren and Tsuguo on their backs until the two men had regained consciousness. Needless to say, their progress had been slow.

They could have travelled much faster with Shunpo, but there were several reasons why they had chose to walk to their destination. For one, the group was large enough where someone could have easily gotten lost in the high speed movement of Flash Step, they did not want to exhaust the less experienced Shinigami, and, most importantly, they did not want alert everyone in the area to their presence with an obvious disruption of Reiatsu when they arrived. As a result, they did not arrive in Bankawa until it was well-past dark.

The group paused as they crested a ridge of imposing height, and there the district lay, spread out below them like a wide, flat, gray plate. Although it had waned, the moon was still mostly full, and it illuminated the land just enough so that its general features could be seen in the dark. The most notable were the bare fields that stretched in all directions to the edges of the ridges that surrounded the district. They were interrupted here and there by a lone, forested hill, or thick groves of trees that lay in blue shadows. The river cut through the center of the land, starting in the north and snaking through the fields like a thin thread of silver. There were a few houses scattered here and there, but most were concentrated in a small town that was nestled in between the river and the base of a large hill. A few lights shone as best they could, but the whole land had been blanketed in a thin veil of mist, dimming the lights and masking much of the ground from sight.

We should return here tomorrow when its light. Takashi told Kohaku. She stirred from her slumber on his shoulder, glanced at the district before them, and yawned. Good. I have not been able to enjoy a good hunt for some time. Both the Shinigami and his hawk took note of the sharp west wind at the same time. It seemed to course almost unnaturally above the cloud of mist, and Takashi began to feel slightly uneasy.

“We’ll be out of this infernal wind as soon as we hit the valley.” Anzu said, as if reading their thoughts. She swung her arm out and jabbed a finger towards the north. “My house is just over that small hill ya see there,” she said. “It’s about a quarter ri outside of town. Not too long ‘fore we get there.”

Anzu had offered to host the entirety of the task force at her own home. Apparently the house was the third largest in the village, her husband having entrusted her with it after his death nearly twenty years ago. She claimed it had been rather empty for some time, and refused to accept payment for boarding them. But Takashi would make sure she was thoroughly compensated nonetheless, which would be an appropriate use of the left over mission fund, he thought.

Slowly, the party made their way down the slope of the ridge. It was difficult to see one’s footing in the dark as they descended a winding, soft-earth path. Suddenly, Naomi, who was in the front of the group, stopped, forcing those behind to skid into a halt.

“What is that?” She pointed towards a bright cluster of lights that had appeared just then on the fringe of the town.

The whole group stopped to stare, and slowly the silence turned solemn. The lights began to spread across the town until nearly every house blinked and shimmered in the gloom. No doubt Glacies’ sharp dog’s ears could pick out the thousands of sounds of movement and life that filled the night, as the town had suddenly come awake.

“Why is everyone and his mother’s son up at this galling hour?” Anzu asked. She may have been irritated, but more evident was the uncertainty and unease that plagued everyone in the group as well.

But one did not need canine’s superior hearing to catch the sudden, shrill shriek that rang out unexpectedly in the stillness. Everyone froze when they heard it. It was a high-pitched, panic-torn, and raw scream, echoing throughout the valley.

“Was that made by a human?” Tsuguo muttered.

“There must have been another attack.” Takashi asserted. “We need to reach the town as soon as possible.”

He was stating the obvious as already there was a flurry of motion as the group suddenly mobilized, skittering down the remainder of the ridge as they rushed towards the village. At the end of the slope they nearly collided with a thick grove of trees, and beyond that they met with a dense wall of mist. The town appeared from the gray without warning, and soon they found themselves in its center. Despite the late hour, most of the men of the town, as well as a few others, were out in the streets. They did not simply move about, however, as they seemed to be congregated around two specific figures. They were both old men, one was bald, the other leaned on a pair of crutches.

“I saw it! I saw it I say!” the one with the crutches spoke, his voice rising shrilly with emotion. They recognized him as the one who had screamed earlier to wake the entire village.

“You’ve been saying that this whole time, old man.” one of the men in the crowd said. “But what did you see?”

“It was…” his eyes were wide and white, crazed pale orbs in the dim light. “It was the Nageki On’na.”

This caused the crowd to protest angrily.

“All this, for a child’s tale?”

“You’re senile!”

The man glanced around the disbelieving souls and his hysteria began to grow. “I saw it! Her eyes! You can ask my friend. They were there… staring right at you—through you. ”

“Well?” the man who had spoken first roughly asked. “Did you see it?” he asked the bald man, who simply shook his head.

“She was there!” the old man nearly shrieked. “Would I doubt my own eyes?”

The group of men began to talk all at once at that, until someone noticed the black-garbed souls standing behind them.

The silence spread in an instant, and all turned towards them, faces drawn tight to hide any trace of emotion. They regarded the newcomers coldly, their collected hatred nearly palpable.

“What is going on here?” Takashi demanded.

Instead of replying at once, the gruff-voiced man who had been the most outspoken of the group turned to Anzu and asked:

“Why have you brought these war-mongers here, woman?” he spat to one side. “What business do we have with the damned souls of Shinigami?”

“They are here to stop the murders, Daigo.” The men stirred uneasily, glaring at the Soul Reapers with obvious mistrust.

After a moment’s hesitation, Takashi decided to ignore Daigo and instead turned to the old man.

“Tell us exactly what happened, oi-san.” he asked more gently. Daigo sneered.

“I’m not sure which one is more of the fool here— you or him.” he said.

“Hold your tongue, Daigo.” Anzu snapped. “I don’t see you sticking out your neck to find the killer.”

“There is no killer,” Daigo said. “This man is lying to win attention and cheat our sympathy.”

“Then where is Yūto?” the old man screamed, surprising them all. “Where is my friend?”

“Yūto was dying.” Daigo responded callously. “No doubt he wandered off to the woods to give up his ghost in peace.”

The old man shook his head vehemently. “I saw it…” he muttered. “It was there in front of me… a curse, a curse!”

“He’s only been gone for a half hour.” Daigo retorted. “Hardly enough time to…”

“Then we are wasting time here,” Takashi cut in. “Show us where he was taken.” he said in his most commanding tone. Fear crossed the old man’s face as he stared at the Shinigmi, weighing the possibility of trusting the Soul Reapers in his mind before he nodded.

“This way,” he said hoarsely, beckoning them to follow him as he swung off on his crutches at a surprisingly fast pace.”

“Sasada, I want you to accompany Anzu back to her house. She could very likely become a victim again, and will need your protection.” Takashi said. “Stay there until I have given you further orders.” he then took off after the others, following the old man down the street.

He led them to a ramshackle hut on the edge of town, and four of them crowded into the small room, leaving Tyler outside to stand guard.

“Here.” the old man pointed with one of his crutches to a rather sizeable patch of blood on the floor. “When I woke up, all I saw was a pair of yellow eyes— like a monster’s eyes. I grabbed my crutches, but by then both the demon and Yūto had disappeared.”

“Is that all you know?” one of them asked, and the old man nodded sadly. Takashi bent down and took a sample of the blood on his finger. It had already turned cold, but was not as thick as it should have been. He held up his hand so Kohaku could more closely examine the blood with her sharp eyes as well. Traces of foreign Reishi. She told him. But not much. And of its nature I cannot say. Takashi sighed and stood up.

“It may be too late to track the attacker at this point.” he said. “Perhaps it would be best to split up in order to search. I suggest that you and Ryūdō-san take the south-east quadrant. Lieutenant Shirogane and I can handle the north-west.” he said to Glacies. “What are your orders, Fidus-san?”

Glacies quietly groaned. "I suppose we lack a more amiable course of action at present; however, in truth, my body has not fully recovered from the use of my power. It may not be necessary to do battle with our foe assuming our confidentiality has remained somewhat intact, or this is all simply the work of an elaborate illusion by an otherwise worthless craven; but I refuse to act carelessly. I will remain here whilst the lot of you venture off under Sakuma's guidance; treat his advice as though it were my own until I am able to rejoin you."

Takashi's eyes widened slightly. Although he was not exactly familiar with Glacies, it was unusual for any Lieutenant to take such a recourse, and revealed the true extent of his exhaustion. He was about to suggest that Ryūdō should stay with him, for added protection, but thought better of it. It would have wounded Glacies' pride, to be sure. But more importantly, it was more necessary that they find whoever the attacker had been, and soon. For that they needed as many able-bodies as possible to search.

"Very well." he said. "You two, follow me." With that, Takashi emerged once more into the night and began to search for any unusual Reiatsu nearby. "We'll have to split up, but be on your guard. Lieutenant Shirogane, you search to the north, Ryūdō, you take the south, and I will handle the west. Move quickly and silently, and release an excess of Reiatsu if you find anything. At that point we will regroup as quickly as possible. Understood?"

Naomi, having remained in an oddly silent mood for a majority of the time in contrast to her usually happy and jocular nature, simply nodded briefly in compliance. Her face was low, and her gaze avoided making contact with the eyes of those around her, as if she were in deep thought over something else aside from the mission at hand.

Takashi noticed, but only in the back of his mind, until Kohaku shifted her attention towards the other Lieutenant. He had been aware of Naomi’s strange mood ever since they had left Nikkō, but only now realized that, if the mood were to continue, it could jeopardize their mission.

“Shirogane-san,” he asked, still abrupt and direct, “Is something wrong?”

The words didn't register to her initially, as she still seemed to be lost in thought, but after a couple of seconds and a few blinks, she snapped out of her trance to look over at him. She mustered a weak smile as she spoke. "N-No, Sakuma-kun, I'm alright..." she responded in a lighter voice, but still drab compared to her usual self. The fact that she referred to Takashi with an actual honorific this time would only continue to enforce the fact that something was eating away at her.

Takashi frowned, but felt the pressures of the mission begin to pull him away. This was not the time for him to be consoling a comrade, but he could not trust Naomi on her own in her current emotional state.

“Here,” he said as he quickly transferred Kohaku to his wrist. Slipping off his leather shoulder pad, he placed it over her head. “If anything goes wrong, send Kohaku to me.” he told Naomi as the hawk settled on her shoulder. Although it may have seemed an altruistic gesture, Takashi had another purpose in mind. The mind link he shared with Kohaku would allow him to keep track of Naomi, and make sure that she did not take unnecessary actions on her own. In short, he did not yet trust her fully, at least not while on a mission, and was even more wary now that she seemed to be distraught over something. After Kohaku had grasped his intentions, he flashed off into the west to search for the unknown attacker, concentrating deeply in order to find the spirit ribbon whose signature matched that of their only clue: the spot of blood that had been on the floor.

It was quick for Tyler to sit upon the dusty grounds within a blink of an eye. How could it not? He was carrying a grown-up man, a large one at that, on his back for hours, after a battle against them. He would at least have dinner first to regain his energy to do so. Still, he did not complain; this was all the adventure he wanted all those times ago. Maybe he would learn a thing or two from this, though what exactly would he learn by carrying such a heavy person on his back?

His inexperience has led his bones to become very sore, sweats dripping and sliding through multiple areas surrounding his facial features, his heart beating so fast it could literally jump out of its place. It was tiresome indeed, but a little rest was all that Tyler needed to keep on going. Yet, it seems so hard for him to get his body and mind at ease. The orders given to him was to search the Southern areas and districts; for once his mind tried to tell him to ignore such instructions, then again, how tiring could it be by simply walking and turning one's head around?

The officer closed his eyes for ten seconds followed by a sigh before his legs stood up and their muscles popping up. He was ready. His legs set themselves on a running stance, readying himself and gathering energy, while in a mere second, he flashed towards the direction to the South.

Glacies observed Tyler's departure with a keen eye, grunting at his subtle signs of exhaustion. Following this, he slowly narrowed his eyes so as to appear in rest before turning his attention to Naomi, if only to watch her as she stood in front of him. He would not tempt a lengthy debate by asking her to speak her mind, even if not doing so were to diverge the mission slightly; he had paid the price in disrupting the affairs of those he thought of as his allies in his past as a founder of the olden Nefas collective, a mistake he did not wish to repeat in his weary state. Alas, he had spent much of his energy and could only gamble on Takashi's competence.


Takashi glided above the ground, staring down at the mass of trees that flashed by below his feet, hidden in a blanket of mist. He could not trust his eyes, and wished that Kohaku were with him, but he doubted even her sharp hawk’s eyes could pierce through the fog. More importantly was that he did not lose hold of the slender white ribbon of spirit energy that, if followed doggedly, would lead him to its source— the murderer. Or so he hoped. There was no way to know for sure except to find the ribbon’s holder, and Takashi felt that he was rapidly gaining on whoever it may be.

Sure enough, as he paused to readjust his footing in the air, he caught sight of a movement among the shadows at the base of a ridge. Here the dry creek bed he had been tracking alongside curled around the base of the hill and wound off into the distance, and Takashi saw that the south slope was covered in boulders and loose rock. It was a perfect place for an ambush, and he frowned deeply, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. He would land some distance away and approach slowly, from the ground, where the trees would afford him some form of cover.

As soon as he descended, the mist embraced him. Now thicker than ever, the thin cloud served to dilute the weak moonlight even further, and he found he could barely see ten paces in front of him. He stopped and listened, straining to hear in the damp, muted stillness. But there was no sound, only his own, calm breathing. But he did not feel calm. Every nerve stood on edge, and he felt the subtle threat like a knife pressed against his throat. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathed out, and ordered his thoughts, bringing his adrenaline under the control of his own will. How many times had he found himself in situations exactly like this one? He had lost count. What he needed now was focus, and stealth.

Using every skill he had learned while serving in the Stealth Force, Takashi approached the base of the ridge. There was a small clearing here, where thick grass grew among the hulking black masses of boulders that were scattered about, crouching over the meadow like Hollows. Takashi scanned the area from his position hidden in the tangled branches of dead trees. His target was close, without a doubt. He could sense the subtle threads of Reiatsu somewhere among the rocky slope. Without warning there was a sudden, faint pulse of spiritual pressure, and the atmosphere seemed to grow heavier, now dense enough so he could see his breath in a white cloud in front of him.

He drew his Zanpakutō then, sliding the blade out silently and remaining utterly still for a moment as he listened. There was no sound, no hint, no indication that anything was there. So he moved, darting out into the open and ducking behind one of the towering boulders. He pressed his back against the cool stone, and he waited, listening for any movement from his unseen enemy. There was none, so he moved again. His feet slid through the thick wet grass with only a whisper, even in the silence he was barely audible as he approached, growing ever closer to his target until he was near enough to feel their very physical presence. This is it. He thought as his grip tightened on the hilt.

But then he heard a voice, thin and hoarse and rasping over dry brittle bone, although he could not hear what it said. He closed his eyes and concentrated, but could still not make out the words...

When he opened his eyes again, there was a hand resting on the boulder beside him, having crept around the edge of the rock. Long skeletal fingers clawing towards him...

Takashi shot forward, putting distance between him and his foe as he released his Shikai.

“Plunge into flesh, Aka no—” before he could finish he suddenly felt all his power drain from his hands, his Reiatsu forcibly pulled from his blade, and he could not complete the release of his Shikai. What the...

The shadows had grown thick about him, pooling around his feet.

He looked up, and there found that his gaze had locked with two yellow eyes that glowed in the darkness. Eyes like that of a Hollow: hungry and void.

He moved to attack, attempting to fall into a ready stance in order to spring forward, but found that his feet were rooted to the ground. He could not even move his hand. And at that instant, he recognized that he had been paralyzed.

“This power is...”

Without warning the shadows stretched around him, spreading out like a black pool until it had swallowed him completely. He blinked, and found himself floating in darkness.

Do you fear death? the voice whispered, and Takashi felt something cold brush against the side of his face. Still he could not move, although needles ran down the length of his spine. This must be an illusion. He thought. It has to be...

“Takashi,” someone was calling his name. Something behind him, and now he found that he could move. He turned, and his eyes widened.

In the middle of the gray in the clearing, once brief, choking scream ripped through the silence.

Then, once again, all was as still as death.

As she had been ordered, Naomi quietly observed the northern sector of the District. As one might have imagined, judging from her previous attitude, she didn't seem nearly as bubbly or as cheerful as she was when she first made her way into the investigation. A curious shift in character as, even after Junpei had visibly upset her back at the bar with his lewd comments about her previous occupations, she had appeared to be rather fine during her time with Takashi, and moreso when the rest of the group arrived.

Truthfully, Junpei's comments had stuck with her throughout the day. Her past life, prior to joining the Gotei 13, was an embarrassment to her. It time of weakness and helplessness, where she was completely at the mercy of those who were older and stronger... and had the most money. Every day was not so much a fight for survival for her body so much as it was a fight for her mind, and perhaps one of the biggest reasons she had joined the Gotei 13 in the first place was so that she could find a new outlet, some way for her to forget about all the things that had consumed her in the past.

Alas, she was alone now, and could at least have some time to dwell on the subject and perhaps even lay it to rest.



All so silent. Not a sound, not a movement. Not even a hint of one's voice; all was calm, clear, and still. Darkness invaded the village for longer than an hour now, and the mist grew thicker as the dead of night progressed further. The surrounding area had left objects in a shadow-like manner as if everything around was simply an abyssal ruin untouched and undisturbed for years. Nothing was left around other than slight wind breezes coupled with dusts blown from objects.

With all of the calmness and stillness hide a terrible terror; two massive creatures which appear to be very bird-like in appearance hovered high above the dusty and quiet grounds. Their giant wings had left the slight breezes over the night, though it is all going to change. The two emerged from the dead of night, from the abyssal depths where nothing can be found nor heard. Their beaks poked through the heavy mist while the holes on their beaks sniffled upon the cold air. At last the two creatures picked up a scent...the scent of the Shinigami. Within an instance their separate eyes glowed in ominous color of their own; the ominous eyes belonging to a predator.

They have been silent this whole time but not for long. It was time to reveal themselves and show their true colors. They have had enough of waiting, and if the death of the officers they previously kept a close eye upon is what they desired most, then they will make it happen. One of the creatures set its eyes upon the Northern tracks where the female officer had went, and the other one faced the Southern tracks.

Things were still calm and quiet, but not for long. It was their time, they will wait no longer. Their ginormous wings flapped upon the lands. Abrupt waves of sudden air bursts spread all across the grounds, the mists dissolving into fresh air. Within one instant moment all came to stillness once more, but the mists were gone. The creatures revealed themselves.

The dark one, its eyes glowing in dark purple color, hungry of the Shinigami blood, flashed upon one flap of its wings, creating yet another abrupt air waves while heading North. It was indeed the ferocious and the most ruthless of the two. The other, however, calculated things carefully and planned ahead of what its actions would be. Still, the light one waited no more, and within the blink of an eye, raced forward towards the South.

With all the stillness that covered the entirety of the peaceful and calm village before noises of terror; both beasts unleashed otherworldly shrieks that resemble the rattling noises of the branches of the trees in one's nightmare, piercing through the Southern and Northern sectors of the district. It is hard to imagine that whoever they were targeting cannot sense their presence, for they were exerting the full extent of their spiritual pressure, coupled with the fact that their piercing shriek was still resonating throughout the districts.

For at least a few minutes both beasts spotted their separate targets; both cloaked within the typical Shinigami attire consisting of the black and white kimono and hakama. It was then that their memories reacted to how much these so-called peace-keepers attacked them without mercy, but this is their turn to show no mercy.

The dark one stopped far away from the female officer, so did the light one before the male officer. Both spread their wings before unleashing pitch black darkness and blinding pure light.

It was then that the darkness surrounded the female officer before taking the form of two gigantic, mist-like hands that are ready to squish down the female officer flat. The swept through the ground, going unnoticed and without any sound. The digits then protrude monstrous claws before getting closer toward the girl.

Naomi was initially so lost in thought that she almost didn't even register the mass of claw shaped darkness that quickly began to close in on her. "Huh-" she started to say before they were merely feet away from her. Her instincts kicked in without warning, both of her hands shot out and released two large green barriers of Kido energy, the El Escudo spell. The hands clashed against the two walls of energy, pushing against them with tremendous force, the ground underneath the barriers dragging through the earth as they tried to keep their caster safe. Finally, she was unable to hold the barriers any longer, and used a Flash step to leap out of the hands path just as they crushed through the barriers.

She was able to recover back to her feet, drawing her sword and her eyes scanning her surroundings for the source of the attack...

The blackness returned to the entity it came from in one instance, the dark, ominous-looking phoenix. This creature was apparently unhappy of Naomi's actions, unleashing a screeching noise in the process. The creature's eyes glow purple ominously as it reveals its full body out of the darkness, with one particular feature being rather disturbing: it was the hole located in its chest, the loss of a heart and the darkness that it can control.

The creature spread its wings once more, now being more wider and larger than before. The dark feathers had reminiscence to that of a never ending darkness, like the hole located in its chest. With a movement signalling another incoming assault, the creature seemingly "pulled" the shadows surrounding both figures as well as the blackness that surrounded its body, before gathering them in front of its now opened beak. The creature unleashed yet another screeching, and a more disturbing noise, then the darkness shot out like that of a hurricane with seemingly unbeatable speed towards Naomi.

The screeching seemed to immobilize Naomi if only for a handful of seconds, but it'd be just enough for the darkness spewing monster to land a hit. The beam of darkness crashed into the ground next to Naomi, creating a massive upheaval of dirt and debris, mixed with sickening black flames and smoke. The force of the blast was enough to send Naomi reeling backwards, her back slamming into a tree, enough so that saliva flew from her mouth as a result. As she fell to her knees, she gnashed her teeth together in frustration; she wasn't in the mood for this, and she had just wanted to be alone, and then this damn Hollow arrived...

She shot both of her hands up with a snarl, her hair beginning to spike up slowly as blue traces of fire started to gather around her palms. Her feet were digging into the ground with each passing second, and the blue fires were starting to become more and more intense. Finally, her eyes shot wide open, her formerly emerald pupils shining with a bright blue as she shouted "Sōren Sōkatsui!!!!". The fire she had gathered was unleashed upon the draconic Hollow in the form of two great spires of azure-colored light, and the force of the spell's release creating a billowing force of wind that shook the trees around her. The blasts of energy soared through the air, charging at the Hollow with speed equal to his own attack's, and so great was the light they generated that the entirety of the area was tinted a light blue.

Such was the anger of Naomi.

Amazed by such power and energy soaring through and going directly towards the creature, it remained unfazed, even with its surroundings covered within the light of the blue. It stood still within its previous position, gathering all the power it possessed during the short time it was given. The creature's wings expanded and for all the power it gathered began to glow within all the darkness that surrounded the entirety of its wings, before covering itself with its massive wings; it certainly didn't come to die out of a meager attack. Black tint arose from every inch of the creature's body, like an ink covering a sheet of plain white paper, enveloping itself within nothingness as a tower of darkness shoots upward, breaking the formation of the mists and clouds.

The fire certainly hit the creature, and in result, the creature was hurled backwards, some portions of its wings gone and seemed to be ripped apart. It shook its head and mask as its eyes further glow intensely within the flaming colors of deep purple, indicating the fact that its anger finally rose as well. The holes in its wings were filled with the darkness as it recovered its strength. It opened its wings, spreading the entirety of their length, which was enough to crush a meager Shinigami like the one it is opposing against. Blue flames that previously hit the creature sparked about, surrounding its body, but with a single flap of its wings it summoned forth a hurricane, then with all its might, it took to the skies, soaring high above.

Unlike the creature's previous response, it now emits sounds that one can make out as a grown man's laughter, echoing through the clouds, indicating its happiness for the decisive battle he got himself into. As he soared through the winds, the creature left dark purple mist-like darkness that surrounded the female officer. Going silently across the darkness as he wrapped himself and the Shinigami within, the Hollow unleashed yet another laughter.

"El Vidrio."

With those two words spoken, Tyler prepared himself before the dragonic, yet bird-like creature as she began to spread her wings, illuminating the dead of night within the process. He sensed her reiatsu fluctuate for a moment before he felt the energy gather around her form. The intensity of the light surrounding the both gradually increased as the creature unleashed a blinding light towards the Shinigami. It was as if staring directly into the sun; even the light surrounding Tyler began to overwhelm him.

While adjusting his eyes into the sudden shift of the light surrounding him, Tyler noticed a small detail, a detail of which was too late to be noticed; it was a ball of condensed energy, a sphere of light, heading towards him with extreme speed, bursting with power and light that the creature had accumulated all this time. He knew it was too late to avoid it, Tyler was caught within the blast of light that pinned him down into a burst of explosion. Given the chance, Tyler would admit that he wasn't at his best at the current time, but as he reached his way out of the thick smoke caused by the explosion, he heard -- and sensed -- that another thing was coming.


The creature had accumulated yet more energy, enough to fire forth this beam of energy that traversed through the grounds with the speed that Tyler himself has seen on numerous occasions. It was his first time hearing or seeing such a famed technique that nearly all Hollows could do, although at that instance he knew that it wasn't the time to be excited by such a thing; he crawled his way out of the thick smoke that had made its way up high above the mists with shunpo, ignoring the pain he just sustained, and observing the beam of laser-like energy in light color being fired from the creature's beak.

The creature, noticing that her target was high above her, gathered an amount of energy enough to make her wings glow in the same color of her Cero as she ended the technique, only to fire yet another technique. Flapping around her wide wings with all her strength, her beak opened as her voice echoed throughout the battlefield, "Bala." Her voice may be soft and gentle but Tyler had concluded earlier that she wasn't as nice as she may be as numerous spherical balls, smaller in scale than the burst of light he was attacked by earlier, made their way throughout the air.

Tyler used shunpo and his own agility to avoid every single one of them; he was nimble enough to do so, although he was a bit out of shape as of late as his lieutenant asked the members of the Division to go out and eat each night without having enough time to train further.

"Quick on your feet, I see," the creature murmured to the Shinigami as a response as she continued flapping her wings. "I haven't seen anyone dance so furiously for decades," she continued. "This is entertaining."

To be honest, Tyler wasn't thinking of the fact that the creature was actually capable of talking much, but to this point, he has seen the extent of her powers in battle. It was time for him to stop playing. With a serious frown, Tyler used Shunpo to transport himself behind the creature, quickly, swiftly, all so silently. Sure, he wasn't in shape as of late, and the injuries he sustained slowed him down drastically, though he wasn't positioned as a Division's third seat for nothing, especially when this is his first mission and his captain is looking forward to his success.

"That's an awful lot of you. Do you honestly think that this is all a game to you? For all those souls you destroyed...don't expect me to go easy on you." With that, Tyler furiously held out his hand out, his palm facing forward at the unsuspecting creature that tilted her head towards him; it was his turn now, and he gathered his own energy to fire his very own technique, and at that point, he reserved much of his strength enough to formulate an attack strong enough to, according to him, at least incapacitate the dragonic being. "Shakkahō!" The energy surrounding Tyler's palm quickly gained red coloration before forming a spherical orb of some sort, bursting with energy and the anger of the Shinigami. Before the creature could react, or even see what was it that the Shinigami was doing, the blast enveloped her within the energy, sparking and igniting into an explosion.

As the smoke mounted up high above the cleared mists, Tyler felt proud; the anger no longer bothered him one bit, the aching in his mind finally stopped. He could imagine himself returning to his offices with his captain smiling proud at him. Either he was too proud of himself or he was imagining what was actually going to happen. It was finally over,...or at least he thought so.

Out of the ashes, the creature emerged with a substantial amount of light unlike what Tyler had previously experienced. Even without looking directly at it the light itself felt like the sun. Adjusting his eyes to the light, Tyler held up one of his sleeves upon his face to shelter himself from the being, his other hand keeping in touch with his Zanpakutō in case he needed it. The pressure surrounding him builds up heavily as a tower of pure white energy exploded around the creature and towered high above the mists, allowing the entire area to clear up.

"Is this the full extent of a Third-Seated Shinigami?" A voice echoed throughout the area.

Tyler ackdowledged the fact that he wasn't giving his best, but he didn't expect his attacks to become such a useless hit. Tyler remained silent as the constant flow of energy surrounded him, the intensity of the light blinded him, and the heat of the wind can throw him out of balance any second. What is this creature?!

The sudden explosion of reiatsu overwhelmed the area before it all came into an abrupt and drastic stop; therein lies the beauty of the creature Tyler has been facing this whole time. The creature emerged out of the energy of light, appearing to have taken the form of light itself; her body became little more than what would otherwise be nothingness, pure light. "It is quite rude to not introduce myself before I finish you off, Tyler Ryūdō," the creature spoke. "I am a Hollow, the harbinger of blindness, the weapon of light. I am Laitt."

"And here is my Zanpakutō," Tyler retorted back, the blade of his elegantly curved Zanpakutō facing forward, its might exerting all the prowess that was held back by Tyler this entire time. A sinister smirk formed upon Tyler's features, a crooked, oh so evil-like grin that matched his own captain's. Truth be told, Tyler did not actually like his Zanpakutō, it having the powers like that of a raging thunderstorm. Its voice was too disturbing as if it was the rambling of thunder urging the wake of a mighty terror. Yet, Tyler kept himself level-headed and found himself in quite a fine relationship with his Zanpakutō, most of which is due to them both eventually relying on each other in the midst of a this one. Tyler knew that its time would eventually come, to show itself, to introduce itself, and there it is, within the grip of its master, facing against the Hollow and her callous light, brazenly holding out its own and its master's might. Tyler's grin was then followed by the sudden glow of two more ominous lights, which turned out to be his eyes, as his reiatsu overflowed around the two competitors, bathing them in it. It's your time to shine.

This was delirium.

The shadows moved in about him as he travelled through the night, incredibly fast, and he felt the raw power gathering beneath him. He was quickly gaining on his target, and could feel the mass of shadows growing closer. The prospect of so much untapped energy almost calling his name exited him, and he increased his pace.

As the darkness before him grew into a thick mist he extended his hand and began to draw it into himself, calling it towards him with the threads of shadow that were imbued with a low, hypnotic lullaby: the song of a nightmare. The Hollow within the dark blanket was no doubt entranced as well, and like a worm caught in the folds of a subtle earthquake he was absorbed along with the blackness he had served to create. At first the abduction of the energy was gradual, but with a sudden drop in pressure the black mass swirled through the air, channeling into the extending hand and disappearing, without warning, with an abrupt rush of shadows and the immense, scattered energy of what had once been the Hollow Dack.

What was left was silence, the Shinigami, and the two glowing yellow, eyes of a predator. Eyes that demanded to be searched, filled with a dead emptiness that was only emphasized by pools of shadow cast by the dim moonlight. The mist had perhaps cleared somewhat, but served in no way to illuminate the ghost’s appearance. He stared at the Shinigami levelly, as if casually glancing over an obligatory offering that had been made to a malevolent god. He had just absorbed an immeasurable amount of power, and it was impossible to tell whether or not he was still hungering for more.

Naomi's surroundings had been warped from the partially desolate forest against a draconic Hollow into a pitch black abyss, occupied only by a pair of glowing yellow eyes. Needless to say, she was not nearly as offset by this as she was terrified; she hadn't been feeling good prior to this, but such an issue seemed irrelevant in the face of what she was interacting with now. She could hardly work up the nerve to answer him, and instead could only question. "Wh-Where am I?"

Without a word the figure before her stretched out his hand and a long shadow followed its motion, gliding across the ground. As soon as it contacted the Shinigami’s feet it would collect and strengthen there beneath her, serving to root her in place. In the same instant the billowing cloud of darkness stretched around the hunter and prey, encircling them in a black shroud that served to grow tighter and tighter. As soon as she succumbed to the darkness, all that would be left for him was to absorb the Shinigami’s high Reiatsu that was wavering and fluctuating in fear.


“Takashi,” the voice continued. Softly, she spoke to him tenderly. It was the voice of one he knew intimately.

Kohaku? Where are you? But there was no reply in his mind. Only the presence of something he did not want to see that he knew had appeared behind him.

Turning slowly, he forced himself to look. A woman with long, dark hair draped over her shoulders and amber eyes that matched the color of his own stood in the darkness, with the water that stretched endlessly across the plane of his mind lapping at her knees. She held a baby in her arms, but remained utterly still, humming the snatches of a faint, familiar lullaby as she drifted closer, ever so slowly, to where he stood.

It was his mother and infant sister.

“Takashi,” she asked again, “Why did you forget us?”

His voice caught in his throat, and he could not respond.

“Your father is disappointed in you,” she continued, “Why did you forget us?” she repeated, pleading with him. But her voice was lifeless and robotic. The lullaby continued, and she extended her hand towards him as he began to back away.

Takashi” red tears formed in her eyes and began to streak down her face like blood. Black, burning circles appeared on the fingers of her hand, and he watched in horror as she was consumed from the inside out, her own body turning to ash. She screamed as her hand crumbled away, and unable to bear anymore, Takashi turned and fled.

The water was thick, cold, and pulled at his legs as he tried to escape. But as he ran farther the scream that echoed in his ears became louder, until it was coupled with the cry of an innocent child and the whispering rumble of fire. Sounds he had, for countless years, tried to forget. He shut his eyes and pressed forward until, stumbling, he fell into the water at his feet.

The world beneath the surface was even darker than it had been above, and black vines crawled up through the deep, curling around his chest and gently pulling him down into the abyss. The screaming had stopped, instead replaced by overwhelming silence. Here there was no sound, no sight. Only the empty cold and the aching chasm that seemed to have been born from within him. But just before he had forgotten himself entirely, a pinprick of light appeared in the darkness. A silhouette appeared: the form of a child. He wore a smooth, mouthless white mask with pits of eternal night where there should have been eyes and carried in his hand the elegant steel and crimson-red blade of Aka no Tsume. Something stirred within Takashi’s core. Perhaps a weak flash of indignation that the child was holding his Zanpakutō. Then, with shock and growing fear, he recognized the child as himself.

Leveling the blade wordlessly so it was pointed towards his chest, the masked child rushed towards him. Trapped by the vines that had wrapped around his wrists and ankles, Takashi was powerless as his own sword reached to impale him.

For a moment, he stared directly into the eyes of the white mask, and what he saw was a being completely devoid of emotion or thought, driven only by the desire to kill. The recognition settled heavily across his shoulders, but with it he remembered why he could not yet succumb to death: There was still a price for which he had to atone.

With one last urge of strength, Takashi’s right hand snapped free of the vines and he reached out, grabbing a hold of the blade and pushing it down away from his heart. The biting steel cut into his fingers as he tried futilely to stop its momentum, and in the next second he was overwhelmed by a searing pain that shot through his hip. Even as his own blood swirled in the churning world around him, Takashi held the Aka no Tsume firmly, and did not take his eyes off of the masked boy.

“Pain is nothing but an illusion,” the child whispered softly as he twisted the blade deeper into bone. “It is meaningless, let go.”

“No,” Takashi choked in response. “I won’t... let you take me...”

“Then let me end it all for you. These memories are nothing now.” the mask responded.

Takashi gritted his teeth against the pain as he considered the child’s offer.

Let go.


Pain is part of what it means to be alive, Takashi. Without suffering we would forget what it means to feel, to be human...

It was his father’s voice, drifting to him now across a century of memories.

And Takashi remembered.

Gripping the blade even more tightly, he pulled the sword from his hip of his own volition and stripped it from the child’s grasp.

“I will never let go,” he spoke into the darkness which swallowed the mask in front of him, as the blanket of night was suddenly drawn into itself and he was once more pulled through the water towards the surface...

When Takashi finally emerged into consciousness he found he was lying on his side in the clearing, with the thick grass pressing in around him. Still shaken, he assured himself that it had only been a dream, even though he could feel his heart racing in his chest. Pale and still trembling from the pain he had experienced in the folds of the nightmare, he attempted to push himself to his feet... and his leg collapsed under him. It felt like constant, white lightning was streaming through the space where his ligament should have been, and he was nearly overcome by a wave of nausea. He grabbed his hip until the pain had marginally subsided, and when he pulled away his hand he found it was dripping with bright red blood. His sword too, was covered in blood, and he grasped it tightly as he crawled over to the nearest rock and, finally, managed to pull himself to his feet.

He called out to Kohaku, but it was nearly impossible for him to focus his mind in order to establish a connection. He was on his own, and knew he needed to regroup with Glacies sooner rather than later. Most importantly, he felt panic for Naomi and his subordinates begin to wrap around his throat. Whoever or whatever the monster that attacked him was, it was powerful enough to absorb the energy released by a Shikai. And that in and of itself was terrifying. Takashi did not want to think about the other abilities he had witnessed; he wished he could forget that the dream had occurred at all, yet the wound in his hip was an all-too painful reminder of how real the experience had been.

Survival of his teammates was now his priority. He had to reach them before the shadow did. They needed to escape to safety. Their mission could wait.

As he began to re-gather his wits, Takashi realized he was entirely helpless, crippled unless he could find some way to utilize Shunpo with one leg. But perhaps it could be done. Completing the release of his Shikai, he drew upon the power of Aka no Tsume for strength, and despite having his Reiatsu significantly depleted earlier, the blood already on his blade afforded him some energy. His left leg was unable to support weight at all, but leaning against the rock, he was able to draw his Reiatsu beneath his foot and, with some difficulty, managed to take off. The going was slow and painful, and Takashi was forced to travel over ground as he continued to stumble each time he readjusted his footing as he did not want to risk taking a fall from mid-air.

Just before he had reached Glacies at the outskirts of the village, he felt a burst of Reiatsu from the south and the north. Both Ryūdō and Naomi had engaged in battle. Breathing heavily, Takashi paused as he tried to perceive the individual struggles from a distance. Each had been attacked by a Hollow, at least, but that only made him more uneasy as he was unable to sense the shadowy opponent from earlier. Ryūdō’s Reiatsu was strong and resolute, and Takashi was assured that he could hold his own. Naomi, however, seemed to be struggling. Closing his eyes to concentrate, Takashi was at able to reach Kohaku.

What’s going on? he asked, Is she alright?

What about you? Kohaku asked in alarm, immediately concerned after sensing Takashi’s pain.

I can still move, at least. He told her. It hurts.

I’m coming to you. Kohaku replied. Our adversary tried to absorb our Shikai and thus cannot be underestimated.

I know, but I want you to stay above Shirogane-san so I can locate her in the mist. Takashi insisted, I’m going to find Lieutenant Fidus, and then we will come to you.

Kohaku hesitated before she responded, still distressed on his behalf. Understood. Promise me you’ll be careful, Takashi.

I promise, little one.

Shadow’s Birth

As the Shinigami collapsed before her adversary, he gazed upon her with an unblinking, dead expression, although he did not at once move to her side. He felt instinctively that he would not be allowed to absorb the souls of Shinigami, but if he carried her to his summoner perhaps they would be pleased. Yes, he was sure that was what his master would want him to do.

Pondering his situation quietly, he heard the beating of wings and watched as a hawk took flight from a nearby tree, beginning to circle above him in a wide arc. Perhaps he had disturbed its roost for the night. It was clear that his presence was not wanted, and he would thus move on quickly.

He extended his hand and the shadows that enshrouded him stretched out and cradled the Shinigami in the fingers of a formless black hand. Silently, he drew both his captive and himself into the dimension of his shadows, and had nearly disappeared when he heard the tenuous strains of the lullaby he had been following for three nights from somewhere across the river. The promise of at last meeting its creator stirred within him the briefest sensation of longing, as he knew the song belonged to his master. He wanted to cry out to them, but he would not be heard. Instead, gathering the Shinigami in a blanket of darkness behind him, he moved to follow the distant lullaby to its source.

But, before he could take more than five paces, he sensed the presence of the other Shinigami rapidly approaching, and in the next moment they intercepted him, blocking his path out of the clearing. One was the one he had first met and cast into a nightmare, and the other was the white dog.

He narrowed his eyes as he took stock of the newcomers, but did not comment on their arrival.

“Release the hostage immediately,” the wounded Shinigami stated evenly, “otherwise we’ll be forced to take direct action,”

His response to their demands was to weave his hands through the shadows that wrapped around him. It only took a moment, and soon he was surrounded by a storm of ravens composed entirely of darkness. The birds whirled around him wildly, almost masking him from sight due to the dense canvas of their wings, before he pointed his hand in the direction of the Shinigami and sent the entire horde hurtling towards them.

“Is this miserable beagle not allowed a mere moment of rest?” Glacies mumbled as he considered his options and lamented the fact he had gone without his Zanpakutō. He had formerly lost much of his strength as a consequence of his own carelessness, a mistake he did not care to repeat. With a bumbling posture, he leapt high into the air, his tail raised above him with a gentle blizzard resting at its tip. At the apex of his jump, he performed a forward flip, swinging his tail in front of him to generate a furious blizzard approaching the flock of birds. Before all else, he would meet force with force.

The shards of ice carried by the raging winds of the storm cut through the flying shadows, shredding through them and leaving nothing but pieces of black that floated in the air for a brief moment before disintegrating. But the true purpose of the shadow’s attack had been meant as a diversion, and as Glacies was occupied with the blizzard, their opponent had stretched out his hand once more and, this time, a sudden line of shadow had stretched across the ground, crossing the distance between the two sides. As soon as the shadow pooled around the feet of the Shinigami it would serve to root their feet in place before enveloping them in a dark cocoon. At least, that is what Takashi assumed would occur based on what he had experienced earlier. Having remained behind Glacies while the latter had executed his counter, he now watched as the shadows shot towards them. Without knowing the exact nature of the shadows, Takashi knew their best option at the moment would be to halt them before they found out. “Bakudō number thirty-nine,” he said as he placed his palm on the spine of his blade and raised his sword, “Enkōsen!” A spinning, circular shield of spiritual energy formed in front of the blade, and he aimed it towards the ground to block the shadows.

“We need to restrain him!” Takashi called out to Glacies, apparently heedless of whether their enemy heard him or not.

And before he could even land beside Takashi, Glacies acknowledged his words by calling out a single spell. “Bakudō #61, Rikujōkōrō!” With any luck, he would successfully bind the assailant with the rods of light encroaching upon his torso. The spell locked around the target as intended, and for a moment it seemed as though the Shinigami had prevailed.

Taking advantage of the opening, Takashi sprang towards their adversary, using his one good leg to power through a single Flash Step. With a sudden brutality, he brought his Zanpakutō down towards the target’s head, and it was clear from the power behind the strike that he would show no mercy. But with eyes dim with contempt, their foe simply stared at the oncoming blade before a line of black appeared on either side of him, closing him in as he disappeared entirely before the sword could even touch him.

Where is he? Takashi asked Kohaku who was still gliding silently above them.

Look to your left. He has reappeared near Naomi. She answered back.

“There!” Takashi pointed out the direction to Glacies.

But before either Shinigami could react, their adversary lifted his hand and raised the mass of shadows that held Naomi up from the ground. He spread out his fingers before clenching them into a fist, slowly, to make his purpose clear. The shadows around Naomi began to constrict, tightening around her chest and causing her breath to become noticeably difficult and shortened.

“Stop!” Takashi demanded as he took a step forward. In response, the abductor tightened the shadows sharply, causing the unconscious Naomi to gasp in pain. Takashi backed down, and their foe lessened the pressure.

“I think it is clear that he wants us to retreat,” Glacies noted.

"If we retreat now we'll lose Shirogane-san." Takashi said gravely.

At Takeshi's words, Glacies winced noticeably. Whether his own pride goaded him to stay or if he had developed a greater concern for Naomi's well-being, he could not say. He shifted his eyes, gazing sharply into Takashi's before speaking, "Then I am left with no choice but to reveal my true form, but I require your aid; if, truly you wish to fight to the end."

"I am willing," Takashi answered quickly, the strain evident in his voice, "What do you want me to do?"

"All I ask is that you provide for me a distraction whilst I summon my Bibliotheca," Glacies responded, his tone hushed. "In turn, perhaps I then may provide a distraction so that, at the least, we can save Shirogane's life. I will require only a minute without interference, so ensure that I do not need to intervene until then." Glacies narrowed his eyes. "My apologies that I can only do this much."

"Understood," Takashi answered, although he was lost as far as what to do considering the difficulty of the situation. It would demand delicacy, precision, and all of Takashi’s powers of perception. He could not endanger Naomi in any way, and even as he began to form a plan of action, doubt plagued his mind. With his maneuverability severely limited due to the injury in his hip, he would be forced to rely upon Kidou: and his skills in the art were negligible to say the least.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he sheathed his sword as though he was completely surrendering to the terms of his adversary. But then, he widened his stance and raised both palms towards the sky.

“Tongue of the pale dragon, that which pierces the heavens…” Takashi began the incantation, but purposefully cut it off before he had completed it, “Hadō number four: Byakurai.” Imbalanced, the failed spell exploded from his hands as a burst of bright, blue light, as opposed to a concentrated stream of lightning, and Takashi was nearly thrown back by the shock of the blast. But he had purposefully constrained the power of the spell, instead focusing on its properties of illumination. The white light drowned the field around them, serving as a distraction to shield both Glacies’ and Takashi’s movements. “Disintegrate, you black dog of Rondanini! Look upon yourself with horror and claw out your own throat,” Tracing the strokes of an unknown kanji through the air, Takashi completed the spell and a red aura surrounded the figure who had been exposed due to the bright light. “Bakudō number nine, Geki!” he shouted. Completely paralyzed, their opponent nonetheless seemed entirely unconcerned and simply stared evenly at the Shinigami who had casted the Kidō before, without warning, a blanket of shadow shot towards Takashi. But just before he was hit, he saw the shadows that were wrapped around Naomi shift slightly, perhaps weakened by the light of the Byakurai. In the next instant he had redrawn his sword as the attack swallowed him, but was unable to hold it back and nearly screamed in pain as the dense wall of darkness pelted into the wound in his side.

It was up to Glacies now.

With a subtle pace defying the urgency of the situation, Glacies arched his back, bringing his tail pointing to his right before swinging it abruptly to his left. In that same instant, a giant tome exuding a frosted aura faded into existence, hovering just above Glacies and coating him in its shadow.

Bibliotheca Caput Quinque: Ferio,” Glacies whispered to himself, not out of necessity, but suspense. It was, in fact, the first time he would utilize that chapter. The shadow underneath him, formerly mild and rigid, twisted and darkened as even the slightest of shadows were drawn into the mass in the form of threads of darkness, including that which subdued Takashi. What followed was a dome of an impenetrable abyss concealing both Glacies and his Bibliotheca entirely from view. All that seeped through the darkness was a cryptic call.

“Cerberus,” the voice, presumably Glacies’, spoke within the dome, its tone unfamiliarly gritty. A pair of demonic eyes opened from within the abyss before the entity pertaining to them drew forward, revealing the head of a gigantic canine swathed in black. With a dismal cry, the so-called cerberus unleashed a flurry of shadowy whips lashing out from every direction of the persisting dome. But following that was the appearance of a bestial hand erupting from the center underneath the grinning cerberus. As if without any regard for those outside the abyss, the hand diverted to the side to engulf Naomi in a shadowy stream before bending unnaturally in the direction of the assailant whose power Glacies’ had just used to his advantage, seemingly intent on crushing him unto oblivion. The errant whips protruding from the shadowy dome weaved in tandem into the shape of a beam before lashing forward with their combined might. Both attacks would converge on the same spot at nigh the same instant.

But even then, the canine was not yet finished. With his Zanpakutou in maw, Glacies appeared above the assailant on a course to cut him in twine with a single swing. Whilst he was concealed in his own dome, he had discreetly teleported back into his own quarters with the power of Caput Quattuor. His first act upon regaining his greatest weapon was to summon a massive shard of ice approaching from the assailant’s previously unattended flank with a horizontal swipe. With Naomi safely out of his way inside his dome, Glacies would ensure not even a speck of dust remained of the enemy that had evidently drawn his ire. He would avenge both his companions and his shame from having failed them.

For an instant time froze as the attacks converged upon their intended target. Still rooted in place by the Geki, he calmly watched as the black hand and strands of shadows rushed towards him without a hint of emotion in his dull eyes. The darkness that spread across the clearing as the result of Glacies’ imitation of their foe’s own ability was so immense it was as if he had spilled ink across the entirety of the atmosphere. Yet it was in such a godly display of power where a weakness was found. A master of the night, the murderer simply lifted his chin slightly to gaze at the darkness around him… before it curled inward and was drawn into himself with even greater power. All at once there was a release of Reiatsu: slamming into the air around them like a hammer as he simply snapped through the spell that bound him and disappeared into the mass of black just as Glacies hurtled towards him. He emerged a short distance away, rising from the ground as a dense mass of shadows carried him into the sky, preparing to rain down black destruction upon those who dared challenge him.

As he had concentrated on absorbing the shadows around him, however, he did not realize that there was another element, and the frozen blade raced towards him even as he turned, subconsciously aware of the whistling of the ice that carved through the air.

It was, however, unavoidable.

Even as he threw himself to the side to avoid the attack, the ice cut into his side, leaving a gash across his ribs. Thrown to the ground, he clutched at the injury as the shadows around him writhed in agony. Slowly, their adversary got to his feet, the living darkness around him having become subdued. His eyes were wide with unknown emotion, and as he lifted his gaze it fell upon the closest source of his agony: Takashi.

Extending his skeletal hand, the remnants of his shadows spiraled around his arm before they shot towards the lieutenant in a concentrated, piercing stream. Takashi moved to counter the attack, but at that moment inadvertently placed weight on his left foot and promptly fell to the ground.

Upon noticing Takashi’s plight, Glacies once again summoned the power of the Blibliotheca now lying on the ground, this time to instantaneously warp himself at an appropriate angle above Takashi and the approaching shadow. Attempting again to utilize the assailant’s power against him, Glacies captured the stream within a black cage emerging from none other than his own shadow positioned just in front of Takashi. Denying the assailant any chance to exploit the cluster of darkness, Glacies willed his Bibliotheca out of existence, effectively taking with it both the attack and the barrier.

Having used his final reserves of energy, Glacies plummeted helpless to the ground. Yet he remained conscious, only enough to merely pray he had made a difference.

As the barrier in front of him dissipated, Takashi clenched his jaw and got to his feet, lowering the tip of his sword to the side as he prepared to strike once more. While he was infinitely grateful to Glacies for protecting him, the world around him was spinning dizzyingly and he could barely concentrate as he searched for signs of their enemy. “Where… is he?” Takashi finally asked, unable to determine his location. The mist had begun to close in around them again and the shadows, apart from those natural to the night, had nearly disappeared. There was no sound save for the panting of the two lieutenants as they waited for another attack in dread stillness. But the moment never came, and gradually they realized that their foe had disappeared.

With a quick flick of his wrist, Takashi cleaned his blade and resheathed it out of habit. But as soon as he relaxed he was overcome by another wave of pain and collapsed to the ground once more. He laid next to Glacies and continued to gasp for breath. “Is she... unhurt?” he asked the other lieutenant, apparently referring to Naomi.

“Indeed,” Glacies murmured under his breath, directing Takashi to Naomi with a movement of his eyes. She lay relatively unharmed where his Bibliotheca once stood.

Takashi closed his eyes. His face was still deathly pale, but he seemed relieved.

“Thank you, Fidus-san,” he said. They had survived, and he was still coming to terms with the realization. They had all come close to a brush with death that night, and as Takashi pondered this the unwelcome image of the boy with the mask flashed into his mind, and he shuddered. “What... was that thing?” he murmured aloud.

“‘What was that thing’?” Glacies groaned, narrowing his eyes at Takashi. “Perhaps we’d best spare such a question for the moment we have returned to the Seireitei.”

“So escape is our priority?” Takashi asked as the immensity of their failure began to settle upon him.

Glacies solemnly nodded. “And yet, at present, I lack the strength to move any one of us, as do you. We can only hope Ryūdō or Sasada have traced our Reiatsu and are on their way shortly. Otherwise, we may only pray for intervention somewhere from within the Seireitei.”

“Ryūdō-san...” Takashi paused, and noticed that both the sounds of fighting and Reiatsu coming from the south had died down. It appeared he had vanquished the Hollow, and Takashi quickly relayed instructions to Kohaku in order to lead him back to their location. “With all due respect Fidus-san, it would be suicide to wait here. The enemy could return at any moment.” Takashi said as he struggled onto his hands and knees and crawled towards Glacies and Naomi, still fighting the delirium of pain. “I sent my hawk to lead Ryūdō-san here.” he said.

“Is that so...?” Glacies murmured, quietly breathing a sigh of relief afterward, however shallow that relief was. For the first time, he felt as vulnerable as his days as a homeless hound prowling the streets. “Even so, if by any chance we are attacked, we can consider Ryūdō as dead as we are. Now more than ever, I suggest we pray for a favorable outcome; that is all we can manage in our pitiable states.”

“Still, you underestimate your subordinates,” Takashi grunted as his hand found the rough, gnarled bark of a tree limb and he used the stick as a crutch to prop himself up. Barely supporting his own weight, he motioned towards Naomi. “Are you going to help me?” he asked.

“Do I look like I can stand, child?” Glacies retorted, his irritation evident in his tone. “Your resistance is futile.”

Exhausted, Takashi looked between Glacies and Naomi and finally seemed to resign himself to his situation.

“I don’t understand...” he muttered, “how were we so caught off guard?” he could find no solid train of thought in his mind as he barely even managed to hold onto the tenuous strand of consciousness. “We were foolishly unprepared; nothing more than that,” Glacies sighed while looking away, considering the identity of the mysterious shadow. He let out a wry chuckle. “How amusing that suggestion of mine back at the tea house would have been one well heeded.”

Deciding that it would not be worth the effort spent trying to recall what Glacies referred to, Takashi instead tried to relive the battle they had just experienced, trying to determine where they had gone wrong.

“He... wasn’t a Hollow,” he said. “Yet I don’t think… he can’t possibly be a Quincy...” Takashi said as dread began to fill him, memories of the war ten years ago being brought to the surface of his mind. And he was too weak to fight the doubt whispering in his ears. Your failure is unacceptable. He imagined the voice of his captain and berated himself.

“I have fought many a Quincy in my time,” Glacies replied, “and I assure you that did not resemble a being among them. It was for a moment I had suspected a Nefas, but given we are in Soul Society, that is highly improbable. And as you said, that could not have been a Hollow. Perhaps, then… this breed is nothing we have ever before witnessed. A Jiangshi. Or mayhaps it was a wayward Zanpakutō Spirit. Or a Bount drawing upon the power of innocent souls. Or a Venator Scientiae like myself mimicking the powers of any of the aforementioned.” Glacies sighed. “As you can see, we are presented with many possibilities.”

Ten years...

“A Bount?” Takashi finished, wildly drawing an assumption based on his current state of mind, recalling the incident that had occurred more than a decade before. “I never heard him call out his Doll... I never heard him say anything.”

“Then now I say for certain that it was a machination of our dreams,” Glacies answered, managing another chuckle from his half-assed response, which had nonetheless caused Takashi to stare at him aghast. “Putting aside my japes for a moment, if we had indeed dealt with an entity responsible for the disappearance of so many feeble souls, then perhaps a Bount would be our most likely culprit... in which case, it was a specimen far superior to any I can recall.”

“But why was he here?” Takashi asked, “I thought all the Bounts had been exterminated by the Gotei 13.”

“Pests... are not so easily driven extinct,” Glacies grumbled. “As for why he was here… I cannot find an answer. Either he is a slave or is acting on his own volition. Perhaps I may one day be afforded an opportunity to ask him myself, for that is not the last he will ever see my face.”

There was a long moment of silence as the two lieutenants considered what had been said.

“Fidus-san,” Takashi began, “There is one thing I would ask, but...”

However, he never finished his request because at that moment, Kohaku appeared from the sky and Ryūdō entered the clearing close behind her.

The night was soon filled with concerned voices, as the Shinigami discussed among themselves in hushed tones. Soon lights could be seen in the forest as help was brought from the village, and the clearing became frenzied with activity.

And, observing all this from a distance, the Bount watched them from the shadows before shrinking further away from the light.

Call of the Master

Stumbling through the woods as he clutched the wound in his side, the Bount retreated further and further away from the Shinigami. While he had desired to exact retribution for the injury he had received, his prey had been sheltered by the Rukongai souls and it had been unable to approach without revealing himself.

With ragged breaths, he continued to hiss through his teeth, which was apparently his form of a whimper. What little conscious thought he may have had before was replaced by the throbbing, all-consuming sensation of pain, and he was terrified of it: wishing he could claw out his own ribs to rid himself of it.

But then, coming to him like a soothing balm, he heard the trancelike lullaby enter his mind once more, and he was calmed. He remembered now, why he was there to begin with.

Following the song’s subtle refrain, the Bount at last found himself at the edge of the dry riverbed where he had, a few nights before, first been freed of his seal. He clambered tensely, urgently down the steep bank, and once his feet had reached the bare rocks below he froze, entirely still as he at last caught sight of a figure before him in the darkness. Dim, murky moonlight glowed softly off of their mantle, and he knew instinctively that this is who had called him.

The figure in question revealed itself to be a young woman, clad in a ragged brown cloak: her hair was tied back into a ponytail with a large ribbon and her eyes burned with resolve, cool grey eyes met those of the Bount slowly, before she approached him in three short steps.

At first, she said nary a word, but simply regarded him with her cold, unfeeling eyes. Just as others might inspect a horse before buying it, and that was evidently what the Bount was to her, a resource that might as well have been an ordinary animal.

Whatever music the Bount might've thought he heard faded away in a single moment, revealing itself to be an auditory illusion of some kind, betraying the womans skill as a mage.

Finally she adressed him directly, standing a full head below him in height, and more petite in frame. Her voice was like silk-draped steel.

"Listen, creature, and listen well, for I won't repeat myself. You were awakened from your slumber by me, I won't yet grace you with my name -- but for now, I remain a friend. Don't give me cause to withdraw that favor."

There was no pleasantry to be found in her words, she didn't greet him, didn't even look at him for as long as it could be avoided. Her words were sharp, direct and to the point -- the words of a woman who rarely suffered objections.

"The price for your freedom is obedience, to me, to the master and above all else, to The Coven."

The Bount, subdued by her words, fell to his knees as the mage approached him, extending her hand over his head in a gesture of complete dominance, as though she were extracting his very soul.

“Come. Your name I demand of you,” she commanded, “Onésime.”

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