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This article, Fly in the Stone, is part of this site's Fanon Canon project. Use of this page's contents is determined by the author of this page unless otherwise specified.


Prologue

Five-hundred feet whispered over the dry stone courtyard. Like slips of paper folding themselves to stand upright, the white-robed executioners shuffled into place. Before him, at the end of the death-lined courtyard, the imposing structure of a palace loomed. Red lacquer eaves curled up at the corners, vicious fangs, and the stark silhouette of the roof tiles cut against the gray sky.

Alone, he began to walk between the silent lines of executioners, whose squared masks resembled those of the Kidō Corps members who accompanied condemned Shinigami to the sōkyoku. With each step, they raised the blank banners they carried in front of them and slammed them into the stone, drumming out a thunderous, macabre rhythm that echoed across the empty courtyard. From somewhere in the distance, the bell of an exorcist chimed in tune with the death march. The sound and the narrowed eyes of the executioners exposed him. Judged him. Guilt crawled along his skin. Yet he was helpless to turn back as his steps carried him towards the central stairway at the foot of the palace.

He climbed the stairs, and as he rose above the courtyard the incline became steeper, increasing with the stillness around him. His legs were heavy, slow and feeble, but at last he reached the top. There, he found a blood-red ribbon lying on the pavement. A soul ribbon. He followed its winding course, wading through the shadow of the deep veranda until he passed through the threshold that led to the inner courtyard. Bright light flooded in from the skywell above him, forming a patch of white in the center of the room. At last, he discovered the origin of the soul ribbon at the base of a stone fountain: it was attached to the foot of a white crane who perched on the edge of the basin. The crane turned its head to the side, its eye dilated, and he saw his reflection in its gaze. At some point, but he didn’t know when, the thunderous drumming from the courtyard had stopped. All was silent.

As he proceeded through the open doors into the next room, the crane turned its head to watch him, rotating at a stiff, uneasy angle. It seemed to be accusing him, and he was bothered by the familiar sensation. A crane was the symbol of the Tsunayashiro, he realized—The clan his family served.

At the back wall of the second room, which was lined with carved, dark wood panels, four banners hung above a narrow platform. The far left banner, in windflower blue and bearing the symbol of the Kuchiki, had been shorn in two. The next banner, that of the Shihouin, was scorched to the point of being barely recognizable. The fourth, that of the Urahara, had been eaten by moths and was riddled with holes, while the banner of the Tsunayashiro was stained black with blood.

The crack of a gavel striking judgment echoed in the room, whose shape now resembled the octagonal inner assembly hall of the Central 46. The banners still hung on the walls, surrounding him on four sides. He looked up and once again met with the square-shaped masks of the Kidou Corps executioners. They began to chant, evenly thumping their banners against the staggered wooden platforms. From behind the first placard on the bench above him, a voice declared his sentence:

"Do not seek aesthetics​ in waging war, do not seek virtue in death..."

The ground trembled, shaking the banners from the walls. They slipped down into the wide chasm that suddenly opened beneath his feet. He stared into the looming darkness below, from which the shape of a skull-like mask began to emerge.

"Do not think your life is your own..."

He tried to make out the form of the mask, sensing deep within himself that it would provide the answer to the question his jury sought.

"If you wish to protect each of the heads of the court nobles, then you must even tear down the separation of the worlds and slaughter every foe..."

He fell.


Shū Kasumiōji jerked upright, wide awake, and the first thing he noticed was the pounding in his chest. Another dream, and he knew it was prophetic. But aside from the certain doom it promised upon the four Noble Houses, he was uncertain of its meaning. Thunder rumbled from outside, and he heard the steady patter of rain against the rooftiles. The cool humidity settled heavily on his chest, and he found he was still shaking from nervous adrenaline. Shū reached out in the dark for his wife, but he only found a depression in the futon where Rurichiyo should have been sleeping. The soft flicker of lightning confirmed that she wasn’t in the room. He sighed, suspecting his restlessness had disturbed her. Sparking a contained Shakkaho between his fingers as a light, Shū reached for the lantern just as a dull cacophony of footsteps thundered along the hallways towards the sleeping chambers. Shū was up in an instant.

"Lord Shū!" He stepped out to meet them, and the servants seemed surprised that he had responded to their cry so quickly.

"What is it?" He asked, still pulling on his kosode.

"Sir!" the guards acknowledged him, kneeling to place their fists on the floor before delivering their report.

"A group of Shinigami on patrol in the West Rukongai apprehended a shipment of Kanki while in the second district. Fortunately, we were able to intercept them before they could return to the Gotei."

Kanki? Shū had heard of the alkaline drug, which was formed from a mineral extract of Sekkiseki. While it was troubling that someone appeared to be manufacturing it, he couldn’t see what its relation was to the Kasumiouji.

"I see," he said. "I assume that’s not all you have to report?" he asked.

"Yes sir, it seems the contraband was marked with the Kasumiouji’s insignia."

Shū's eyes widened with horror.

"Wait here," he told them. He returned to his room and retrieved his Zanpakutō. As he grasped the saya with its design of white cranes, he felt a strange sense of discomfort. He shook his head, leaving his troubling dream behind him for the time being.

There were more pressing matters at hand.

Shū followed the guards into the outer courtyard of the clan estate. One of the servants threw an oiled leather raincoat across his shoulders, but it did little to prevent him from being drenched by the downpour. But he ignored the bone-chilling rain, hoping it wouldn’t effect his health.

“Has Rurichiyo been notified as well?” he asked. Even though Shū was invested with power of his own as the clan steward, he refused to handle clan affairs without her knowledge. It was a matter of principle.

“We couldn’t find her sir,” they told him. He frowned. On the other side of the courtyard, a company of guards surrounded a large hand-pulled cart. Someone brought a torch, and Shū peered inside to inspect the stacks of crates. In the flicker of the flames, he saw the outline of a three-sectioned lotus flower within a triangle painted on the rough wood: their clan symbol. Shū felt his stomach clench at the implications, and sweat mixed with the rain pouring down the side of his face.

“Lord Shū!” Ryūsei Kenzaki, the trusted Shinigami who had served Rurichiyo even before Shū had become a member of the household, approached him.

“What’s the meaning of all this Ryūsei?” he asked, the bewilderment in his voice obvious. He reached inside the crate they had opened and inspected the white powder of the Kanki, feeling the numbing effects on his fingertips. It must have been a high concentrate.

“From the Shinigami’s report it seems the smugglers were transporting it from one of the clan mines.”

“So... someone within our clan has betrayed us?”

Ryūsei shook his head. “It’s hard to say.” For a moment they traded a knowing glance, and Ryūsei looked away. With the perilous situation of the Tsunayashiro, whom the Kasumiouji served, any mark against them could allow for cause for the other lower noble houses to turn against them. Either the Kanki had been an inside job, or someone was seeking to sabotage them. Shū hoped it was the former.

“That’s not all,” Ryūsei continued, “There’s something I need to show you.” He led Shū to the storage shed at the other end of the courtyard. As they approached, he felt a strange, twisted reiatsu seeping out from within. He pressed his shirt sleeve to his mouth, feeling nauseous.

Inside, a man was chained to the center support pillar of the storage room. His tattered clothes clung to his skeletal frame, and pale, unseeing blue eyes bulged from his head. As soon as they entered his head whipped in their direction, and he began to groan and snarl, working up foam at the corner of his mouth. He shuddered against the chains, lurching towards them but being caught back by the shackle around his neck. Shuu noticed that his body was covered with open wounds, and a black, foul-smelling puss oozed from his broken skin.

Ryūsei unsheathed his Zanpakutō, and the prisoner drove himself into a frenzy at the sight of the blade.

“My apologies,” he muttered.

Shnnnk.

Ryuusei cut cleanly into the man’s heart, stabbing all the way through into the wood behind.

“Ryūsei!” Shuu yelled in alarm, the color instantly draining from his face.

The man’s head lulled forwards onto his chest, and Ryūsei drew out the blade smoothly, flicking black blood from the tip.

“Wait,” he said. A moment passed, then two, and thunder rumbled from outside. Then, the carcass moaned, shuddered again, and began to suck in the blood pooling from its mouth. Shū instinctively took a step back. Without warning, the creature snapped its head up, its feral stare locking onto Shū. It screeched, hideously, and lunged against its chains. Shū pulled a slip of paper from his sleeve and shot it towards its forehead with a fine-tuned burst of shō.

Inemuri,” he commanded. The spell bound on the paper activated, and the creature’s eyes dilated before the pupils blurred, becoming dark. Finally, the body slumped back against the pillar, dropping unconscious.

“What is that thing?” Shū stammered, clearly shaken. “Why won’t it die?”

Ryūsei sheathed his sword and looked at him, but did not respond, giving Shuu his answer.

“Do you think... this could be related to the Bakkōtō?” Shū could barely speak the word, referring to the forbidden, grotesque blades the Kasumiouji were sometimes required to make on behalf of the Noble Houses. Shū took a deep breath, immediately regretting it on account of the stench of the decaying flesh. He cupped his chin in his hand as he began to think.

“Will you go to the Gotei 13 for me?” he asked.

“But—why would you alert them to something like this?” Ryūsei asked. “It would be better to handle this ourselves!”

“Yes, and we will. But we know this is related to the Noble Houses, and as such it would be best to be open in our confrontation. Specifically, Byakuya Kuchiki may be our ally in this, as he is aware of the situation with the Tsunayashiro.”

“But how can you be sure?”

“I have a very strong suspicion that it is related to the houses,” Shū replied cryptically. He turned to Ryūsei, facing the man directly. “I only ask that you trust me in this.”

Ryūsei initially seemed conflicted, as he should have been. But an expression that resembled guilt crossed his face, and he nodded.

“You have my support,” he promised. “What should I tell Lady Rurichiyo?”

Shū looked at the half-decayed body slouching in front of him, and a shiver ran across his skin. For some reason he thought of the crimson soul ribbon tied around the foot of the crane, and frowned.

“Nothing... Not until we receive further information.” But even as he said it he felt a knot form in his throat. He was betraying the principle he had sworn to himself to uphold. It’s to protect her, he said to placate himself. Still, he could not ignore the worm of doubt that slowly crept around him.

Tension

Ryūsei waited in the lieutenant’s assembly room, counting the ticking of the clock on the wall and wondering who had decided to paint the interior of the room lime green. He tapped his gloved fingers on the table, grateful that the scar-faced third seat from the Sixth Division had been considerate enough to offer him tea.

"Wait here," had been his only instruction. “The members of your task force should arrive shortly.”

As Lord Shū had predicted, Byakuya Kuchiki had agreed to help them with the inter clan investigation, authorizing a task force so they could search the Rukongai for smugglers without restriction. But that had been as far as his help had extended, as even Shū’s official, crisply sealed envelope that he had delivered to the stoic captain of the Sixth had done little more than cause Byakuya to raise his eyebrow.

“Whatever happens, don’t let the Shihōin or Urahara know about this,” Byakuya had warned, although it had sounded more like a threat. “Should you meet with resistance, I hope your death is at least honorable.”

On that optimistic note, Ryūsei had left Byakuya’s office with the official role of a clan liaison in the mission. Still, he doubted Shū’s judgment in the affair. It would have been better to handle things discretely, without the interference of the Gotei 13. But he had sworn to follow Shū’s orders, as doing so would honor the wishes of Rurichiyo. Thinking of the head of the Kasumiouji, he smiled. Soon she would be a young mother, and he felt a twinge of worry, hoping they would be able to resolve this business with the Kanki before it was time for her to give birth.

Ryūsei sampled his tea, and his nose wrinkled with disgust. Did the lieutenants of the Gotei 13 really drink such swill on a regular basis? He had heard standards in the Seireitei had declined since the war against the Quincy some fifteen years ago, but this was simply inexcusable.

Just then, the door slid open, and the third seat of the Sixth reappeared, accompanied by the first member of the task for to arrive. Ryūsei immeditely stood, and gave a formal bow.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.


His naturally pale flesh was dabbed slightly with a cherry blush.The rain stopped several hours prior, leaving the sky a ominous grey that filled the surrounding atmosphere with a thick calm. But he still carried his signature crimson umbrella, which he'd closed upon entering the building. The ghostly shinigami stopped at a window and peered outwards to the damp grass. His plain, grey eyes staring into the vastness of Soul Society. Members of the patrol corps were rarely made present in matters such as these. After all, they didn't technically exist. They lacked identities. Histories. Personalities. Their only reason for existence being to...

The sky's rumbling interrupted his thought. The mysterious man known only as Guàn-Lǐ continued towards the meeting area. A message from on high found itself in his grasp earlier this morning. He opened it, only to find a small description followed by an officiated order. He hated the idea of working with others. And as he felt the order crunching in his uniform's pocket, the thought continued to sicken him. But this carried a sense of importance. They needed his abilities for this task, for it involved matters beyond simple drug trafficking.

And considering the nature of the client, it was important that a member of the Onmitsukidō was present. Especially one capable of wearing such a disguise. And so he continued onward, trying to paint the required visage. It took several awkward smiles for him to finally feel prepared. Just in time, for he slid the door open and met the leader of this Task Force.

"Guàn-Lǐ, lieutenant of the Second Division." The white haired assassin bowed. "I take it I'm the first one to arrive?"


100+ Years Ago

It was midsummer, and the flowers bloomed in the radiant gardens of the Kuchiki Compound, the clan's children played in the fields, enjoying a respite from their various classes in decorum, politics and proper manners while their parents were inside discussing important matters, their laughter filling the air.

Yet some yards away hiding under the boughs of a large sakura tree was an outlier, a young black-haired girl with a book in her hands. Despite her best efforts to hide it, her eyes were red and swollen from crying, as she clutched the tome in her grip and perused its contents as best she was able, before her eyes were extravagant symbols and gestures and guides on how to pronounce a variety of incantations relating to a medley of destructive spells.

It was no ordinary book, no tale of unrequited love or the virtues of staying true to yourself. No, A Study of Air and Storms was one of but a couple of Grimoires penned by Hiroya Ginkarei more than a thousand years prior. It instructed its readers in a variety of magical methods and focused upon spells of wind, ice and lightning.

Kidō was the most respected of all branches of the Zankensoki among the nobility of Soul Society, its use amongst them had become so widespread that it had received an alternative name among those circles: The Noble Art.

As the daughter of two stains on the family name, Megumi knew her prospects were few. She would remain an outsider forever, now till then, unless she found ways to make herself indispensable somehow. After all, what had she to lose, the other children had received strict instructions from their parents not to either talk or look at her, lest she becomes a bad influence and retards their progress.

Wiping away some fresh tears, Megumi looked up in horror as she saw a man stand before her, his face white with fury as he fixed his gaze upon the Grimoire in her hands. His hand was so fast that she could scarcely react as he slapped her across the face before angrily taking the tome out of her hands.

“So you were the dirty little thief! I suppose it was inevitable given your breeding! Have you ANY concept of just what grimoires like these are worth?”

Her ears were ringing so loud from the blow that she couldn’t even hear him as he sauntered off, all she could do was stare blankly at the playing children while fighting back her tears.


Megumi had received plenty of beatings throughout her childhood for numerous such thefts, and they’d only gotten more and more severe each time but it did not matter for what other choice had she if she wished to cling to her clan and prove her usefulness?

Her studies into the Noble Art had granted her much, however, enough that she had been able to gain a second Kenseikan and finally gotten herself accepted as the Lieutenant of the Sixth Division under Byakuya Kuchiki, a man whom she deeply despised.

Her diligence and defiance in the face of their abuse had seen her this far, and she had only gotten her due when her abilities became too useful to ignore, however much they tried to downplay them at every turn.

She reminisced as she pried open the doors to the Assembly Room, her long black hair tied up in a tidy ponytail, and wearing the standard issued Shihakusho. Although she carried a Zanpakuto at her side, she did not know its name for she had been accepted into the Gotei 13 purely on the basis of her skill in Kidō and carried her katana around mostly as a formality.

Her voice was cold and composed, her face an icy mask that betrayed not even a hint of emotion. “Megumi Kuchiki, Lieutenant of the Sixth Division.”

Right after her introduction, another young woman arrived in the room with the abruptness and faint sound indicative of a Flash Step. Clad in a feminine variant of the ordinary Shinigami uniform with a skirt and thigh-high white tabi. Her long, black ponytail fluttered behind her, whilst her light blue eyes scanned the area quickly.

"I- ", she stopped as soon as she noticed the other two Lieutenants already present.

Clearly somewhat agitated, she frowned. Then, she closed her eyes, sighed, and assumed an erect stance of seriousness. Which was something difficult to accomplish in her case, the petite young woman she was. She was almost a full head shorter than Megumi, who stood right beside her.

"Asuka Shimizu, Lieutenant of the Eighth Division, at your service", she declared solemnly, then followed with a polite bow.

She had intended to come first, after all, she was a truly dutiful, exemplary Shinigami. At least for as long as she remembered about the meeting. Between training, paperwork, and maintaining discipline among her subordinates, she might have got carried away a little. But no matter; there she was, one of the first, ready to prove her worth as a high-ranking officer of the Gotei 13.

The door once more opened into the room, and was quickly followed by a heavy thunk as a large man attempted to enter the room. He was tall enough that he had to duck through the door, and had misjudged its height.

"Ywouch-ch-ch" the big man said as he rubbed his head before ducking through the door full this time. He quickly noticed the Lieutenants in the room, causing him to snap to attention.

"Tenth Division Fourth Seat Yuu, here to deliver a message from Lieutenant Wasuchiru sirs!" Yuu stated loudly, the nervousness obvious in his voice. He held out a manilla envelope to the assembled officers, his hand trembling ever so slightly.

The third seat of the Sixth Division, whose name Ryūsei finally remembered as "Sakuma," accepted the manila envelope and opened it. He glanced over the contents and nodded.

"Very well." Turning to his lieutenant, he said, "It seems Chitose Wasuchiru will be unable to join you on this assignment. As such, mister... Yuu, will serve as his replacement." The skepticism in his voice was obvious, and Ryūsei admitted he felt the same way. A mere fourth seat? He wasn't exactly sure why the assembled task force had so many lieutenants assigned to it, but it made him feel uneasy. Perhaps Lord Shū hadn't been overreacting, and there was some sort of ominous threat behind his caution.


He quickly made his way towards the meeting, his thoughts plagued by unease. Sekiro thought back to the night his patrol discovered the smuggled shipment of Kanki. What was left of it anyways. They had felt before anything else the nauseating ripples of spiritual energy emanating from its location, with a smattering of concentrated sources. When they came upon the scene they were met with a nightmarish scenario, even the bloodstained streets of Zaraki paled in comparison to what they beheld.

The smugglers were emaciated, skin stretched thinly across a shambling skeleton, grunting and growling like savage beasts. They were tearing each other apart, ripping skin from bone, ghastly maws descending on one another in fervor beyond bloodlust. There was a hunger in those empty eyes, an endless chasm desperately trying to fill itself. They were fighting over what was left of the Kanki, as those fast enough gorged themselves on the wreckage, scooping handfuls of dust before emptying it into their gaping mouths.

The ensuing battle only cemented his unease. They were eventually able to subdue them with Kido, but their unsettling ability to recover from killing blows had put him on edge. That Kanki was capable of transforming its victims into these mindless things horrified him to his core. The damage this could do, the upheaval this would wrought if not contained had given him no reprieve. But for the Kasumiouji to be implicated in this debacle? Their interference in his patrols return to Soul Society had arisen his suspicions. Given how Noble families tended to act in delicate matters such as this, he had been ready to draw steel and fend off his would be silencers. But to his surprise, they extended the hand in cooperation, wanting to first bring their head of house up to speed before reaching out to the Gotei 13, discreetly. Ever since the Bakkato incident, the Kasumiouji had been if nothing else, forthright and cordial towards the Gotei 13. Their actions that night had at least stayed his hand in reporting this through his chain of command, and he kept silent on the matter, only directly informing his Captain as promised. That they would be involved with something as nightmarish as this? He was unwilling to believe anything without concrete evidence.

Schooling his features, he pushed his fears to the back of his mind, his hand grasping the hilt of his Zanpakutou reassuringly. Straightening his back, he moved forward with purpose, opening the door and entered.

"Ninth Division Fourth Seat, Shirogane Sekiro." He said, catching the attention of the gathered Shinigami.


Van Satonaka, it seemed, was just the man 9th Division Captain Shūhei Hisagi needed for a delicate operation. "I've got a mission for you," Hisagi had said. "Lay it on me," Vad had replied. Stupid mistake. He should have said no. "It's a delicate matter involving the Noble Houses." Hisagi continued and in that moment Van wanted to strangle the man. It didn't help that Hisagi was smiling as he brought Van up to speed.

That was how Van came to be standing in an alleyway with the hood of his kosode pulled up to obscure his features. His white commando haori was likewise obscured by a long and thick cloak tied at the neck and waist, his Zanpakutō threaded through his ōbi.

It was just his luck when he felt something impact his shoulder. And yup, his instinct was right, as bird shit stood out prominently on his formerly clean cloak.

"Fan-fucking-tastic," he muttered through clenched teeth.

In Van's eyes the whole mission, and story surrounding it, stank worse than a dockside drunk -- in his experience most matters involving the Noble Houses did -- and he was loathe to accept the mission. But apparently being the 3rd Seated officer came with certain responsibilities. Who'd have guessed one of them was busting a kanki deal? It wasn't like Van could have said no way Pedro.

Figuring that he had watched and waited long enough already Van stepped silently from the alleyway and entered into the room, without even bothering to wipe the bird shit from his cloak. As soon as he darkened the door he removed the cloak, resettled his Zanpakutō, and casually discarded the removed cloak into the farthest corner.

"Ninth Division Third Seat, Van Satonaka." As soon as he spoke his vision fell on Shirogane. "Thought it was you I seen come in. Guess we both got lumbered with this lovely job."

Van promptly crossed the room and leaned himself casually against a vacant section of wall and allowed his attention to fall on the door.

The upper bridge of Ryuusei’s nose wrinkled again at Van’s antics. His unpolished entrance and vocabulary revealed him to be of a lowborn character, and Ryuusei only hoped he wouldn’t cause trouble on the mission. The man Yuu as well. Ryuusei had attended the Shin'ou academy but had never been conscripted into the Gotei due to being plucked from the ranks by the Kasumiouji before graduation. As such, he found it interesting to observe the differences between those of noble rank—such as Megumi or those who directly served the elite class—and the more common run Shinigami. The contrast had been stark during his academy days, but was still pronounced even despite the similitude of their solemn Shihakkushou.

"Very well, since it seems everyone has arrived, let’s begin." Ryuusei cleared his throat, then addressed the group. “I am Ryuusei Kenzaki, the chief retainer of Lady Rurichiyo of the Kasumioiji clan, and the liaison appointed by Lord Shuu. You have my thanks for agreeing to partake in this mission, and on behalf of the Kasumiouji, I thank you for your service.” He gave a short bow, then continued. “I apologize for the ambiguity up until now. Some of you may have already received instructions from the Sixth Division, but in order to assure that the details of the assignment are clear, I will address the purpose of this task force.”

“Your main objective is to capture a group of Kanki smugglers in Hongoku, the 47th district of the Southern Rukonagi. We have reason to believe that they are illegally producing mass quantities of the drug in one of the Sekkiseki mines that pertain to the Kasumiouji Family. The task is to not only bring these smugglers to justice, but to investigate the extent of their network and determine who their main client is... I shouldn’t have to remind you, but discretion is of the upmost importance in this matter.”

Ryuusei removed a small white cube from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. He then extended his hand, releasing the Bakudou, and the cube expanded before dissipating, revealing a set of strange, organic devices. They resembled moths or fireflies, with a thin, metallic body. Ryuusei held one up to show them.

“These tracking devices were designed by the Kasumiouji. Not only do they allow you to sense each other’s reiatsu from distances far greater than what is normally possible, but they also permit long-range communication between team members. You place it here...” He demonstrated by attaching the insect to his neck, just below his ear. “And activate it as you would a Jigokuchou.” He pressed his thumb into the insect’s abdomen. It shone blue, briefly, and then faded from sight, completely invisible. “Don’t worry, at the completion of the assignment they will be deactivated. Please make use of them.” He said it deferentially, but it was not a request.

“During the mission, you may use any means which you see fit in order to carry out the investigation. You have been granted permission to apprehend and interrogate any and all suspects. While I will accompany you, I am merely serving as a representative of the Kasumiouji. The person responsible for overseeing the completion of the task, and the one who will make all final decisions in the mission is Lieutenant Megumi Kuchiki.” Ryuusei paused to acknowledge her, but before turning over the floor, he added:

“There is one last thing.,,” At last, his polished rhetoric seemed to fail him. “There is... a complication in this affair. When the Kasumiouji intercepted the Kanki, a perverse kind of soul was discovered as well. They are like animated corpses, and appear to be addicted to the drug but... they cannot be killed. Not by normal means anyway. They were only able to be subdued after great difficulty. The Kasumiouji are researching one of the specimens in order to discover its true nature, but these ‘Undead’ seem to be related to the Kanki business. I believe that Shirogane Sekiro was among the first to discover the Undead—his experience may prove valuable to you. At any rate, please exercise caution.”

With that, he bowed towards Megumi, indicating that the debriefing had ended and that authority was in her hands.

“We entrust you with this, Kuchiki-dono.”

Megumi directed her gaze at Kenzaki, her storm grey eyes betraying no emotion, it was expected of a Kuchiki to remain serene and immovable no matter the situation at hand. She had spent most of her life attempting to exemplify all of her Clan’s virtues even though she had little to show for her efforts, at the very least her parents were no longer the sole thing that defined her as she had grown powerful enough that even the elders of the clan were forced to take notice of her.

«Very well, I accept the mantle of leadership. Kanki is a dangerous element and the source must be found and dealt with as soon as possible.»

Accepting a Tracker from Ryuusei, Megumi instructed the others to do the same and then added briefly: «I am aware of your talents already, as I took the liberty of reading the files for everyone selected when I first heard of this assembly. But before we leave there is one small matter.»

Reaching into her robes, Megumi pulled out a small pouch containing a sample of Kanki she had procured through means she did not care to divulge, dangling the pouch from one hand and holding the Kasumiouji Tracker in the other, Megumi began speaking, her every word exciting the air with its weight.

"Heart of the south, eye of the north, finger of the west, foot of the east..»

Black lines began scattering across the wooden floor of their own accord, forming into a variety of spheres that contained rapidly shifting numbers as both the pouch and the tracker emanated strange green light as Megumi used them as foci to empower her spell and heighten it to extreme accuracy as she searched the entirety of the district for the highest recent concentrations of Kanki.

«Arrive with the wind and depart with the rain. Bakudō #58. Kakushitsuijaku!"

Her voice seemed to resonate with the black lines as the entire network doubled in size, briefly lit up in brilliant green and then faded away to reveal about a dozen ’windows’ opening up around to reveal all conceivable angles of a large building. Even scanning through its walls to reveal a hidden entrance to what seemed to be a large cave complex formed entirely out of Sekkiseki, which prevented her spell from delving any further.

«It seems that our objective is located in a large warehouse in the northeastern parts of Hongoku. They had the foresight to construct their headquarters within Sekkiseki to bar Kidō, and so we cannot know what we might face inside their headquarters.» She finished her brief explanation and turned to the rest of the group as if inviting them to make statements of their own.

Of course she would have been chosen to lead his mission. A sentiment that held poison towards the high houses of Seireitei. Guàn-Lǐ smirked. It wasn't that he hated the nobles. Hell, his family was beginning to replace the near-extinct Feng bloodline as the primary vessels for the Shihoin. But there existed an invisible yet thick tension between the Noble Families and the Central 46. In a world where 46 men were given heavenly mandate to uphold the law, these people were able to step outside these boundaries. They existed as gods wrapped in spiritual flesh. As killable as the strays of Rukongai. Perhaps this was why...

Guàn-Lǐ received his transmitter and placed it on his neck. Not that it would help his team, for the white haired man appeared to lack any spiritual presence in the room. Still, he needed to play the part that he was given. And so, he watched in a feigned awe as Megumi recited her magic.

"If you don't mind my opinion," The lieutenant who has probably claimed more lives than the collected shinigami in the room began. "reconnaissance is in order. Simply barging in is barbaric and would give them a chance to prepare defenses and escape route." The professional murderer spoke. His voice filled with a slight joy, accompanied by a charming smile that seemed to lighten the dull atmosphere. "Either that or we split into two teams. One meant to distract and the other to accomplish the actual goal. A pincer formation."

Van only removed himself from the wall to receive his own earpiece -- which he looked at with revulsion -- and promptly returned himself to the wall, where he began passively poking at his teeth with a toothpick. "Undead, eh? This just gets better and better."

He projected the air of a lazy and unpredictable man, which was hardly an endearing image to invoke, but Van wasn't at all worried. His general attitude and body language made it easy to overlook him in favour of more reliable-appearing persons and as everyone settled into conversation about their impending mission, Van watched -- and listened -- with an intent focus reflected solely in the way his usually slitted eyes where open.

Habitually, Asuka projected an air of confidence and cold professionalism. However, she could not hide a hint of curiosity as she was observing her fellow high-ranking officers. Lieutenant Kuchiki in particular seemed impressive. Skilled and knowledgeable, not bad. Not half-bad. She also noted the amusing contrast between Shirogane, who was even shorter than her, and the towering giant that was Yuu, with his well-shaped, bulging muscles... no, she had a mission. Focus.

"I agree with Lieutenant Guàn-Lǐ", she spoke as she regarded the communication device in her hand, an involuntary twich of her lips revealing her opinion of it before she reluctantly affixed it to her neck. "It is of utmost importance that we approach this problem in a deliberate manner. I'm possessed of a versatile skillset, so I'm convinced I can create a sufficient distraction for the benefit of our team, if need be."

Secretly, she hoped her accent was not too obvious. She was no noble, merely a commoner from the Hokutan District. Nevertheless, she was one of the best students during her time in the Shin'ō Academy, and the Lieutenant of the Eighth Division now. What she was not born with she could earn through hard work.

Megumi remained silent as she turned around slowly, her stormy eyes glancing briefly at Asuka and then they came to rest upon Guan-Li. Bestowing upon the Second Division Officer the tremendous honour it was to have the full undivided attention of a Kuchiki noblewoman.

Her visage was serene, inscrutable and almost otherworldly as she paused briefly to consider their statements, while silently demanding the attention of the entire room. It was what tended to happen when you belonged to one of the Four Great Houses... even if you happened to be the black sheep of the clan.

She held the entire room enraptured in this manner for a short while before she replied. «It was never my intention to barge in, such a thing is inefficent.. instead I intend to conceal our visual and spiritual presence with Kyokko. Hidden by my magic we will advance upon the warehouse and have those most suitable infiltrate it and silently eliminate all of its residents.»

Another pause followed as she wove several symbols into the air, causing the imagery conjured by Kakushitsujiaku to flare out and expand to demonstrate the extent of Megumi’s plan.

«With our opposition assassinated, we will then take a moment to examine the warehouse and the surrounding area before we descend into the caverns, once there we will split up to cover the most ground. I trust that this is a sufficient explanation? Good, we head out immediately."

Turning on her heels without allowing Guan-Li even a moment to interject, Megumi strode towards the door with assured steps while beckoning the others to follow her to their destination in the Rukon Districts.

The Veil

Hongoku, district 47, South Rukonagi

The task force surrounded the small warehouse, concealed within the bent light of Megumi’s Kyokkō. They had remained motionless for perhaps a half hour, carefully watching the comings and goings of the mine workers. But the task of observation had been made monumentally difficult due to the heavy fog, which had refused to dissipate even under the first rays of the early morning sun.

Ryūsei clenched and unclenched his fingers, trying to bring warmth to them despite the numbing cold. It was the southern Rukongai, and temperatures should have been more moderate, even in late fall. It didn’t snow in the mountains of Hongoku, but apparently the altitude and cool humidity could sink to a biting degree. He tucked his hands into his sleeves as he refocused on the warehouse in front of them.

It was a tall, two-story structure with wooden slate siding and a slanted roof. It seemed innocuous for the Rukongai, but lacked any windows that would have allowed intruders to peer inside. The structure was flush against the side of the cliff wall behind it. The Sekkiseki, which appeared as white crystals embedded within the granite, would have been far underground, Ryuusei knew. Anything exposed at surface level had been stripped away centuries before.

At last, after watching one of the workers smoke an entire cigarette outside the warehouse’s entrance. Ryūsei grew impatient. He touched the transmitter at his ear, activating it.

"When do we begin?" he asked Lieutenant Kuchiki. The message would have been audible to the rest of the members of the task force as well. Their plan had originally been to wait for an opening, then to all descend silently on the warehouse guards. Well, at least Megumi, Sekiro, and Guan Li. The other three, along with Ryuusei, were to enter shortly afterwards, to ensure no one escaped behind the stealthier members of the task force. But the fog had made such an opening impossible to perceive. Thus, it was time to switch to their secondary plan.

Van, Yuu, and Asuka were to create a distraction by attacking the guards in front of the warehouse. Hopefully, that would draw in any and all souls surrounding the area, leaving an opening for the more subtle members of the team to sneak inside the warehouse. Ryūsei would still follow behind Megumi, Sekiro, and Guan Li. Once the workers had been subdued, they would enter the mines together. It had taken some work, but Ryūsei had managed to convince the Kuchiki noblewoman to rescind the order to kill all the workers. They still weren’t sure which were loyal to the Kasumiōji and which were smugglers, so they planned to take a few of the workers inside captive in order to interrogate them. The guards outside wouldn’t necessarily be so lucky, but that depended on the methods of the Shinigami who attacked them.

Nonetheless, Ryūsei didn't have a shred of remorse towards the souls who might perish in the ambush. If they still served the Kasumiōji, they had sworn their lives in service to the clan, which meant their deaths would serve the Kasumiōji as well, regardless of whose hand felled them. To the contrary, if they turned out to be smugglers they were merely traitors to the clan who deserved to die anyway. But Ryūsei unconsciously gripped the hilt of his Zanpakutō, for some reason feeling uneasy at the thought of betrayal.

Any minute now, he grumbled to himself as he waited for the task force to make their move.

Diversion

"I think we've waited long enough," and as Van thought this he glanced momentarily at his assigned companions: Yuu and Asuka. As he did he nodded once, flash-stepped away from them slightly, and silently drew his Zanpakutō.

"Wreak Havoc, Kōsekihana."

Even with the fog it was difficult not to notice a stream of pink-coloured petals suddenly flying in your direction, and the direction from which it came. He manipulated the stream deftly with his hands, and wasn't worried about being off with his aim either, before purposefully -- and slowly -- bringing the stream back towards his location.

He noticed dark specks of blood on his reconstituted pink-hued blade. He'd certainly bloodied someone! And now to wait.

At first, Asuka was somewhat nervous but focussed. Then, she relaxed slightly. After some more time boredom set in and, ultimately, she was on the verge of growing frustrated when Satonaka made his move. She had been considering striking first herself, although she would rather not ignore the pre-established chain of command. Now that her colleague did what she secretly had wanted to that was no longer an issue. She stood up, drew her Zanpakutō with a swift motion, and aimed her free hand in the building's direction.

"Bakudō #62, Hyapporankan!", she exclaimed as she swung the arm.

The volley of multiple blue-white glowing rods dispersed the annoying fog to an extent with its impetus. Relying on quantity rather than quality this time, the spell did succeed in its twofold purpose: two wounded guards were pinned to the ground, while a further four were stuck to the wall of the warehouse they were protecting. That was easy. Too easy.

"I bet those are just the small fry", she remarked so that the others could hear her, looking around with her Zanpakutō at the ready. "The tough guys are gonna crawl out of the woodwork any second now!"

Van would have usually said something smart at this point and if his companions had been familiar with him they would have said it was quite uncharacteristic of him. For rather than following up on Asuka's attack he lowered himself into a crouch as he drew his hood up to hide his features. His body and clothing appeared to shimmer momentarily and in a heartbeat the man was thoroughly camouflaged against the ground; for all to see he was an oddly-shaped stone, which the fog would further hide.

"Shit! The fuck's goin' on!?"

"The facility's under attack, cretin. Someone must've found out."

Two tall, broad-shouldered men clad in non-descript cloaks with hoods had been wandering around without a specific goal, but reacted rather quickly to the sudden commotion not that far away from their current location. They were guards as well, although ones who pretended to merely loiter around in case of such an occasion. With a Flash Step each they moved onto the rooftops of nearby buildings. Then, they rushed toward the scene in a series of leaps.

"Seems like they've got a bunch a' Shinigami there. Lieutenants?"

"That's rough. Let's go all out right off the bat, then."

The two procured wakizashi from within the folds of their cloaks. And not just ordinary swords – those were genuine Zanpakutō.

"Preserve, Hōfuku no Sōkiba!"

"Flay them alive, Hadashoku!"

The wakizashi of the slightly shorter, more muscular guard split into two vambraces with large, arrow-like shield attachments. Meanwhile, the Zanpakutō of the more lanky one sprouted multiple jagged protrusions from its blade. With a swiftness that indicated considerable experience, they descended unto to the road which led directly to the warehouse and sped onward, repeatedly switching places on the move.

A giant of a man walked down the road towards the pair, dwarfing the two men running towards him. Yuu had decided that the best way to be a distraction was to be the single most noticeable target available. His Zanpakuto, a tanto not much larger than a knife, looked almost comically small compared to its nine-foot tall wielder. Hands held up in a boxers stances, slowly shuffling towards his opposition, Yuu looked imposing at first.

At first.

Looking closely it was obvious that the large man was shaking slightly, nowhere near as confident as he seemed. But that the way Yuu always was. He was always the opposite of his name.

But either way, he had a job to do.

The large man raised his hand forward, a sphere of flame forming in his palm as it faced the pair. "Hadō #31. Shakkahō" He said, aiming the bolt of flame directly down the road in an attempt to split the pair up.

He was the bait, now all that was left was just to see if they went straight for him, or split up to go after his companions as well.

"Which will it be?" Van thought.

His fingers tightened slightly on the hilt of his pink-hued blade as he resolved to target whichever one of the two men ended up striking at Yuu. With any luck he would kill the guard in quick fashion, which would enable both himself and Yuu to turn and box in the remaining guard between Asuka and themselves. But Van was getting ahead of himself.

Now was the time to be patient, quiet, and invisible.

The guard with a jagged sword widened his eyes, then jumped high into the air to evade Yuu's projectile. Thus exposed, his colleague had little choice but to defend himself. But that was their strategy all along; as he brought the two vambraces together with a loud clang, they took the brunt of the Hadō blast. And they did not merely withstand the detonation. Rather, they seemed to absorb the spell, inheriting some of its crimson glow in the process.

Meanwhile, the taller guard landed in front of Yuu. Significantly shorter than him still, he nonetheless wielded a longer blade, and immediately made use of it. He pressed on with a series of broad, trailing slashes, swinging his Zanpakutō somewhat like a scythe instead of going for a more direct approach. Evidently, his intent was to exploit the disparities in their respective sizes to inflict some glancing wounds on his opponents.

With a smirk, the guard equipped with shielded vambraces motioned to join the offence. However, with the faint sound of a Flash Step Asuka manifested on his way. She was apprehensive herself. After all, that was her first genuine battle that did not involve solely Hollow enemies. Regardless, she would not let them gang up on one of her colleagues.

"I'll be your opponent!", she exclaimed with a moderately convinced tone.

"Come at me", teased her the guard.

And she did. Her bladework was swift and measured, well-balanced. Every slash and thrust was deliberate, fast, with virtually no openings. The guard found his confidence melt down somewhat in the face of such a surprisingly tenacious assault. He took a step backward, then another, blocking or deflecting every blow with his Shikai. There was simply no time, no opportunity to strike back. Although with each impact the glow of his vambraces became slightly stronger, something that did not escape Asuka's notice. First, he had assimilated a Kidō spell, now, he seemed to do the same with the kinetic energy of her sword strikes, leading up to...

"Release!", he shouted after swatting her away with a strong swing.

Both of his arms outstretched forward, he formed a crimson orb of energy between the arrow-shaped tips of the vambrace attachements, similar to a Cero. Indeed, the technique worked the same way as it unleashed a potent beam attack. The Eighth Division Lieutenant managed to avoid it with Shunpo, although the building behind her had no such luck. There was a roar, a thunder, and the building collapsed shortly, demolished by the direct hit.

"Preserve", said the guard whilst clinking the halves of his Shikai against each other, a smug smile back on his face.

If this was a night at Momoko's she'd be asking Van to roll a history check right about now. If he succeeded on the roll then he'd recognise the first guard based on the abilities of his Shikai, and the second based on his fighting style and movements. Sadly this wasn't Momoko's Dungeons and Dragons and Van did not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the various Zanpakutō wielded by random Shinigami or their preferred fighting styles.

His path wasn't difficult however and the words of the Onmitsukidō came unbidden to his mind: Rather than standing in the way, you should stab the enemy in the back.

Simple.

The first cut is always the worst.

Yuu hated pain, more than anything. He hated his blood flowing, hated the sting of air upon an open wound. He hated the fighting that caused it, almost uncharacteristically of someone of his origins.

The first couple of strikes of the man were met by the Tanto, the strikes deflected by the small dagger.

The next left a line of fire across the outside of his right arm. Blood spilt down, but the wound was ultimately glancing.

Yuu used this series of attacks as a chance to close in, attempting to get inside the reach of the man's arms as he raised his left arm above his head and tried to drop his elbow upon the man's head. He couldn't match the reach of the man's blade with his own, but he could use his size to his advantage and stop him from easily wielding the weapon.

The guard smiled. It seemed he had picked the perfect opponent; the wakizashi form of his Zanpakutō was elongated in its Shikai state, and the short blade of the Seated Officer further compounded the effectiveness of his roundabout fighting style and the special ability of the weapon which it was supposed to exploit. Soon, Yuu should notice that the single wound he had sustained had a few small jagged protrusions embedded in it, left behind after the slash. Said splinters would begin eating his skin, causing continued pain throughout their engagement. However, the smile vanished from his face when he was suddenly struck in the head.

With a short grunt he almost fell to the ground face first. Still, he managed to rebound and sway away from his opponent rapidly. The Shinigami was a hulking monstrosity compared to the slender guard. Somewhat dizzy, the latter strove to regain focus as fast as possible. He was in the middle of a fight with high-ranking officers of the Gotei 13; a single lapse could mean quick death.

"That'll leave a mark", he taunted Yuu as he pointed his sword at the wound he had inflicted.

His Zanpakutō held at the ready, he was about to resume his assault. But then it struck him – where were the others? They had sensed several distinct Reiatsu signatures initially only to find two intruders at the scene? He shuffled his legs to assume a defensive stance, then cast a few aside glances. There was something fishy going on around there.

And that was when Van struck!

He uncoiled like a snake. The very brief and nearly silent swish was the only indication that Shunpo had been used, and save that momentary give-away -- which could very well go unnoticed or be mistaken for the wind -- Van was as silent as the grave. True to his personal musings Van moved right behind the slender guard who had up until now been engaged with Yuu; Van was poised, determined. His intended strike would cleave down through the back of the guards neck and shoulders: undoubtedly fatal, should it connect.

Despite his vigilance, there was so little time to react. Kenta, wielder of the Hadashoku, motioned to evade the ambush. He almost felt the blade of death descending upon him, so close, so final... only to grunt when something large crashed into his body, pushing him away from the lethal strike's path. There was a clang, and soon the situation became clear: the other guard, Tamotsu, had used Shunpo to intercept the ambush in the nick of time. After all, of the two he was the defensive expert. Relieved, Kenta nonetheless did not hesitate, and did not waste any time to say something. They were well-trained, experienced mercenaries, an effective team, and, first and foremost, brothers.

"Here you are!", exclaimed Tamotsu, Van's blade pressing against his own Zanpakutō.

With the free hand he performed an uppercut aimed at the Shinigami's abdomen. The pointy tip of his vambrace's shield-like attachement would render the experience unpleasant, to say the least. Then, he transitioned into a rapid series of straight punches with both of his hands, and interrupted it with a side kick. Meanwhile, Kenta resumed his duel with Yuu. At first, he swung his spiky sword high, ostensibly in an attempt to decapitate the opponent, although expecting it to be blocked, he fluently led the blade in a downward arc to subsequently slash at Yuu's legs. The hilt in a two-handed grip, he proceeded to twirl his Zanpakutō like some sort of rotor, his intent to repeatedly inflict numerous shallow cuts with each rotation.

Asuka was observing the fight attentively. She already had a good idea about the abilities of their enemies. They were... troublesome. Now that she was offered a moment of respite, she decided to enact the first stage of her plan. Her Zanpakutō held in front of her, she gazed at the flat side of its blade.

"Coruscate, Wareta Kagami!"

The spiritual pressure of the 8th Division Lieutenant intensified noticeably, rattling the windows of nearby buildings as a glittering amaranth aura enveloped her. The blade of her Zanpakutō flickered. Afterward, it was transfigured into one seemingly composed of glass, and several panes of the same make manifested floating in the air around her. She waved her Shikai, prompting the panes to encircle the battlefield. All she needed now was a good opportunity to strike.

Van, however, was not so easily pinned down. Tamotsu's blows ate nothing but the discarded white Commando haori previously worn by Van -- he had disappeared through use of Utsusemi and as he did a storm of pink crystal shards began to fall in a tight circle-like array around Tamotsu.

"Careful!" Van called, his voice revealing that he was above Tamotsu. "Those things'll ruin your day! But then you already knew that, eh? Which one of you poor sods did I off earlier? Hope he was a friend."

The only clear path of retreat open to the guard that did not involve being eviscerated by crystal shards was above and that was where Van was hovering, a half-smile tugging at his face, as he mockingly waved the man to 'come on'.

Van's hope was simple: as soon as the guard jumped to attack Van would bring the shards up below him. The degree of crystal in-play meant that Van had deconstructed his Zanpakutō and was now relying solely on his Hakuda prowess should he engage in close-quarters. Hardly a disadvantage considering his former occupation.

Yuu's arm burned from where he had been cut before. He had noticed the slivers, the chunks of metal slowly making the injury worse. This is where his size worked to his advantage. A wound of this size would be debilitating for someone of a more normal stature. While a fearsome wound still, it wasn't quite at the level to impede him from functioning.

But he figured that now was not the time to stay on the defensive. The large man's shaking slowed as he moved, the injuries calming him down slightly.

Instead of blocking like the smaller man expected, Yuu went low as he rushed into the man, his knife held in a high guard as he ducked beneath the feint. His back foot dragged across the ground as his right pushed him forward.

A loud clang could be heard as the jagged blade struck the tanto, the blades locking up as Yuu intercepted the strike. The impact rippling up his massive arm, only aggravating his worsening wound further.

Even as the impact occurred, Yuu's left arm rocked forward, driven by his bulging muscles as his fist raced towards the man's Solar Plexus in an effort to launch him into the glass fields surrounding the fight.

"Huh?", muttered Tamotsu as he realised he was tearing apart little more than a piece of clothing.

Nonetheless, he was offered little time to wonder at his opponent's remarkable speed; a cloud of crystal shards surrounded him. He frowned, growled at Van's taunt, but that was not the end. Projectile-type Zanpakutō were a pain to deal with, but he had an idea, and acted quickly upon it.

"Release!"

In a rapid swing of his right arm he uleashed the energy he absorbed from the strike he had intercepted prior, the "Bala" counterpart to the earlier "Cero" blast, at the airborne Van. Then, rather than attempt to block the numerous crystal shards in vain, he rebounded from the ground, cracking it in the process, to attack their wielder directly. The unimpressive if fast blast of energy should provide a momentary opening, he thought, as he approached the altitude of his opponent to deliver a jab, followed by a series of straight punches.

In the meantime, Kenta was surprised himself. There was a change in his opponent's demeanour. And while the guard had the advantage in terms of blade length, the latter exploited the advantage of his greater size instead. Kenta motioned to the side to avoid the latter's punch. However, the fist hit him in the chest. Like a battering ram, the strike forced air out of his lung and pushed him several metres away from Yuu. Yet, the guard managed not to crash into the panes of glass that were rotating about them. He pulled himself together. Subsequently, he charged at the Seated Officer, his jagged Shikai held high in preparation to strike... and, out of the blue, he vanished with the faint sound of Shunpo. Quickly he reappeared behind his opponent, swinging his blade downward to slash across his back.

Van, meanwhile, shattered!

This showed that it was not a standard Utsusemi employed by Van earlier but rather his Shōtōn variant. The being that had taunted Tamotsu had been nothing more than an elaborate clone -- a usage Van had to momentarily attribute to Yoshiro Shiba, whose usage of clones, illusion and misdirection had extensively grated on Van's nerves. Van's own skill in the aforementioned fields allowed him to perform such tricks.

"Checkmate,"

Van -- the real one -- was revealed to be standing outside the array of crystal, his senses trained on the guard who was now rocketing himself towards his shattered clone. He stretched his arms out and the crystal responded to his motions as the shards began to spin. Then he brought his arms together in a rough X shape, whilst skilfully avoiding Yuu and his opposition, to completely surround Tamotsu. The level of crystal now in-play was larger than previous due to the destruction of the clone and once again Van had enough to reconstitute his blade without compromising his cage.

"Surrender, or die." Van commanded.

Now it was just a question over whether Tamotsu's sense of self-preservation would triumph over his sense of loyalty. For it had already been established that Van cared little if the guards lived or died.

Fire once again burned along Yuu's right arm as the blade sliced across it. He had twisted as fast as he could when he heard the whooshing of the blade behind him. The back of his hand struck the blade, causing it to run down the side of his arms with several new cuts joining the first even as Yuu's arm continued to slowly break down.

He pushed harder, aiming to pull the blade farther off to the side as he continued spinning. His left hand held onto his knife, thrusting it forwards in an attempt to pierce the side of Yuu's assailant, aiming for underneath the man's armpit to hopefully put him down with a single thrust. Unable to block, Kenta had little choice but to sustain the hit. However, he did manage to move his body slightly, so that the tantō nicked his arm instead. Although far from lethal, such a wound would pose a significant hindrance; the guard leapt away from his opponent in order to rethink his strategy. But it was too late for that.

"Bakudō #63, Sajō Sabaku!"

He almost forgot about the woman. Kenta slanted in preparation to evade, only to notice that the spell had somehow surrounded him, coiling about him like some sort of golden snake. But how? The moment of hesitation was crucial. The glowing chains succeeded to wrap around him, as he realised too late that what he had witnessed was the spell's multiplied reflection in a set of floating panes of glass. At the same time, his brother was enclosed in a sphere of pink crystal, lured there by a decoy.

"Tch! I give up", snarled Tamotsu, enraged and embarrassed in equal measure because of the ease with which he was outmanoeuvred by the extremely nimble opponent.

"I... surrender", added Kenta in a strained voice, incapacitated by the binding spell.

They were paid well for their services, but they did not intend to defend the warehouse with their lives. There were other employers to find across the enormous criminal world of the Rukongai. In order to emphasise their unwillingness to fight to the death, both of them deactivated their Shikai. Yuu would find the ravenous splinters embedded in his flesh vanish as a result. Meanwhile, Asuka closed her eyes and sighed quietly.

"Yes!", she yelled all of a sudden. "We did it! We did it! I mean... excellent work, everyone. We have neutralised the threat, and captured valuable hostages. I'll contact the rest immediately to inform them of our success", she switched to a more professional tone as she reached to the communication device attached to her neck.


However, for some time now, Kanki-laden smoke had been seeping out from within the warehouse. Completely invisible, it melded with fog, dispersing its reiatsu-surpressing qualities over the entire battleground. At first it had been completely undetectable, but no doubt the Shinigami combatants had by then fallen under its effects. The drug influenced those with the weakest reiatsu first, but would eventually alter all their states of minds. Tamotsu and Kenta began to strain against their bonds, quickly reaching a frenzied state, but without apparent cause to the Shinigami. Paranoia was the most obvious result, as dark figures began to take shape in the fog. Allies would seem to become enemies, twisted into the forms of Hollows and other monsters, and creeping anxiety would set them all on edge.

Without warning, those same dark shapes began to attack the Shinigami: a massive snake rushed out from the mist and coiled around Van, twisting around his crystal mirrors. Yuu would find a hulking, rhinoceros-shaped Hollow charging straight towards him, while Asuka would find the form of Yuu distorted into a spindly, arboreal Hollow. And while they were only illusions, they would have seemed substantial to the Shinigami, pushing through the fog as though possessing bodily mass.

To make matters worse, Asuka would find that her communicator had been disabled. Instead of establishing an active channel of communication, the only thing that reached her was static.

At the same time, had the Shinigami not been distracted with the hallucinations, they certainly would have detected the various presences which had surrounded the clearing. A mass of common Rukon souls flanked them on all sides, enclosing them slowly. They were the mine workers who had not been present in the initial attack, only now something seemed to be calling them to the warehouse. However, as if that weren’t eery enough, the bodies of the guards that had been felled by the task force earlier began to jerk back to life. Stiffly, the mangled corpses pulled themselves into upright positions. Making no means to defend themselves against counterattack, the Undead guards rushed towards the three Shinigami. Blank eyes bulging, their jaws split wide open as their tongues snaked back and forth, desperate to be sated by blood.

They rushed towards the task force members… then lunged towards their throats!

Asuka flinched. Owing to her high spiritual power it took some time for the hallucination to set in fully, so she noticed the jarring transition. Nonetheless, she had no idea what was happening nor what was the cause, caught off-guard by the vivid mirages.

"W-what is... that... Fourth Seat Yuu?", she muttered.

Her hand fell; the only response from her communication device was ominous static. Her colleagues, and the guards they had captured, were seemingly replaced by some Hollow beasts. She narrowed her eyes. Was it a Zanpakutō technique? A Kidō spell? No, that was something that had come from within the warehouse, some sort of smoke. Unfortunately, she did not have the time to ponder upon that sudden development. Numerous shambling figures were approaching her. Dark, contorted shadows emerged from the fog, rank after rank of howling zombies.

"You, stay away!"

She swung her Zanpakutō at the Undead. Unsure, she decided not to attack them just yet; instead, the panes of glass she had summoned formed an impromptu wall between them. The zombies kept smashing against the sheets, pressing, and hitting them with their fists. In vain, although their mindless persistence and ghastly image ate away at Asuka's morale.

"What is going on!?"

Van was not as kindhearted as Asuka.

He was a trained assassin -- his past involved countless missions to monitor his fellow Shinigami and report on their misbehaviour. He had also cracked down on a few kanki deals in his time long before he was ever affiliated with the 9th Division, otherwise he wouldn't have been fit to identify the nature of the mission when Hisagi gave it to him.

This selfsame training gave more control over himself than his fellow Shinigami. He was used to staking out a target for hours and perhaps days at a time without losing his self-control. Hell his investigation of Yoshiro Shiba had gone on for years! Van's self-control was clearly evident -- his status as someone typically more powerful than a Lieutenant also played a part. His strength was not indicative of his position. Van was not a typical Seated officer. He was regarded as being Lieutenant-rank in power and the current Lieutenant of the 9th Division -- Kenji Hiroshi -- was on record stating that Van was stronger than he was.

Given the potentially addled minds of his comrades however Van saw only one option. He completely dissolved his Zanpakutō and pulled out a pen from the inside pocket of his kosode.

Yeah, a pen.

The corpse lunging for him was avoided with casual ease as the illusions holding him was shredded by his Shikai - Van had no way of knowing if they where real or not, but given his viewpoint they'd died like the rest. He subsequently stabbed the corpse in the neck with the pen and grinned. For said pen contained a powerful knockout drug.

"The pen is mightier than the sword, bitches. And I've still got my faculties about me. So fuck all of you!"

To those present they likely thought Van had succumbed to the kanki. They had no way of knowing that vulgarity was Van's bread and butter.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The most unmanly of screams could be heard from the road. The source of which was no one other than the giant of a man that had recently taken injury after injury with little emotion.

Yuu twisted on his heels, turning away from the ghostly hollow as he attempted to escape from it. His headlong sprint would take him right through Asuka, and into the people behind her. As he approached them all, he put his right shoulder down, aiming to bullrush right through the zombies, and away from the ghostly hollow behind him.

Asuka squinted her eyes. She required focus. In an attempt to regain clear perception she calmed her thoughts, inhaled and exhaled at a measured pace. Concentrated on her Reikaku. She could discern Yuu's towering figure within the form of an illusory Hollow, distorted, but still there. She disregarded the discordant howl that it emitted, ascribing it to the hallucinatory effect. What confused her was that he seemed to grow even larger, and larger. She leant forward, highly focussed, only to be knocked flat by a very tangible impact. Taken by surprise, she slid on the ground, toward the wall of glass she had formed.

"What the... oh!"

As she shook her head she noticed the zombies on the other side. The effects of the kanki aggravated again, so that she perceived the already unsettling ghouls as deformed monsters from the deepest nightmare. The piercing stare of their mindless eyes, gaping, ravenous maws, claw-like fingernails scraping against the sheets...

"Get... get away from me! Shatter!"

Her Zanpakutō heeded her command. The wall imploded, reduced to a cloud of razor-sharp shards within an instant. Then, the Lieutenant swung her translucent katana. In consequence, the shards obliterated the undead in one fell swoop; decapitated heads, dismembered limbs, torn out entrails, all dropped to the ground in a shower of blood. All that was left of the group was a crimson pool of body parts and viscera, gleaming splinters of glass embedded among them.

"Nicely done."

Van didn't voice the thought though -- best to go about his work in silence at the moment, least he was seen as some bloody demon for true by a tripping companion. Thanks to Asuka he was free to approach the bodies of the still writhing guards and jabbed each in the neck with the tip of his pen. The knockout drug was fast-acting -- to the point Van had declared it more suited to an assassin than a journalists in the past. They'd soon be sleeping.

To this day he wasn't sure what the hell Kenji had been smoking when he asked that 12th Division woman to create the pen and ink it used.

"Given the circumstances," Van began to say slowly and deliberately, "I think it best that we scarpered. I can get us back to the meeting room right now, and there we can clear our heads and plan our next move." He fingered an assortment of sheets, which happened to allow swift travel between two points, that rested inside his kosode. He and Kenji had used them before to great effect. "We have captives, after all."

His Shikai, however, was not sealed and his eyes where almost completely closed, as was his norm. Crystal floated around the Seated officer like a force of wary bodyguards.

"Wait a moment!", exclaimed Asuka in a strained voice as she was getting up, still catching breath after Yuu's abrupt charge.

She stood up and strove to collect herself. She was the highest-ranking officer in that team, she had to act like one. Once again, she concentrated on her Reikaku to dismiss the audiovisual hallucinations induced by some mysterious agent. Was that the fumes of the drug they were supposed to investigate?

"Both of you!", she yelled, though mainly addressing the fleeing Fourth Seat Officer. "We've got the guards incapacitated, and I've dealt with those... things. No need to hurry. First, we should contact the rest of the team. I can't do that remotely, so we have to walk in there and check the old-fashioned way", she motioned with her Zanpakutō toward the entrance to the warehouse. "One of you can stay here to keep an eye on these guys, but we aren't coming back to the Seireitei yet."

She attempted to sound convincing. She was the Lieutenant, after all. So that she dusted off her uniform, straightened up, then walked toward the warehouse at a brisk pace. She stopped right in front of the entrance to glance at her colleagues.

"Let's go!", she ordered, then walked inside.

"Just so we're clear: you want to go deeper into the warehouse? The place our intel said had a shit-tonne of kanki in it? What do you think we've been breathing!? 'Caise it sure as hell ain't my cologne!"

It was only then that he realised she wasn't listening and had already ventured inside.

Van sighed.

If he ever did get back to the Seireitei then he was going to have words with his Captain. Rather than give anyone a reason to mention in their reports that Van was being difficult or even insubordinate he stripped off the left arm of his retrieved Commando haori and wrapped the garment around his face to cover his mouth and nose. With that done he followed after Asuka, hoping that Yuu would follow.

Instead of speaking he devoted his focus to shoring up his mental resistance.

The kanki must have weakened the Kidou which had been blocking the warehouse door, since the task force was able to enter easily despite the barrier which had caused Ryuusei so much trouble earlier.

Speaking of Ryuusei, the Shinigami would find that he was lying prone on the floor of the warehouse. The floor around him was completely bare, and there was no one else inside. The kanki-imbued smoke was more concentrated here than outside, but it began to dissipate rapidly as soon as Asuka pulled open the door. Apparently coming to his senses, Ryuusei stirred. He groaned, then looked up at Asuka.

“W-What happened?” he asked. Then, seeing only her and Van there, he added, “Where are the others?”

His bewildered gaze settled at last on the door to the mineshaft, which had been completely blocked with a large, white stone. Paper seals had been slapped over the edges of the stone.

“Lieutenant Kuchiki and the Lieutenant of the Second Division must have gone through there,” Ryuusei said, stating the obvious. “It would seem that someone has interfered with our mission. We’ll have to break the seal to reach them.”

His face was pale, and his hands shook from the kanki. At least it felt as though the fog in his head had cleared somewhat. But then he glanced warily at Van. He couldn’t be so sure of the others. Could he trust them?

At that moment, the Shinigami felt a tremor beneath their feet. A shockwave hit the stone from behind, as though something were trying to get out. Ryuusei struggled to his feet, but was nearly knocked over again when the ground churned violently.

From the entrance to the mineshaft, a whistling scream pierced through the tunnels, its echo barely muted by the heavy stone in front of them.

Something, it would seem, was beneath them.

Van was nothing if not observant. Ryuusei's lingering look of doubt? The wariness in that look? The big difference between Van and most however was that he didn't care what others thought about him.

"If your legs are about to turn to jelly," Van said to Ryuusei, "then move to the rear." His subsequent look took in Asuka. "We'll handle this-."

The scream brought Van up sharply and for once he opened his sky-blue eyes fully.

"Well, that doesn't sound at all ominous. In light of this recent development I retract my previous statement. Ryuusei, you've done a marvellous job leading us thus far, and I'd rather follow no other into the lion's den."

It was obvious he was laying the sarcasm on thick.

"Why are you lying on the ground like that?", asked Asuka with a hint of derision as she glared at Ryūsei.

She was finally able to negate any lingering effects of the kanki. As such, she could think clearly once more. She noticed the seal placed upon the doors they would have to go through to join the rest of the team. She was about to say something, albeit the sudden commotion interrupted her.

"That sounds like trouble", she remarked after a moment's hesitation. "I mean, more trouble", she sighed, then looked at her remaining colleague. "I suppose I can blast that freaking door with Kidō, but it sounds like something's already trying to get here from the other side. Both of you, stand aside. Satonaka, get ready to slice up whatever comes through after... unless it's our companions, of course."

When she took several steps away from the sealed door, Asuka waited briefly for the other two to gain some distance as well. Subsequently, she lifted her free hand, and aimed it carefully.

"Hadō #32, Ōkasen."

Using her hand rather than her Zanpakutō as the catalyst allowed her to contain the yellow spell's arc into a more concentrated beam, far better-suited for the task. Seal or not, the door did not withstand the blast of energy. Fortunately, collateral damage was limited to several cracks on the wall. The passage was now open, and the three Shinigami could immediately hear some sort of clamour from within the tunnel.

"Finally, someone who speaks my language!"

Van said this prior to Asuka unleashing her light-show and in the time that passed thousands of shards of crystal began to dance in the air as Van once again made his Shikai known. Van deconstructed his entire Zanpakutō in order to maximise the coverage, and split the crystal equally between himself and Asuka, whilst positioning his own body between the entrance and Ryuusei. Anything looking to get at him would need to pass through Van first.

Van spoke not another word as he braced himself.

And neither one of them were disappointed.

As soon as Asuka cleared away the Kidō-sealed stone, strange, guttural howls reached their ears. Soon, pale arms pierced through the shadows of the stairwell. A dozen of the Undead who had managed to slip past Megumi before she had charred them to a crisp crawled upwards towards the light. The first of the creatures launched itself towards Asuka, once again snarling like an animal as it bit down towards her neck.

"Wait!" Ryūsei yelled above the clamor. "Don't kill them!"

It seemed he had noticed something the other two Shinigami had failed to observe, but there wasn't time to explain himself as the Undead rushed upon them.

At last, Ryūsei drew his Zanpakutō.

"Bloom profusely, Benishidare!" The blade of the sword shone with a sakura-tinged glow. One of the Undead leaped towards him, and with a simple, elegant movement he struck, leaving an unwavering horizontal line across the soul's chest. Instead of blood, flowers blossomed from the wound instantly. The Undead stumbled forwards a few steps, then collapsed, succumbing to the effects of the Benishidare's poison.

It seemed there was more to Ryūsei than either Asuka or Van had given him credit for. However, he had only managed to fell one of the Undead... and there were still several of them pushing at each other to climb out of the mineshaft.

"Oh, for the love of- Enkōsen!" Van barked.

The barrier that slammed into place did enough of a job to partially plug the gap. If anything it would allow for a modicum of time, which Van admitted he might need for focus. His crystal swirled around him and Van took great care to attach various ends of a created Kidō to them, which he then sent whizzing towards the mounting dead just as his shield began to crack! The end was held firmly in his left hand. He actually went to extreme lengths not to hit the shambling bodies and only when his crystal had sufficiently weaved its way through their ranks, an invisible Kidō net coiling through their lines on the proverbial coattails as it where, did Van initiate the second phase.

He timed his manouver to perfection because the moment he began to chant his next spell his shield smashed!

"Tsuzuri Raiden!"

Lightning surged along the line of his Kidō net and anything remotely close to a thread born by his dancing crystal received a nasty electric shock. A weak enough spell not to kill but one that wouldn't exactly leave them feeling fresh and dandy either. Van hoped it was enough to at least put them out of commission until they could be bound more securely. Something which Asuka took upon herself to handle.

"Deflect!", she exclaimed.

Her Shikai remained active ever since it had been released during the earlier battle. As such, she swiftly summoned a cloud of glass shards suspended in the air. This time, however, she had another purpose for it in mind. Namely, to act as a lens for the spell she was about to cast.

"Disintegrate, you black dog of Rondanini!! Look upon yourself with horror and then claw out your own throat! Bakudō #9, Geki!", she decided to recite the whole incantation whilst gesturing the spell's symbol with her free hand.

When the Bakudō passed through the shards of glass hovering in front of her, its energy was dispersed, and projected upon the group of zombies knocked out by Satonaka. This way, she managed to incapacitate them all in one fell swoop.

"I don't get why go for the extra effort, but whatever", she commented only in the aftermath. "Let's go, guys, the re-"

Suddenly, she was interrupted by a loud, discordant howl that resounded from within the tunnel. Not just that: she could feel a cold, oppressive spiritual pressure, unlike anything other she had ever sensed. Whatever was down there seemed worse than a mere Hollow.

"Oh, yay!" Van even clapped his hands together like an excited child. Only his excitement was anything but genuine. "More howling! I bet you this dude is impossibly big, has bad breathe, and smells godawful to boot. I'll put a bottle of Pigeon Ruby on it."

He wasn't looking forward to finding out but he nevertheless put one foot past the other and began moving out...

Infiltration

Ryūsei started at the first sounds of combat. He hadn’t realized it, but he had been so tense that the sudden noise of clashing steel—and then something ripping through flesh and a blood-curdling scream—caused him to jerk to his feet.

But it was a good thing he was standing, as just then light violet rods pierced through the fog, raining down from above. One of them streamed towards him, and he dodged to the side as it narrowly missed him. He swore. cursing whichever member of the task force had been careless enough to blindly launch a cloud of Hyapporanken towards their location. But then he shook his head. Now was no time to be distracted.

Despite its sloppiness, the frontal diversion seemed to be effective. The Hyapporanken had spread the fog apart just enough to where Ryūsei could see the edge of the building. There were no guards in sight. He wasn’t sure where the other Shinigami were planning on entering from, but he knew he had to act now or risk falling behind as he needed to be inside the warehouse as soon as the task force broke in.

Ryuusei pulled up the half-face mask that concealed his identity as a Kasumiōji clan member. He gripped his Zanpakutō with his left hand, holding the saya at the ready in case he needed to draw his sword. Then, he stepped out from the Kyokkō and started at a dead sprint towards the building. As soon as he could see the eaves of the roof poking through the mist, he launched himself into the air and landed on the shingles as lightly as possible. Ryūsei quickly spotted the large skywell in the center of the roof. Its hatch was propped open, likely for ventilation. Briefly, he wondered if the others had already entered, but he only hesitated a moment before he dropped down into the warehouse below.

Immediately, Ryūsei could sense that something was off.

The thin gray light from above barely penetrated the darkness around him. He wondered how the workers were expected to see with no light, but then realized that there were no other souls inside the warehouse. The stillness around him was palpable, and the only thing breaking the silence was the muted sounds of the scuffle outside.

Taking a gamble that he would be attacked, Ryūsei raised his hand and cast a contained Shakkahō. The crimson orb floated just beneath the rafters, casting a ghastly red light on the interior of the warehouse.

Large pallets were stacked high with dozens of bags that looked like they should have been filled with rice. They had been slashed open, and through the gashes in the burlap a white, powdery substance had spilled over onto the floor. It covered the entire area like snow, and Ryūsei began to feel an odd pressure at his forehead accompanied by a stinging in the back of his throat.

Kanki. The place was filled with Kanki.

Ryūsei went to unbar the door so the rest of the team could enter. But the door had been barricaded from the outside. The only other entry point was on the other side of the room: an opening which appeared to be the top of a mineshaft, as it was carved out of the rock which formed the fourth wall of the warehouse.

“What should we do?” he asked the others with him.

Megumi pointedly ignored Ryūsei as she made several hand gestures, tongues of blue fire coalesced into being as she softly intoned her spell. Soon the entire room was brightly lit with scarlet red as she with a flourish of her hands scattered the embers over all the sacks of Kanki.

A sudden conflagration followed as the normally crimson flames turned several hues of brilliant blue before the Kanki was consumed in Megumi's fire; following this motion she made another gesture and remarked harshly "Sōkatsui!".

Then there was a single surge of blue light and then smoking heaps of destroyed kanki. With this matter tended to she turned to the rest of the group.

"We press on, lets venture down the mineshaft. If we can't exit through this way then neither can they.. we have them cornered when we find them."

Without waiting for a response, Megumi made her way down the mineshaft with sure steps.

Unfortunately, Megumi must have failed to realize that one of the ways in which Kanki was utilized was via inhalation. As the narcotics were ignited and consumed by the flames of Sōkatsui, smoke filled the warehouse. It was a cloying scent, like chicory, but distinctively chemical. The throbbing in Ryuusei's head began to worsen, but at the same time, he felt a pleasant sensation tingling in his fingertips. He knew he had to get the door open in order to release the smoke before it could effect those inside. To that end, he drew his sword and jammed it between the door frame and the latch, throwing his weight against the door. But it was no use, the entrance must have been sealed with Kidō.

The Kanki-laden smoke swelled up towards the open vent in the ceiling, but it was already too late, at least for Ryuusei. All at once opening the door no longer seemed such an important task to him, and in fact he couldn't remember why he was trying to open the door in the first place. His extremities were already numb, and he could feel the weightlessness beginning to spread along the length of his limbs. In the back of his mind he felt panic, but it was drowned by the overwhelming sensation of floating. Left to tread in the darkness, Ryuusei's clouded gaze finally settled on the back of the lieutenant in front of him. Slowly, her shape began to morph into the grotesque figure of a Hollow. Pulling his Zanpakutō from the door, Ryūsei leveled it at Megumi, but he did not yet attack, perhaps clinging to his last shred of common sense as he restrained himself.

Then, from deep below the earth, an eery howl echoed in the mineshaft. There must have been something beneath them, although it was impossible to detect due to the Sekisekki embedded within the walls of the caves. But from the sounds of it—a dull pounding and a muted shuffling—whatever it was was growing closer.

Even though it was against his better judgement, Guàn-Lǐ still followed the beautiful black sheep into the lions den. And what did that get him? An enclosed room filled with chemicals. He worked better alone for this reason. "Megumi," The Second Division served only one lord. "Please refrain from burning narcotics in enclosed spaces." For he knew that this drug had dangerous inhalation based properties. It was his job to know this type of stuff. Especially one whose own Zanpakutō had similar applications. He quickly ripped off the arms of his kimono and wrapped it around his face.

This diversion could only last so long, dspecially one as loud and reckless as the one above. They should've just sent the second division to do this. Guàn-Lǐ thought to himself. Still, the chemicals in the room were abundant. And so Guàn-Lǐ, master of his own spiritual power, focused on inner meditation. Which, when coupled with his makeshift mask, allowed him to retain his senses.

And besides, he knew everything about indulgences.

However, as Megumi followed the steps leading down the mineshaft, Ryūsei, who had fallen strangely quiet, turned his reddened gaze on Guan Li.

"So you're the bastard who slaughtered the rest of the task force," he said evenly. "You Hollow scum!" Ryūsei spat, holding his Zanpakutō level in front of him. "You'll pay for this!" Without warning, the Shinigami lunged towards Guan Li, swinging his blade wildly with a double handed cut aimed directly for the center of Guan Li's skull.

Guàn-Lǐ moved in such a way that he could easily quell all questions about his status among the Onmitsukidō. Two steps. A tap against the flat end of the shinigami's blade with his floral umbrella, stepping inward with the few inches of space he created from the parry. This would grant him the distance required as his open palm faced Ryūsei's forehead.

But Ryūsei was apparently quicker than Guàn-Lǐ gave him credit for. As he pushed his sword to the side, Ryūsei turned the blade with a subtle motion of the wrist, despite the fact that he was obviously being slowed by the effects of the kanki. He cut towards Guàn-Lǐ again, this time the blade-edge threatening to cut across Guàn-Lǐ’s torso.

Guàn-Lǐ was shocked that this shinigami still possessed some form of consciousness. Most people who underwent this level of indulgence found their movements sluggish and slowed. But he was sharp. Guàn-Lǐ allowed Ryūsei to get within his zone, going as far as taking the cut to his torso. But he made sure to control just how deep the wound would be. Nothing that would be fatal, just a minor annoyance to the assassin. But more importantly, the opening would be made. Guàn-Lǐ flicked his wrist and entered a forceful lunge. Hoping to send the end of his umbrella into the chest of the assailant. Ryūsei tried to block his attack, but due to the close range the swordsman was given little room in which to maneuver. His blade bounced harmlessly off the side of the umbrella, and he was pushed back. Ryūsei lost his balance, and in that instant Guàn-Lǐ struck.

"Inemuri."

The struggle ended silently. He caught Ryūsei's limp body, helping to lay it down softly to avoid causing any serious injuries. Usually such a weak spell would require a little more preparation. But the Kanki interference in his spiritual circuitry limited the inherit resistance that most shinigami had to lower end spells. "I've slaughtered plenty of people. I'll pay for everything when my job is done." Guàn-Lǐ whispered to himself. The silent assassin stood up and faced the woman in charge.

"Someone of your spiritual power is probably immune to the chemical properties in the air. But we'll have to progress more carefully."

Guàn-Lǐ wasn't sure that leaving Ryūsei there was completely safe. But he didn't care. In fact, he laid him down in such a way only to avoid anyone unknowingly stumbling over his body and becoming aware of their presence.

"You're stronger than me, I'll provide backup." Guàn-Lǐ said to Megumi. Though whether or not he meant it could be debated. For he spoke with a plastic smile.

Megumi looked back at the two men behind her, and found to her surprise that a brief scuffle had taken place. One that Guan-Li had evidently won rather handily, hardly surprising given the meager caliber of his opponent, a simple errand boy against the Lieutenant of the Second Division. Ridicolous.

Yet if these things bothered her, she did not show even the slightest sign of it, as her grey eyes remained impassive and almost chilling, her expression neutral and serene. It was the mask of a true noblewoman.

She likewise gave little response to his attempts at banter and simply replied to his statement with a short nod, as if in confirmation before she made her way down the shaft to inspect it, searching for clues in a manner so forward as to be considered foolhardy.

Guàn-Lǐ had worked among thousands of assassins. Countless murderers and torturers and yet, somehow, Megumi exhibited a coldness like none other. Maybe it was the fact that, being surrounded by death, one would appreciate life. An indulgence possessed power with infrequency. The body will always grow a tolerance. Perhaps her abundance as a noblewoman detracted from her sense of life?

Regardless, he silently followed after Megumi. This would be a rocky situation. She was brash and abrasive. And the fact she wasn't speaking just made this mission more awkward. As seconds passed, these people were proving why Guàn-Lǐ preferred to work alone.

"Megumi," He finally spoke. "what are you planning? Our lives are in your hand."

Before Megumi could respond, there was a harsh grating sound above them. At the head of the stairs that they had just descended, what appeared to be a heavy stone was pushed over the opening to the tunnel. A crack echoed in the stone hallways, and the sudden depression of spiritual pressure made it clear to them that the mineshaft hadn’t been sealed by any normal means—someone had closed them in from the outside, in the same way that the entrance to the warehouse had been sealed shut. And perhaps more disconcerting than the fact that they had been trapped was the fact that they had no idea who had put the seal in place behind them. There had only been one person left in the warehouse, and he was currently lying unconscious on the floor, incapable of such a hefty effort.

Enclosed in darkness, the air around them suddenly felt as still as a tomb. The reiatsu-repelling Sekkiseki would have exerted an unearthly pressure around them on all sides. For those with high spiritual pressure, breathing itself would have been made difficult.

And still, that same throbbing sound came from beneath them. Like a heartbeat, it beckoned them deeper into the mines. A soft red glow shone at the end of the tunnel, the only light as even the illumination provided by Kidou would have been dimmed in the mines.

Megumi felt sudden pangs of exhaustion, dizziness and vertigo and for a few moments she struggled to stand upright. It was no secret that members of the Great Houses possessed far greater levels of spiritual energy than were typical, and as a prodigy and proud daughter of the Kuchiki Clan, Megumi’s power rivaled those of even a Captain.

Ordinarily this was an immense advantage, but down here underneath so much Sekkiseki, her essence seemed almost imprisoned as though kept tight in a corset. She felt as though the very walls squeezed against her, crushing her soul between them.

The ground rushed up to meet her as she soon found herself collapsing on the steps, and as a result her energy flared to life to reflect her emotions.. the air seemed to distort and quake under the sheer weight of her spiritual pressure, even as she found herself pained by exerting it. Rivulets of purple ran along the ground and a crushing presence began to form within the corridor for a moment, as the Noblewoman tried in vain to solve this problem too with raw power.

Eventually she snapped out of her anger and got to her feet, shakily as she replied to Guan-Li.

"We have but one choice, let us venture deeper down into the caverns and we are bound to find something of interest. If whoever is down there cooperates, good, if they don’t, kill them!"

Guàn-Lǐ was different. He was an average lieutenant with the spiritual power of one not meant to stand out. This fell in line with his duties within the Second Division, as powerful spiritual pressure often drew the attention of others. But by existing within the confines of mediocrity, Guàn-Lǐ could phase in and out of the eye of his target. But he wasn't useless. No. He mastered the art of manipulating his own spiritual pressure. Or controlling his Reiryoku so that he could survive harsh conditions. And this was no different. He circulated his spiritual energy to help him breath. To assist his bodily function, serving as an additional biological system.

Megumi would find Guàn-Lǐ beneath her arm in a quick step. His umbrella in one hand and her body on the other side, the white haired assassin helped support the girl. She might possess such a frightening power. But surely Guàn-Lǐ's experience would come in handy. Plus, something deep inside ate at him. He hated to see her suffer. To struggle. He could feel her anger at being weakened...

"I agree." This mission had a greater purpose. Guàn-Lǐ knew better to forget that. The greatest failure in an assassins life is an inability to silence their heart. But...but...

"Though we should try not to kill them. People become more talkative when held right at the edge of death." Guàn-Lǐ smirked, as if joking. He helped Megumi move forward. Assuring that his own makeshift system was intact. "Though I must say. For someone so young, you're quite the leader." An attempt to draw out a conversation. Something the assassin wasn't the best at.

Megumi moved swiftly and pushed Guan-Li away forcibly. "Spare me your misguided attempts at chivalry, I refuse to be coddled in such a manner." She could feel her temper flare as she strode down the remainder of the steps, adjusting her spiritual energy to the Sekkiseki as best she was able. It still caused her great pain but she endured it defiantly rather than allow even a smidge of weakness to show.

For now, she needed to escape the tight corridors and find someplace more open where the full extent of her essence might flow freely. It was this that brought her forward, as her mask of serenity began to fray at the edges due to the continuous strain. She would face whatever lurked down there, for surely it was better than being made to show weakness by a foe that she could not simply obliterate with blasts of Kidō.

While walking, Megumi indulged Guan-Li for a moment by flatly stating. "I would hesitate to call me young, I have lived for over two hundred years." She ignored his compliment, she had done nothing that impressed her and so she could only consider it hollow. Clicking her tongue, she turned briefly to command the other Lieutenant with a serious and demanding tone.

"If you have the time to play gentleman, then put it to better use and scout ahead to provide intelligence on our current situation, I entrust that this task would well suit your talents? You needn't worry, I shall not inexplicably crumble the moment you turn your back on me."

Guan Li had been thrown around by his makeshift partner and it irritated him. But he wouldn't let her break through his shield. No. Guan Li had undergone countless missions with people who exhibited more dangerous traits. Hell, maybe it was because he could feel the pain and sorrow in Megumi's voice. A soul so powerful, she existed alone among the other lieutenants. An assassin could understand that lifestyle more than anything else. So rather than feed into her fire, the pale man only gave her a genuine smile.

"We're not separating." Guan Li responded calmly. They had no intel about this place and lacked proper guidance. Even the communicators they were given lost connection from within the confines of the Sekkisekki. That would be suicide. Not on his part either...Guan Li always found his way out of trouble.

But before they could separate, there was a blood-curdling shriek that echoed in the tunnels. Without warning, a figure hurled itself from the darkness above... straight towards Megumi! The Undead extended bony fingers towards her throat, foam dribbling from its mouth. It was joined by a horde of inhuman brethren who filled the tunnel below them. They surged upwards, at least twenty bodies crushing against each other as they rushed to be the first to the top.

No doubt the first of the wave would be cut down mercilessly, but had Megumi and Guan Li paid any heed to the Undead’s expressions, they would have noticed that what drove the creatures upwards from the depths of the mines was not hunger—it was fear.

It would seem they were running away from something, attempting to escape.

Guan Li felt something approaching rapidly. And movement within these narrow corridors seemed impossible. "Ms. Kuchiki, I might have to borrow your methods." He said with a silent grin. A sword was pulled from the bottom of the umbrella and used to bifurcate several of these undead monsters. Sure they were once living creatures, but they proved a bigger threat to society more than before.

However, had the corridor not been so dark, Guan Li would've noticed that they had an expression of fear rather than hunger. Instead, he had to act as quickly as possible, hoping that Megumi was able to keep up with his swift movement. "We have to press forward." He noted.

Megumi's fury was evident as she spared not a moment to attack the rampaging horde, she did not care about them or what they thought of her as blue flames danced across the walls and ceiling and then shot down to embalm a multitude of them as she stood untouched amidst a sea of fire. She let her flames run rampant across the corridor and only made a slight effort of steering them away from Guan-Li.

"If you get in my way I cannot guarantee that I won't kill you by mistake. But still, you speak the truth, I will open a path for us.. follow me!"

With another gesture of her hands and an uttered incantation, Megumi unleashed a massive blast of brilliant blue flames that parted the incoming horde for a brief moment and opened up a narrow if clear path deeper down into the caverns as she employed Shunpo to slip through the opened passageway and down to the next area.

At last, Megumi and Guan Li reached the end of the stairwell. Entering a wide cavern with a high, vaulted ceiling, they found a macabre sight in front of them.

Dozens of bodies, apparently once belonging to the common souls of Rukongai residents, lay stacked in discarded piles against the walls. The rusted stench of blood was heavy in the air, and a sickly glow came from one end of the cavern, illuminating the smooth, colorless skins of the countless victims of a mad science experiment. A series of vials against the back wall were connected to each other by flesh-like tubes that pumped some greenish liquid from one cannister into the next… and in each of the canisters an oversized eye hovered, floating in the center of the glass. Without blinking, for they had no lids, the eyes stared at Guan Li and Megumi, glassy and dead, judging them silently.

In a way, the chamber resembled the 12th division headquarters as an underground laboratory. The real question was why such a room had been set up here, beneath the mines of Sekkiseki. Whatever the reason, they would no doubt glean some valuable information by extracting whatever they could from the illegal laboratory.

More troubling than the bodies, however, was the large black seal which appeared to be burned into the back wall of the chamber. The hexagramic marking resembled the trigrams of a bagua symbol, but there was something off about it, as a single vertical line, a shadow bisected the hexagram.

Suddenly, there was a sharp crack, and a roar, and at once Megumi and Guan Li would find themselves overwhelmed with a force that was not Reiatsu. Then, the wall of the cavern split in two! Wind rushed towards them, but it felt more like they were standing at the edge of a great vacuum that pulled them towards itself. What appeared to be a tear in space yawned open. Cthullic, shadowy limbs writhed out from the gap towards them as a gargantuan shape began to emerge in the darkness.

The monster screamed, loud enough to send reverberations through the walls around them and to the world above. It would seem they had been led straight into a trap... to be used as bait for this creature of the rift.

Megumi's eyes narrowed at the monster, almost as though imagining that it would burst into flames out of sheer embarrassment at being faced with a woman of her impeccable heritage. Yet she did little else, no fire burst into being around her and no incantation left her mouth as she simply descended down to face the monstrosity fully, unafraid and unbending while motioning for Guan-Li to follow.

"It seems that this complex hides more secrets than I gave it credit for, keep your wits about you Lieutenant. For I have no concept of just what this is.. but before this minute is through I should wager that we'd be experts."

Guan Li had followed Megumi throughout the fire and flames and into the vast laboratory. He'd seen countless scenes similar to this one. Mad scientist and wannabe researchers using forgotten citizens as test subjects and tossing them away like trash. It sickened him. But he needed to remain calm. While the immense pressure brought a shocking expression to her face, the young assassin remained unmoving on his visage. He wasn't afraid of this thing. Although he wished he packed an all out attack type Zanpakutou...But that didn't matter. Everything died and that was the job of an assassin.

The question would be how to handle this situation...

Guan Li took several steps forward and peered at the demonic entity. "Megumi-san, I doubt you have any idea what this is...Please allow me to be the decoy. You pack more punching power and can take advantage of any openings."

(Un)expected Guests

The formless mass of shadow which behaved like a living thing virtually spilt itself upon the floor, amassing a sizeable pool of liquid blackness. For a short while it continued to shift and bubble. Gradually, it began rising, first thick and featureless like the trunk of a tree, then acquiring slightly more defined traits. The unidentified creature sighed in a hundred different voices all together, inhaled the air so saturated with ambient particles of Reishi. A head started forming, possessed of far too many faces haphazardly transitioning into each other, long, tentacle-like appendages slithered toward the two Lieutenants curiously... and, without a warning, the monster was enclosed in a cage of translucent energy.

"My, my, my, whom have we got here? Visitors!", exclaimed a cloaked figure who had emerged from a hidden passage just a moment prior. "It is such a rare treat for guests to grace my humble workshop with their presence!"

The very tall, somewhat lanky woman was clad in rather nondescript, dark purple robes, and the hood upon her head concealed her face with a shadow. Her spiritual pressure seemed oddly nonexistent. She walked unhurriedly a few steps forward, long, measured, in a manner reminiscent of a crane.

"And not ordinary guests at that!", the woman faced them directly, gesturing with her arms in obvious excitement. "Two esteemed Lieutenants of the Gotei 13! How remarkable!"

Out of the blue, she swung one of her arms toward them, and a white projectile burst forth from the palm of her hand. However, it flew past the officers harmlessly, only to explode into a six-pronged sheet that blocked the entrance to the laboratory. Something that, especially Megumi, would identify to be unmistakably a Tsuriboshi spell, cast abruptly in complete silence.

"Please, do make yourselves comfortable", continued the mysterious woman with an eerily cheerful tone as she spread her arms to the sides, gleaming threads emerging from the tips of her fingers.

Before Guàn-Lǐ could start his assault on the mysterious beast, a strange woman managed to cage it before suddenly appearing. He listened to her speak, noting both her mannerisms and minute behaviors in order to see if he'd encountered her sometime in the past. But as of yet, nothing she'd done seemed familiar. Still, he worried little about the kidou barrier behind them. For both Megumi and himself were capable practitioners of the magical arts. But it wasn't like they could just leave this place anyway. This woman had something to do with it and they needed to find out why.

Guàn-Lǐ took several steps forward and asked the golden questions. "What is this place and who the hell are you?"

The mysterious woman tilted her head.

"Right, right, right. Well, this is a place, and I am its owner", she replied with a shrug of her arms, letting the ensuant awkward silence linger for a moment. "Of course, I would love to explain everything in detail... but only if you promise to stay with me here forever, all right?"

After those words she swung both of her arms so fast they seemed a blur. Ten glowing threads of Reishi twisted and coiled about the two Lieutenants in an attempt to entangle them both, their high speed and unpredictable, ever-changing trajectories clearly intended to make evasive manoeuvres that much harder. To accomplish that, she kept moving her fingers and flicking her wrists, like some sort of conductor.

At the sudden appearance of the other woman, Megumi's face betrayed a sliver of some unknown emotion; a feeling of intense resolve one that caused her spiritual power to spike in intensity, agitated by this strange woman, or excited by the promise of battle.

It manifested subtly at first, an outline of shimmering purple around her form that resonated with a slow hymn as it emanated across the room, coming in waves that seemed to grow in intensity with each moment until at last the full extent of her powers were unleashed. Megumi's Reiatsu mirrored her temperament, it possessed an almost violent quality to it as the entire room began to rumble and tremble at the presence of a Kuchiki Noblewoman spreading her wings in full.

Her powers were such that they might potentially do more harm than good for her comrade, as an overwhelming weight of raw crushing intent would weigh down upon him and their adversary both; reflecting the noblewoman's belief that anything could be solved by force.

"Stay back, Guan-Li and use your talents to find out what they're hiding down here and why, gather intelligence and do your division proud. I lack your finesse, I worry, and so I shall keep our foes at bay in the meantime."

To emphasize her statement, she made a flourish of her hands as a whirling torrent of golden threads manifested around her form and promptly flew out in all directions, meeting the spell of her adversary directly and what followed was a short wrestling bout, as the chains kept one another at bay whilst Megumi took a single step forward and made a sudden gesture, as a mighty gale ruptured out towards her adversary with murderous intent, seeking to seize hold of her and smash her against the wall behind her.

But such displays did not live up to her status on their own and so she spun around on her heel and snapped her fingers, as a lone blue spark soon expanded into a violent conflagration of brilliant blue following the initial blast of wind, directed squarely at her foe with the intent to cremate her, the constant motions having sent Megumi's hair adrift, flailing wildly behind her in the wake of her spellcraft.

The robed woman lowered her arms. Meanwhile, the Reishi threads that clashed with Megumi's chains detached from her fingers, freeing her, and allowing her to produce new ones. Hastily she performed a motion as if she were dancing flamenco to skilfully weave a mesh shield in front of her. Said barrier intercepted the initial attack, and while it was torn apart, it nonetheless managed to absorb the majority of its power. As such, the woman's robes fluttered wildly in the aftermath, though she remained where she stood.

"Such strength, such ferocity!", she exclaimed.

The follow-up was quick. For a split second it seemed as if the blue blaze consumed her. However, her lightning-fast reflexes allowed her to leap into the air with a Flash Step, in the nick of time. Suspended in the air like a predatory bird, she once again swung both of her arms.

"I'd expect nothing less from Lieutenant Kuchiki!"

Numerous threads extended from the tips of her fanned fingers, writhing madly. Suddenly, they shone with arcs of intense electricity, a web of lightning bolts wrapping around Megumi. Having detached the electrified threads as she landed, the mysterious sorceress spun about her axis, both of her arms rotated, and a new set of threads produced a whirlwind to engulf her opponent.

Megumi's hair came undone as arcs of errant lightning and reiatsu incinerated the ribbon that held it in place, her feet kissed the ground as she twirled in place hands outstretched; drawing lines of splendid blue in the air as the wind and lightning enclosed around her, entrapping her within a whirlwind as she continued her dance in the opposite direction to the raging currents.

There was a rustling noise as the bands of lightning around her began to curve around her instead of caging her in as she used her mastery of the elements to spur the fragmented wills towards a new goal, the selfsame woman who had first cast them. Tendrils of blue light came together and assumed the form of a single wide beam of crackling lightning that scorched the surrounding ceiling and floor as it hurtled towards Megumi's opponent with the intent to annihilate her.

Meanwhile, the winds around the sorceress were likewise kept at bay as she completed her dance and performed another flourish, one that scattered the winds forcefully in all directions, leaving the noblewoman unharmed. The sorceress, again, decided not to meet the magical might of her opponent head on, and elected to evade with another expert display of Shunpo. Nevertheless, spells of such calibre were not that easily escaped from and, as she assumed a new position, she noticed that a small portion of her robes had been incinerated, the edge smouldering slightly.

"Whoopsie-daisy!", she remarked.

Without further ado she twirled her long arms. Numerous additional strings emerged from her fingertips to form a large, densely-woven web that proceeded toward Megumi like a mobile wall, evidently intent on dicing her into minuscule chunks as it would pass through her.

In the meantime, the rest of the investigation team had arrived at the end of the tunnel leading up to the spacious room. However, the sheet of Tsuriboshi remained in the doorway, blocking the only entrance.

"Seems that Lieutenant Kuchiki is fighting someone strong", commented Asuka with a hint of anxiety. "Should we just hack this crap into pieces, or...?", she addressed Satonaka, holding her Zanpakutō at the ready.

"Is there the room for all of us to fight in there?" Yuu asked from further up the tunnel as he finally caught back up to the group. He had continued running away after the initial fright, but the effects of the drugs had finally worked their way out of his system. He had only just made it back with the rest of the group.

"Also sorry for running away out there..." He'll add with a hint of shame.

"I say we-"

Van's reply to Asuka died on his tongue as he instead turned to regard the much larger Yuu with a wry smile.

"Don't worry, big guy." He even casually tapped the man's chest. "As far as I'm concerned you where mopping up the ones Asuka missed."

He finally turned his attention towards the doorway. He layered a wall of crystal before it with a nonchalant wave of his right-hand, but never actually touched the active spell, before making a continuous circular motion with his left. Several Enkōsen shields, forming a layered barrier one-atop-the-other, appeared between Van, his companions and the door, with the crystal still occupying the space closest to the covered doorway. He then clenched his left hand tightly, purplish light emanating from between his fingers, and when he opened the hand three small purple orbs sat shimmering on his palm; all the while he was chanting almost silently. Bakudō #36 was intended to bounce back an enemies attack rather than dissipate it with a barrier; one orb flew towards Asuka, another towards Yuu, whilst the final seemed to sink into Van's hand. The summoned barriers where usually oval-shaped but Van had managed to manipulate the nature of the barrier into a thin, almost non-existent, sheen just above the skin. This caused the three companions to seemingly glow with a faint purple light whilst affording them maximum mobility.

Suffice to say that Van's former position in the Onmitsukidō was becoming evident, because the man was acting with a degree of caution his companions might have called uncharacteristic based on his actions thus far today.

"Now, we cut it to bits."

He pulled his right-hand back and thrust it swiftly forward! The sharpened crystal made light work of the Tsuriboshi spell, and now it was time to wait and see if anything came of their forced entry.

Lieutenant Kuchiki's hands flittered through the air as she opposed the spell of her adversary with another of her own, motes of blue light shimmering into being like a field of glittering stars before connecting into a mass of coruscating lightning, streaking from dot to dot until alas it became a brilliant web of azure that entangled the incoming threads and evaporated them before the sorceress performed a second flourish and uttered a command.

"Byakurai!"

Megumi's earlier construct crumbled at the mention of the spell and then it whirled into a glittering maelstrom of energy before reforming into twelve javelins of electricity that flew out towards the strange woman with intent to kill! What her opponent seemed to lack in terms of raw power, though, she compensated for with versatility and quick reflexes. Another movement of her long fingers, as if playing on an invisible piano, and she conjured a web of Reishi threads in front of her to rapidly form a shield to protect her. And not an ordinary shield, but...

"Enkōsen!", she found it prudent to block a named spell with a named spell of her own, for words held incredible power.

The javelins of Megumi's make crashed into the barrier with substantial force indeed. Nevertheless, even if shattered by their power, it did defend its caster from an instant death.

"Oh my, so many guests!", the mysterious sorceress exclaimed in the aftermath. "And here I am having my hands full attending to just one of you! Inexcusable!"

She glanced at the members of the covert investigation team, Lieutenants, and high-ranking Seated Officers who had all come there in pursuit of answers. Of course, they were ready to fight for them, if need be. Strong as she was, the woman seemed to be equally matched with Lieutenant Kuchiki at best, so how could she hope to confront the whole task force at once?

"This ought to help!", she said, reaching with her hand toward her concealed face.

One could think she was about to reveal her identity. However, rather than uncover her face she did the exact opposite: with one swift motion she summoned the white plate of a mask – a Hollow mask. There was no change or surge in her spiritual pressure, for it remained obscured by her unassuming if peculiar cloak. Still, anyone who had at least heard of such notable people as Captain Hirako or Captain Ōtoribashi, the Visored, would know what that action entailed. Hollowfication, where powers of a Hollow supplemented those of a Shinigami. The woman who had confronted the team was not a familiar member of the Visored, however. Her mask did not resemble any of those the officers could recognise; obovoid in shape, possessed of 2 eye sockets and 3 pairs of dark green patches that imitated further eyes, and lastly, mandible-like protrusions near the part that covered the wielder's mouth.

"Hadō #11, Tsuzuri Raiden", she declared with a distinctly reverberating voice.

What she unsleashed was not a simple arc of electricity. Rather, she brought forth a veritable storm of writhing chain lightning, sizzling currents of celadon colour lashing across the whole room violently with each flick of her wrists, at all the Shinigami. Threads emerged from threads, and from them countless bolts of lightning, which sought to entangle, then incinerate the intruders. Quick to react despite her shock, Asuka summoned a set of glass sheets with her Shikai, an impromptu wall to defend her and her nearby colleagues. However, they were shattered in an instant, unable to cope with that kind of power. The arcs of green lightning approached the young Lieutenant, and all she could do was widen her eyes in anticipation.

Thankfully for Van his experience kicked in.

Van was quite possibly in unique company as far as his colleagues where concerned. How many of them had had the opportunity to weather the attacks of a Visored? He wouldn't have thought many -- Van, however, had. He had fought a mysterious Visored whom Van suspected was really Yoshiro Shiba some years ago, and the fight had easily ranked amongst the most difficult Van had ever engaged in. He had discovered something during that battle as well -- the mask itself was a weak point.

"Hit her mask!"

He bellowed the command over the top of crackling lightning -- another force Van was comfortable with having sparred frequently with Kenji -- whilst stepping through the now-open doorway. Courtesy of his earlier spells the lightning bounced off his body and harmlessly away, though he did have to admit to having felt a jarring impact. He hoped this served as a reminder that he had afforded Yuu and Asuka similar protection. Still, he managed to keep his feet, and Van took full advantage to throw his arms forward. His crystal leapt to obey his silent wishes as if possessing a will of its own!

Fist-sized crystal projectiles snaked through the air, skilfully avoiding comrade and lightning alike, their goal clear: the mask the Visored wore.

Yuu decided that standing still in the face of such an attack was more than even he could handle, tough as he may be. Stone cracked and creaked as Yuu dug his hands into it, the unyielding rock failing under his fists. Arms embedded in the earth, Yuu stared at the approaching lightning even as Van's crystals started to cover him. His right arm burned as he pulled upwards, lifting a section of the floor off the ground to serve as a shield from the mass of lightning. The streams hit the stone, starting to rapidly melt through the interposing mass.

But Yuu wasn't going to to let that stand. Flipping his knife into a reverse grip, he drew his arm back to strike the wall of stone in front of him.

"Be Brave, Karura!" Yuu announced as his arm shot forward, flames burning back alone his bare skin.

The stone wall shattered as it was struck by the burning fist, its mass being engulfed in flame even as it was driven into the mess of strings and electricity attempting to burn through it. At least for the moment, they joined the barrage of crystal as they dragged the strings with them. As Yuu brought his arm back, a charred gauntlet encased his left arm, pipes and spikes adorning its length.

"5th Flame."

In the meantime, Asuka remembered something. As such, rather than let the tentacles of lightning entwine her, she cut them with a few swift slashes of her Shikai. After all, glass was a very poor conductor of electricity. Her composure regained, she immediately countered. Earlier, her wall of glass had been shattered, but that did not mean it became useless. Far from it. With a single swing of her translucent blade she commanded the shards to rise from the ground, then shower the opponent with a volley of highly sharp projectiles. In that they joined the chunks of crystal let loose by Van in an impromptu joint attack.

However, before any projectile could hit the target, a writhing cocoon of sorts manifested in their way, enveloping the sorceress whole with numerous thick Reishi threads. The whole barrage was intercepted, or swatted away, leaving her unharmed in the aftermath. If that was not already clear, it was becoming more and more evident that she was truly in a different league compared to the pair of guards they had defeated outside.

"Tsk-tsk-tsk! That is no good!", she exclaimed in response. "I do not wish any harm to my visitors, but I cannot let you rummage through my humble abode either. Perhaps you will help me with this dilemma... Megumi?"

Megumi turned around to face her "allies" as the sorceress called her name and her expression was inscrutable as ever. "It seems that this charade is finally at an end, I expected as much when I came here; but worry not we are not barbaric and so we will allow you to live. Why? Because we are better than that."

Raising her hands, Megumi intoned slowly as flickering blue flames emerged across the room at her will and whim, dancing luridly at every spoken syllable as she began her chant with blinding speed and perfect diction.

"Ye lord! Mask of flesh and bone, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! Truth and temperance, upon this sinless wall of dreams unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws!"

Megumi's reiatsu flared outwards and weighed down upon everyone present with its oppressive weight and potency as it flared out and reshaped itself into the effigy of a great Wish Dragon maw agape and blue smoke fuming from its nostrils; her spell manifested from its maw in the form of a brilliant azure inferno that completely enshrouded the two women and set the entire room ablaze in dazzling blue. Yet its vast power was not directed at her former friends even though they would undoubtedly be caught in the crossfire, instead, it aimed to incinerate all traces of research on Kanki and any stores of the substance and ensure that the Gotei 13 failed at their intended task!

Meanwhile, the woman only now revealed to be her ally from the beginning observed as everything of note within the room was being eradicated, but not without discarding her Hollow mask out of prudence. Still, her face remained unseen to the rest of the investigation team, and for now, her identity would be known solely to the one who had proven their loyalties lay elsewhere.

"Well, that's that", she remarked. "I am sure we will meet again eventually, so, see you later!"

The strings which emerged from one of her hands coalesced into a single long tape, which began twisting and coiling about the two women, and the strange creature sealed in a cage of Kidō. Shortly, the tape tightened around them all. Then, with a flash of light, they vanished from the room, teleported safely to an unknown destination. Tired, but also bewildered no doubt, members of the investigation team were left behind in a room full of stifling smoke and charred remains. Sent to discover the culprit behind drug smuggling, they accidentally came across signs of a far greater conspiracy.

And while their original mission could be considered a failure, they had a lot to report to their superiors.

End of Chapter
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