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Night Terror

"Get out of my way!"

One of the Quincy Soldaten, troopers of the Wandenreich, turned toward the source of the shout. Ethereal bow of condensed Reishi already manifested in his hand followed his gaze shortly... too late. An armoured gauntlet smashed into his masked face. The clawed fingers clasped around it and, with considerable momentum, the Soldat was brought down to the ground head-first. Crashed into it with a sickening sound as his skull was cracked, brain and blood smeared across the shattered pavement.

"You..."

Fourth Seat Officer of the Third Division, Teruo Akui, crouched over the dead body like a predator ready to pounce. His short, black hair tousled, hazel eyes wide open and bloodshot, drops of perspiration gathering on his dark skin. His fierce stare fixed at a pair of enemies who had just noticed him.

They lifted their bows and fired their holy arrows. Teruo did leap at them indeed, rotating mid-air to evade the projectiles. Then, he landed right before them and passed by at a high speed. One of the Quincy groaned when his side exploded into a fountain of blood, torn apart by the spikes that protruded from Akui's Shikai. A spiky gauntlet and vambrace that looked more like a torture implement than a weapon.

The other one turned around, arrows bursting forth from his bow one after another. However, Teruo jumped into the air in a rapid backward somersault, over the arrows, with a kick delivered straight to the Soldat's back. With a loud crack the spine broke, and the Quincy crashed into the ground. Akui landed on all fours, like an animal, panting and looking around frantically.

"Who else...!?", he yelled over the clamour of battle.

Suddenly, he felt it. A powerful Reiatsu approaching the area, eclipsing that of the rank-and-file the way Sun overshadowed common stars upon the daytime sky. Teruo stood up in preparation to face another opponent. Heat. He felt incredible heat, yet he trembled. He bared his teeth.

"Man, why are you all dyin' like bitches? You can't even deal with a single Shinigami?"

There he was. A young man in a white uniform. By far, his most striking and recognisable feature was his short, red mohawk. There was no doubt about it – he was a Sternritter. In fact, Akui did actually recognise him from the records of the previous battle. He was the one.

"You!", he exclaimed. "You're the one who wounded Lieutenant Kira and killed the others!", veins bulged out on Akui's temples.

"Ah? Yeah, maybe. I killed lots of you guys", admitted Bazz-B. "You all go down like wusses so I don't really memorise everyone I waste, though."

"Graaaah!"

Roar of fury. Fueled by the desire to avenge his fallen comrades, Teruo charged at the Sternritter. Recklessly so.

"Just, like, that", added Bazz-B with a smirk.

A flash of light. Searing heat. A burning sensation exploding within his chest. Struck by a single thin beam of incredibly focussed fire, Akui instantly lost his impetus. Defeated casually, nonchalantly, with a single blow. His face contorted, unintelligible gurgle escaping from his mouth as he fell. Collided with cold stone, barely able to move.

"No...", he whispered when he sensed the Sternritter simply move on.

"No...", he muttered when he saw a unit of Quincy approach the estate of his family.

"No...!", he groaned when he heard the arrows shoot, and the screams that followed, cut off abruptly.

"NOOOOO!"

***

"Nooo!"

He woke up. That was another nightmare. Again. He cast aside the duvet, soaked in sweat, and after a moment's hesitation, got up from his futon. Absent-mindedly, he touched his chest with his left hand. His muscles, like steel wires underneath skin, tensed with each motion. There was a single circular burn scar in the middle of his chest, its other half on his back, between the shoulder blades. A constant reminder of his failure.

He was weak. Too weak to protect what he cherished, so he lost almost everything. Almost.

Still somewhat shaken, he opened the sliding door to his room and entered the hallway. He attempted to move silently, but all in vain.

"A nightmare again? I've heard you."

There was a boy standing in the doorway to the opposite room. Younger, shorter, with longer hair of a brown colour, yet still quite similar to his older brother. Yuji Akui, the current Fourth Seat Officer of the Third Division.

"Why aren't you fast asleep?", asked Teruo in response. "You need a lot of rest if you want physical conditioning to be effective."

Yuji rolled his eyes and sighed.

"Right, right, of course. Training. Sheesh. You want to be the new Captain-Commander or something?"

The older Akui narrowed his eyes slightly and glanced at his brother as he was passing by.

"Something like that. Now seriously, go to sleep."

He proceeded to move to the bathroom. He had to wash his face, at least. Perhaps the whole body.

"You aren't the only one who's got nightmares, Teruo-niisan."

He stopped.

"I know, Yuji."

"But we're gonna get strong, right? So things like that won't happen ever again."

Deep breath, then slowly exhale.

"Yes, Yuji. That won't happen ever again."


In another part of the Seireitei, specifically the Sixth Division barracks, there was another man, adorned in Captain robes, performing his routine paperwork. However, the night's wind was fierce, and it was interrupting his work.

Today, Byakuya Kuchiki sat alone, with his Lieutenant office currently vacant. He had other things to attend to. And so Byakuya stood up, after gathering his documents, and went outside to close the door.

As he was about to do so, Byakuya noticed the odd serenity in the moonlight, and found himself staring into space. It was an odd habit for the Captain of the Sixth Division, though after witnessing much war as of late, any man would take it upon to himself to reflect.

Images of past figures came to mind this night, and then images of more recent enemies. He saw himself drowning in a pool of his own blood. In his powerlessness, he had abandoned his pride, and asked a mere Ryoka for help.

"Shameful." Byakuya Kuchiki thought to himself, catching himself in his own thoughts, and promptly closing the door with a single action. He turned around, and returned to his desk. "There is nothing more to reflect on. All I must do is invest my being into protecting Soul Society." Byakuya reassured himself, as ink met paper once more.

The Blade Which Trembles

"I am very grateful that you agreed to our meeting, Byakuya Kuchiki-dono", said Teruo after a deep, polite bow.

He had his full Shinigami uniform on, thoroughly washed and ironed, with nary a crease. He was, after all, the head of a noble family paying a visit to the head of much greater noble family. And, a Third Seat Officer; there was a scabbard strapped to his sash and hanging at his right hip, with his Zanpakutō stored inside. There was a reason he had brought it with him, though one he had yet to explain.

"I understand that a man of your position has got many duties to attend to, so I will attempt to waste as little of your precious time as possible", he continued. "I have got a request, Kuchiki-dono. One that I believe you are the most suited to fulfil."

Inhale, exhale.

"I would like you to spar with me."

The Captain of the Sixth Division momentarily found himself caught off-guard by the question, though his face showed otherwise. He knew Teruo through political discourse between noble families. It was a common thing. But he had not expected a member to come to him for sparring. The head of the Kuchiki Clan was no idiot, and he knew there was a deeper purpose to this, and he would probe into it.

"For what purpose?" Byakuya responded with a matter-of-fact tone, his cold expression not wavering in the slightest. The success of Teruo's endeavors would all hinge on whether the validity behind this request was legitimate or not.

There were several reasons Akui had chosen Kuchiki as the target of his fairly unusual request. Chief amongst them was the fact that, as he expected, the Captain of the Sixth Division would sympathise with him. And, in return, he could genuinely trust him.

"Owing to your superb skill and immense power, you were able to fulfil your duty as a Shinigami during the Quincy Blood War", he started, carefully choosing his words. "I was not. Ever since, I have been toiling unremittingly to weed out weakness and grow stronger. So that the next time somebody dares disturb peace of the Soul Society, I will be able to fend the enemy off with my own might. I want to be able to protect not just what little remains of my family, but the whole Soul Society."

The fingers of his left hand curled into a clenched fist. A perceptive enough observer could notice peculiar depigmented patches on his otherwise dark skin, interspersed across most of the hand.

"I have heard stories of your exploits. You are truly an exemplary Shinigami, and I wish I could accomplish a fraction of what you have done in the line of duty. That is why I seek your guidance. As a foremost defender of the Soul Society, I would like you to test my resolve, my power and skill."

With those words he bowed again.

"Flattery is unnecessary." Byakuya firmly told the man bowing towards him. The Kuchiki head was completely aware of his strength, and never required others to state it for him. Nonetheless, he had listened to the plight of the Shinigami before him, and for a period of time, sympathized.

"Stand." Byakuya told the man, who rose from his bowing position. Looking at the man before him, Byakuya raised a question, "You have come before me to 'test' your resolve, power and skill." Byakuya was perceptive, and he would not allow a younger officer to pull him into a game.

"You are the third seat of the 3rd Division. Why do you come to me to 'test' yourself? Just what is it that makes you worth testing?" Byakuya's steel grey eyes pierced through the riddle posed by Teruo. Byakuya's standing was far too great to be teaching a mere third seat where his place lies.

Teruo straightened up unhurriedly. When his head was lifted his current face expression was uncovered. Sombre as usual, although his lips raised ever so slightly in a smirk. Of course, his rank as a Shinigami, whilst high, would not be enough to justify the validity of such a request. Not even his status as a noble, perhaps, for he was young and relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Be that as it may, there was another significant factor to consider.

"In my pursuit of greater strength, I have eventually attained Bankai", he revealed in a calm manner. "From what I know, you have already gained experience with an immature Bankai owing to your Lieutenant, Renji Abarai-san. I do train alone, quite intensely if I do say so myself, though it is difficult to determine the extent of my progress without a proper point of reference. That is the reason I have chosen you, Kuchiki-dono."

In fact, there was one more reason he had decided to do so, albeit he would rather not speak about that. Not that he deemed it of much relevance to the Captain anyway.

"..." Byakuya was silent for a moment. He assessed the man's spiritual power before him. To make false claims of possessing Bankai in front of Byakuya was tantamount to suicide. There was no doubting it. It may have been immature, but the man before him held the requisite power to hold Bankai. To try test it against him...there was an ulterior motive in the Akui clansman's eyes.

"...For the sake of Soul Society." Byakuya simply said, as he walked past the third seat. Without speaking another word, his movement indicated that Teruo was to follow him. The man walked with serenity and pride, with every step being heard along the way.

He had reached a large expanse of empty territory within his estate. It was an area used in his youth for training, particularly with Yoruichi Shihōin, as well as mastering Kidō. There were both fond and somewhat unpleasant memories in this place for Byakuya, but he chose to cut off that reminiscence for another time. He looked at the oncoming Shinigami. This was no longer merely a test for Teruo Akui. Rather, this was a test from Byakuya. Did Teruo possess the necessary strength to grow further and protect the Soul Society? That was his challenge.

The unnerving smile remained on Teruo's countenance. With sunken eyes and a dreary attitude, the consequences of arduous training and the past events that motivated him, the grimace that did not quite reach his eyes was the best he could muster. Nevertheless, he did feel a modicum of satisfaction. He had won his first battle. Now was the time to perform appropriately during the actual one.

He stopped a moderate distance from Captain Kuchiki. Placed his left hand on the hilt of his Zanpakutō, only to gently pull the wakizashi out of its sheath. His breathing was faster now. In fact, he was shaking slightly. Was that excitement? Perhaps anxiety, or even some sort of stage fright. To confront Captain Byakuya Kuchiki himself was certainly a momentous event in his relatively short life. Short for a Shinigami, of course. The grip on the hilt tightened. The trembling ceased. Teruo assumed an open, ostensibly relaxed stance, his left leg shuffled somewhat forward and his arms held to the sides.

"I am very grateful, Kuchiki-dono", he said. "I hope I will be able to meet expectations."

"Come at me with all your power. Do not leave even an inch unturned. A withheld blade will never protect Soul Society." Byakuya told the younger Shinigami, as he drew his own katana. Although he had not let down his guard even an inch, thoughts of Kazuya Kuchiki and Aiken Kuchiki's death crawled into his mind.

The Kidō Corps' betrayal, Kazuya and Aiken's final battles. For a Shinigami, it was an honor to die protecting the Soul Society. Yet, Byakuya could not help but remind himself of the same helplessness he felt in the fight against the Quincy. Once again, he failed to protect that which was important to him.

His gaze sharpened, and his stance tightened. "Show me your strength, Akui Teruo." He boldly claimed, awaiting his opponent to make the first move.

The Third Seat Officer nodded. At last, his smirk vanished. What was left was the furrow of focus and determination on the young man's forehead.

He was ready.

Icy Chill

"Fade away."

Teruo swung his Zanpakutō, as if to stab some invisible opponent right in front of him in the gut.

"Shūrei."

Wind was stirred. The ground quaked perceptibly. Wisps and plumes of orange energy emanated from Akui's body, spreading across the area like tendrils of an unnameable eldritch abomination, hungry, reaching toward its victims. Meanwhile, the wakizashi was wreathed in thick smoke. Quickly it transformed into its released state: a set of armoured gauntlet and a vambrace on his left arm, both covered with sharp spikes and blades.

Then, Teruo began shimmering. Almost as if his body was no longer composed of solid spirit particles, but a mere trick of light. That was the special ability of his Illusion-type Shikai, which allowed him to become a figure straight out of a nightmare, with all the power and finality of the real world at his clawed fingertips. Several afterimages spread out with varying speed and in different directions as he charged at his opponent. Step after step, with no subtlety of Hohō but all the ferocity characteristic of Sonído.

Attacking from a side, the real Teruo lifted his hand in preparation, jumped abruptly as if to pounce upon Byakuya like a wild animal... but that was not his intention. Instead, he rotated mid-air only to land in front of the opponent, supporting himself on said hand upside down. And most of his momentum transferred to one of his legs, which descended toward Byakuya's head like a guillotine. The whole manoeuvre executed to encourage a block that Akui would subsequently bypass with an unexpected angle of attack. That was not the end, however.

The other arm slammed into the ground, his torso swiveled and, as such, both of his legs performed a rotating horizontal kick to follow up the first attack. Another shift of stance, a downward swing that swiftly transitioned into a circular low kick intended to trip Kuchiki up. One final swing, now with Teruo standing firmly on his legs, his retracted left arm extending in a powerful straight punch with the force of a sally.

"Hyaaah!"

The immediate reaction of Byakuya to the Zanpakutō release was that of perturbation. He was not expecting a release quite like this, and was nearly caught off guard. Although the afterimages would fool any old combatant, the Kuchiki clansman did not possess that sort of inexperience. If his sight was to be fooled, then he would simply rely on sound. The sound of a hand tearing through the air caught his ears, and his focus had zoomed in on the real Teruo Akui.

Byakuya kept his sword closer to his face in order to block the attack, but the sudden shift in direction briefly caught him off guard. As a kick attempted to catch him from overhead, he stayed vigilant, and instead took two steps back, avoiding the range of Teruo's first kick. He perceived Teruo's body continuously moving even in this compromised position, and so, the two kicks that came his way were what he intended to block.

Byakuya shifted his body backwards, much like a pendulum, enabling both legs to reach a central point before slashing horizontally against both legs in an attempt to maim his opponent from the beginning. However, Teruo was slightly better than that. In that same moment, he had shifted his body's balance, causing one of his legs to try and trip the Kuchiki clansman.

"Hado Number One: Shō." Byakuya slowly chanted, pointing his free index finger at the leg. A bullet of pressure shot out from his finger, blocking its path by uprooting a considerable amount of dirt near the leg, which also interrupted the flow of Teruo's attack, and enabled Byakuya to prepare for the final maneuver.

With Teruo standing up once more, Byakuya instead took the initiative and jolted forward at the same time of Teruo's attack. He observed the force of Teruo's blow, and knew that taking it head-on would be foolhardy. Instead, as soon as he was about to collide with the younger Shinigami, Byakuya had shifted his sword's point downward, while the hilt remained above his head at his left side. The fist did not clash with Byakuya directly, instead, Byakuya's blade glided across the arm of Teruo Akui, exposing the rest of his body to a direct slash by the man across his torso.

"Shit!", thought Teruo, although as a noble in the presence of another noble he kept that to himself. Not that there was any time to express shock or exasperation in a situation like that either. He reached the very moment that would prove he was no mere Third Seat Officer in terms of combat ability. Something he was very determined to prove. As such, he pushed himself away from the ground with his right leg, dodging the sword slash at the last moment. The tip of the blade sliced through his Shihakushō and launched a few drops of blood into the air, however, the resultant wound was but a shallow scratch.

Continuing the evasive manoeuvre, the young Shinigami escaped from within Kuchiki's vicinity rotating like a man-sized spinning top. A gentle tap of his foot was sufficient to rapidly stop him in place some few metres away. As he faced his opponent several afterimages began emerging and shifting around his body. The first stage of a set up. Then, all of them, copies and original, pounced to attack. Not directly yet again. Instead, they proceeded to jump about Byakuya all the while performing a myriad of strikes, real blows hidden within a flurry of feints. Constantly on the move, Akui started with a butterfly kick, then performed a few slashes with the curved blades of his Shikai from different angles, each between a successive leap.

Eventually, he landed in a crouched position. The phantoms vanished all at once. Meanwhile, Teruo outstretched his arm toward the opponent, extended as if it was made of rubber, past the katana, only to grab Kuchiki's face with clawed talons... but that was just another trick. In that brief moment Akui launched a ferocious onslaught, fingers of both of his hands formed into tegatana. Swing after swing, thrust after thrust, two limbs imitating actual blades quite convincingly in a whirring volley of blows.

Byakuya's attack narrowly evaded its mark, causing him to be slightly irritated. He looked upon his opponent with caution, noting the first wave of his attack into his analysis. He wasn't surprised, then, to see the same tactic used once more. "Do not think a tactic of this level will be enough." The Captain of the Sixth Division remarked, before his expression focused.

The afterimages and the real Teruo were both buried in this frenzy assault, but Byakuya would not let it succeed and allow his opponent to grab the flow of the battle. "Scatter." Byakuya began to state, batting away the preliminary wave of attacks by rotating his entire body with his sword, "Senbonzakura."

The spiritual pressure emitting from the Captain's body intensified, and a pink hue surrounded his blade. Within the next instant, a thousand cherry blossoms surrounded his body, eviscerating the assault that surrounded him and forcing the real Teruo to back away prior to being harmed. Appearing within the cascade of cherry blossoms unharmed, Byakuya spoke towards the third seat. "Be proud, for you are witness to my Senbonzakura."

"Now, I shall truly test whether you are fit for the role of Captain!" With nary a movement of his wrists, Byakuya manipulated the mass of cherry blossoms to charge towards the attacking Teruo. The blades that comprised Senbonzakura managed to intercept him before he could close in on the Captain. Their sharpness and the sharpness of Teruo's limbs clashed together. But while only one portion of his Zanpakutō dealt with Teruo's rampage, the other portion gathered behind the man, with the intent of hurling him into a barrage of blades that would devour him whole.

With utmost concentration, Akui held his ground against the attack of Byakuya's Shikai. Razor sharp petals and twin knifehands clashed in a display of supernatural swordsmanship, with no actual sword in sight. Focussed as he was on the wave that had anticipated his assault, the mass of petals that assembled behind him did not escape Teruo's notice, however. With the former finally deflected, just in the nick of time, he turned around rapidly and swung his Shikai at the oncoming petals. The ground beneath the foot he used to anchor himself cracked.

Senbonzakura was a magnificent Zanpakutō, a lethal and elegant weapon befitting a man of Kuchiki's status and position. Nothing like the crude torture implement that Teruo had to wield. Nevertheless, Shūrei was undoubtedly an effective weapon as well. The blades that protruded from its vambrace carved into the mass like a scythe of the grim reaper, dispersing it in an instant. In consequence, rather than suffer obliteration, Akui emerged from the attack relatively unscathed, with just a number of minor cuts on his uniform and face. Stiff face stuck in a somewhat menacing grimace.

Another twisting move, manoeuvring around like a spectre, his body dissolving into a blur. Then, he assumed a fighting stance. His spiritual pressure intensified, visible again.

"Hah!"

A straight left performed from a distance, projected and magnified through a ripple of Reiatsu, burst forth toward Byakuya.

"Hyah!"

A thrust of the right hand, shaped into spear-like tip, a lance of razor wind that extended across the distance between them.

"Orraaah!"

Eventually a powerful, broad swing of his Shikai-clad arm which erupted into a big arc of explosive force. One could say, a technique akin to the signature move of Kuchiki's acquaintance. A transparent, orange-tinted "Getsuga Tenshō" manifested through exertion of martial arts prowess.

Teruo had evaded Byakuya's initial assault. But that was of little consequence to him. To not be able to avoid a pincer attack of that scale meant that he wasn't worth the effort in the first place. Soon, he gathered all his cherry blossoms once again towards himself.

On his right side, where a straight jab was performed, he erected a straight wall of blossoms that took the full force of the impact and subsequently dispersed. On his left side, the blossoms wrapped around the spear-like attack and attempted to constrict the force that was flying towards Byakuya, causing both the spear to dissolve and the petals to scatter in response.

And then, the main attack. As he had dealt with those attacks, he did not have enough time to deal with the assault before him. Byakuya looked upon the assault and was reminded of a time when his heart was as cold as ice, impervious to assault and only followed the law. He lamented at his former weakness, and his eyes went narrow.

Swinging his hilt downwards, the scattered blossoms of Senbonzakura rapidly coalesced together, and just as the attack was reaching Byakuya's vicinity, two blade-like constructs of cherry blossoms cut through the attack, causing it to prematurely explode, scattering both the attack and his Shikai. Nonetheless, the attack was moderately effective, reaching close enough so the explosive impact caused minor bruises on his right arm, and part of his Shihakusho to tear apart.

In the next moment, he gathered his Zanpakutō's scattered petals once again, and sought to surround Teruo in a sphere of deadly blades, akin to Gōkei, while beginning to constrict the sphere of blades over his body, ensuring that only non-lethal areas would be targeted.

The young Shinigami noted the partial success of his attack with a bit of satisfaction. He had managed to wound the illustrious Byakuya Kuchiki himself. There was no time for celebration, however. Senbonzakura quickly surrounded him with a deadly tempest in retaliation. Perhaps, not truly deadly, yet dangerous nonetheless. Because of that brief moment of hesitation he found himself cut off from possible routes of escape. Not good. Still, he was not defenceless.

When the myriad petals closed in on him Teruo lifted his arms in a guard, braced himself and condensed his spiritual pressure. Particles of spiritual energy attached themselves to his body forming a faint, shimmering cloak which billowed like plumes of orange smoke. That was the form of his Shunkō, about as immature as his Bankai, although still useful. His opponent's Shikai struggled to pierce through the protective shroud, and ultimately failed. As the petals receded so did the cloak subside and fade away, however. Teruo exhaled, a single streak of sweat flowed on his temple. The defence was effective, albeit not effortless.

Anyway, that was the time. It was rather obvious that in a contest between their released Zanpakutō Teruo would slowly but surely lose ground, only to suffer defeat. As such, there was one thing he could do. The one that was the very reason he had come to Kuchiki with a peculiar request. So, he curled the fingers of his left hand and lifted the armoured fist in a way that the back of his hand faced Byakuya directly.

That was the time for...

"Bankai."

Miasma

A single thin line appeared spontaneously on the gauntlet. Then, it opened. A blank eye was revealed, the orange iris of which slid into view shortly afterward, its slit-like pupil fixed at Byakuya. The gaze of Teruo himself was equally intense and unsettling. Without a warning, he knelt down and smashed the armoured fist against the ground. The whole mansion seemed to tremble as a result. Several cracks spread from within the point of impact, although they were not physical damage. Instead, glowing lines began extending across the area in an erratic pattern. And, soon, not just the ground but reality itself seemed to flake away, bit by bit, patch by patch, scattering like autumn leaves in an icy wind.

Suddenly, there was no more mansion. Byakuya found himself in the middle of a ghastly realm. Surrounded by thick, milky fog, the nebulous forms of bone-like structures emerging from the unseen ground, and a featureless vault of heaven above. That was no visual trick, however. That was...

"Shinshūrei."

The voice, deep and somewhat raspy, reverberated across the area without any obvious source. At the same time shadowy figures manifested a distance away from Kuchiki, surrounding him in a circle formation. Ethereal, just barely visible in the thick mist. They could be seen, they could be heard, and Teruo's spiritual pressure saturated the whole realm.

"Your move", Kuchiki heard a voice whisper directly into his ear.

Byakuya had seen the opening of the eye, and had instantly reacted. "Bakudō Number 81: Dankū." A transparent, almost white, wall actively split the space that was occupied between Teruo and himself, ready to block anything that dared to encroach upon his figure. But the subsequent actions caught the man off-guard, leading him to surround himself with Senbonzakura's petals as a precaution.

"This Bankai..." Byakuya thought to himself, as vivid imagery of a certain Quincy popped up into his mind. The slaughter that occurred due to his weakness was unforgivable, and he remained extra vigilant in the face of such abilities.

His senses were being distorted, now he could not even rely on his hearing, as various whispers flooded his mind. But he attempted to calm himself, for when he heard the voice of Teruo once more, he surrounded himself entirely in a globe of petals. Subsequently, rather than remove his defense, he gathered a certain portion of his petals on both the front and back of the globe, and shot those petals outward in the form of whips that covered a long and wide area, slashing horizontally to cover the maximum distance, and hopefully hit his target.

Byakuya hoped, at the very least, the sense of touch was still active.

And that it was. Like every single Zanpakutō in all of Soul Society, the abilities of Teruo's Shikai and Bankai were closely related. However, their common basis was not illusion but the concept of nightmare. What Shūrei displayed were for the most part visual tricks, confusing and convincing enough to fool both sight and Reikaku, yet at the end of the day, just tricks. Shinshūrei was quite a different matter, though. In fact, none of Byakuya's senses were being distorted at that moment. Because, for all intents and purposes, what he perceived was real.

So that the lashing whips of Senbonzakura felt a modicum of resistance as they eradicated the phantoms that had surrounded him. Several of the bone-like rock formations were struck down as well, palpable and loud as they crumbled to ruins. The mist that had enveloped him and which refused to subside in the wake of his pre-emptive offence was wet and chilly. And, suddenly, from behind the Captain a giant figure emerged from obscurity. That was none other than Teruo Akui, ten times bigger than normal. And in that moment, he truly was. Shinshūrei was a nightmare realm, Teruo the central figure of it, and Byakuya a hapless victim entrapped within.

Clad in a similarly enlarged armoured gauntlet, Akui's clenched fist crashed into Captain Kuchiki, regardless of his Senbonzakura, like a miniature meteor. A few times. Each and every hit sent severe tremors across the pocket dimension, magnified appropriately through the power of the wielder's Bankai.

The instant Byakuya saw the gigantic figure of Teruo appear before him, it sank into his soul that the events transpiring here were no mere illusions. As the giant's fists began to roar, Byakuya coagulated the entirety of his zanpakutou to block the first attack. While successful, the following tremors caused them to disperse, leaving Byakuya to be exposed to the following attack.

"Hadō Number 33: Sōkatsui!" Byakuya chanted, creating a surge of blue flames to oppose the fist that went flying towards him. While it did not nullify the damage, it mitigated it to the point where Byakuya was only left with moderate injuries, as he was sent flying away from Teruo's position. Regaining his footing in the air, Byakuya looked upon Teruo's figure, and spoke. "I acknowledge it. Your Bankai is powerful."

"But do not forget who you fight." The Captain spoke, his words piercing through the air.

"Bankai." His voice echoed, as he dropped the hilt of his blade to the non-existent ground. The other blades of Senbonzakura followed suit, creating multiple ripples throughout the world Teruo had created. A thousand, giant blades, rose from the surface of the ripples, surrounding Teruo and Byakuya, before they scattered into a million cherry blossoms.

The Bankai of greatest beauty, and greatest death. "Senbonzakura Kageyoshi." The one million petals of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi soon surrounded the perimeter of Byakuya and Teruo's approximate position. The Sixth Division Captain awaited his opponent's next move.

The Third Seat Officer glanced at his fist, plumes of smoke emanating from the armoured gauntlet. Whilst strong, a spell of that level was not nearly strong enough to damage his Zanpakutō. Then, he observed attentively his opponent's inevitable response. In spite of an otherwise obvious gap in power and experience, to use Shikai in a clash against a Bankai was futile. Myriad delicate petals saturated the foggy atmosphere of Teruo's nightmare realm to form an intriguing contrast.

Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. At range, he would have little chance to beat such a weapon. As a result, he decided to get close. To that extent a peculiar phenomenon occurred; the perspective on his giant body was suddenly distorted, as if the whole world around him was bent out of shape and stretched like rubber. In the blink of an eye he found himself right in front of Kuchiki, back to his normal size. His arm extended forward, the clawed talons forming a spear-like tip to rip out his opponent's heart... only for the nightmare realm to swirl around them, in one fluid motion transporting Teruo behind Byakuya's back.

A fast swing to slash across Kuchiki's back, then a transition into a butterfly kick. Once again facing the opponent in the aftermath of the manoeuvre, the young officer unleashed a barrage of punches performed with both of his hands. In the meantime, the ghastly eye on the back of his gauntlet moved restlessly, its sclera becoming noticeably redder with each passing moment.

Byakuya was no fool. Clenching his right hand into a fist, the petals that surrounded the vicinity soon rushed towards his being, surrounding him in a circular motion of constant movement. As Teruo was about to rip out Byakuya with his claw, a small wall of blossoms appeared, blocking its advance. However, the interference of the distortion caused the petals to scatter, while Teruo had appeared behind him.

Slow. Another wall erected behind Byakuya Kuchiki, blocking the three-pronged maneuver without any effort. But Teruo had been advancing further, and this would prove dangerous to the Captain if he allowed it to keep up. In the next moment, Byakuya stomped his foot on the ground. A swarm of petals were released from their formation in the form of concentric rings that sought to push back Teruo with raw force.

In that same movement, a cluster of petals in front of Teruo soon rushed towards the 3rd Seat in a large wave that performed the same role as the concentric rings below, while simultaneously leaving a medley of wounds across his body should it have made contact.

The speed and reflexes of Byakuya Kuchiki were legendary. It was one thing to hear about them and another to experience them first-hand, however. Despite the ingenious tricks he employed, Teruo still struggled to keep up with the Captain. That was only to be expected. Be that as it may, he remained determined. Pushed back, he was about to renew his fierce assault as he noticed the wave of petals threatening to eviscerate him. In order not to lose there and then, he slid out of the range of the attack with a single unnatural motion, as if someone had pulled him on an invisible string.

Nevertheless, he suffered several more cuts on the right side of his body. Superficial or not, the damage he had sustained was gradually accumulating. The young officer looked like he had crawled through barbed wire. He was tough and resilient, though. Eager to continue the fight. He was quick-thinking as well; rather than approach his opponent again and risk being consumed by his immense Bankai, he extended his right arm and... crashed it into the ground. Stretching like a tentacle, the limb rapidly bored underground only to emerge right beneath Kuchiki's feet to grab one of his ankles. In the meantime, his left arm burst into a writhing mass of multiple limbs that showered Byakuya with a volley of blows in spite of the distance.

The ghastly eye on each and every replica of his gauntlet was bloodshot, with a single thin stream of blood flowing down from it.

"...!" Byakuya noticed the appearance of an arm within his safe zone, and immediately attempted to take action. The point that the arm grabbed was where Senbonzakura could still injure him, even if the spirit did not intend to do so. Therefore, he had to rely on his own power. "Hadō Number 1: Shō." With the Kidō spell, he managed to push the arm off his leg in enough time to reclaim a small amount of distance, even though that did not matter in this space.

As he did so, however, a flurry of blows attempted to strike him from the other side. Not having fully recomposed from sending the arm away from him, Byakuya moved his own arms in a bracing position, as his petals followed him fast enough to repel the majority of the assault, while a few scattered blows managed to moderately injure him.

As he was pushed back, Byakuya briefly panted, before breathing slowly and retaining his posture. The terrain he was in proved very unfavorable for him, and while there was a method he could use to overwhelm this...this was not a match to the death, and it would be shameful to utilize a move of that style in this area.

This terrain had no concept of distance for Teruo, as this was no doubt his world. There was very little that Byakuya could do in terms of offense, so he decided to turn this battle on its head. Concentrating the majority of his petals around his being, he began to move across the plane with no real direction, in an attempt to disorient Teruo's attacks from landing on him immediately. The speed at which he moved was incredible, for he stopped for nay a second before launching into his next step of Shunpo, making Teruo's next attack much more difficult to land.

Meanwhile the Third Seat, panting, was observing the remarkable display with eyebrows furrowed owing to a combination of focus and strain. Fast, so fast. Teruo was nimble himself, although Byakuya was simply out of his league. Half-frustrated, half-desparate, the former began pelting the whole area with rapid punches performed by both of his hands and extended through spiritual pressure ripples. Numerous ethereal fist-sized projectiles burst forth, tens and dozens, to saturate the air. Not enough. Every now and then Akui thought he managed to land a hit only to discover that was yet another afterimage that merely faded away.

His body was shaking slightly. To wield a Bankai despite his rank and age, to keep up with a famous prodigy like Byakuya Kuchiki was no small feat, albeit it cost him dearly. To push himself so far so fast, beyond even his own impressive ability to grow, was an extremely arduous endeavour. Time was running out. As such, Teruo ceased his futile assault, took a deep breath and braced himself. Focus. That was his realm. A manifestation of his Inner World. So, it was his to command. In this living nightmare he could dictate the terms of battle.

With his eyes closed, Akui spent a short while to pin down the spiritual pressure of his opponent. Scattered across the area because of his swift evasive manoeuvres. So, the area itself started contracting and the world around it expanded, distorted as if perceived through a crystal ball. A leap into the air. Distance and position were rendered meaningless once more whilst Teruo homed in on Kuchiki directly, his clawed talons extended in a spear-like shape to deliver a quick, crippling, but non-fatal blow to the opponent, hopefully within that exceedingly narrow window of opportunity between the employment of the trick and Byakuya's subsequent reaction.

For Teruo's own eyes became bloodshot themselves.

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