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|The Exile||The Exile 2||Der Ansturm|
Seireitei, First Division barracks. Captains' assembly hall.
"You have finally come, Ikiryō Kuragari", declared the Captain-Commander, Genryūsai Shigekuni Yamamoto, with his voice marked by impatience.
The exiled Shinigami stepped forward. He was not restrained, and his Zanpakutō rested in the scabbard at his right hip. There was no need for safety measures in the presence of the Captain-Commander himself.
"I apologise for the late arrival, Yamamoto-dono", replied Kuragari, slightly lowering his head. "I've had to be treated first".
One of the three other captains present, a slender man with jaw-length blond hair grinned sarcastically, baring his impressive teeth.
"Oh, did Tadayoshi-kun beat you up so badly?", he asked teasingly.
Ikiryō looked at him with a stern expression.
"I assure you he's in a much worse state... Hirako-dono", he said calmly.
Captain Hirako winced in response.
"Enough", barked Yamamoto before any of them could say something more. "We don't have any time to waste on petty bickering. We have sent for you because our situation is extremely dire and we need to act fast."
"You mean that Quincy invasion, Captain-Commander?", asked Kuragari with an arcane look on his face.
Yamamoto narrowed his eyes.
"How do you know about that? You were exiled from Seireitei over sixty years ago!", shouted Captain Suì-Fēng.
"You should know better than anyone else, Suì-Fēng-chan", replied Ikiryō tauntingly.
The Captain made a step forward and raised her fist at him.
"How dare you... I am the Captain of the Second Division, and you shall address me appropriately!"
"Not going to happen", responded Kuragari with a smirk.
"Captain Suì-Fēng, Kuragari-kun, such a childish behaviour is unsightly in the presence of the Captain-Commander", intervened Captain Unohana politely.
"Y... Yes, madam!", confirmed Suì-Fēng immediately.
"I apologise", replied Ikiryō with a slight bow.
"As you have already mentioned", resumed Yamamoto with a harsh tone, "A war has been declared upon us. This is a truly serious matter, and we need as many combat-ready soldiers as possible right now. This is why we demanded your presence here."
"Do you intend to restore me to Gotei 13?", asked Kuragari noticeably intrigued.
"Not so fast, youngster. You were exiled for a good reason, and we do not intend to pardon you so easily. However, we want to give you a chance to atone for your transgressions."
"What do you expect of me?"
"We have no time to assign you an offcial position in accordance with our procedures", said Yamamoto. " Consequently, I hereby place you under the direct authority of the Second Division Captain, Suì-Fēng. You are expected to follow her orders without a murmur."
A grimace appeared on Kuragari's solemn face. He was about to say something, but hesitated and remained silent.
"We are on the precipice of a catastrophic conflict. If you obey your superiors and actively defend Seireitei from the invaders, we shall pardon your misdeeds and let you return to the Gotei 13", declared Yamamoto, with his gaze piercing the young Shinigami standing quietly in front of him.
Ikiryō remained silent, with his stare fixed on the floor. His face was completely motionless, and it did not betray any emotions.
"I assent", he whispered eventually.
"Very well", responded the Captain-Commander. "Remember that these are very special circumstances. Do not waste your opportunity, since you are not going to receive a second chance."
"I understand, Yamamoto-dono."
The Captain-Commander nodded.
"You shall receive detailed information on the situation from Captain Suì-Fēng", he said.
Then, he stroke the floor with his cane several times.
"This meeting is hereby closed. You can leave and return to your duties at once."
The Captains and Kuragari left, with the latter reluctantly following Captain Suì-Fēng. He ignored his reinstated superior's sardonic smile, and walked further with a grim expression on his face.
Seireitei, Second Division barracks.
"Where are we going?", asked Ikiryō. "I thought you will lead me to my new quarters."
"Not yet", replied Suì-Fēng. "We are short of time. I need to evaluate your combat skills first."
Kuragari looked at her with his eyebrow raised.
"I always stay fit. I didn't doss around during my exile, I spent some quality time in Hueco Mundo".
Suì-Fēng snickered disdainfully.
"Sure. You were apprehended by a 5th seat officer", she responded.
Ikiryō narrowed his eyes.
"He is strong. Regardless, I had to lend him my shoulder while we were approaching the walls of Seireitei, and I assure you I wouldn't have come here if I had not wished to."
"These are just words. You were always the one to talk big", said Suì-Fēng. "I need to see for myself. You have to follow my orders, remember?"
"I almost regret returning here", sighed Kuragari. "I don't want to upset Yamamoto-dono, but I also don't intend to completely submit myself to you, Suì-Fēng-chan."
The Second Division Captain suddenly stopped. She turned around to face Ikiryō and approached him.
"Listen, Kuragari. You have disappointed me once, and I won't let you do this again", she declared with a raised voice.
"Disappointed you?", replied Ikiryō noticeably shocked.
"You are a nobleman, and you used to be a lieutenant. When will you finally start acting like one?", she said angrily pointing her finger at him.
He looked at her with a rare expression of surprise on his scarred face. Then, he raised his lips in a slightly ironic smile.
"Fine. I'll listen to you, just like the good ol' times", he said.
Suì-Fēng tried to stay serious, but a very faint smile disrupted her grimace.
"There were no good old times", she replied whilst turning around.
Kuragari rolled his eyes. He proceeded to follow her to the training grounds.
On the way there he observed the numerous Shinigami they were passing, trying to recognise any of them. Many of them were entirely unknown to him, some wore veils obscuring their faces, but at least several of them seemed to react with visible surprise at his presence. He nodded his head at them, feeling unusually nostalgic inside.
Some minutes later they arrived on the spot. There was a large, flat area covered with granite tiles. Both of them walked on it and stopped at its centre.
"I remember that place all too well", declared Kuragari.
"I hope I'll bring you back a lot of other memories as well", said Suì-Fēng, laying her hand on the Zanpakutō's hilt.
"Right of the bat?", asked Ikiryō when grabbing his own sword.
She did not respond, at least verbally. The Captain drew her Zanpakutō and attacked swiftly. Kuragari's sword promptly emerged from its sheath and clashed with the other blade.
"You draw fast", commented Suì-Fēng. "But how long can you keep up the actual fight?"
Ikiryō bent one of his legs, changing position and freeing his Zanpakutō. He slashed with a sweeping motion, but Suì-Fēng easily blocked. He pressed her, forcing her back several steps. Then, he lifted his sword and launched an onslaught of rapid cuts and jabs, constantly changing the trajectory of his strikes. The Second Division Captain withstood the flurry with composure, taking only a couple of steps back.
Suddenly, she thrust forward with a reverse-grip slash. Disrupting Kuragari's assault, she proceeded to launch her own offensive with a barrage of broad and sweeping cuts. Ikiryō was gradually losing his ground, struggling to defend himself.
Seeing an opportunity, he stroke back as she was preparing for a broad slash, slamming her reversed blade and lifting her off the ground with sheer force. She landed several metres further with a smirk on her face.
"You are stronger, but it won't compensate you for the lack of technique", she said.
"I had never had enough patience to master my swordsmanship", responded Ikiryō. "Particularly after I achieved my Shikai."
He unexpectedly made a rapid slash with his Zanpakutō, slicing the air horizontally with an audible hiss.
"Fade away into nothingness, Shi no Hōyō", he declared.
The sword and its scabbard glowed, changing their shape into a black-and-silver armoured gauntlet each. Both of them possessed relatively long, sharp claws and plates protecting the forearms.
Suì-Fēng immediately stopped smiling. She grasped her sword with her right hand, prompting it to shine briefly.
"Sting all enemies to death, Suzumebachi!"
Afterward, it changed into a black and gold gauntlet with a long stinger on the middle finger.
"Don't get overzealous with it, Suì-Fēng-chan", said Kuragari subsequently. "I've just come back to Seireitei, I'd like to stay here for a while before you erase me from existence."
"I can't promise you anything", replied the Captain with a predatory smile.
"Then I'm not going to hold back", stated Ikiryō, disappearing.
Suì-Fēng was ready. When he reappered with a faint sound right behind her, she quickly turned around to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick. Kuragari blocked it with the armoured forearm plate and outstretched the fingers of his other hand, preparing to strike with his now blade-like side of the gauntlet. However, he ended up merely slicing the air where the Captain had been just a split second ago.
Ikiryō turned around and spotted Suì-Fēng not too far away. He rushed at her with tremendous speed, his claws ready to slash. As he was approaching the Captain, she threw her body in the air and rotated backward, kicking him in the jaw with the rapidly raising leg.
Kuragari somersaulted mid-air and landed on his toes. He quickly rebounded with considerable force, his left fist aimed at his opponent who was just regaining her balance. Suì-Fēng guarded herself with her hands at the last moment. The impact of the hit created a big circular airwave and sent her gliding on the tiles several metres further.
The Captain assumed a fighting stance, only to be promptly attacked by Ikiryō. He pressured her with a relentless onslaught of incredibly fast and heavy hits, showering both of them with sparks striking whenever their Zanpakutōs clashed.
Suì-Fēng ducked unexpectedly and proceeded to raise her right hand to impale her opponent with Suzumebachi. Kuragari reacted instantaneously. He rotated mid-air, grabbed her hand and used it as a pivot. Even though he released her hand as late as physically possible, the Captain still managed to Shunpo away from the incoming kick.
Both of them stopped briefly and looked at each other. Their faces were stiffened by concentration. Then, they suddenly resumed combat.
Ikiryō plunged at Suì-Fēng, but she changed her trajectory on her way and subsequently ran next to him. When he stopped almost immediately afterward and turned around to face her, he noticed a small butterfly-shaped mark appearing at his side.
"Even though I excel in Hakuda, I still can't outdo you", he commented with a slight smirk.
Not waiting for a reply, he dashed at her once again. This time the Captain barely managed to block his broad punch with her Zanpakutō, with another one coming a split second later. She winced when the armoured gauntlet hit her exposed forearm, but she held fast.
With both of their hands occupied, Kuragari retorted to kick her in the abdomen, yet she defended with her leg. Thrown off-balance, they jumped away from one another and then attacked again.
They passed by each other swiftly, with a strike of sparks emerging in the process. Ikiryō noticed yet another stamp, this time on his left forearm plate.
"It's getting dangerous", he whispered.
Suì-Fēng rushed at him, but he crouched suddenly and allowed her to fly over him. Just as she had passed him, he jumped at her with his fist raised. She started to turn around, but it was too late. He landed a heavy blow on her, making her fly away and hit the granite tiles hard, bouncing off afterward.
"Sorry about that, but I said I won't hold back", he stated with slight abashment.
"Save your manners for someone who cares", she responded whilst rising and wiping off her mouth. "I'm not judging your ettiquette right now."
Kuragari assumed a fighting stance, but Suì-Fēng stood seemingly relaxed.
"I need to offset your strength, it's being troublesome", she declared.
Following that she promptly threw away her Captain's haori, mildly surprising Ikiryō who consequently raised his guard.
"Shunkō!", she screamed, and torrents of electrified, white spiritual energy engulfed her.
"That's new", said Ikiryō with consternation. "Hadō #32, Ōkasen!"
A wide arc of potent yellow energy emerged from his hand. Suì-Fēng concentrated her spiritual power over her right arm and simply cut the incoming blast, effectively splitting it two and letting it pass by, completely unharmed.
Before the smoke even started to clear off she had jumped from the cloud and fell on the surprised Kuragari, using the impetus to reinforce her attack. He managed to block her punch by crossing both of his forearm plates, but its power forced him on his kneels and cracked the ground below him.
Suì-Fēng prepared for another strike, but Ikiryō used Shunpo to gain some distance. The Captain landed softly and quickly pounced at him. Before she could reach him, though, he slammed his palms down on the ground.
"Sekienton!", he shouted.
He was immediately engulfed by a cloud of red smoke, obscuring him from Suì-Fēng's sight. As she stopped, completely surrounded by the fumes, she used Shunkō to blow them away. Kuragari was nowhere to be seen.
"Bakudō #9, Hōrin!"
Then, a glittering tendril of orange spiritual energy wrapped her around her waist from behind and pulled her with great force. However, she broke free from it in the blink of an eye and turned around.
Ikiryō was approaching her rapidly, with his left hand raised to strike down. Suì-Fēng lifted her right hand, wrapped in Shunkō's energy.
"Bunkatsu Genjitsu!", exclaimed Kuragari.
He slashed with his armoured gauntlet, seemingly missing her by a metre. Nevertheless, as his palm was passing by her raised hand a blade of undulating air cut her Shunkō cloak, reducing it from a dense shroud to a milimetres-thick layer. Surprised, she used Shunpo to quickly jump back.
"Yami no Ibara!", shouted Ikiryō whilst pointing all of his fingers at her.
Suddenly, a barrage of bullets composed of indigo reiatsu shot at her with great speed. She deflected them with her Shunko-reinforced hand, but the shroud was reduced significantly once again.
"Bakudō #30, Shitotsu Sansen!", she shouted, using a moment of her opponent's apparent surprise to cast a binding spell.
The glowing triangles of spiritual energy struck Kuragari, instantaneously paralysing his limbs.
"You're finished!", Suì-Fēng exclaimed, charging at him with full speed.
She concetrated more of her reiatsu on the right hand, drawing from the shroud which engulfed her entire body. Then, in the blink of an eye she closed the distance between her and Ikiryō, and delivered a devastating punch straight into his shocked face.
"Bōrei", she heard a whisper.
Suì-Fēng's Kidō-enhanced fist passed through. Confused, she inexplicably phased through Kuragari with completely no resistance. She struggled to lose her impetus and landed heavily on the tiled surface, cracking it in the process.
"Bunkatsu Genjitsu", she heard from behind.
Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain crossing her back. Blood splattered at the grey tiles, marking them with deep red. Baffled, yet externally relatively composed, she faced Ikiryō who simply stood not too far away, looking at her with a simper.
"That is a very intriguing technique", he stated.
"You've improved", she declared with some hesitation.
"Likewise", he replied with a slightly wider smile. "I suppose this is your trump card, sans your unwieldy Bankai, that is, right? Still, I think I can keep up with it just with my Shikai and Kidō".
Suì-Fēng narrowed her eyes. The energy cloak surrounding her body became calmer, but did not disappear.
"What do you mean by saying "just"? Do you think you can counter it without Shunpo?", she asked with reproach.
Ikiryō grinned, which quite surprised her.
"No, I mean I don't need my trump card to counter this", he responded.
The Captain considered briefly his ambiguous words. Then, her expression changed suddenly, marked with surprise and uncertainty.
"Do you mean you...", she started with shock.
"Captain Suì-Fēng!", a deep voice interrupted her. "Captain Suì-Fēng, what's happening here? Who's that pale gentleman over there?"
A tall and bulky man with a balding head approached them hurriedly, his eyes wide with surprise.
"Ōmaeda", replied Suì-Fēng with restrained anger. "Why do you disturb us?"
The Second Division Lieutenant stopped by her, panting slightly and staring at mildly intrigued Kuragari.
"I'm sorry, Captain Suì-Fēng, but I heard all the clangs and explosions, so I came to check what's happening", he explained speedily.
"Ōmaeda?", asked Ikiryō. "Marechiyo Ōmaeda-san? Who could've expected you'll succeed me on my post", he said with mixed emotions.
The Lieutenant looked at him closely and eventually recognised his face.
"Ku-Kuragari-dono! You're back! But when, how? What's with that tremendous scar?", he started, but Suì-Fēng silenced him with a punch to the side.
Ōmaeda gasped for breath, as her fist was still covered with the Shunkō cloak. She deactivated it only afterward, and then proceeded to seal and sheathe her Zanpakutō. The butterfly stamps on Ikiryō promptly faded away.
"Enough for now. You pass, Kuragari. We'll talk about your "trump card" later, now Ōmaeda will introduce you to our current situation with the Quincy invasion", she said as she walked to pick up her haori.
Her Lieutenant wanted to respond, though he still struggled to breathe.
"Wh... Why me, Captain? You definitely know much more about it!", he protested with considerable effort.
"You're slacking off all the time, at least make yourself useful once in a while", she replied with a harsh tone. "Give Kuragari the report and show him his quarters".
"Yes, yes Captain!", replied Ōmaeda.
He promptly approached Ikiryō who, having sealed and sheathed his Zanpakutō already, observed their exchange with amusement.
"Come with me, Kuragari-dono, I'll show you the barracks! Lots of things've changed since your... um, departure, but I'm sure you'll like it! We've got hot springs, automatic doors and even heated floors!", blabbered the Lieutenant, grabbing Ikiryō by his arm and leading him toward the nearby buildings.
Brooding and not paying too much attention to Ōmaeda's words, Kuragari took a glance at Suì-Fēng, who stood some distance away. She looked at him with an arcane expression on her face, and then swiftly disappeared using Shunpo.
"...then I'll take you to the cantina, they serve the best delicacies there!", continued Marechiyo unfazed.
Ikiryō was about to say something, but he was anticipated by a loud rumble coming from his stomach. Ōmaeda looked at him with comical shock.
"I guess I could use some quality food", Kuragari said. "I've not eaten too well since 60 years."
"Oh, that's terrible, Kuragari-dono! You look so frail and pale! And again, what's with that scar on your face? Was it a Hollow?"
"Kind of. I'll explain you after I eat something, I can't think clearly", replied Ikiryō with a wry smile.
"Sure! Let's go, then!", responded Ōmaeda with enthusiasm.
Both Shinigami entered a luxurious, several-story building, and the automated doors silently closed behind them.
End of Chapter