An Unbidden Guest
Some time had passed by since the chaos that'd taken place in the world of the living, a city had suffered great casualties; and thousands of human lives had been lost. It weighed heavily upon Kazuya's conscience as he stood alongside his fellow Captains and listened to the words of Captain-Commander Shunsui. The Lieutenants and Shinigami officers that had been sent to the real world had given detailed accounts of what had transpired, and the Captains had assembled to discuss their next course of action.
One thing was for certain, whatever they decided, they had to decide it quickly. The dangers of having the Coven run rampant in the living world were far too grave to ignore; as a former member of the Kidou Corps, wherein he'd served as the Assistant of the Yorutai; and thus he knew better than most what rogue masters of the noble art could do to the human world. Although he feared that the Coven could not only realize his worst fears, but exceed them.
It was in that moment that their enemy struck, almost as if on cue. With a roar all of the doors and windows to the Council Hall were blown open, as an immense gale filled the chamber, threatening to hurl weaker subordinates through the air and into the opposite wall. Kazuya shielded himself with a barrier of energy on reflex, but he didn't know how his colleagues fared. And he didn't get a chance to check either for abruptly the room turned pitch black, a supernatural pall of darkness that clouded everyone and everything from view; suffocating their spiritual and physical senses alike as whomever did this made his entrance..
It began with a single spark of purplish flames, then another, and another; like a circle of vivid cinders they danced in midair before their form expanded into a searing pillar of those selfsame dark flames. The flames spread across the floor, but emitted neither heat nor did they damage the building, or anything they got into contact with for that matter. With a roaring sound the flames scattered across the entire room, engulfing it in a purple inferno, and where the pillar of flame had once stood, now stood a man. His robes were extravagant, there was no way around that fact, everything he wore was impeccable and made to impress, and midnight blue silk caressed the floor as he approached Shunsui slowly, arms gently folded behind his back. The most striking feature of his ensemble however was the unnerving mask he wore, alongside what was possibly the most ridicolous headdress that Kazuya had ever witnessed; and as a member of a Noble Family, he'd seen his share of poor fashion.
The masked man's movement was one lacking in caution, for in walking towards Shunsui he exposed his back to every single captain present. Once he and the Captain-Commander were but a few feet apart, he spoke directly to the latter.
"What a striking assembly, Kyōraku Shunsui, it fills our heart with joy to see that we made a lasting impression on you. How is your former Lieutenant, Nanao Ise?" With a casual hand gesture, the stranger conjured forth an effigy of Nanao's appearance before Arata had turned her into a thrall. It faded away as quickly as it came, just enough to provide a painful glimpse into the past.
At that moment the masked stranger turned his back on Shunsui and spoke to the entire room. "I hope this evening finds you well, mighty Captains of the Gotei 13. As you may have guessed, I am the current leader of the Coven and although my motivations might seem nonsensical to you, I assure you that everything will make sense in time."
He paused briefly before he continued to speak. "It is our desire to promote the wonders of magic as the greatest virtue of all, and in these arts all of you have potential. Thus we wish to keep casualties to a minimum, as your lives are more valuable than you might realize. Now then, Kyōraku-dono, here is what we want from you." The 'leader' the Coven made a single gesture as the purple flames which even now danced around the room assumed the form of a robed man, wearing a hood.
"We want you to meet one of our Sorcerers in single combat; should you win, we will return to the world of the living and restrain ourselves from using our powers at the expense of those simple mortals. Should you lose, you won't merely die, but your soul will be ensnared by us and used against any who'd dare challenge us in the future. Those of you who've had the pleasure to see Arata-san's work might realize what exactly that entails. To prove that we bear no hidden intent, we are willing to let you choose the location of the battle. Should you accept, the battle will take place tomorrow."
Kyōraku prided himself as a man of carefree demeanor; it took a lot to put him on edge, and not even a strange visitor barging their way in all of a sudden could cause him to distress. Nevertheless, the emergence of this individual left the Captain-Commander speechless for a good while, even after the masked man finished speaking. Though, he knew he had to respond, or make some kind of gesture as soon as possible. Otherwise, the other Captains were liable to act of their own accord, and regardless of how outnumbered this intruder was, having all the Captains act now without any sort of order would result in nothing but a chaotic atmosphere. Here, before them, stood the leader of this enemy group that had made their antagonistic intentions clear from the start. Allowing him to leave would be the biggest rookie mistake of a military general, but were they in a position now to make this play out in a favorable manner? Kyōraku decided to act as he always did, playing the field no different than how he had been doing things from the start.
"My, my... You people are very reckless individuals, it seems. First, your subordinates make a mess of the human world, and now the enemy general allows himself to be surrounded by the thirteen Captains of the Gotei 13." he responded, placing his fingers along the edge of his sakkat, lowering it subtlety as his eyes were semi-shrouded by the shadow it cast on his face, giving off an ominous expression. "Surely you realize the ramifications of that. No matter how strong, no single person could stand up to all thirteen Captains on their own without a death wish. And you believe yourself to be in any position right now to be setting the terms of our interaction? That's the height of arrogance, Coven Leader-san." Kyōraku continued, before lifting the sakkat once more and letting off a boisterous chuckle, releasing the tension that his facial expression exuded.
Turning his attention toward the other Captains, who had hopefully remained calm and collected the entire time, he began to address them. "Fellow Captains, what say you to the proposal set forth by our kind enemy-intruder friend? I do not believe this to be something that I should decide on my own, since it impacts all of us." the Captain-Commander voiced. Of course, it wasn't that he was an indecisive sort of leader; putting this question up to the room was perhaps nothing more than to stall for time.
Ever since that fateful day when the Wandenreich made its first move against the modern Gotei 13, Third Division Captain Teruo Akui had been vigilant. Always prepared for the worst, always ready to act immediately upon a new threat. Paranoid, some would say. As such, rather unsurprisingly, he was not physically affected by the commotion stirred by the sinister newcomer. He limited himself to grabbing the hand of his younger brother, Lieutenant Yuji Akui, as he was about to be blown away. Now, the younger sibling stood behind him, gaping at the Covenite master in silent awe.
Meanwhile, Teruo froze in a combat ready stance, his Zanpakutō drawn and held in a reverse grip, his torso slanted forward and his legs bent in the knees in preparation for a deadly pounce. However, he did not move an inch from his position. For all his formal and duty-driven attitude he was a volatile man of ever-changing mood. Balancing and transitioning between two quite different personalities in an erratic manner. Once again, rather unsurprisingly, the presence of the peculiar wizard caused an internal conflict to arise within his psyche. On the one hand, he was ready to pounce upon him and cleave him in half without a warning. His whole body tensed, his intent to kill was radiating off through his spiritual pressure. On the other hand, his instinct told him to stay put. No matter how he envisioned his reckless attack, he always witnessed himself unsuccessful, only to vanish in another brief spectacle of magical prowess.
Fortunately, Shunsui Kyōraku finally addressed the intruder. Teruo was combative, zealous, strong, but severely inexperienced for a Captain. At times like that it was better for the veterans to decide the course of action in his stead. He was willing to listen to their orders. At least with his current disposition, that is.
"A shockingly generous offer", he remarked once he calmed down a little bit, in response to the Captain-Commander's words. "Perhaps we should extend one toward the Coven instead. Let's say, a peace treaty in exchange for the life of their precious master. Or, his mangled corpse."
Teruo’s words reached the ears of the Seventh Division’s Captain, but he did not register them. Normally an impulsive individual with a penchant for violence, one might have expected him to be among the first to make a show of force against the intruder. However, Hein Ueda was unnaturally silent. While his posture had not changed, sweat glistened on the side of his temples, and the color in his face had drained.
Hein had perhaps seen a side of the masked man that none of the other captains had seen, and he had instantly regretted it.
As he entered a higher state of awareness, Hein became permeable to the surrounding force of the gale, allowing the energy to simply flow around him and even through him. The currents of the universe were laid bare to Hein via shingan—the heart’s eye—allowing him to sense the resonance of energy itself on a sub-spiritual level. The leader of the Coven only stood a few paces away, yet to Hein it seemed as though an unsurpassable chasm stretched between the man and the other captains. For energy itself seemed to subjugate itself to the man’s will. He might have walked in a shroud of purple flame, but on the invisible level the surrounding Reishi warped and flattened like the train of a great cape that pooled and quivered at his feet. His Reiatsu transcended dimensional space itself, unaffected with physical laws of governance and yet largely intangible. And Hein realized that what he was gazing at was a tremendous force of dominating nature whose power greatly exceeded his own.
Their goose is terrible cooked. He thought, conveniently distancing himself from the other members of the Gotei 13 in light of the quickly approaching storm.
On the other side of the room, almost directly across from the Captain of the Seventh, Byakuya Kuchiki silently pondered the man’s words. He looked none the worse for wear considering the intruder’s gale, as not even one hair had been displaced despite the strength of the wind. Byakuya’s face had remained an emotionless mask as the leader of the Coven had spoken, but when Shunsui asked for their suggestions he had possibly betrayed a hint of disdain, as his brow had slightly furrowed over his right eye.
“Indeed, it would be wise to avoid unnecessary bloodshed,” he began slowly, “Although accepting that man’s offer may not be the means to do so. I would suggest careful deliberation on your part, Kyōraku-sama, but I still hold to the tenet that anyone who disturbs Soul Society be cut down.”
The lieutenant of the Sixth Division, in contrast, was clearly tense. While he too remained motionless, Takashi Sakuma’s gaze darted from the head captain to the masked man, waiting for the signal to act. His jaw clenched, and his knuckles turned white as he grasped the hilt of his Zanpakutō, although he did not yet draw it. Even though the man had not yet displayed his power, Takashi knew that the ability to teleport into the captain’s council room without being inhibited by the wards that had been set up ever since Yhwach’s invasion nine years ago signified a being of immense power. Should Shunsui issue the order to attack, he knew he would likely be cut down in a storm of Kidō before he could even reach the intruder, as the unexpected torment had already forced him to take a step back.
Byakuya’s response had puzzled him, and he began to question why his captain did not react. After all, he was one of the few survivors of the Quincy War. While Takashi had not been present for those events, he could see them recurring all over again—this time in the form of the masked man who now threatened the Gotei 13. He could only pray that the captains made the right decision, and that disaster was averted.
"Tch," Yamakage, the captain of the Fifth Division responded at the sudden appearance of the masked man. All he could do was fathom about the reports he received from his Third Seated officer - Yoshitsune Kageyoshi - following the incident in the World of the Living.
Everyone in the room remained clam and gave their opinions how they saw fit, even Byakuya. Ishihara didn't like this one bit. From the moment the man entered the room up until Shunsui finally spoke, Ishihara had been fully riled up. The grand display of exposing former First Division lieutenant Nanao made the situation no better. It was formal and deliberate disrespect, something Ishihara just simply wouldn't tolerate.
"Shunsui-san," he stated before shortly drawing his Zanpakutō. "You said it yourself," His blade became shrouded in a violent rumble of thunder. "No single person could stand up to all thirteen Captains on their own without a death wish. Why should we allow you to face him alone, when we could all take him down together, right here, right now." Following his final word a bolt of lightning would strike near the masked man, just barely missing him. A whole in the ceiling of the facility would reveal the moody sky, and also where the bolt of lightning made it's way from.
For all of Chitose's missteps and seemingly impulsive actions, he wasn't suicidal. He was so far out of his league here. He was going to let the captains and their intruder work this whole thing out, and stay the hell out of their way. So he just took the extremely sensible response to when there was an unidentified intruder showing up literally like 5 minutes after you made your report about how one of his lackeys blew up an entire city district. He started to back up slowly, ready to bolt at the first hint of trouble.
The Captain of the Fourth Division, Hisaka Tsukada, had barely any time to put her thoughts into words as she vaguely sensed an ill omen—a split second before the assembly was thrown into chaos by what felt like a raging storm of divine proportions. The shaman had just enough time to steel her Reiatsu and ward her own body from harm with that alone. She squinted her rather sensitive eyes before the subsequent spectacle of otherworldly flames until the shape of a man could finally be seen.
Whilst the abrupt appearance of the Coven's leader had left her visibly perturbed, Hisaka quietly observed him with no intention of intervening. As the man offered an unknown subordinate to challenge the Captain Commander to a formal duel, she carefully assessed the situation. Surely the man was confident, or at the very least had a plan, to have shown himself before every Captain of the Gotei 13. Fighting him under such conditions could possibly have resulted in more harm than good, be it with a coordinated attack or simply a few Captains acting rashly.
“One gentleman’s duel away from a victory without further bloodshed, then. Please accept this proposal, Captain-Commander.” As she spoke, she solemnly closed her eyes, reflecting on her own words. Were they all already at the mercy of their adversaries?
As the Captains discussed the matter amongst themselves, the flames shifted and danced around the mysterious figure. Spectral shapes and silhouettes assumed shape from those very flames, brief images of the members of the Coven - yes, even reimaginings of how things might've turned out differently. Scenes of the Fullbringers being murdered one after the other filled the fires, usually depicted in the most creative ways possible after the Coven's sick imagination.
Ishihara's words fell upon deaf ears, the masked man would not let himself be provoked by such nonsense. Although the man he was shaped from might have; but Shijin was a superiour creature in every regard and carried himself as if untouchable. As though being in a room full of the Gotei 13's finest warriors was somehow a neglibible threat.
"It would behoove you to answer soon, Kyoraku-dono. You alone have the power to prevent a senseless slaughter of Shinigami. It would stain your badge of office were you to send your men and women to die needlessly out of personal pride."
The flames expanded into towering walls of purple flames that crept up the walls to touch the celing; presenting a likely future to the Captain's present. It showed a full scale invasion of the Seireitei, and of what might happen should Shunsui not agree to the Sorcerers terms. A long-haired woman obliterating scores of Shinigami with every casual gesture she made, an older man summoning forth a gushing horde of monsters to overwhelm their forces, while a smaller male reanimated the fallen spirits to fight on the Coven's behalf. The central message was clear, in the eyes of the Coven, they were completely helpless.
Kazuya observed the flames intently, mesmerized by the show of magic the sorcerer had put forth. Although that would hardly prevent him from fighting to protect Soul Society, however a terrible premonition gnawed on his spirit as he watched the events unfold in front of him. He was certain that the Coven would not do such a thing unless they felt victory was assured.
Therefore, Shunsui would need to surpass those expectations and crush their champion into the dust, if that happened, they might be forced to act with more caution. Kazuya was sceptical of the Captain-Commanders ability to do so, he hadn't been chosen for his power alone, he'd also been shown for his wisdom and love of peace.
"Understand this, Captain-Commander Kyoraku-dono. If you meet their champion, you're likely to meet your end if you make even the slightest mistake. Think long and dearly on whether you think yourself expendable enough to risk us meeting this foe without proper leadership."
He was receptive to all the responses given by his Captains, facing the Coven leader with a resolved look before yielding with a long-winded breath. Taking the cusp of his sakkat into hand, he removed the cap from his head and placed it down to the seat beside him. He stood tall, as both a warrior that safeguarded death and a leader among guardians of death, representing — for one single moment — the entirety of Soul Society and the weight of its future.
"Very well. I will accept your proposal, Coven leader-san. We'll hold this match away from the Soul Society, on the outskirts of the Rukongai. The choice exactly where, I will leave to our 9th Division Captain. I want it made clear that we will have Captains and other officers present during the match as spectators. If you plan to have members of your group attending, they will be subject to investigation by our Onmitsukidō. To ensure fair game, of course." he amended. He knew, among the Captains, Kazuya would probably understand their mannerisms best, and thus be able to choose a fair area for them to engage in confrontation. Furthermore, Kyōraku acknowledged the chance that he might meet his end there, and as a precaution, he would ensure that his Captains were there to wipe out the Coven if the need would arise then and there, under the pretense of handling security.
Duel of the Fates
Later the same day, the arena was chosen and prepared. The area at the summit of the Sōkyoku Hill was deemed the most appropriate; a place near the landmark that proved pivotal in the history of the Soul Society, including fairly recent events. A place in the middle of the Seireitei, surrounded by the military might of Gotei 13 from all sides. The ledge of the hill, suspended above the arena like an executioner's blade, ready to decapitate the mage chosen by the foolish, bold Coven to challenge the Captain-Commander himself.
And appropriately enough, the arena was procured with the use of spiritual magic. Thick rock spires of varying height rose from flattened land in the shape of a circle, artificial terrain to render the battlefield more interesting - and, not quite coincidentally, more beneficial to a warrior focused on physical combat rather than the inherently ranged Kidō. Towering spires, yet not nearly as high as the hill, they cast long shadows upon the ground. And the ground itself was cut off from the rest of the city with a dome of spiritual energy. Durable barrier, a necessary precaution given the power of the combatants involved.
As the duel was about to commence, Captains of the Gotei 13 took their seats on a modest, curved stand. While officially onlookers, they were all armed. Most, if not all of them, were infuriated or otherwise upset by the situation. Ready to watch their leader avert another calamity. Ready to act at the slightest indication of foul play from the enemy's side.
Finally, the sun rose toward the zenith. It was time.
In that moment, thunderclouds began appearing in the sky over the future battlefield, unusual for the fact that the clouds were blood-red and gathered in a single place before they struck the earth below with purple lightning bolts that spread the Leader of the Coven's personal purple flames all around the perimeter in a glorious pyre. Out of which thirteen individuals emerged, all of whom were clad in hooded robes that obscured their features; all that is, except for three members who'd been present in Ikeda, they stood in plain view as though reminding all of Soul Society of their failures.
The mysterious leader of the Coven was among them, and he raised his hands to the sides and spoke, his words being magically cast into the minds of every member of Gotei 13 at once; through a silent and highly empowered version of Tenteikūra, one which likewise lacked the ritualistic aspects. "Listen, Shinigami; the time has come for you to see with your very own eyes the superiourity of the Coven, as we pit a lone Sorcerer against your Captain-Commander. Know your weakness, but take heart in the knowledge that your weakness can be purged through study of the Noble art. Kageyama-dono, take the stage."
One of the masked members of the Coven stepped forward, he discarded the hooded robe to reveal his true features. Black hair styled to resemble tongues of flame, a large black eyepatch covering his right eye; and clad in ragged robes that left a large part of his chest exposed. Members of the Kido Corps present would immediately recognize his countenance as that of Nobu Kageyama the bane of former Kido Commander Sakura Ywagashi.
Captain Teruo Akui observed the intruders very closely, with much more than mere eyesight. Inevitably he winced, sensing all the murky evil, ominous intentions and nigh-bottomless power that seemed to radiate off the wizards. To his eyes they were not people clad in robes but shadowy wraiths from a nightmare come true. A nightmare that was either about to fade away from memory, or take over the reality in eternal anguish.
Drops of perspiration formed on his temples, and his face was locked in a frown. He was anxious, there was no denying that. However, he would not falter. His whole division was properly notified of the event. Fully armed and determined, they were prepared. Should the situation take a turn for the worse, they would charge at the intruders in full force. The Captain was ready himself, too. His hand kept idling in the area of the sheathed Zanpakutō's hilt. He paid no heed to the arrogant nonsense uttered by the enemy leader. Instead, he envisioned possible routes of attack, one ambush after another, his blade slicing through the wraith-mages to prevent another horror from befalling the Soul Society.
The Captain-Commander's opponent was strong. Very strong but Akui, perhaps in his lack of experience, did not find him particularly intimidating. According to his own estimate, as young as he was, he himself should stand a chance against the sorcerer should he fight seriously from the start. There was no way the respectable veteran such as Kyōraku Shunsui would lose to a member of the enemy organisation. No way in Hell. Nevertheless, that wizard had been chosen for a particular reason...
Teruo's hand slid upon the hilt, his fingers closing around it.
"My, oh, my..." Kyōraku took a breath as he observed the spectacle of the match that this competition had turned into; nothing short of a gladiator bout from the days of old. Taking a look around, he noticed his own warriors as well as those who came with the Coven leader to observe this match. Truth be told, this wasn't Kyōraku's style, to engage in some grand-standing fight, adored by fans and cheers alike. Furthermore, it worried him to fight in the presence of so many, for his abilities were too dangerous to be used in close vicinity to multiple individuals. But this wasn't a time to worry about that. His Captains were all strong and proud Shinigami. He trusted them to be sure no calamity would befall their people, and with that in mind, he was prepared to face his opponent with his full strength — no holds barred.
Staring down Kageyama with a light smile, as he often did, he greeted his adversary with a polite bow of the head as he removed his sakkat. "Kageyama-san, correct? That's the name I heard him call you, anyways." Pulling his arms into his haori, he shed the Captain's jacket along with the flowery robe that adorned his shoulders. However, he'd catch them before they fell to the ground, folding them up together sufficiently enough that he could toss them up high into the air near the stands. In the distance, his lieutenant frantically moved to catch them as he paid them a bright grin. But that was short-lived, for his true attention needed to be focused onto his opponent. Acknowledging the sorcerer with a nod, he wasted no time drawing forth both of his katana; no, perhaps it was more accurate to call them a wakizashi and katana pair. One was noticeably smaller than the other.
"I offer you the first move."
Nobu Kageyama observed his soon to be combatant as he made the gesture of removing garments that might otherwise get in the way. The former Kidou Corps Lieutenant made preparations of his own, as he shaped surrounding dust, rock and soil into a long quarterstaff with intricate brown symbols along its shaft. Nobu had never been one to utilize wards of any sort, he view the art of Shubido as the Art of Leniency. True perfection of the noble art might only ever be reached through taking risks.
The Sorcerers eyes were inscrutable, one might be forgiven for thinking him bored, nonetheless, that all changed when he made the first move. His lips drew back into a grin as he wove his special brand of spirit magic with his experiences as a spiritual wanderer to guide his power. Then he twirled the quarterstaff not once, not twice but three times in immediate succession, and at the culmination of each full revolution a shudder went through the earth, At the final gesture, Nobu tapped the staff gently against the earth.
"Make peace with the old coot for you're not long for this world. I'll make sure to show your dying expression to all of Soul Society when the time comes, but for now, lets awaken our inner beasts." That gesture, however innocous it had seemed in the moment, turned out to be a terrifying one. The first indication was another shudder in the earth, before the landscape which had been chosen for benefitting Shunsui was completely changed.
Within his mind he clearly rembered the curious geography of the Forest of Menos; mighty stone pillars that made a dark "forest" wherein hollows might cover and hide from more powerful species. Through his Way of the World -- that inner vision was made reality. In quick succession the earth rumbled as enormous spires of bedrock and granite sprung from the earth, the movement so flawless and natural that it seemed almost as though they bloomed forth from the soil, and all of their own accord each rock formation, each stalagmite and each spire of rock had unique features, some even had branches and mimicked trees in the truest sense of the word. The spectacle continued until the entire battlefield most resembled a gargantuan forest much akin to the one in Hueco Mundo.
However, it was still a battle, and Shunsui soon found that the ground around him appeared to be especially "fertile", enormous spikes of rock shot up from below, the very ground coiled and turned underneath his feet, making it extremely difficult to move properly -- and in this manner he would be forced to endure five consecutive waves of different variations of these rocky spires, empowered by Nobu's magic, these spires were extremely resilent and manifested at a true extreme pace, to the point that it was as though they virtually shifted into being at his location, the briefest lapse, or the tiniest mistake threatening to cleave him in two.
But although this was a preliminary attack by all accounts, Nobu decided to complicate matters further as he shouted out loud. "Daichi Tenyō!". It was a spell once invented by his former master, Sakura Ywagashi, the woman who use him and threw him aside when time came to pay her debt, a crime he'd murdered for. While the spell was usually used to turn fallen debris and heavy objects into powerful weapons, he employed it Shunsui from afar, in a manner where he implored the ground to "clutch" Shunsui -- with the effect that, in the event that his spell was successful, Shunsui would find his ability to move through the air jump severely hindered; as though gravity simply refused to let him go whenever he tried to defy it somehow.
Portraying a sense of emergency, Kyōraku seemed almost shocked at the action. At least, that was how his facial expression would suggest, but to those who knew him best, this was nothing but a show. That typical smile of his, with eyes brazen with a lull of both confidence and lax, shone brightly as he leaped to escape from the uprising rocks beneath him. But even that much wasn't enough to fully evade these magic-driven pillars. With every movement the Captain-Commander made, he'd flick his wrists toward the rocks, slicing them clean through with each skillful swing of his blade. At times, he would leave them to fall to pieces on their own, while other times he slashed through them, he followed through by kicking them away from him, using them to keep other debris away from him as well.
To the novice observer, what Kyōraku was doing might've looked like a wild rush to get those rocks far away from him as they rose higher and made freedom of movement all the harder. But it was all to set the stage. At some point during his blade dance, chopping down those pillars of stone like trees, he spoke out the words softly — "Katen Kyōkotsu." — and his two blades changed forms in the most subtle manner. They both phased from their different lengths into similar sized scimitars, and once the Zanpakutō released, Kyōraku swung them back in conjunction, swinging them parallel to one another toward Nobu in an arc-like motion.
Two crescents of wind escaped from the blades and merged together into a fierce whirlwind that went flying toward Nobu, but its true intention was to cause all those uplifted and shattered fragments of rock and debris that Kyōraku slashed apart during his montage to end up being drawn in by the influx of wind, transforming that tornado into a dangerous amalgamation of high-speed stone fragments being flung all about the vicinity of where his Coven opponent stood.
Despite the shift of scenery, Ishihara remained standing firm as did the rest of the captains around. "There's no way the Captain-Commander would lose right now. Not in front of his Captains, nor the entire Soul Society." The ebony man spoke out to the rest of the captains, "Right, Captain Kyōraku." He swiftly thought to himself, placing every bit of faith he had within himself into Shunsui.
Twelfth Division Lieutenant Garland Dragan, on the other hand, was far more ambivalent of the situation. “How can all of you agree to just stand here and do nothing!?” she asked defiantly. “What then if your commander doesn't survive this battle!? Does pride really matter that much to you!?”
Having trained under accomplished sorcerers in her past, as well as having been informed of the dangers she would face before joining the Gotei 13, Garland knew well of the threat this 'Coven' posed to both physical and spiritual realms alike; but beyond all else, her intuition foretold a harrowing end to the duel before her eyes. She cringed at the thought that all would fall into ruin before she barely had any time to adapt to this new reality she had been so suddenly thrust into.
“If we're forced to play by our enemy's rules… then we've already conceded defeat,” she mumbled to herself, trembling as she struggled to keep herself from the battlefield.
Hein, who was nearby, chuckled when her heard her. "Ain't like it can be helped, leastways, and pride's got nothing to do with it," he said, motioning towards the battle field. "That's real strength right there. So unless ya've got something better than what the head-captain can pull off, or such-and-such, it's not like we'd be addin' anything but trouble to the fight, if ya know what I mean." It seemed Hein was back to his usual talkative self, as his pose was completely casual. He was perching, apparently completely comfortable, with one foot on the kashira of his tachi and his arms folded over his chest. It was a strange position to be sure, as the sword stood straight up despite his weight on it, impossibly balanced. But while he had regained control of his composure, in reality he was keenly invested in the fight. While he truly cared very little for the fate of the Gotei 13 as a whole, inwardly he hoped that Shunsui would prevail. Contemplating the lieutenant's remarks, Hein was sobered to think that Shunsui might lose, yet he forced himself to consider it as a real possibility. He was not sure what the full implications should be if the Kidō practitioner were to win, but he was certain it would not bode well for him personally.
"Captain Ueda is right. This is not about pride", said Teruo in a quiet, tense voice. "The world we live in is governed by order and rules. Should we break them, we will descend into the madness of chaos, tearing each other apart like vicious animals over our personal delusions."
The frown on his face became more pronounced. And while his Zanpakutō remained sheathed, the grip on its hilt tightened considerably, so much so that the strain was audible. It did not escape Akui's notice that while the Coven leader had oh so generously offered the Gotei the ability to choose the battlefield, the very first action of the wizard challenger was to alter said battlefield to his benefit. More than that, where the leader veiled his contempt with purple prose and politeness, the challenger was much more direct about expressing his feelings. He represented everything Teruo expected the Coven to be: deplorable, arrogant monsters with no moral values or honour.
"With little warning we have reached another turning point in the history of Soul Society. The situation is beyond the capacity of any individual to handle but together... maybe... All I can say is, be ready."
He would not explicitly admit that he felt the Covenite threat was way over his head as well. Fortunately, he was not left alone to deal with the problem this time around, unlike nine years ago, when... Best not to think about that too hard. Already his killing intent had grown so intense that he struggled to contain it within. Once unleashed, it could probably kill someone through sheer emanations. But there was still hope that the catastrophe could be averted. Tenuous hope.
His intent was shared by the woman sitting across from him. Maintaining a precariously cross-armed perch on the low-standing wall of the spectator stand, the Thirteenth Captain would've come across as rather lackadaisical if it wasn't for the scrunched up look on her face and the less than subtle tension that she exuded. Flickers of electrical energy fluttered around her, emanating mere inches from her body in a rather emotional expression of spiritual energy, punctuated only further by the fierce tapping her finger perpetrated against her arm. She looked like she was a single moment from exploding across the arena, in fact she was. It took all of her restraint to simply sit there, teetering on the edge of the sectioned off little area that had been prepared for them. She'd seen all the signs, all the hints that meant that no matter how this duel ended, something bad was about go down in its aftermath.
"Be ready, huh?", she repeated aloud, almost seething the words out. That was all they could do, she knew this. Any contingencies and plans would have been put in place before the duel, or after its conclusion. In that sense, there was little else to be done. But that very fact was what was killing her, the waiting.
Nobu remained passive as Shunsui destroyed his forest and attempted to entrap him within a furious whirlwind of his own making. The howling winds converged on Nobu, all as splinters of debris were hurled about inside, but despite the immense strength of the Bushogoma technique unleashed by the fabled Katen Kyokotsu, Nobu didn't move from the earth, the wind tugged at his clothes and attempted to tear him away and into the air but the earth simply refused to let him go.
He spun his staff about, wielding his quarterstaff as though he'd spent his entire life refining its technique, not a single speck of dirt managed to find him, as he used his weapon alongside a variety of dramatic backflips and sommersaults to block every single attack, even as he emerged from the whirlwind completely unscathed, all without the need for wards.
Even as he walked towards Shunsui, he issued silent commands to the earth, and the element listened. For out of the earth emerged two gargantuan hands, the size of small mountains. One appeared at either side of Shunsui before they swiftly came together around him, threatening to turning him into dust due to the immense forces so wielded.
But when they met, they melted together into a pyroclastic storm of magma and immense heat, like an active volcano summoned forth from nothing. Its blood now ran through the earth and melted away at everything it reached even as it redefined the battlefield once more, for now Nobu stood on a tiny island amidst a lake of lava. If the stone hands hadn't crushed him, surely the magma and heat might.
Once those earthen hands began their approach, Kyōraku bore little concern. Whatever shape they took, rock was still rock, and as he showed, there was little difficulty in overcoming such obstacles. If only it was that simple though. In the instant that the lava began to manifest, its incredible heat piercing the air, Kyōraku's eyes widened in sheer momentary fright. He had little time to respond. Specks of lava had already begun to strike him, causing burns along his shihakushō and even onto his exposed skin, causing him to visibly cringe in pain as he continued to move.
"Bushō...!" Kyōraku began to call, but something seemed to occur to him. Shutting his eyes for a moment, he glared intently toward Nobu as the lava uproar had seemingly consumed him, causing his body to disappear from sight; the Captain-Commander presumed to have been devoured by the magma. But almost within the very next instant, Kyōraku reappeared, naught but a few meters away from Nobu, aiming to slash the sorcerer in twain with those mighty blades of his.
One might question how the Captain-Commander managed such a feat, but the truth behind this maneuver would show itself after Nobu responded to the Captain-Commander's close-range attack. For in truth, it was nothing more than an afterimage projected by Kyōraku; one so realistic that it would seem as if it was actually him, a circumstance due solely to the sheer level of reikaku a sorcerer of Nobu's level would undoubtedly possess. How Nobu would respond to this was left to his discretion, but once the afterimage was dealt with, the next stage of Kyōraku's strategy would be carried out.
"You really are cruel, Ohana... Changing the game without so much as a warning."
The real Captain-Commander managed to evade being ensnared by the lava, using basic applications of Seki — a spell his late friend was proficient in — from the tips of his blades to repeatedly blast away portions of the magma tide far enough that he could avoid being burnt alive. He kept up the ruse of being consumed only for moments at a time, long enough to create the illusion that the real him was closing in on Nobu, and once that illusion was dispelled, which couldn't take too long, Kyōraku changed gears; altering from defense to offence.
"Hadō 78, Zangerin!" Kyōraku launched twin arcs of sheer energy, one smashing into the magma that was near his body, and the other ramming down into the magma below. Supposedly, the Captain-Commander aimed it in such a way that the attack would have the effect of causing a displacement of the lava after being struck by the spell's force, the result being a tidal wave of magma rising upwards in the direction of Nobu.
Crucible of the Coven
Nobu was visibly distracted by the sudden appearance of a second Shunsui, he had no idea that he could move that quickly. On reflex, the Sorcerer turned his skin into abnormally dense yet flexibile stone scales, intending to brace against the attack and prevent great damage. But to his surprise the attack never came, and the blades simply passed through his body without doing any damage whatsoever, aside from making him look like a fool. He could already feel the condescending glares of other high-ranking members of the Coven to fall for such a basic illusion.
Behind him, a wave of magma rose, urged forwards by his adversaries cunning use of magic. But to use kido against a Sorcerer of the coven was an insult that could not go unanswered, and if he wanted to pretend to know the secrets of magic, well, then Nobu would give him a free lecture. Raising his hand and directing it towards the towering wave of magma, Nobu commanded the fragmented wills that formed the basis of Kidou with a upper-end spell invented by his late master.
"Hachitoge." He uttered, and even as the last syllable left his lips, a profound change was invoked upon the column of molten rock that threatened to consume him. It dispersed into thin air only to reappear in the form of twenty-four massive shards of blood red rock, which hovered far above the battlefield. Nobu's legs left the earth as he hovered far above the battlefield, while still enforcing an immense pull of gravity upon Shunsui to prevent him following suit.
"Behold, Captain-Commander, and witness the power of a true God of Death."
A spectral kanji appeared in blood-red text in mid-air, before vanishing, and it was in that moment that Nobu's magic was unleashed. The first shard was hurtled down to the ground with the force of a meteor, the earth split apart into massive chasms, as shockwaves threatened to overwhelm the barrier that protected those outside. Straining against the arcane structure for many seconds before vanishing, anything within the barrier might find themselves thrown about like rag-dolls by the terrifying powers invoked. In the massive crater that had been left by the explosion, a massive pool of magma had formed, as the spell had reverted to its original state.
But it was far from over, for in that moment Nobu unleashed eleven more such projectiles, each of which reshaped the land and threatened to wipe out Shunsui's very existence without the slightest hesitation. It was irrelevant however the Captain-Commander might seek to avoid the blasts, for his allies had foolishly imprisoned him, and Nobu's goal was to ensure that his mobility became limited to the point of nonexisting. Thus, when the dust settled and the rest of the unleashed meteorites had struck the earth below, the original battlefield was no more.
Instead, the battlefield had been replaced by a single massive large of molten lava, which churned and superheated the air, making breathing difficult and increasing physical strain expontentially. Under these conditions, Shunsui would find that all of his techniques and abilities consumed far more energy than ordinary. The only bits of land that remained were several small islands of rock strewn about the lake, with Nobu flying overhead at its center, surrounded by twelve massive blades of molten rock, further reshapen with his magic. The true battle, was only beginning.
Kyōraku let off a whistle from his lips as he watched the madness unfold. Truly, this was a display of Kidō unseen even among most Captains in the history of Soul Society. That alone deserved praise. But this was a battle between enemies; nay, a war between rival factions. There was no time to admire the elegance of the enemy's technique. Against most opponents, this would probably have spelled the end. Such tremendous attacks, being thrown down on a victim trapped in so small a space, how could anybody fend off such an assault without severe consequences? But this was far from enough to conquer the mighty Captain-Commander. He would exploit the one blaring weakness — rather, the blatant opening — that this attack had presented Kyōraku.
Such massive objects, in the middle of the day, would of course cast enormous shadows. And that presented Kyōraku with the instrument necessary to fend off the threat. The shadows that were cast by the meteorites, starting with the first one that was coming down to crash upon the land below, began to extend upwards, manifesting like oily black streaks. Soon, the same cloudy tendrils started materializing around Kyōraku's person, as he began to descend into the ground below, the darkness of the shadows seemingly devouring the Captain-Commander as he vanished from sight. As the shard closed in, several blade blades forged from the shadows shot out, piercing straight through the meteorite that collided with the ground.
One after another, it was a thunderous clash between blades of darkness and shards forged from fire and earth, smashing through the obstacles with the very shadows that their presence created. But once the final one came down, and the reshaping of the battlefield had ended, Kyōraku was still nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he truly did meet his end at some point, despite hiding in the shadows, but almost immediately after, Nobu would be able to hear the soft whispers from behind him.
"Da... ru... ma... san..."
It was another of Kyōraku's games made real by his Zanpakutō, one that allowed him to follow the trail of reiatsu left behind by an opponent's attack, in order to catch them by surprise. From behind Nobu, Kyōraku staged his attack; whether the sorcerer caught on early enough or not was irrelevant, for with the remainder of the shadow left by the final meteorite, being manipulated by the previous game that Katen Kyōkotsu opted to play, nearly six clones of Kyōraku were formed to assist in a vicious downpour of sword slashes. Every single strike intended to cut Nobu straight through.
Nobu's mouth split into a maniacal grin, like the former Captain of the 11th Division, Nobu had a bloodthirsty streak and adored combat. Not merely for excitement but for attempting to perfect his magical powers, by overcoming worthy opponents, as one would expect, Shunsui has proven himself a worthy foe indeed. This was evident in how he had managed to so skillfully deal with the meteors he'd summoned, and how he was now masterfully using the power of his Zanpakuto in order to attack him from all sides.
The Sorcerer knew that he did not have the means to evade every single blade under these circumstances, but thankfully, he didn't have to. Just as the clones were about to strike Nobu, they discorporated into nonexistence, a single glance would reveal that the shadows that had given birth to them no longer existed. For with a single gesture, Nobu had reduced every remaining meteor into specks of dust. Immediately he used his extraordinary senses to ascertain Shunsui's current location, before he moved onwards with his next plan of attack.
Innumerable fragments of stone, dirt and sand converged upon Shunsui's position, whereupon they quickly formed a gargantuan vortex around him, like gigantic spherical whirlwind centered on his position. Nobu reshaped every fragment of earth, stone or soil into a thin blade of diamond, tempered with his arcane power and his memory of the Gleaming Star in the Torrential Lands. To those watching from the outside, it'd look as though the sky around Shunsui was lit up by billion twinkling stars, as the sunlight cast reflections off of the diamond shards.
Then the Sorcerer commenced his attack, and what followed was a brilliant spectacle of flashing lights, following and lashing out towards Shunsui from every direction imagineable, the force of their combined attacks enough to rend the ground directly underneath them asunder, like the oversized claws of a ravaging beast of myth. For a few moments, Shunsui would find himself encased within a storm of unbreakable blades, as if the very stars themselves had descended to tear him apart at the magicians whim. Then, Nobu snapped his fingers, and the swarm of diamond shards was transformed anew, ready to deliver the killing blow.
Four great arms of the purest diamond appeared around Shunsui's body, formed by the myriad of shards that had earlier attempted to destroy him. But they were only visible for the briefest moments before they collapsed upon Shunsui, four gargantuan hands attempting to crush him at once, the impact that formed when they collided was so excessive that Nobu felt the air being torn out of his lungs, even as the lava and earth below was peeled away to form a large empty field. The shockwave caused the barrier to begin noticeably cracking, and sent the Sorcerer hurtling away across the battlefield until he managed to use Daichi Tenyo to reorient himself.
The Captain-Commander seemed visibly shocked, seemingly caught off-guard when this maelstrom of diamond blades were beginning their wild dance to tear his body to unrecognizable shreds. At that point, he had reacted on pure instinct, attempting to divert the paths of the blades that came toward him with his own, but he was only so lucky. One after another, those diamond blades found a way to slash at Kyōraku one way or another, dealing quite nasty wounds to the Shinigami leader in the process. However, he wasn't the type to kneel over a couple injuries. In a bout of pure instinct, he called out the spell from before, "Zangerin!", launching those energy arcs outwards in an attempt to not only blast away those blades from his body but also to smash through whatever amount of them he could.
Whatever the result, he managed to hold his own, but soon enough came the real danger: those four diamond hands, positioned to smash the Captain-Commander into oblivion. However, Kyōraku was prepared to deal with a move like this; rather, his Zanpakutō made the proper call. Although he was surrounded, Kyōraku still had one direction to go: up. And up he went, pushing off the air with the flash step, as he crossed his blades overhead. "Takaoni." he voiced out, as the diamond hands were closing in from below to continue their vicious assault. In this game, whoever was higher up wins, and thus, if one were to consider this spell an extension of Nobu himself, this was now a game between the Sorcerer and the Captain-Commander. And with Kyōraku higher up, he was the winner. Smashing his blades downwards, empowered with the victory from Takaoni, even these diamond arms couldn't survive being destroyed.
With an opening made, he switched gears and changed the game once again, returning to Bushōgoma as he launched a whirlwind straight downwards, creating a sizable space as he blew away the shattered pieces of the broken diamond arms, so that he could descend below without the threat of being harmed. As he stood on the same level as where Nobu managed to reorient himself, Kyōraku offered his opponent a kind smile.
"I was hoping it would not come to this. Normally, I would never use this with so many people nearby... but..." the Captain-Commander mused, looking around at the barrier which separated them from the onlookers that were witnessing this match. "I will place my faith in the might of the Gotei 13 and its Captains. No matter what happens..." Kyōraku continued, raising his Shikai blade upwards with the other one facing the opposite direction. "...they will safeguard the world. We are the shields of Soul Society. And we have no intention of handing this world over to anyone. As the Captain-Commander, I make that a promise." he ended, with darkness beginning to loom overhead and shadows leaking from Kyōraku's body, seeping into the ground below, as he spoke once more.
The Theatre Suicide
The skies darkened considerably as streaks of black ran all about the land below where the two warriors stood. Behind Kyōraku, the shadow visage of a woman had manifested, shimmering briefly before vanishing away. Any that were within the vicinity, Nobu included, would definitely note the change in the atmosphere, the sheer chill that captivated the air, and the utter darkness that enveloped them all.
"Katen Kyōkotsu: Karamatsu Shinjū." Kyōraku spoke, as he returned his blades to both sides of his body, standing at the ready. "Tell me, Kageyama-san. How does the world look to you?"
Nobu raised his eyebrows, his dark eyes peering towards Shunsui, as if the question had caught him off-guard. "To me, the world is magnificent thing, one I intend to preserve with my own might. Humans are optional however, ineffective creatures, it doesn't matter to me whether they live or die."
"Take solace in these words, Shunsui-san, for they are the last you'll ever hear. I promised I would slay you, and slay you I will, for alas the time has come for me to prove that are already deceased."
So this was the Bankai of a Captain-Commander. Inwardly, Nobu aknowledged its great power, and although he'd have enjoyed playing this game of theirs a bit more, he had received instructions to end the fight at the very first available opportunity. And so he would, reaching out with his hand he spoke words as he would do when intoning a spell, but the words spoken were intelligble and did not rouse the fragmented wills as Kidou usually did.
Yet with every syllable, a great power bellowed forth, until at last Nobu completed his spell with a single statement: "Shunsui Sōzōsa Kyōraku no Jirō." It was a mighty curse, one which altered the very foundation of the targets spirit, from reishi to stone..
Wtih that, Nobu turned around and began to walk away, for he realized that thanks to the knowledge granted by The Masked Man, the battle was already won. For even a master spellcaster was hard pressed to deal with a curse given the agency of a victims true name.
To Shunsui the affects would be immediate, as his pores spew out dirt, sand and spires of rock, tearing apart his flesh as the horrific transformation began. Every moment became almost impossible as his legs gradually petrified, and he could already feel the curse tugging at his mind, attempting to devour what little semblance of humanity he had left. Gravel and stone already issued forth from his palms with excruciating agony, making it difficult to keep ahold of his sword even as the curse dragged him towards his inevitable demise.
Kyōraku's eyes widened at the sound of his full name being spoken; it came as a surprise that a random sorcerer would know of the name, but what followed was the truly shocking situation. Physically, the pain had already started, with sweat dripping from his cheek as he witnessed the grey coloration spreading along his hands, signifying the petrification he was undergoing. It took him some time to process what was going on, but a conversation he had hours prior to this match ran through his mind in that instant.
"It's dangerous, Kyōraku-dono." came the voice of Captain Kazuya Kuchiki, who had spoken in private with Shunsui hours before they were to attend the match with the Coven. "Magic practitioners never act so openly unless they have prepared for every possible outcome. Unless victory was assured... And I'm sure you realize what that means."
Kyōraku, in response, could only lower his sakkat as he listened to Kazuya's words.
"These... Coven people, without a doubt, possess magic that escapes the imagination of even the most seasoned practitioners among the Gotei 13. Magic that does not follow our conventional law. When you consider this, no matter how it goes, we'll be at a disadvantage. Not to mention..."
But Kyōraku let off a soft chuckle that interrupted Kazuya. "Please, Kazuya-san. Just say what you mean to say."
Hearing that, Kazuya shut his eyes for a moment in silent contemplation before opening them narrowly, giving Kyōraku a cold look. "With all due respect, Kyōraku-dono..."
"...I don't think you'll make it out alive."
"I suppose so..."
Kyōraku's expression softened as the horrifying sight of his body turning to stone reached the eyes of his Gotei 13 comrades from afar; some stood in shock, clenching their teeth in anger, others screaming for Kyōraku to do something, some even crying in disbelief. But what could be done? Even though the pain was immeasurable, Kyōraku refused to let his comrades see him in his final moments like a tortured lamb. He faced the final moments with dignity as he looked toward Nobu.
"But even so..."
In the Captain-Commander's mindscape, which layered over the real world itself, behind him stood Katen Kyōkotsu's spirit; the one he referred to as Ohana. Her face was tensed with pain, not from the torture that Kyōraku himself was going through, but from watching her beloved master moments away from his death, knowing she could do nothing to stop it.
"Are you perhaps sad?"
"It seems this will be the last time we see each other."
"Hmph. How arrogant... Presuming I would care for the final moments of a good-for-nothing master like you."
"Hah... Even in the end, you won't shed off that mean streak of yours, huh?"
"Would you want me to be anything less than what I am? When I stand before you for the last time?"
Kyōraku's lips curled into a smile.
"I suppose not."
Katen Kyōkotsu also responded with a smile, but one that perhaps conveyed the deep reservoir of sadness that her eyes betrayed.
"I enjoyed our game. It was fun, from start to finish. As I said when we first met, I will serve as your blade. Even when the world crumbles away, the skies turn black and the ground is naught but fire and ash... Until you can no longer stand. Beside you as you lay, softly down, I will be. Until your final words reach my ears, "Checkmate", and the end of the game finally comes."
Holding up his sword, Kyōraku pointed the tip toward his chest, breathing heavy with every motion he made as the curse continued to spread.
"This will be it."
Lunging that blade inwards, the Captain-Commander chose his own fate, letting that sword pierce straight through his own chest. While it may have looked like Kyōraku trying to kill himself, there was an ulterior motive behind this action: his Bankai was still active, and its first act was to begin. The story of a man who suffers from the same wounds as his partner, but cannot die from them. Ichidanme: Tameraikizu no Wakachiai. When the sword was thrust within his chest, the same appearance of the wound would appear on Nobu's body, a massive gash that opened up on the sorcerer's chest, undoubtedly causing blood to splatter out as it did so.
With blood trickling from Kyōraku's lip, and the majority of his body now turned entirely to stone, the curse continuing upwards, the Captain-Commander spoke once more. "It seems this will have to suffice for the first act... I wish I could see the rest, but I suppose, the rest of the show will... have to... be carried out... by you all..." he declared, his voice beginning to lose strength as the curse reached his throat.
"The rest... I leave... to you..."
His arms, naught but rock, cracked and his fingers broke, causing both of his blades to land to the ground. Katen Kyōkotsu reverted to its sealed form, a katana and a wakizashi, as Kyōraku's face began its transformation to stone. And with the final strand of hair turned grey, the Captain-Commander...
...was no more.
He knew it. From the beginning he knew that was a farce. Under the pretence of diplomacy and maintenance of peace, the Coven had orchestrated not an honourable duel but the assassination of the Captain-Commander. Right before the eyes of his highest-ranking officers, in the middle of the Seireitei for everyone to witness. In horror. Teruo bared his teeth as he widened his eyes and veins bulged out on his temples. He was staring in disbelief and fury at the Captain-Commander literally turning to dust. When his spiritual pressure signature faded away, the fury took the reins.
"Un... unforgivable...", he seethed, trembling from the wrath swelling within him. "You will pay for this... All of you will PAY WITH BLOOD!"
Allegedly, both sides wanted to avoid bloodshed. In practice, the Coven were deplorable deceivers who wanted nothing but strict dominance over the world. Just now, they had slain the leader of virtually the only organisation capable of thwarting their plans. They could not be trusted. They should not be bargained with. They all deserved to die. With an abrupt motion Teruo stood up and drew his Zanpakutō, so fiercely that the blade cast sparks as it emerged from the sheath. Barely had the swinging motion stopped, the katana shone briefly with a peculiar shade of orange. Swiftly it changed into an armoured gauntlet and vambrace upon the Captain's left arm.
His clenched fist, risen toward the sky, toward the magical wraiths overlooking the travesty they were responsible for, opened up to reveal a gem embedded in the palm. The gem shone with power so intense that it could not be contained within for long.
"Seijōki!", exclaimed Akui.
Eldritch flames erupted from the Zanpakutō. A large, wide stream that cast an orange glow upon the whole stand and the Gotei officers occupying it. The flames spread out not with the familiar roar of fire, but chilling screeches and wailing evocative of the souls of the damned weeping in eternal agony. With a faint, patronising smile Jurō Henkō stepped forth to intercept the sudden attack. With a lifted arm he cast the Tenki, an invisible field designed to redirect the enemy technique away from him and his fellow mages. Sure enough, the phantasmagoric flames did not reach any of them, dispersing harmlessly upon clashing with the spherical field. The wizard shook his head at the impetuousness of the young Shinigami, so eager to act before thinking.
Then, his condescending smile vanished as he realised that the "flames" lingered upon his ward. Gradually, they burnt into the magical field all the while emanating the blood-curdling noises of hellish madness.
"Those are not flames...", he whispered in shock.
“No... no, this can't be happening...”
Everything had been decided all too quickly, any glimmer of hope so cruelly ripped from her heart before she could begin to believe her own eyes. Garland helplessly sank onto the ground, mumbling nonsensically as her young mind attempted to make sense of what she had seen.
“You can't be dead... It's not true...” Before she was selected as Lieutenant of the Twelfth Division, Garland was welcomed by the Head Captain with open arms and placed in the care of his Division. It was thanks to his kindness that Garland would come to view Shinigami so positively. She would live among them as though she through she were a Shinigami herself, and fight alongside them for a goal they all shared. Shunsui was the Shinigami she would regard as a friend—her warm welcome and a breath of comforting air.
“Damn you all, this isn't FAIR!” she screamed in fury, tears flying from her deranged eyes as she stood upright with newfound strength. Her glasses were obliterated before the sheer might of the fiery augur surging unconsciously from her body. Her hair flowed harmoniously with the current of flames before it was inevitably engulfed as well; but only the color of her hair would be burned away, leaving behind a silvery white hue in its wake. Flames of augur spouted from her back on either side in the shape of a glorious pair of wings, persisting even as her energy settled.
“So what if we're all fated to die now!? Damn it all, if I'm to die this way then I'll die fighting you all with everything I have!”
Her eyes glowed radiantly with powerful intent, become nigh as bright as the sun itself. She knew not the source of this newfound power, or even if it would prove of any use against the Coven. They had already lost the war, but she would not lose this battle.
“I'd feel better if I could kill at least one of you!” she roared before promptly joining Teruo in his assault, ephemeral trails of augur following her every move.
Takashi had watched from a distance as the spectral display of stone spires and a sea of lava had engulfed the Sōkyoku Hill. He stood in awe as a symphony of vibrant, molten rock collided with the force of the two combatants’ power: melding and struggling together as a living theme. Small bursts of light and visible shockwaves that rippled across the barrier’s wall were testament to the scale of the battle within, yet it seemed to him strangely cold and detached: the strokes of a master’s brush who no longer had soul left to breathe vitality into his work. The two combatants held no personal qualms, and to Takashi, accepting the demands made by their opponents suggested that the Gotei 13 had already accepted its fate. When he considered the horrors of the previous war, he wondered: Was Shunsui simply tired of fighting?
Byakuya had ordered that Takashi stay behind as the head captain battled against the mage chosen by the Coven—and he had assumed it was to keep him out of the way should something happen to go wrong. He knew his own weaknesses well, and that he would only be a burden to Byakuya should he attempt to fight by his side. It was a bitter pill to swallow—not because of pride, but because he had realized how powerless he was to protect the Soul Society in the face of the Coven’s threat.
Nevertheless, Takashi had dutifully maintained his position at the Soul Society’s main Senkaimon with a host of seated officers from other divisions. Despite the fact that the Coven had demonstrated the ability to cross dimensions without using the gateway, there was no guarantee that they would not try to tamper with the Seireitei’s access to the Human World should Shunsui fail. The Senkaimon would always be a vulnerable target, and as such it was vital to guard against attack.
But as the battle had worn on, Takashi wondered how long a small regiment of officers was expected to hold out against the cataclysmic power demonstrated by their enemies. He had spent the entirety of the battle in somber silence: as grim as if he had been attending a funeral.
When the skies turned black, he knew things had gone from bad to worse.
The head captain’s Reiatsu had been palpable even outside of the protective dome of energy as he released his bankai, and Takashi felt it a knot form in the pit of his stomach. His sharp eyesight allowed him to see the dark spot that spread from the crest of the hill, with Shunsui presumably in its center, and a chill ran down his spine. It reminded him of the way blood spread after a fatal blow to the heart. For the head captain to use bankai so soon...
The clouds that had formed at the heart of the Seireitei slowly crept across the entirety of the sky. Thunder rumbled gently. It began to rain.
It was only a few moments after that a dark speck appeared in the distance, flying fast from the direction of the Sōkyoku Hill. Takashi extended his arm as his hawk dove from the sky, slowing her descent at the last second as she landed on his forearm’s vanbrace.
The head captain is dead. Kohaku, who had been circling above the fight, told him without ceremony. Takashi had been expecting the news, but hearing the confirmation still caused his heart to sink into his stomach. And the captains? He asked. Teruo Akui has already made an attack. Whether the others join him or not is difficult to say.
Takashi stared at the distant battlefield with new horror. The Gotei 13 had been left bereft of its leader, like a snake writhing without its head. Takashi turned to his fellow officers, who watched the Sōkyouku Hill with the same grim expression.
“The head captain has been defeated,” Takashi began, “Kyouraku-sama is dead.” He watched as hope began to fade in his companions’ eyes, and quickly averted his gaze. He did not want to confront the threat of oblivion looming before them. For a moment, he began to consider the implications of the Gotei 13’s failure, and how it would impact not only their own world, but the world of the living as well, and perhaps all other realms. But then he stopped. He already knew what defeat meant. There was only the present. Perhaps it was small-minded of him, but he had already decided to fight despite the futility and despair. He was only one small part of the whole, but he would play his part and defend the Soul Society... Or he would die trying.
“Prepare yourselves in case of an attack,” Takashi said as his feet slid into a familiar swordman's stance. “We can still hope that the captains will make a concentrated show of force to drive the enemy back,” he stated, even though he himself did not believe it. “Be ready.”
"Ta-Ka-Shi" Chitose quietly said as he moved up besides his Commander and, at least in his mind, friend. Like his Lieutenant, he had been left behind from the main battle. Byakuya probably thought he'd do something stupid like punching one of the mages in the face. Which to be fair, he probably would. "You didn't sound very convinced there. You may not feel it, but you are our leader right now. Shunsui-san may be dead, but we aren't. The captains aren't. The Gotei isn't gone just yet. Everyone needs to realize that still. Plus worse comes to worst, I stole a bit of insurance of us surviving." Chitose said as he pulled a pair of vials out of his pocket. They were some experimental drug of Jaromira's that he had lifted out of her lab while checking up on one of the experiments he used to head. To be fair, she had probably let him steal them, he never knew with that woman. But still, it helped. "Want one? Considering all the hell that's probably about to go down, I don't think they'll be missed."
Hein was completely motionless as he watched Shunsui’s form crumble into chunks of rock. It was an inglorious end, terrible rough, and Hein could not help but laugh despite himself at the ludicrous shock of it all.
“Well then,” he said quietly, and his perpetual grin vanished. “That’s goin’ for nothing.” He watched as the captain of the third sprang into action, but Hein himself did not move to help.
Inherently self-seeking and opportunistic, Hein was, at that moment, only considering what would provide the best possible benefit to him. He still hated the Gotei 13, but he also hated Kidō and those who used it, perhaps with slightly more vehemence. Yet, he was bound by forces beyond his control that worked to orchestrate his fate, and as such Hein found himself as an impasse. Siding with the stronger opponent in this case did not necessarily provide him with a way out, but the stone figure of Shunsui was a poignant reminder of what would happen to him should he happen to make the wrong decision.
Why do we eat? He recalled his demon—the one who had consumed his Zanpakutō—saying to him. To survive. He responded. The flames of the demon’s form flickered with amusement. We eat because we are hungry, it said. Hungry for power. Hungry to dominate, to overthrow, to win. Is that why you’re going to eat me? he heard his own voice ask. But the demon had not answered him.
Years had passed since then, but at heart, Hein was still truly a coward. Despite his tendency to throw himself into battle at the slightest provocation, seemingly heedless of the consequences, when confronted with an opponent he knew he could not beat, all his desire to fight was turned to ash in his stomach. It was not fair. After all the power he had gained, and still his fate was held lightly in someone else’s fingertips. Hein’s lip curled with disgust.
Give em’ hell, otchan. He willed to Teruo and any one else who joined forces with him in attacking the Coven.
“So that's how it ends, hm?” Hisaka quietly remarked as the battle reached its resolution. Not like most of her fellow spectators, she had stood quietly and maintained a rather homely expression throughout the entirety of the “gentleman’s duel,” as she had so affectionately called it. But with that glorious battle followed an unsightly end, one that would surely mean the triumph of the Coven. That was unless the survivors could muster one final stand.
When Shunsui looked yonder to his spectating officers, Hisaka closed her eyes as if meditating on his final thoughts—the responsibilities he had entrusted onto her. “Who am I?” she pondered her fleeting memories as a shaman without purpose, forever a wanderer within the spiritual lands.
In her heart, she remained but a wandering shaman, and would remain as such long after her duties as Captain were at last fulfilled. Her responsibilities meant little to her; the Gotei 13 in its entirety was but another temporary abode before she continued on her endless journey.
But a world of freedom was among her greatest treasures. The Coven's will was to encroach upon that freedom. Her business with the Coven was personal beyond all responsibility.
Hisaka gazed intently at Shunsui's statue as it crumbled before the wind. Given an opportunity, she would retrieve his remains and gift him with a proper funeral. At the very least, she owed that to him.
“Goodbye, and thank you… for accepting all I was,” she solemnly whispered before pulling back her fringe and lifting her head before the dreary sky.
“I guess you can say… I'm finally awake now.”
And without a single command spoken, her Zanpakutō was roused by that profound declaration, taking the shape of a ceremonial blade. An ominous chime sounded unending in her vicinity; the winds themselves became eerily placid. The power she had kept sealed for so long had at last been given a new upbringing.
“I won't just let any of you die while I'm around. That's my responsibility after all, isn't it?” Bringing her Zanpakutō downward, she drove its blade into the ground beneath her feet and poised herself elegantly.
“Monban Shūki,” she called out as a turquoise Reiatsu radiated from her body, the same runic patterns upon the side of her blade soon presenting themselves behind her in spectral form. Monban Shūki was among the most basic applications of her Zanpakutō's abilities, establishing a space where all death would bow before her jurisdiction. Death and mortal injury, no matter the cause, would be rejected as though nothing had ever transpired. Non-fatal injuries would regardless be ignored, but any foe who would incur such harm to those within the gatekeeper's circle of influence would be punished severely by its retribution. Beyond this, Hisaka could now consciously observe every entity within a wide radius, no matter how they might be divided or concealed by any trickery on the Coven's part. In exchange, she would be rendered immobile for as long as the technique persisted.
“I'm not sure how many of you are paying good attention to this,” she finally spoke to her fellow officers, “so I'll put this simply and then shut up from there. If you don't want to fight, stand close to me. If you do get involved... there isn't much I can do if I'm like this, but it's as I've said: I won't let any of you die.”
It was her own suggestion that Shunsui agree to that duel—she knew she was among those to blame for his death. But what was more, she could have prevented it—she could have well revived him safely had she not waited so long to release her Zanpakutō. Such a tragic mistake was wrought not by her faith in him, but her own belief that some fortune would come of his passing. It was her desire to see the others amend that mistake, for she would not have the power to do so herself.
Stepping out of that contemplative shadow was a scarlet-haired young man, donning a tacky overcoat of a most egregious orange that stood out starkly from his surroundings. So much so that it was anyone's guess how he'd gone unnoticed behind her for so long. A long handled silver stave had rested in his hand, which he began twirling to the tune of a subtle whisper ushering forth from the steel.
"I don't know if I can stack up to any of these masters, Captain", the young man started, firmly planting his staff into the earth. "But as your Lieutenant, it is my job to support you to the fullest extent I am capable of", said Iyori Hizakura with no small amount of pride in his voice. All of his actions up that point had been the motions of a showboat, drawing attention to himself before he'd spoke, playing off being humble. He smiled a bright, disarming smile that seemed insincere given his recent actions, but the impression was there that he hadn't entirely realised that himself.
At Iyori's words, Hisaka, too, bore a tenacious smile, although she would not turn to face her Lieutenant. How bizarre, she thought, that she would come to value her mantle as Fourth Division Captain so strongly. Perhaps she had her own subordinates to thank for that.
"This feeling..." A rock monument stood, as the ebony man thought to himself. "The same feeling when Tatsuya died... My stomach, it feels empty. All over again." Ishihara stood and watched as the head captain's body was basically turned to rock. Ishihara felt as though his entire body was a empty shell, holding nothing but a brain that felt as thought it were in a vegetable-like state. He held his head up looking towards the sky. The rain drops dropped down over his head, and merged with his hair. The rain drops slid down his face taking on the place of tears.
He continued glaring at the skies above as all the other captains spoke their own opinion. His heart was broken, and it was nothing like when he would get rejected by a woman. The Third Division's captain shot off like a rocket towards the man who'd taken down Shunsui.
"Wake up." A rumbling voice within Ishihara's psyche shouted out. He snapped back to reality, hearing "I won't just let any of you die while I'm around." come from Hisaka's mouth. It wasn't much within the sentence alone, but it meant a lot. Right now was no time for grief. No sulking in what had just happened to their Head-Captain. Instead, to fight and avenge his death. Fixing his head, pinning his view on the masked coven man slowly, he too, lowered his Zanpakuto down to his side.
"Shunsui-, no Head-Captain Kyōraku was a strong man. If he fell one on one with this man, then allowing Captain Akui to engage with him head on solo, is also allowing him to commit suicide. I'll go assist Captain Akui."
"Well this all went about as well as expected", a heavy sigh elicited itself from Jaromira, sitting in her own little corner of the stand that the Captains had occupied. Many of them had sentiments to share with the Captain-Commander, some that drew them to rage against his killers, some that saw them lament his passing, but Jaromira had no such connection with the man. She had known him since he was just another brat biting at Genryūsai's heel, but to say she had ever associated with him would have been a bit of an overstatement. Well, that wasn't entirely true. She was standing here on these grounds because he saw fit to release her from her imprisonment. As she raised her arm, she could still see the ink-blank bindings that had once held her, forcing her to admit that in one way or another she owed that man a debt of thanks, whatever his reasons for his actions. She supposed that abiding by the terms of his last act would suffice, and thus willed herself to move.
Stepping into the fore, she took one glance in the direction of Kazuya, before directing her gaze on the battlegrounds.
"As per usual, our illustrious forces have collapsed the moment our dear leader is gone. I suggest donning the mantle for the moment and rounding up the rabble before before they do something we all regret", she advised in a tone that was somewhat dismissive, a twinge here or there in her words betrayed her underlying concern, however. "The Captain-Commander made his sacrifice, we would do best not to squander it so soon".
As soon as she'd finished her eyes lit up with a gleaming white, then her body popped as if it were a balloon. Only for it to manifest some ways out on the battlefield, rasps of colour pulling into shape not too far ahead of Garland's on-going charge. The scarlet haired Captain put herself right between her Lieutenant and the Coven, her back to them, seemingly defenseless and exposed. As Jaromira saw it, the terms of the duel were clear, and interfering, as so many were beginning to do, was a disgrace to its participants. Her intent, then, was to ensure a swift withdrawal of her errant daughter.
"Garland, what do you think you're doing?", her eyes focused on a hostile gaze of her adopted child, blazing across the conflict zone right towards her.
Startled by the visage of her adoptive mother, Garland suddenly found herself struggling against her own momentum, managing to barely stop herself within inches from Jaromira. Her expression became of fear and disbelief as her gaze met with her mother's—fear that they would all be slaughtered by the Coven, and disbelief that her mother would do nothing to prevent it after all she had seen.
“After everything you've seen… you're going to stop me now?” she hissed under her breath while twitching slightly over her brow, realising that she did not at all resemble her usual self.
Seated upon an ebony throne sculpted from magic, the masked man sat high above the chaos that unfurled below, as the Shinigami desperately attempted to cope with the loss of their Captain-Commander. Some handled it well, others.. less so. At his side stood two robed and hooded individuals, whose very presence seemed to form alongside the Masked Man himself, an infinite abyss -- for these two were Archmages of the Coven, come to assist in reeducating the Soul Society following Shunsui's death.
With a faint degree of amusement, the Coven's mysterious leader savored the screams, the desperate pleas, and the reckless actions of the deluded pretenders below, who had cast aside the only true path in favor of swordwhispering and narcissistic self-worshipping. The Coven would remedy that.
"Hear me, people of Soul Society. For with the death of the Captain-Commander, the Soul Society is now under our control. Do not fret, for as long as you abide our terms, no harm shall befall you, this I vow." Through the power of Tenteikura, there was not a single mind in the entirety of the Soul Society who could not hear his words. "Firstly, every Zanpakuto is to be destroyed and the Shinigami will receive an enchanted blade instead, for far too long have vanity, self-adulation and narcissism ruled supreme in the Seireitei. Love us, fear us, do as we say; and enjoy the benefits of our utopia!"
Without a doubt, what remained of the Gotei 13 would rebel, but there was ways to prevent that. From the comfort of his makeshift throne, the Coven's leader extended a single finger to touch the air, with all of the Gotei 13 within his line of sight. He then began to slice the collective picture apart with spatial lines of energy that divided the battlefield in eight asymmetrical parts. This was done until he had divided the entirety of the Gotei 13; then, the masked man made a flourish of his hands as each marked area was transported across the planes to a specific location in all reaches of the spiritual and material worlds.
Only two Captains remained within Soul Society, Jaromira Dragan and Hein Ueda. Otherwise the battlefield was mostly barren, for the Masked Man had also moved several of the Coven's own agents around to help set their plans in motion, namely erecting lodestones so that the human world might be cleansed and reborn in their image. With that, he turned towards the Archmage on his left. "Congratulations, Kamui-san, you are hereby the first Magistrate of Soul Society, see to it that the population is compliant with our terms and send any swordsmen, particularly those of the 11th Division to.. reeducation camps."
"As for you, Genju.. why don't you head the operation to gather more Soul Fragments, the lodestones have little power without them. Take as many troops as you require, I wouldn't ask you to dirty your own hands with such menial matters. I will return to Amagasaki and make preparations for the Conception of a new world.." With that, the Masked Man vanished in a blast of purple flames..