A Fading Memory
That barren, eerie realm was a symbol. Suspended between the Human World and the Soul Society, an outgrowth of the Dangai where poor stray Souls gathered in their amnesiac confusion. Like a tumour. Supposedly a natural phenomenon. In fact, most likely another result of the neglect that the Shinigami were infamous for. As usual, waiting idly for issues to solve themselves while they were content with their lives in the safety of Seireitei.
As far as Jurō Henkō was concerned, the Valley of the Screams was completely unnecessary. Some sorcerers would disagree with him strongly, though. Nevertheless, he had a task to fulfil. He was to test some of the incompetent Shinigami on this unusual battlefield. Unhurriedly, he hovered toward a large wooden pole placed in the middle of a seemingly endless expanse of rocky mountains that the dimension was composed of. The place were the Shinenju was to merge with Blanks to become whole again. No need for that anymore, the mage thought with a smirk on his wrinkled face. The place was most appropriate for the placement of the Shinigami corpses once they were inevitably dealt with.
Meanwhile, as he was beholding the sombre landscape, Henkō sensed something. The area was desolate, currently devoid of any Blanks. However, two prominent spiritual pressure signatures accompanied him anyway. Unfamiliar signatures. So, those were the Shinigami who happened to be sent together with him? How quaint. There was scarcely any Reishi in the atmosphere for him to exploit. All was good, though. After all, he could always call for aid. His infernal allies were happy to oblige. First, he established Tenki to defend himself from harm. Then, he turned around to face his enemies.
"Are you there to witness the beginning of the end?", he asked in a raised voice. "To realise the folly of your mission?"
In a far less graceful entrance, Takashi Sakuma, lieutenant of the Sixth Division, plummeted from the sky. In one moment, he had been standing near other seated officers in front of the Soul Society's main Senkaimon, in the next he had been pulled through a piece of space and time before emerging suddenly in a deserted world. The unexpected atmosphere stripped his footing from beneath him, and unable to compensate in time, he fell from a considerable height, streaming through the air before leaving a sizable crater in the rocky, endless plain below. No doubt Jurō would have been able to feel the reverberations of the impact from where he stood.
Kohaku had wisely bailed before contact, and she now circled above where Takashi had presumably formed himself into a pancake, a sizable cloud of dust masking his exact location. Stunned, the lieutenant slowly pushed himself to his feet, but he bore his pain stoically, only groaning slightly from the pain that wracked his entire body.
You need to lose some weight, Kohaku pointed out snidely, Either that or learn to fly like a proper Shinigami.
I'll kill you, Takashi responded sourly. Moving his limbs like a pair of stiff boards, he finally managed to climb out of the crater he had formed.
He could sense a familiar presence in the area: Kazuo had been transported to the barren realm along with him. This was reassuring to Takashi, as he was aware of the other lieutenant's strength and was at least glad that fate had cast him into battle with a reliable comrade. With that thought, he turned his attention to the enemy before him. Even though a considerable distance stretched between them, he was able to hear the mage clearly, as the Valley of Screams was devoid of all other sound.
"I wonder," Takashi began, "Whose end you are referring to? If you succeed in subduing the realms and imposing your rule, what will be left?" he asked, "Will ruling over slaves without will satisfy you?" Takashi steadied himself, leveling his gaze at Jurō. While his face was still pale, he seemed to have become convinced of his duty. Surrender was no longer an option. "Even if our mission is folly in your eyes, the purpose of the Shinigami has always been to preserve the balance of the worlds, as without the cycle of souls, the universe itself may very well collapse." Takashi's tone grew dark, and he widened his stance as he drew his sword. The blade seemed to vibrate with unreleased tension, but the Shinigami kept his hand steady. "I was taught long ago that the sword that kills is also the sword that gives life," he continued. "Meaning is found in death. It may seem meager to you, but in this brief existence called life, the only satisfaction I have found is to protect such fragile life wherever it is found... To live for a cause greater than self-gain." Takashi was mainly stalling for time, trying to allow Kazuo an opportunity to plan for an attack, but his words were genuine.
"And that is why I will do everything within my capacity to stop you."
There was a sudden spike in his level of reiatsu as Takashi prepared himself to unleash his shikai. He felt dizzy from the power that was coursing unseen through his veins, the vial that Chitose had given him finally taking effect. He had not intended to use it at first, but when he had been pulled into the dimension against his will, he knew that the only chance he would have in facing whatever challenge he met would be to take advantage of every opportunity, even if the means were dangerous.
"Plunge into Flesh," Takashi commanded, "Aka no Tsume."
There was a piercing cry, like that of a hawk turning to the hunt, and Takashi's spiritual pressure jumped to level of a captain. Red strands of reiatsu, like streams of blood, coiled around his being, wavering in a visible aura. This had better buy you some time, Hanazawa-san, Takashi silently willed his comrade as he readied himself to attack.
Kazuo had been in the process of directing the Shinigami of the Second Division when an eldritch force had seized ahold of him and transported him to a faraway place; a large rocky battlefield with a blue sky and a distinct feeling of emptiness. Instinctively he wrapped his own spiritual energy tightly around his body, in an effort to make it shrink to the point that it might be difficult to sense for Juro.
It was obvious that this was the work of a hostile magic user, he'd fought a number of masters in the demon arts during his time with the Omnitsukido. The creed when fighting one was:
Never waver, never falter; strike swift and sure, time is their greatest ally, alacrity their greatest foe.
The Lieutenant remembered his past lessons on the subject, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He experienced joy as he felt Takashi's reiryoku, excellent - their countless hours together in sparring matches had made them acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
Even now, Takashi was already stalling and diverting the attention of their foe; with just a bit of luck his opening attack might be enough. Kazuo acted on his instincts as an assassin, and mere moments after he'd emerged into this world he issued his body into motion and moved.
A single step was all it took to close the distance between himself and Juro, and for the briefest moment the mage might see a shadow flash as their eyes met before the Vice-Chief of the Omnitsukido took another step and vanished in blur of dancing shadows.
Shunpo Tangeki, it was an intermediate technique taught to members of the Omnitsukido, it momentarily pushed their speed to its limit and allowed them to strike their opponent several times in mid-motion, at the cost of significant reiryoku expenditure.
Five attacks were the limit of what Kazuo could produce at once, and to an outsider it would look like lightning struck down at Juro five times in immediate succession, from different angles and with different means of attack. The first two attacks were two precise Hakuda strikes meant to strike clean hits onto the very core of his being, to disrupt his abiliy to harness spiritual energy. Whereas the next two sought to impale him from both sides in the same moment, the last attack and the one intended to finish the deed used Kazuo's Zanpakuto, held in reverse grip in an attempt to swiftly and surely decapacitate him while repositioning the man many yards away from the mage.
Executing a technique like Shunpo Tangeki was a refined matter, and so fast was the techniques execution that it was virtually impossible to follow with ones eye alone. And in its aftermath a small shockwave erupted around the stationary mage, as the air pressure that had buildt up in Kazuo's technique was finally unleashed.
Jurō was about to respond to whom he identified as a Lieutenant. A wisened sage explaining the intricacies of the complex, cruel world to a hot-blooded and valiant youth. Unfortunately, his words were anticipated with great suddenness. First, the man whom he assumed to be a Lieutenant unleashed the spiritual power of a Captain. Then, he was attacked, rapidly, without a warning. A blur of physical strikes he was unable to perceive in time to react. He had deployed the Tenki beforehand, though, and that was what saved his life.
The first two blows shook him, caused him to flail inelegantly, though failed to cripple him. The next two barely scraped against his trailing robe. The last one, however, made him wince as he felt sharp pain from being struck to the throat. The wetness of blood spread downward. The wizard promptly swiped his thumb against the nasty cut on his neck to seal the wound and stop the bleeding with precise application of kaidō. A would-be killing blow realised in but a fraction. In the end, the shockwave that ensued in the aftermath of Kazuo's ambush was dispersed by the ward.
Two enemies. One with the power of a Captain, the other with one's speed. Henkō struggled to maintain composure under such circumstances. He was a scholar first, a warrior distant second. Nevertheless, he had participated in numerous battles throughout his long life. And so far, he had survived all of them whilst his opponents seldom were so lucky. The lecture had to wait, at any rate. Rather, he had to act, immediately, to punish the overzealous youngsters for lashing out viciously at their senior.
Let the actions speak louder than words, in a way.
Careful to employ his own ample if finite reservoir of spiritual energy efficiently, Jurō manifested a translucent shield of a distinct yellow hue around his person. Then, multiple narrow beams burst forth from the spherical barrier in separate directions - a two-pronged assault. Some of them descended toward Takashi in a relatively tight formation. Meanwhile, the second volley arced in a variety of angles toward Kazuo. That was only the beginning, though. Because once they were close to their designated targets, the guided beams proceeded to detonate in short bursts of fire. A very deliberate choice: Takashi was to be immersed by a veritable wall of flames in order to obscure his vision, whilst his nimble companion forced to test the limits of his remarkable agility when a whole patch of sky around him was engulfed with numerous explosions. The flashes of light and the staccato of detonations saturated the whole area.
That was the time for step two.
"Hadō #54, Haien", said Henkō solemnly.
There was no need for him to utter the name of a mid-level spell to grant it adequate power. Especially considering that very spell was his favourite, one he had chosen to completely master. At the same time that was the reason his chose to recite the abridged incantation. To boost the spell he knew so intimately to greater heights, far beyond the limitations that constrained it as deployed by the members of the Gotei 13. The result was quite impressive indeed. The sphere of energy was superseded by one of raging fire, additional layer of defence on top of Tenki. And from that sphere burst forth a giant fireball that plummeted toward Takashi. With a piercing, defeaning squawk it sprang spreading wings, a neck and a head, to assume the shape of a huge bird. Not just any bird; a golden phoenix descended upon the hawk, to eradicate it within its fiery grasp.
Takashi's spirits had rose when he saw Kazuo's strikes connect, but they quickly sank again when the attack proved ultimately ineffective against the old combatant. Still, it had shown them one thing, and that was that speed was perhaps their best ally in this fight. As the beams of light shot towards him, Takashi steeled himself to either dodge or defend against the volley. He would freely admit that Kidō was his weakest skill among the comprehensive school of Zankensōki. Nevertheless, the Reishi in the surrounding atmosphere was notably diminished, and he wondered how long their opponent could last with such flashy displays of power. Considering that it was a mage of the Coven they were dealing with, however, it would be best not to take any chances, he concluded.
As if to support that line of reasoning, as he began to evade the streams of light, turning to the side to allow the Gaki Rekkō to streak past him as he sought out a safe path amidst the volley, the beams of energy exploded suddenly, catching him by surprise. Takashi turned his heel as he shifted his stance to allow for greater fluidity in countering, cutting furiously at two of the meteors which surrounded him on each side. But it was of little avail, as he was hit point blank by one of the spheres. He managed to block the worst of it with the flat of his blade, but the flames still washed over him. The worst of the damage was staved off by his reiatsu, which enveloped him in a crimson aura, but he felt a momentary flash of searing pain across his skin as the fire roared over him. Pushed back in the heat, Takashi lost sight of both his opponent and Kazuo in the bursting inferno. Fortunately Kohaku was already in the air, and had merely glided higher to get a better scope of the battle.
Don't let your guard down, she told him, concerned.
It was unexpected, Takashi explained apologetically, grimacing as he ignored the pain. Try to circle in closer, see if you can get a good view of where his weakness might be. I'll focus my attack there.
Kohaku turned on her wing, dropping several hundred meters in elevation as she flew more tightly towards Jurō. In the meantime, Takashi tried to make eye contact with Kazuo. While they knew each other's style of combat well, they still needed to make a cohesive plan if they hoped to have a chance at victory. Even if they could only convey that plan through subtle gestures, any small measure would help.
Then, Takashi felt alarm run down his spine as Jurō uttered Haien's spell. A veritable phoenix roared into existence, but the flames did not seem to be targeting him directly.
Kohaku! He called out to his hawk, alarmed, as the attack seemed to be coming in her direction. She had been close to Jurō when the spell was cast, and quickly darted back from the field. Turning hard and fast, the spirit of Takashi's Zanpakutō reflected the reiryoku of her wielder, and she managed to evade the beak of the phoenix, shimmering out of sight as her speed reached an unprecedented degree. The hawk shot past Takashi, but the phoenix continued to follow her path, heading straight towards Takashi.
This time, he was ready.
He raised his katana above his head, holding the hilt with two hands as he brought the blade down to bear on the Kidō construct. While it appeared to be only one strike, in reality two parallel blades of red energy followed the arc of his sword. It was Sanbankage, the split shadow, and Takashi had delivered the kata with enough power and distance that it split the wings off from the body of the phoenix. He stepped to the side as the spell, now cut into three parts, narrowly missed him and roared across the ground. Deprived of its prey, the flames seemed to scream with agony as they burned into the rock, but Takashi did not risk waiting around to see if anything else had been hidden in the fiery spell. He vanished with a flicker of Shunpo, reemerging some distance to Jurō's left behind a rock outcropping, hoping to remain out of sight for a moment as he prepared to counter.
Do you think he can read us? Takashi asked his hawk, fearing that the attack against her had been made because the mage had somehow managed to discover their bond of communication.
I don't believe I was the target, Kohaku refuted, I was simply in the way when it was released.
Takashi placed a hand on the blade of his Zanpakutō as he focused, closing his eyes in order to see what his hawk saw: a bird's eye view of their enemy. His body is enveloped by some form of Kidō barrier, Kohaku told him as she once more climbed into the sky to gain a view of the battle. Currently, he seems to be using the Haien as a cloak of defense.
Takashi wanted to attack immediately in order to create another diversion for Kazuo to exploit, but he was unsure if his fellow lieutenant had already taken measures to set up a spell to counter the mage's Kidō. Time was both their enemy and their friend in this case, as both Kazuo and the Kidō master could exploit it to prepare another spell. As such, there was no other option but to attack, relentlessly pressuring their enemy so he would be deprived of that chance.
Back me up, he told Kohaku as he stood, pooling reiatsu into the soles of his feet. He was still struggling to properly control the high level of reiryoku, trying to attain a balance between sheer force and precision. For that he would need the help of his Zanpakutō to channel his efforts. With that thought in mind, Takashi did the unexpected and drew the blade of his own sword across his forearm. A line of bright red appeared on the cutting edge of the Zanpakutō, and the Aka no Tsume practically danced with excitement as it tasted blood. The problem was, using his own, the trick would only work once. But he hoped it would give him just enough of an advantage to outmaneuver their adversary.
Takashi flickered into existence in front of Jurō, but he was only there an instant before he appeared behind him, then to the side. Flickering in and out of visibility, Takashi sprinted in a wide circle around the mage. Every other step, he swung with his Zanpakutō, projecting a concentrated blade of energy from a multitude of directions. Within the span of a few seconds, the cuts seemed to accumulate into a thousand lines of slicing energy that were directly aimed for the Haien surrounding Jurō. He aimed to keep distance between him and the mage, which would allow Kazuo the chance to attack as soon as he cut through the barrier. He could only hope his fellow lieutenant would avoid getting caught in the storm of blades created by his own attack.
The Lieutenant of the Second Division didn't hesitate for even a moment when his surroundings erupted into cascades of energy arrows, each directed in a manner that sought to flank, outmanuevre and corner him. He immediately recognized the spell for what it was, but its yellowish hue immediately provided Kazuo valuable intelligence that it had been tempered with somehow, consequently he attempted to test his theory. Making an extremely fast u-turn close to the nearest missile, Kazuo watched it and a number of others explode in fiery, before he swiftly relocated himself half a kilometer away. As he assumed, the spell arced and spun around to track him in his newfound location.
As it approached, Kazuo went through his training with his Captain in his head, he imagined his movements and the way he utilized Shunpo with such effortless grace so to have it replace walking. Then he did the unthinkable, he set course straight for the approaching flurry of energy projectiles, a single man against an endless hail of arrows, he supposed some might've screamed for him to stop such a foolish venture but Kazuo knew that this was the best way to neutralize the wizards attack.
When the Lieuteant came close to the projectiles, they dissolved into a cascade of mighty fireworks, surrounding Kazuo from every direction and had he been an expert, this would've been his death, swept away in golden flames. But to a master of Shunpo, who'd received training from the greatest master of Flash Step in Soul Society, the answer to this particular query was deceptively simple. Hanazawa simply took another step..
Before the explosions managed to exert their force, but after all of the projectiles had begun to detonate, Kazuo was already far away. Having evaded Juro's magic with a degree of efficiency that reflected well on his tactical acumen and intelligence.
However, the matter of their adversary still remained, the man had to admit privately that he'd made a critical mistake in not honing his blade before striking. Had he remembered to do so, he might've already ended the fight, he would correct his mistake now. Exerting his reiatsu in its full force, the Shinigami wrapped it tightly around his Zanpakuto, which hummed with killing intent, crackling within an outline of red spiritual energy. It was a very risky move, for it removed his natural protections as a Shinigami, in exchange for focusing all upon the offensive.
Encircling the battlefield for a time while waiting for his moment to strike, Hanazawa allowed Takashi to make the first move once more; and he felt a twinge of admiration when Takashi demonstrated his superb swordsmanship. Perhaps he also felt envious of the other man, swordsmanship was his weakest area. Throwing aside his thoughts the Shinigami cast an enchantment upon his Zanpakuto, causing it to change from a vivid red coloration to one of deep purple.
His preparations were complete just as Juro's Haien shroud was dispersed by Takashi's masterful technique. Pushing his speed to the limit, Kazuo's body split into two identical copies as he reached the Kido Master, then with perfectly symmetrical movements he and his clone swung their blades in an effort to have both bite deep into Juro's side. But whether they bit deep or shallow, the true purpose of the attack was to adminster the deeply corruptive influences of the spell Shimoku. Attempting to poison the mage, and have his body break down in excruciating agony, making every movement, every gesture a trial in and of itself, while reducing his concentration to shambles and slowly detoriate his body.
As before, Kazuo followed his momentum away from Juro, employing a traditional hit and run tactic. When he passed Takashi, he extended a hand and purposefully cut himself along Aka no Tsume's blade, empowering his ally even further in the process.
From Ashes, To Ashes
An advanced spellcasting ability to supplant the more commonly known Nijū Eishō. With it, Jurō was able to not only transfigure an existing spell into another one but also combine their effects for a wide variety of tactical applications. Owing to its relative obscurity, especially outside the ranks of the Kidō Corps or the Coven, a highly unpredictable and thus valuable skill to possess for sure.
The Shinigami would attack him in close combat, of course, once they had dealt with the first stage of his plan. They turned out to be more formidable than he first gave them credit for. Skilled, and dangerous. There was more knowledge to obtain from the actions Henkō had provoked from them, though, precious data to analyse and exploit during the next stage of his scheme. As Takashi performed a ferocious, if fairly cautious assault, hacking away at Jurō's flame-imbued ward, the wizard prepared to take the next step. The flames torn from Tenki began spinning about him at an increasing pace.
Then, he was struck abruptly once more. Two deep cuts marked his arms when Kazuo passed by him. Clever. And irritating. The mage quickly felt the effects of a Kidō spell injected through his opponent's blade, much to his surprise. Poison. The tattoos upon his limbs shone faintly to heal the wounds and stall Shimoku's progress, although that required precious attention. The execution of his plan was more important than a quick recovery, however, at least for now. He had to act quickly. So that the plumes of Haien continued their twisting motion as they received the properties of Tenran without a warning. Suddenly, the mage was engulfed in an expanding firestorm that threatened to consume anyone within his vicinity.
As a result, he gained a few seconds to focus on the performance of the next step. The golden Haien phoenix, cut into parts and languishing upon the rocky surface of the Valley's ground, was not done just yet. Three large plumes of fire rose toward the sky, then assembled to reform the ethereal bird with a loud, triumphant squawk that resounded across the battlefield. After all, a fallen phoenix was destined to rise from the ashes, inevitably. And as the avian spell spread its giant wings a peculiar symbol manifested above, like a crown, formed from a tiny portion of its flames: Kakushitsuijaku. There were two sets of coordinates contained within, corresponding to the spiritual pressures of the two Lieutenants.
Jurō scowled. He was ready for the final step.
"Hadō #91, Senjū Kōten Taihō."
Subsequently, the phoenix erupted into a volley of eight magical projectiles of frightening power. The exertion was substantial in spite of Jurō merely elevating the former spell to a greater form instead of casting a new one from scratch. A sizeable portion of his energy reservoir was spent to make that happen. And, immediately, he winced and swayed, feeling the effects of Shimoku aggravate. No matter. He had already condemned his enemies to death. The eight projectiles, imbued with the homing capabilities of Kakushitsuijaku, quickly sought their designated targets: five targeted Takashi, and three of them followed Kazuo. From now on they would act on their own, pursuing their prey relentlessly, whilst the spellcaster himself struggled to reinforce Tenki and fight off his magical affliction. Who would endure long enough to claim victory?
Takashi had been in the nearby vicinity when a spiralling vortex of flames, fueled by the Tenran, burst into the sky around Jurou. He moved quickly to escape the inferno, his speed enhanced thanks to Kazuo’s aid, and took to the air himself, stopping several hundred meters above the ground. He could feel the heat of the flames from where he stood, as their fury drained the surrounding area of oxygen itself. In the brief lull, Takashi began to search for Kazuo. They needed to formulate a plan of attack, and he knew they would not have much time before the sorcerer healed himself from Kazuo’s wounds from within his fiery barrier.
Kohaku was the one who alerted him to their winged enemy, who stitched itself back together from the remnant flames of the Haien before scattering once more, this time into eight dangerously fast missiles. Takashi was at first stunned by the level of the spell performed, but his sharp eyes had caught sight of something in the distance: a small, circular disk of flame that seemed to be rapidly dissipating.
“Hanazawa!” Takashi yelled as he dived towards it, hoping to alert the other lieutenant of his intention.
Kazuo was at Takashi's side the moment the other man cried out for aid. His Zanpakutō ready in his hand as he spoke quietly to his comrade.
"Careful, Takashi; a direct hit is certain to spell doom for us."
With that, Kazuo unleashed his Shikai. "Flow, Shūkikōjaku!" Just as soon as the name was uttered, a great spike in reiryoku emanated from the man, as thousands upon thousands of autumn leaves began falling down all around the combatants like snow in winter, upon the Shinigami's gesture the leaves formed a whirlwind around the two men, sheltering them like gargantuan crimson wings.
But as the Kōhen Taihō streamed towards them, Takashi was already moving towards the Kakushitsuijaka. His enhanced Shunpo allowed him to surpass the speed of sound as he brought his katana to bear upon the spell’s disk-like form, and with one, elegant strike he cut through the Kidou, the Reiatsu humming in the ha of his sword allowing him to sever the spiritual bonds of the spell. While the Kōhen Taihō had been stripped of the source of their signal, the projectiles continued on their path straight towards Takashi, and he realized his attack had left him no time in which to escape five-fingered hand of destruction.
But within Kazuo continued his dance, weaving his Zanpakutō in intricate patterns as the leaves rearranged themselves into a form more sufficient for their purpose, namely that of a perfect sphere or burnt red and orange, composed of several thousand leaves layered continuously atop one another. It was a perfect spherical barrier, and one that Kazuo was confident could withstand the onslaught of Juro's assault, however magnificent it had been.
Due to Takashi's exemplary strategy, the spell had become one of wanton destruction, and it had been robbed of the focus that Juro undoubtedly intended. Shortly afterwards, the barrier was struck by five spears of enormous spiritual energy; which was shortly joined by three more originally aimed at Kazuo. The sphere in which they resided was plunged down into the earth, creaking dangerously, as pillars of flame penetrated the ground and pierced the sky. Truly, the sorcerer’s power had been akin to a cataclysm, yet when the smoke cleared, Kazuo's Shikai stood firm and dissipated on its own.
Through the power of their teamwork and his companion’s quick thinking, Kazuo smiled with joy at the fact that they'd both survived the spell unscathed. Almost a miracle, truly. “I believe it’s time for a counterattack.”
“Indeed,” Takashi answered him, sensing his comrade’s pleasure. He too, was glad that he had been able to reach the Kakushitsuijaku in time, but as he turned his attention towards the cyclone of flames below them, he frowned. “I trust you have something in mind for this sort of situation?” he asked, recalling a certain duel the two had shared some months before in which Takashi himself had been caught in a similar vortex... albeit one formed by Kazuo’s shikai.
Emboldened by their most recent feat, Kazuo summoned all of his leaves to his location by making an elegant flourish. and as he called the leaves answered. Thousands of dancing leaves cast shadows across the surroundings, shielding the Lieutenants’ eyes from the bright light that shone from Juro's spellwork. He responded to Takashi's query by nodding silently.
At first it might look like he intended to protect the two of them, but with a series of aggressive motions Kazuo directed all of the leaves to swarm around the wizened mage. However great the heat of his magic, the leaves of Shūkikōjaku remained mostly unaffected due to their extraordinary durability. Soon they'd closed every exit and had him completely surrounded in a massive red sphere.
Hanazawa then moved through the motions of Hineri, his sword drawing eight crescents into the ground around them; and with each symbol drawn the massive orb of leaves in the sky began to move in conflicting directions. As within air currents were generated at increasingly fast paces, and when the eight crescent was drawn Kazuo fell to one knee from exhaustion as his technique ran its full course.
Within the makeshift prison, the flames were fanned into a mighty inferno that knew neither friend nor foe. So great was their sudden heat that they burned pale blue, for Kazuo knew that Kidou was a neutral art, it would only heed the Mage's commands if he had the strength to control it. To complicate matters in this regard, the immense air currents generated within the sphere would also attempt to seize ahold of Juro himself, hurling him about in place and possibly disorienting and interrupting his efforts at dispelling Shimoku as well as make him all the more vulnerable to the forces of his own magic. This would be a perfect time for Takashi to strike!
"Sakuma! Do it now!" Kazuo yelled at his friend.
The wind of Kazuo’s own attack carried Takashi forward, as he latched on to the currents of the air coursing around him to propel himself to even greater heights. He stopped above the sphere, staring down at his target as he took his sword in both hands and raised it above his head, ignoring the wind beneath his feet as he perceived a true path through the turbulence to cut through his target.
Karafuru. Falling sky. It was a technique that he himself had invented as a complete synthesis between all his skills as a swordsman and the power granted by his Shikai, and demanded that he infuse both his body and his Zanpakutō with Reiatsu. But he had never before used it with the spiritual pressure of a captain, and already he could feel the energy building within him, barely contained. His timing would have to be perfect, as there would be no second chance. Takashi steadied his breathing as he honed in on his target below. Then, he fell.
A split second later, the Shinigami vanished as he used the strength of the wind generated by Kazuo’s Zanpakutō to grant even greater speed to his attack. The sword carved in a single stroke, and a line of energy extended from its blade, flashing brilliant red against the leaves. A thin crack appeared in the barrier, as the sphere created by Kazuo’s Shikai seemed to sense the incoming pressure of Takashi’s attack. The result was harmony. Takashi carried all the way through the Karafuru, landing on the ground with enough force for his feet to cause a new crater. The cut itself had extended across the sphere’s diameter, but it had disappeared the instant it slipped through, the leaves reforming against the wall of the furnace. No doubt the attack had been inescapable, and Takashi looked up, wondering if they would find the body of their enemy bifurcated once the flames had died down.
Beyond the boundary of the sphere, where the cut had fallen outside the leaves, a deep canyon had been carved into the rock, extending for some distance in a thin line.
Arriving at the conclusion of their combination attack, Kazuo released the power of Hineri and allowed the now built-up flames to run rampant as they were intended. And as the leaves fell, the condensed flames escaped from their confinement like a veritable supernova, as an omnidirectional ripple of blue flames shot through the sky above, sending fireballs down onto the Valley of Screams, before they dispersed into nothing. If Juro had been at its center, this last act of elemental defiance might've further helped ensure that the mage didn't survive.
However, a silhouette did emerge from the spectacle of destruction. Still standing, Jurō Henkō had persevered. His ornate robes and skin were singed, drops of perspiration formed on his temples and forehead. His left arm, extended vaguely in the direction of the two Lieutenants, visibly shaking. The right arm, ending in a stump just below the elbow. But he had perservered, and a small portion of the blue flames that scattered all across the area accrued a few metres above his head.
For whilst the Shinigami were busy defending from the fury of his Senjū Kōten Taihō the mage had some time for further preparations. To that effect he cast a highly familiar spell, one that he had mastered centuries ago. The parent spell from which his ward, Tenki, was derived: Daichi Tenyō. Reinforced as such, the ward was able to endure the furious tempest of fire about him. In his conceit, one of the Shinigami attempted to wrestle control of his own spell from Jurō. The wizard was happy to oblige, though, merely diverting the fire away from him to conserve energy. At the same time, he firmly held himself in one position to avoid being swept like one of the leaves that surrounded him.
And it was Daichi Tenyō that saved his life this time around. When the second Shinigami descended upon him with his Zanpakutō like an executioner's blade, the ward combined with a last second motion to the side plucked Henkō away from the path of the attack. Mostly. The blade, as fast as it was, succeeded to sever his right arm during the evasive manoeuvre, and the disembodied limb was consumed in the eruption of fire that followed. But he had perservered. Tenki was enhanced with the Daichi Tenyō in order to prevent incurring any further damage from enemy strikes. Until now, he managed to hold the Shumoki at bay. And he did extract a portion of the Haien to recycle the magical energy contained within.
He had no idea how the two were able to withstand the wrath of his Senjū Kōten Taihō. But one was clear: at this rate he was doomed to lose this engagement. Their teamwork had proven so far to be a reliable counter to his superior power. Power, and teamwork. Fortunately, Jurō could count on both. That was why the moment it was revealed he was still alive, the flames opened up a dimensional portal to Hell itself.
"Behold, Shinigami", the mage said. "The one that shall lead you to your damnation; Makkuro."
A black figure jumped from within, then landed with unnatural grace on the pole below. A somewhat grotesque entity, not unlike a smudge of ink in the vague shape of a human. Pitch-black, with immaculate skin, spindly limbs and a white, featureless face. Makkuro, an elite Yōkai. The Daemon perched upon the top of the pole on all fours, turned its oblong head inquisitively toward the Shinigami. Then, without a warning it quickly extended both arms toward them. Highly pressurised streams of what seemed to be dense ink burst forth toward them, really fast. As they were ignited by the stray flames on their way to the targets, Jurō, despite his pain, reacted with a smirk.
Black Monster, Black Heart
A Hollow? That was Takashi’s first thought when the yōkai appeared. Indeed, with its black limbs and white mask, it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He could deal with a Hollow, but the monster before him possessed the spiritual pressure of a captain, suggesting it was something far more unpredictable.
Takashi reacted in an instant, racing towards the demonic creature with the tip of his sword pointed down and to his side. He intended to deal a swift blow and end it before it had a chance to attack so they could resume their concentrated effort against the figurative head of the beast. If not, he hoped Kazuo would be able to handle the mage by himself.
But the new adversary was much faster than he had expected. Takashi barely saw the dark spots that signified the incoming projectiles, and he twisted to the side just in time to avoid a head-on impact with one of the streams. His sword reacted on instinct, moving up to cut horizontally through the dark mass, and his eyes widened as the thick substance burst into flame. The blackened liquid clung to his blade, but Takashi did not stop, thinking quickly. Still a short distance from his adversary, he swung the blade in chiburui—his one truly distanced technique. Typically used to clean the blood from the edge of the sword, the ink was forcefully expelled from the steel with a small burst of reiatsu. Still flaming, the crescent blade shrieked as it returned to its originator, aimed directly for its skull.
Vanishing with the next step, Takashi closed the gap between him and the yōkai in less than an instant, executing two swift cuts to the beast’s chest and abdomen. While he was unaware of the exact steps, he emulated one of his own captain’s signature techniques and sped past the creature, delivering two final strikes from behind. He had targeted the Saketsu and Hakasui from both the front and the back, just as in Senka, and while the imitation was perhaps inelegant, the excess speed he had so far gained over the course of the battle more than compensated for his lack of precision in Hohō. What mattered was that the attack itself had been precise, and delivered with fatal force. Takashi did not stop until he was a considerable distance away from his foe, sliding a short distance with the momentum carried over from his flash steps. He quickly relocated Kazuo’s spiritual pressure before readjusting the grip on his sword, preparing for another attack should his foe show remaining signs of life.
Evading the blast of ignited ink was a simple enough matter, and a single step was all it took for Kazuo to leave the area safely. However, although he was still too fast to hit by quite a wide margin, he noticed how quickly the ink moved in comparison to earlier attacks. While he surged through the air Kazuo focused upon the new arrival, this Makkuro creature. He examined its form, its stature and how it moved - given its slight and nimble frame, Kazuo deduced that it was an undoubtedly speedy foe, most likely summoned in order to get him off Juro's back.
Given its apparent nature, Kazuo made assumptions about its strength and durability as well. It was an easy deduction to make to figure out that the creature was probably physically frail and unlikely to pack that much of a punch in close quarters. He probably shouldn't risk it however.
Once again, he found himself depending upon Takashi, who bravely rushed in to occupy the newly arrived monstrosity. Utilizing his skills as an assassin and a distinquished operative of the Omnitsukido, Kazuo cleverly hid himself in Takashi's shadow and appeared at point blank range of the creature with his hand outstretched just as his comrades string of attacks concluded.
"Hadō #66. Sōeigeki"
Ice-based spells and techniques were often inferior to fire-based ones in terms of damage dealt, but the chill of cold enabled them to slow down and expose faster opponents. Given his assessment of Makkuro, this was precisely what he hoped to accomplish with the monster. And as soon as the spell was uttered the ink-wielding creature would find itself besieged by many converging bands of sleet, that attempted to simultaneously freeze it solid and inflict terrible frostburns upon its body. So cold was the air those bands of sleet generated that they might temporarily numb the creatures body to a degree, making it all the more difficult to evade.
But that wasn't all, for Kazuo knew he'd require more power and with the preliminary version of the spell still besieging Makkuro, Kazuo spoke the spells incantation, uttered afterwards to empower it further.
"The orphan lights his matches, the old woman breathes her last. The white hare jumps three paces. A frozen goblet, a pool of blood, a cry for death and an unanswered plea. Ring the bell four times and look to the north!"
Each of the spells several bands of sleet expanded in both length and girth at that moment, as they began flailing about like white tendrils of snow. With impressive speed and a certain elegance they'd attempt to ensnare Makkuro within their empowered grasp and entwine themselves around its body like a white cocoon. Then, upon the spells apex, the bands would sprout inumerable icy spikes in an attempt to shred the Yokai that might be locked within the cocoon, in a manner reminescent of an Iron Maiden.
Meanwhile, Jurō's smirk transitioned into a full-fledged, patronising smile.
After all, he had already analysed his opponents sufficiently to adjust to their capabilities. They were strong - they were able to harm him. They were tough - they were able to endure his attacks. They were cunning - insightful and quick-thinking in a showcase of excellent teamwork. So fast to act. Too fast to act. In the end, their main weakness was that they were... young. Hasty, short-sighted. In their conceit they evidently seemed to believe that each of their blows would be the last one, the one to finish the battle right there. Acting as if there were no tomorrow. Sparing no thought for the possible aftermath.
"The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long."
Conversely, Jurō Henkō, a Mage of the Coven, was old, experienced, patient. Humble. He seldom expected to finish a fight with a single blow. Rather, he preferred to play the long game. To analyse his enemy all the while weathering their vicious blows. Conserving his energy for the retaliation, made all the more crippling by his increased understanding of the foe as well as the latter's dwindling stamina. Their tactics against his strategy.
Of course, he had expected the Shinigami to pounce upon the newcomer immediately. They were right to assume Makkuro was nimble as well. So nimble that it simply ducked to avoid the burning crescent launched by Takashi at it. With that motion its stance changed, obviously, so that the rapid follow up was not nearly as precise as the Lieutenant would like it to be. That was not to say he missed, as the edge of his blade did succeed to cut the peculiar body of the pitch-black Daemon, an equally dark liquid gushing in a few directions from the newly acquired wounds... only to be sucked in right afterward. After all, seeing that they focused on simple physical strikes, Henkō summoned a Yōkai that was all but immune to them, owing to its ability to become ink itself.
Nevertheless, to underestimate an enemy, even allegedly inferior, would be a fatal mistake. He had already paid the price for his arrogance. Now, Jurō was determined to prove that he had learnt the lesson. That was the reason he intended to employ the Daichi Tenyō he had cast earlier to pluck Makkuro away from the way of danger. True, the mage was not quick enough to anticipate Takashi's charge. He did, however, manage to pull the Yōkai away whilst Kazuo was casting his spell. Even though it had been covered by a small portion of the ice sleet in the process, incurring some damage, the Daemon escaped the brunt of the attack. Gone, without a warning, extracted from the death zone and tossed toward Takashi in one fell swoop.
"Hadō #54, Haien."
Now that the two had fallen into the trap of their own impetuousness, Henkō was prepared to punish the youngsters for slighting him. Protected from the ice spell by his recently reinforced ward, the mage could cast his favourite offensive spell at Kazuo to exploit his proximity. Once again, instead of an amorphous blob of energy known to the Gotei 13 a giant radiant phoenix emerged from his extended hand to engulf both the blizzard and its originator. Meanwhile, Makkuro pursued Takashi with a combination of Daichi Tenyō-powered impetus and its own speed, if slightly hindered because of Sōeigeki's residue. On the way, it kept flailing both of its arms to release scattered streams of ink in a wide arc before approaching the Shinigami directly, surprisingly eager to engage in close combat.
Time seemed to slow as Takashi looked up, and for a moment the volley of ink was caught in midair, frozen like black rain. Kohaku still observed the fight from a distance, and her mind became linked with his for a brief moment, allowing him a clearer perspective of the situation at hand.
Takashi’s attack had failed to deal sufficient damage to the monster, which he should have expected considering the yōkai’s liquid form. That being said, he had encountered Hollows with similar physiologies in the past, and shifted his focus to the creature’s mask. If his suspicion was correct, the demon’s face might be its only weak spot. But then he noticed where Kazuo’s spell had had an effect, and he grinned.
Good work Hanazawa.
As the streams of ink descended, Takashi was enveloped with a sphere of leaves as Kazuo directed his Shikai to protect him. While he trusted in his companion’s ability to shield him, he moved before the leaves had completely enclosed him and felt a stream of ink brush past his shoulder. Regardless, he continued straight towards Makkuro, prepared to meet the challenge head-on.
The sphere of leaves formed a barrier between him and the yōkai, but instead of slicing through Makkuro’s mask, Takashi continued straight forwards, using the leaves as a battering ram to push Makkuro back through the air. Despite the resistance, he continued to move quickly, allowing the monster’s own body to wrap around the leaves.
He headed straight towards the Haien spell.
Putting two and two together, Takashi had taken both the fact that the yōkai’s ink had caught fire earlier and that it had dodged the crescent of flames to be an indicator that Makkuro wasn’t exactly resistant to heat. As soon as they were near Jurou’s phoenix, Takashi swung down, bringing a load of force like a stone wall down upon Makkuro’s mask. His sword did not contact the yōkai directly, instead expelling a blunt disk of crushing spiritual pressure that would trap the yōkai, ensuring that the monster was thrown directly into the flames.
But Takashi’s attack had not ended there. Without warning, yellow energy crackled along the edge of his sword as he muttered, “Bakudō number four, Hainawa.” Knowing his opponent was skilled at Kidō, Takashi did not expect his meager level four spell to have much of an effect. Nonetheless, what he was relying upon was speed and unpredictability. Fueling the spell with the reiryoku of a captain, Takashi swung his blade and allowed the spell to fly towards Jurō. The crawling rope moved as a bright stream of energy, wrapping around Jurou before constricting tightly to pin his limbs against his side, hopefully allowing Kazuo an opening to strike.
Alone, neither Kazuo nor Takashi would've even come close to match the power of the wizened summoner; but together their collective skills rivalled those of a true Captain. Such was the beauty of teamwork; and as he directed a large portion of his Shikai to assist Takashi in an attempt to cremate the abomination, Kazuo layered numerous leaves atop his skin to serve as an additional layer of defense. With that, the time had come to act, and act he would.
Takashi's spell slithered through the air, and just as its coils threatened to ensnare their opponent, Kazuo issued himself into Shunpo Tangeki for the second time this fight. Immediately he could feel a large portion of his spiritual energy slipping away from him as he pushed himself to even greater heights than he had previously. This time, he had released his Shikai, and its dense reiatsu made the edge of his blade hum as it had previously, and sharp enough that it seemed like it might slice the air as he moved. To further increase its lethality he empowered he further with his own reiatsu, and the blade resumed its blood red sheen.
In rapid succession, Kazuo took three steps and then his body melted away into the surroundings like water through cracks in the ground. A sudden sonic boom resounded, as air rushed to fill the empty space left behind by the Lieutenant's masterful use of Shunpo. Red leaves whirled up from the ground and began to dance around Juro, forming several curious crests hovering in mid-air, all of them placed vertically and facing Juro.
Omnitsukido members were expected to be able to take down priority targets with ease and peerless efficiency; yet he'd failed in his task twice already. Kazuo realized just how much he still had left to learn, he hoped that he would live to correct his mistakes and the gaps in his training.
Kazuo's body went through the motions of many years of practise, as his form was visible only as a serie of red streaks through the air; seven attacks they totalled. Each one strung together perfectly and each one beyond the fifth requiring great amounts of effort from the Shinigami, blood dripped from his nose and he clenched his teeth hard enough to draw more.
Like a blood red flash, Kazuo first streaked past Juro, his blade extended as he attempts to deliver a lethal strike to the man's side as he passed him by, capitalizing on the older mans lack of a right arm. He then made a pivot to attempt to plunge his blade into side of his throat, before shadows mirrored his movements on the other side as Kazuo resumed his brutal assault on Juro's right flank, atttempting to snake Shukikojaku's blade between his ribs to pierce his heart, leading to an instant death. His second to last attack was made in passing, a clean cut delivered towards Juro's stomach in a bid to disembowel him. Sweat glistening on his forehead, and practically gushing with nosebleed, Kazuo made one final exertion as he landed in a horizontal position upon one of the floating leaf crests created earlier.
Kicking off the selfmade platform, and the boost in speed thus afforded to him was exceptional, as he split the sky for a moment like a bolt of crimson lightning, with the great power afforded by his momentum he darted past Juro's left side and attempted to cleave off a portion of his upper body, namely a large portion of his chest, his shoulder and his left arm. Hit or miss, Kazuo's landing was brutal, as he was trashed about and landed a kilometer from where he began, panting in abject exhaustion and pain.
And like that, Jurō's plan had succeeded. The Shinigami Lieutenants did not disappoint him in their valiant, short-sighted approach to battle.
Takashi had noticed Makkuro's ability to turn into liquid, as well as the vulnerabilities it implied through its behaviour. Unfortunately for him, he did not consider all the implications of that ability. When the Daemon was rammed by his charge, it indeed wrapped around the leaves. Then, it dissolved into its liquid form to flow about that peculiar projectile. While it had to leave a portion of its body behind, its back still covered with frost, Makkuro escaped from incineration. It moved a moderate distance away and, as it solidified again, it turned around and targeted Takashi with three streams of pressurised ink, two erupting from its palms and a wider one that gushed from its gaping maw, now revealed to exist on its otherwise blank white face. Meanwhile, the Hainawa that targeted Jurō entered the field of influence of Tenki only to disintegrate when overcome by its deflective forces.
In fact, Henkō had anticipated another lightning-fast assault on his person, as well as Kazuo's skill allowing him to evade the Haien phoenix with ease. As such, counting on Makkuro's capacity to distract or bind its temporary opponent, he ordered the fiery bird to turn toward Takashi. Which, considering the latter's plan, worked out almost perfectly for the mage. Subsequently, Kazuo performed his hyper-speed onslaught. To that end, Jurō had reinforced Tenki earlier on. But not to struggle with the enemy in a contest of strength and speed, which the wizard suspected it would lose. Instead, he chose to alter the direction of Tenki's repelling effect inward, in a manner of speaking.
In consequence, when Shūkikōjaku struck him, the blade failed to cut the mage. Not because it was unable to penetrate the field. That was because the field now used Shūkikōjaku's impetus to its own benefit, allowing the man inside to be pushed back rather than attempting to divert the Zanpakutō. Nevertheless, the effects of the assault were still severe. For every swing and thrust Jurō felt as if struck by a cannonball. Kazuo's speed did not let Tenki simply propel him away, but forced him to remain mostly within his current position, shaken violently in a few directions each time he was attacked from a different angle. The last blow in particular was grave; locked within his own protective sphere, Henkō was launched into an uncontrolled flight, blood spewing from his mouth. Stunned and still afflicted by the poison to an extent, the mage struggled to maintain consciousness.
The ward withstood Kazuo's onslaught but he doubted he could participate actively in the battle any longer. From that point onward he was determined merely to survive. Thankfully, Makkuro was still able-bodied. The Daemon had a chance to shine with no other option but to continue the arduous combat on its own.
The disk of spiritual pressure originally meant for the yōkai had missed its intended target, but it had pushed back the Haien enough to where Takashi had been allowed a lapse of time in order to cast the Hainawa. Now, however, he realized his mistake as he was standing directly above the gargantuan wings of the phoenix, which rose from the ground with a roar, stretching its golden flames towards the sky. The scale of the spell was immense, and Takashi could feel the heat surging to consume him.
Intending to dodge, Takashi was caught off-guard by the streams of ink that shot towards him from behind. His blade flashed in the light of the fire as he successfully diverted one of the streams of the ink to the side, ducking to allow the other to narrowly miss his ear. But the third caught him above the ankle, and he grunted as he found himself on one knee in midair, the weight of the ink inhibiting his movements. Takashi’s stomach twisted with dread when he realized he would be unable to outrun the Haien. It was over.
Let go your mind, he heard Kohaku whisper in his ear. And Takashi found the spirit of his Zanpakutō there: waiting for him to tap into the reiryoku at his fingertips.
Then, Takashi called on the name of his Zanpakutō.
He felt the Aka no Tsume respond as power he had never experienced before flooded through the sword in his hands. Raising the blade above his head, he brought the Zanpakutō to bear upon the flames of the Haien below him. However, he had made one slight alteration to the Suikawari, turning the blade to the side so the flat of the blade arced towards the flames of the spell. A wide line of spiritual pressure, thick and translucent, cut down and divided the Haien in two. Its sheer force pushed the flames to either side, diverting the spell into two wing-shaped pillars of fire that raged on either side of Takashi. He stood, and with a brief burst of reiatsu from the tenketsu in his feet, stripped away the ink that clung to his ankle.
I’m sorry, he told the Aka no Tsume, I’ve been holding you back.
So long as we’re clear on that point, Kohaku’s voice was still present, but it had become darker as it had melded with her nature as the Aka no Tsume. Now allow me to fall upon our prey.
Murderous intent filled Takashi’s eyes as he extended his hand towards the demon before them.
“"Ye lord!” His voice rang out in command, “Mask of flesh and bone, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! Truth and temperance, upon this sinless wall of dreams unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws. Hadou number thirty-three...” But he stalled before he could complete the name of the spell and disappeared, moving at such speed that only a slight ripple remained in the air where he had once stood.
In less time than it took to blink, Takashi reappeared behind Makkuro. “Sōkatsui!”
Having been barely able to contain the power of the spell as he had moved through time and space, Takashi now allowed the Kidō to rage freely. He felt a significant portion of his reiatsu pull free with it, and wondered how Kazuo had managed to last so long fighting in the parched atmosphere. The Sōkatsui, uttered with a full incantation and fueled with Takashi’s now-wholly synthesized reiatsu, encompassed the area all around Makkuro in a wall of blue flames large enough to rival Jurou’s previous Haien spell. It was true, Takashi was not skilled with Kidō, but he had put all his concentration into delivering this particular spell, and for a moment he wondered if Byakuya would have been impressed. The fire snapped wildly and hungrily as it flashed across the ground, but while he lacked fine control over the Sōkatsui, Takashi’s positioning had been strategic. Should Makkuro dodge the wall of flames, it was headed directly towards where Jurou had landed.
But Takashi did not let his guard down. Their opponent had so far been slippery, and it was possible that he would somehow manage to escape the inferno. Concerned as he sensed Kazuo’s exhaustion, Takashi used Shunpo once more before he emerged at the Lieutenant’s side. Takashi placed a hand on the flat of his blade, drawing it across the length of the sword as the steel shone crimson.
“Let’s hope that bastard finally takes his own medicine,” Takashi said.
Makkuro had been observing attentively whilst Takashi handled the two-pronged attack. The Daemon was ready to dodge in the aftermath, with the Shinigami casting a hadō spell. And so it did as the latter was about to fire the blast... although, Takashi moved as well in a burst of speed that caught Makkuro off guard. Intercepted in that manner, it had little choice but to shield itself with arms folded across its chest. Then, the Sōkatsui exploded.
The bright flash of detonation blossomed upon the clear sky of the Valley. The roar of its destructive fury resounded defeaningly in the utter silence of the realm. Soon, a black figure emerged from the ensuant smoke to plummet toward the ground below, followed by a trail of smoke. The noise of impact could be heard shortly afterward. Meanwhile, Jurō slowly, cautiously, managed to stand up, attempting not to sway like a drunkard with moderate success. Wounded and exhausted, he would like the battle to end there and then. Preferably, in his favour. For a while he was not sure about the viability of that outcome, yet eventually he did sense the spiritual pressure of his ally. If only he could muster a bit more focus, more energy, to cast another spell...
Briefly dissolved into a large, smoking puddle, Makkuro rearranged itself back into the humanoid shape that was its default form. Forever silent; after all, it represented all the harm that could be done with the use of written word. Despite what its lithe, lanky frame might have suggested, the Daemon was durable. Tougher than the average for an entity of its class, in fact. Conversely, the elemental nature of the Sōkatsui blast that it had withstood negated that trait to an extent. Severely damaged, its previously immaculate skin, especially on forearms, visibly scorched. Nevertheless, still able to fight. Where the mage was stubborn and the Shinigami ferocious, the Daemon was unwavering.
Suddenly, its body swelled, expanding in a series of rapid bursts of growth. Spiritual energy the colour of midnight blue enveloped its body with a flickering, somewhat bubbly aura. The back of the entity seemed to boil only to release several additional appendages, long tendrils not unlike the tentacles of an octopus. The ground beneath Makkuro's feet cracked due to the weight of its Reiatsu. While considerably enfeebled, the Daemon decided to unleash the whole of its remaining power. The battle was about to conclude, one way or another, and it was determined to achieve victory.
Charge. Makkuro dashed toward the distant Shinigami. At first in a straight line but then gradually turning in a wider arc. Each step was more of a giant leap, the rock shattering with every single one as it was approaching them at an alarming rate. Without a warning, Makkuro jumped to a side. Then, to another. As it halted for an instant, a wide stream of ink burst forth from its maw to engulf the two Lieutenants. Subsequently, the Daemon leapt into the air in a spinning motion, intending to descend upon the enemies like a peculiar meteor. To crush them both with the final blow.
Takashi had taken hold of Kazuo's arm once the yōkai began to reform itself from a puddle of its own bodily remains. Placing his hand over the wound that Kazuo had given himself on the blade of the Aka no Tsume, Takashi used the connection the sword had formed with the Shinigami's blood in order to pour a high quantity of reiatsu into the wound using Kaidō. Obviously, his intention was not to heal the superficial cut, but to help restore Kazuo's depleted spiritual energy. But Makkuro's attack left them with little time to spare. As yet another swath of ink shot towards them, Takashi shifted through space, pulling Kazuo with him as he moved them both out of harm's way.
Somehow, despite their worsening situation, Takashi found himself viewing the battle with a sense of calm detachment. This was, however, not entirely positive, as he felt his mind dancing on the edge of a "kill at all costs" mentality. He attributed the sensation to his Zanpakutō, as their souls were still resonating in harmony. In order to survive, they needed to end the battle quickly before the yōkai could overwhelm them. Makkuro had twice survived incineration, and merely cutting it would have very little effect against its ink-like body. He had learned his lesson. Barring a Kidō that could instantly freeze the entirety of the yōkai's form, Takashi knew that, even with his boost in reiryoku, he could do very little in the way of physical damage against their attacker.
Then, if that was the case...
Takashi's gaze shifted to the demon's summoner. He had sensed Jurō's intentions ripple through the atmosphere via a keen awareness granted by his Shikai. Already attuned to the will of the Aka no Tsume, Takashi pushed Kazuo aside and emptied himself fully into his Zanpakutō. Then he stepped towards Jurō. Blood red wings formed of reiatsu seemed to flow from Takashi's shoulders as he negated the distance that stretched between him and his target. He flashed across the battlefield, keeping low to the ground as he swung his blade once, seemingly at nothing.
The wings converged upon Jurō, cutting down from both sides with tremendous force in order to completely destroy the mage's defenses. Sharper than steel, the highly condensed spiritual pressure hummed viciously, threatening to cut through not only the Tenki but Jurō himself. Yet Takashi did not stop his attack there.
For a singular fraction of time there was stillness. Entering a near-meditative state, Takashi felt time slow, his perception now keener than his ability to move physically. His own blade seemed to hang in space as he brought it up past the stump of Jurō's arm. The beating of his opponent's heart became palpable, thundering in his ears, and Takashi did not hesitate as he aimed for it.
Time resumed as three razor thin blades slashed towards Jurō's chest, the claws of a hawk descending upon its prey. Should they cut through the mage, would Jurō's death dispel whatever contract he had formed with Makkuro? Takashi could only hope his intuition had been correct. In the meantime, it was left up to Kazuo to deal with the berserk yōkai.
Not for the first time this fight, or the last, Kazuo found himself relieved that he didn't fight this battle alone. Unable to stand and hardly capable of reacting fast enough to evade Makkuro's attacks, he was whisked away to safety by Takashi; who then proceeded to give the Lieutenant a generous share of his spiritual energy. Standing up to face Makkuro, with leaves of orange and gold clinging to his skin like makeshift armor, bleeding and weakened, and suffering from numerous injuries incurred by his abrupt drop to the ground, he knew what he needed to do was to draw Mukkuro's attention while Takashi completed the task of slaying Juro.
Ordinarily, he'd have focused upon utilizing his speed but he thought it unwise to challenge the creature to a contest of speed in his sorry state. So he did the next best thing, he focused his spiritual energy and set his sights on the creature as he uttered the words for a spell: "Bakudo #37 Tsuriboshi. Centered upon Mukkuro's path, a large elastic wall appeared from thin air, with blue-green tendrils stretching out to bar the creatures path, before it attempted to engulf the yokai within a large bag of spiritual energy; capable of properly inhibiting even his liquid body.
With that, Kazuo strengthened his spell further by speaking the incantation afterwards between breaths, hoping to at least stall the monster until Takashi finished off their foe, hopefully that would be it. If not, then he supposed taking down a powerful enemy in exchange for two lieutentants was a worthy trade.
The spiritual fabric of the spell enveloped the Daemon tightly. It fell to the ground with a heavy impact, already struggling to break free. For a short while prominent bulges appeared and vanished from the surface of the binding spell. However, in the end, even reinforced with a spoken-after incantation Tsuriboshi proved inadequate to stop the Yōkai for long. The tendrils on its back tore the fabric. Then, dense black liquid poured from the rent, quickly assuming the enlarged humanoid form of Makkuro. The tendrils extended, the arms outstretched toward the Lieutenant, and the oval head adorned with two white blotches... turned away from him.
Sprays of blood saturated the air around Jurō. Ultimately, Tenki collapsed, as he had run out of energy to sustain the ward. The blade carved deeply into his body. He fell, surprisingly light. And, whilst he was descending, he glanced upon his own legs, slumping to the ground in front of him. The colour of crimson tinted the clear sky far above. In that moment, he was disappointed. Disappointed that two reckless kids with swords had managed to defeat him. He felt betrayed for being sent to the Valley of the Screams of all places to confront them. And, first and foremost, he regretted that after many decades spent contributing toward the cause of the Coven, he would not witness that grand vision fully...
Makkuro remained stationary for some time, standing dangerously close to Kazuo but focused upon something else. Without a warning, a large gate manifested above Jurō Henkō's body. Two massive, purple leaves adorned with equally giant skeletons that mirrored each other's appearance. The gate opened, revealing a realm of scorching fire and heat beyond. Soon, the mage's body burst into flames that were promptly sucked into that realm. Makkuro followed shortly, with one last glance at Kazuo before it departed.
The Shinigami had won that battle, although the war was only beginning.