Yasashiku stood on the grounds once known as the Sōkyoku (Twinned Punishment) Hill, a large, rocky mesa located at the center of the Seireitei (Court of Pure Souls) in Soul Society. Atop this bluff, one could see for miles around in the clear air, taking in the beautiful sights of the buildings composed entirely of spirit particles in all directions. Or at least, it might have been considered beautiful, had the audience been just Shinigami such as herself.
But the audience was those that were on death row. It was meant to be a soothing final sight for those who faced their death here. It tainted that beauty.
No executions happened here anymore. The vast majority of executions had always taken place in pitched battles, now that sufficed as the sole method aside from lifelong imprisonment. It wasn't because they suddenly considered this to be barbaric, though it might be considered as such. It wasn't because it was overly elaborate, requiring extensive ceremony and tremendous investment by powerful captains, though that might have been enough given the circumstances.
No, it was because their executioner's blade, the Sōkyoku, had disappeared over a decade ago without a trace. The most powerful Zanpakutō (Soul-Cutter Sword) ever created, not to mention the largest in the form of a giant halberd, it was meant to utterly destroy a soul on contact. And yet it had vanished so easily from their grasp, leaving behind nothing but a large wooden scaffold as a reminder of what this area was once used for.
Yasashiku crinkled her nose at the thought. It wasn't her failure specifically, but rather a failure of every mechanism and Shinigami (Death God) in place here. Of all their grand failures, this was the most apparent. They had proven completely incapable of preventing this theft on every level. Worse yet, it had been one of their own trusted captains. It brought back concerning memories of Aizen Sousuke.
But then, that had only been the beginning. That bastard Mayuri...
Yasashiku didn't have to glance around to recognize the voice of her fifth seat.
“What is it, Titus? I set you and the others to doing drills.”
He looked sheepish. “You have been coming here during training for the last month, and just staring. We were all concerned.”
“I assure you, your concern is unwarranted. Return to your training, Titus.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then left. They had a right to be concerned. For a long time, she had been considering the place of Shinigami in this world. Their role had changed so much since Mayuri, and after all that had happened, perhaps it was for the best. So many lives...
As the Fourth Division captain, it was her responsibility to ensure the preservation of life. And in that, she was solely to blame. So was it regret that made her come here so often? Was that the impetus for her concerns regarding their recent policy of isolation as well?
She shook her head. No, there was too much going on here for it all to just be in her head. With their war against Hollows all but won, and their victory over the Wandenreich, they had lost their central purpose, and therefore their main reason to leave Soul Society. They even spurned their duty to any part beyond the Seireitei, leaving the Rukongai to fester with its already overlarge population. Three of the Gates into the Seireitei had all been sealed off, and the gatekeepers had all been released from their bond to guard them. They were isolated from the outside world, solely tasked with being a line of defense here against intruders.
And that had changed them. Soul Reapers no longer strove for power as readily as before, and the number of Shinigami with active Bankai had gone below even the total number of squads, leaving them with only a few true captains among the mix. The desire to seek power was lost when its use was uncertain at best.
The basic purposes of the various squads had been tainted as well. The Noble Houses had bought and paid for several of them, mostly using them as errand boys and girls who did little more than function as couriers, no matter their training. Even the Captain Commander himself, Isao Kyōraku
, was a slave to his House. Those that weren't either kowtowed to him, which made them practically vassals of the Kyōraku household, or pursued their own path, which yielded various results. The Lost Souls had wrung Squad 11 dry, leaving their barracks an empty husk. Squad 12 abandoned the Seireitei, relocating to the Rukongai in order to continue their experiments, choosing to abandon one duty in favor of another. Her own squad only paid lip service to Isao, continuing under her leadership while trying to right the sinking ship that was the Gotei 13.
The Shinigami were being subverted, and worse yet, they were allowing it to occur without a fight. What other generation would have stood for this? Where was their pride?
She knew the answer. It had vanished in plumes of flame.
All of these were pointless thoughts. She'd talked to Isao on multiple occasions about his duties being wider than his family, but he'd refused to acknowledge both his complacency and his altered allegiance. Few of the other captains had any power to speak of, in the political or reishi sense, and most of those that did were required towed their family lines. She had no interest in playing the families against one another, and no skill in political games. The only thing she could do was watch the system crumble around her, and make sure that her squad survived its inevitable collapse.
She sighed to herself, moving to head back to where her squad was training. After her first step, the sound of hammers battering a number of wooden boards rang out across Seireitei. She frowned, throwing her gaze across the city. Nothing appeared to be in sight. The Shakonmaku (Soul-Warding Membrane) barrier should have prevented any intrusion – it had only been strengthened in recent years – but even if someone had penetrated it, she would have seen ripples in the barrier from here. It was like a still pond; when something forcefully broke the surface, the change in surface tension registered across its entire length. It didn't allow direct transportation into and out of the Seireitei: the Senkaimon had been shut down and a Garganta (Black Cavity) could not be opened within its boundaries. How was this possible?
It was only when she looked up that she was able to see something far in the distance, and object that appeared to be the size of a normal human, his body framed by the blackness that appeared like a mouth open in the sky, framed by teeth of white cloud and blue sky. The Garganta itself was closing, just outside of the barrier, but the thing that had come from it was already within the barrier, and plummeting down to earth...
Straight towards her.
It had been no simple task to commandeer an ability that required the usage of these strange spirit particles for its functionality, and yet it had been necessary. The only way to cross dimensional planes of existence. Getting the energy had been simple enough, given that they had many sources close at hand, but funneling it into the corresponding orientation and ensuring its accurate usage was something else entirely. Experts were few and far between these days, though they had been lucky enough to stumble on one.
It seemed strange to think that demons walked the Earth in human form, thinking themselves hidden. Perhaps they were hidden to certain eyes. But not his. They could call themselves Puñal or any other Spanish name they wished, but they were easy to pick out when one knew what to look for.
Acelin easily fell through it. Hideaki had been somewhat uncertain what effects this barrier would have on a normal human, since, as far as he was aware, something like this had never been tried. Everyone who had tried to enter had carried with them a certain amount of spirit energy. Acelin was the first to try without it.
As he fell, Acelin yelled out something joyously, though that's really all that Hideaki could tell through the speaker. It wasn't that the earpiece wasn't sensitive enough, but rather that the rush of air going past his ear was significant enough to obscure any words he said. But it hardly mattered; he wasn't focused on what what being said, but rather what was being seen.
On the dozens of screens displayed before him, Hideaki could see everything that Acelin could and more. The Seireitei stretched out before him, a beautiful city, though no longer glorious. These so-called “Death Gods” had inflicted their last toll on humanity, and they would pay for it.
Energy signatures dotted his screens, and Hideaki put in coordinates for Acelin to fall towards one of the larger ones. They would need to kill someone of merit to make a splash, and this one looked substantial.
He couldn't hear the sound of the alarm from up here, but he could see the signatures down below scurry about in an order that resembled something akin to military formations. It would take them a little while to rally at the site that Acelin would fall, and most of them seemed not to have a clue of where he was headed. Based on the readings, few of them would be of any concern.
“Ace, get ready to slow your descent.”
The words were pointless. This was a man who was ready to die for his hatred of this supposedly sacred place, and if he wanted to fight, he'd need to survive the fall first. Hideaki was counting on that hatred.
It wasn't the only thing he was counting on. This man had some inherent skill as a member of the European Union's special forces, but that only made him a human of some note. He was hardly extraordinary in that regard, and his capacity to keep up with high speed, high power opponents like the Death Gods was certainly nil. That's why he wore that thick, silver cloak, hood up over his head. That's why a number of metallic bracers were fastened to his body and why electrical circuits were running through his body, supercharging his nervous and muscular systems.
The man who was going in was the most advanced piece of technology the world, a marvel of science and engineering. On Earth, he would have been an incomparable warrior. But connected with Hideaki...
...He was a real god.
Between those thoughts, Acelin's cloak fluttered up behind him, acting like a parachute to slow his falling rate. It didn't have to do much, just increase his resistance enough to bring him down significantly below terminal velocity. When he hit the ground, the force of the impact cracked much of the rock beneath his feet, creating a small crater at the site.
A young-looking woman stood directly before him, though with these Death Gods, it was difficult to tell how old she actually was. She was pale with straight, shoulder-length black hair that comes down over her shoulders, and had a severe look about her. She wore the black robe that they had expected to see among these Soul Reapers, and even a white haori above that that was adorned with a bellflower. A sword hung at her waist.
They didn't know nor care about the meaning.
“I am Yasashiku Unohana, Captain of the Fourth Squad. Ryoka (Traveling Evil), you have trespassed on sacred lands. Come with me quietly, and no harm will come to you.”
Acelin smiled. When he spoke, his voice was deep and graveled.
“I will not be swayed from my righteous cause, foul witch!”
She looked puzzled. Hideaki put a hand over his face. They'd worked out the phrasing perfectly: “I'm here to achieve the vengeance mankind so righteously deserves.” But he should have known better. Acelin had been pretty intractable since the day they had met.
“So are you a Qunicy, then? Or a Fullbringer?”
Hideaki could see the cogs turning in her head. Even if Acelin was one of the Pillars, there would be no way for him to hide his reishi so completely, nor would it explain how he had penetrated the barrier. In either case, she couldn't comprehend the fact that the being before her was a normal human.
And Acelin seemed to be in no mood to explain it to her. He shoved back the hood, billowing back his cloak. He had a certain militaristic appeal to his look with his crew cut blonde hair, clean shaven face and square jaw. His eyes and much of his head were covered by a transparent visor of dark green that encircled it, suspended less than an inch away from touching him at any point – it was through this that Hideaki could glimpse the battlefield from all angles. He wore a double breasted navy coat with golden buttons over red, cotton vest and a ruffled white shirt under that. This ensemble was entirely spoiled by a pair of brown leather gloves, his camo pants and military boots, but then that was all the two of them could agree to in terms of a uniform. Around that billowed his silvered cloak, the main technological advance of his uniform.
“They will join you in hell.”
Dozens of gun barrels appeared from the folds of the billowing cloak, all aimed at the target. She looked puzzled for a moment, before their rapid fire blanketed the area where she stood. With that she vanished, and to most eyes, it would have appeared as though she had teleported away.
But Hideaki's were different. Atop his nose was a pair of dark green lenses with no legs, staying in place without any other support. The thin lenses allowed him to capture visuals and process them much more rapidly, to an extent that even a Death God would find incredible. So, despite her incredible speed, Hideaki could watch almost lazily as this woman maneuvered around Acelin's attack, while latter's eyes weren't even able to register yet that she had moved.
A finger twitched, and the flashing blade of their Shinigami target hit nothing but air. Hideaki smiled at the shock in her eyes as Acelin appeared above her, a broad smile upon his face, and two large battleship cannons extruded from his cloak. Moments later, explosions echoed beneath him, sending large cracks through the ground where she had once stood.
The signals sent by Hideaki's lenses were connected to his nervous system, or at least part of it. A series of wires had been inserted into cerebral cortex and run through his motor neural network and down to his hands. A body could only handle so much rapid movement and response, so moving an entire limb, or even a hand, would be out of the question, pushing his mind to the point where he was likely to suffer an aneurism. But a finger or two was a different story. Using this system, he could respond as rapidly as he could think, and send signals through the special keyboard he had made to Acelin's own systems. Pushing that man's musculature too hard created a similar set of dangers, but then he didn't have to do that too much. After all, there were other ways of countering high speed movement. Acelin landed with a crash, one hand remaining on the ground as he tried to find his opponent.
It appeared that this one was a good target after all. Despite the surprise, she had managed to avoid most of the blast, though part of her haori and the upper shoulder of her robe down to the arm were heavily burnt. The skin underneath, however, appeared undamaged. That didn't mean she wasn't shaken – her posture had changed substantially from one of uncertainty to one of wariness. Concern creased features, and as Acelin finally locked eyes with her, a touch of puzzlement as she realized that he couldn't track her. That didn't prevent her from withdrawing her blade, though she kept her distance.
That didn't suffice for her allies, who had made their way onto the hill. It looked like a whole squad, several bearing the squad's symbol. Yasashiku looked over with alarm.
“Leave this area at once! That's an order!”
It came too late. Acelin whirled, his cloak fluttering with the motion. He didn't even have to hold it open as a spray of small missiles whirled outward and into the crowd. They tried to run, but many quickly fell in the ensuing explosions. Many of those missiles also missed their targets, raining down on the Seireitei in a cacophony of noise and flame.
The captain didn't waste any time now.
“Bankai! Kansei Senritsu! (Full release! Inertial Melody!)”
Liquid metal poured off of the blade and spread beneath their feet, covering it in a mass of silver. The blade morphed itself, forming into an enlarged drill bit with 6 wires radiating out of holes on the sides. She pointed her index finger at Acelin.
“Bakudō #61: Rikujōkōrō!” (Way of Binding #61: Six Rods Prison of Light!)
Sparks of yellow energy poured out into 6 thin, wide beams of light that slammed into Acelin's midsection. He struggled against it, but couldn't move. He growled, but the captain didn't give him time to shout. She quickly brought her transformed blade over to where her allies had fallen, where several of them quickly descended beneath the metal, along with the drill bit and the wires. A healing ability, then?
“Hideaki, get me out of this!”
“Pipe down. I'm gathering information.”
“What are you talking about? We need to kill her.”
Acelin grumbled, but he didn't have much choice. Kidō (Demon Arts) was something Hideki had only recently familiarized himself with. The production of attacks, defenses and seals of a wide variety allowed these Death Gods to respond to many individual threats in different ways, it was quite extraordinary. However, it shared quite a bit with the various methods of energy production from their blades, and it was because they were all composed of the same spirit particles. In the end, they were all just the sum of small or large amounts of these particles. And therefore, they were all vulnerable to disruption. The directed-energy weapon (DEW) would handle that.
He pressed a button. On the cloak, thousands of tiny holes opened up at once, and thin red lasers shot out. Each rotated 360 degrees before shutting off and closing. Acelin now easily shook off the yellow beams. He rounded on her location, lifting up his cloak as far out as he could. As she watched, two large missiles shot out like rockets, aimed directly at her location.
An explosion rocked the area, sending the cracks that already pervaded much of the plateau even wider. Acelin didn't wait for the smoke to clear, throwing himself forward and into the smoke.
“Hado #58: Tenran!” (Way of Destruction #58: Orchid Sky!)
Wind instantly blew the flame and smoke away, revealing that she stood unharmed amidst a tremendous number of metal pillars. Most of them had been leveled by the force of the explosion, with only a few remaining between them, and much of her plain of metal had been torn away, revealing scorched rock beneath.
Hideaki didn't bother with dispersing the wind. Acelin appeared behind her instead, ripples eddying out through the metal as he landed, and threw open his cloak to throw out some rocket-propelled grenades. Amazingly, she was faster, as though she had anticipated the movement, quickly appearing behind him and lashing out with a ball of red energy that spawned wordlessly in her hand. Acelin instantly disappeared, reappearing well away from her at a safe distance.
“I had her, Hideaki! Why did you pull me back?”
Those ripples must be the problem. Hideaki had noticed that, each time they touched this metal, they sent out ripples that transmitted exactly where they were to their opponent. Even with the speed of their movements, they wouldn't be able to surprise her, not while touching that surface. They would not be able to get the drop on her like this. They'd need to rethink their strategy.
“Stand down, Yasashiku. I will handle this.”
As those words were spoken, the world seemed to turn almost to transparent static around them. Acelin's breathing became heavy and labored, as though he was struggling against some invisible force. His readings registered an increased rate of dehydration as he sweat profusely. Was he afraid?
He was right to be. The figure that had stepped onto the plateau registered easily as the highest concentration of reishi in the entirety of the Seireitei. His eyes were a hard blue that seemed to pierce deep into Acelin. He showed some signs of age, though his hair was still mostly black with only small wings of white. His skin was olive, and he stood easily a full foot taller than Acelin. His blade was held in a sheath at his back, he wore simple black robes and no sign as to his rank. But the Captain quickly confirmed Hideaki's suspicions.
“But, Captain Commander-”
No love lost there. Something to work with, perhaps? The information would do them little good if he couldn't get Acelin moving.
“Are you just going to stand there or are you going to attack him?”
Acelin took a step back. This was something new – and here he'd thought he'd found someone fearless. Seemed like such a waste.
“What is your name, Ryoka?”
The response was silence. Hideaki sighed in exasperation before reaching forward to touch a separate button, holding it down.
“The man standing before you is someone who prides himself on being the last hope of humanity in these troubled times, and apparently he has little to say. Mine is Hideaki.”
The bigger man didn't seem surprised to hear the second voice in the slightest, though he was inquisitive.
“Mine is Isao Kyōraku. You are trespassing in the Seireitei, and given the damage you have done, you will not be leaving.”
“It was never his intention to leave. I, however, was never there to begin with. If you'd like, you can always try to trace me, but I doubt that Soul Society's tech is up to the task.”
“You might be surprised, but it seems you wasted your time with this one. He seems to be frozen solid.”
“That must be this 'reiatsu' I've heard so much about. You're pretty powerful, I take it?”
Isao frowned. “Strange that you should ask that question and yet be so knowledgeable of us.”
“Whoever said I was knowledgeable? I've gained access to pieces of information about you after repeated efforts, but I still know little about your society. That is generally unimportant information.”
“Well, allow me to inform you.”
Isao stretched out an arm slowly. Acelin stumbled backward, but Isao immediately appeared before him, dropping the hand and grasping his head fully between his fingers. Hideaki got no signal of pain, just a complete shutdown as Acelin was immediately overwhelmed by the contact.
“Humans cannot hope to stand against us, no matter what technology you wield. You want your friend here? Come get him.”
He casually tossed the unconscious Acelin to the ground, leaving him there for someone else to handle. A small smile peeked through on Hideaki's face.
“Just because you're done with him... doesn't mean you're done with me.”
Isao was too far away to hear the words. Hideaki turned a switch on his keyboard, and froze. The board expanded before him to include several hundred switches, each capable of affecting different actions. He wasn't required to move anymore in order to activate them, instead having the capacity to affect them solely by thought. Each thought required a visual confirmation in order to occur, something the glasses continued to make possible.
A dozen switches flipped, and Acelin's unconscious body leaped to its feet. Isao turned to him with an exasperated expression.
“Do you mean to debase your ally so thoroughly by using his body?”
He was quick on the draw to have figured that out so quickly.
“He won't mind. Ace promised me that he was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause. I'm just taking that to fruition.”
“And why would he be so willing to forfeit his life?”
“He has a thing against mass murderers...”
Acelin disappeared, reappearing directly in front of the larger man with cloak spread wide.
“...and so do I.”