Arc: Twin Souls
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Summary: In which everyone gets hip-deep into the fights they have to face. Fong and Daisuke take on the Hollows with the nobles, Kaoru and Hayato help with the villagers, and Jyuushiro and Shunsui go into the deeps.
Author's Notes: I apologize for it being forever since I've been able to really concentrate on this. Many thanks to incandescens's unceasing support, betaing skills, and knowledge of the Bleach Universe.
Standard Disclaimers: I do not own Bleach or its characters, nor do I make any money from these writings.
The first chapter.
<< The Previous Chapter: Ch. 34 -- Left Behind
The road to the Shiba Estates was long, possibly too long, Fong thought, as yet another wave of Hollows slid down the valley walls. They seemed to be coming from all over, drawn to reiatsu like bees to honey, and Fong wondered how on earth Kuchiki Ren had thought this way was going to be better than staying in the defensible caves. At least the Hollows were warier than they had been even half a mile ago; they were edging toward the humans rather than just barreling into them at high speed.
Maybe it was the slickness of the slopes due to the light spring snow that was beginning to fall. The pale, fat flakes were drifting through the sky, as aimlessly as the Clan members who drifted before and after the main pack of Academy students.
The students had wisely gathered around Yamamoto's stretcher and Uekiya Daisuke's erect and bandaged form. They defended each others' backs with great discipline when the packs of Hollows came. The Hollows were learning to avoid the phalanx when there was so much easier prey all around. The nobles clumped together in their family groups, a few were going it alone, and the Hatsuzora...
Fong stumbled over the sea-blue-covered body of yet another Hatsuzora retainer, and swore. At least there were two piles of dust nearby, so it might not have been outright murder. She scanned those that were left and only saw three sea-blue robes.
She stalked back to the Shihouin group, which was mostly the retainers of the Ito family. They had accompanied Indra and Rudra to the caves, and they were all knotted together, fighting half a dozen Hollows. The enemy were well occupied with the warriors, so Fong started with a run and flipped up onto the shoulders of one of the attacking Hollows. After interacting with Kyouraku-kun's zanpakutou, Fong had realized that she could push what reiatsu she had into her personal blade, a slender dagger that had been hers since childhood. It always felt like a part of her, a simple extension of her hand and arm, and now she concentrated on that feeling, intensifying it, pushing reiatsu into the dagger until shining steel sank into white bone.
The Hollow blew to dust, and she fell to crouch at one of the Ito warriors’ feet. He stepped back in surprise, and a Hollow missed its swing at him. Behind Fong's back, reiatsu gusted past her, smelling of green growing things. The Hollows all turned to look, and she grinned at how Uekiya Daisuke could be a distraction without striking a blow. She jumped up, aiming her knife point at the underside of the jaw of a distracted Hollow, and it blew away without even a bellow.
Working together now, the Ito retainers, Daisuke, and Fong cleared the Hollows from around them, and Fong approached the lead retainers.
"Why haven't you joined up with the students?" Fong asked, letting her exasperation show.
"We can take care of ourselves," Sasaki Kyo said, affronted. From what Fong remembered of the young lieutenant, he had more pride than sense, and had been assigned to the Ito clan in spite of his protests.
"What, and deprive them of your strength?" Fong asked sweetly. "They're guarding an entirely helpless bankai user. Why aren't you protecting them? What would Ito-sama say? I know that my Master would be most displeased to hear that you held back your arm."
She watched Sasaki blink and regroup. "Your..." His eyes went wide. "Oh.... Your Master...."
Fong pursed her lips in annoyance.
Sasaki gave Fong an uncertain look. She bowed low to him, with the secret flourish of the House of Godly Gears, and took a great deal of satisfaction in seeing him blanch. He hurriedly turned to urge his people toward the cluster of students, "We must protect them. Shihouin-sama would have us do so."
"Well done," said a soft voice in a tone that Fong hadn't heard for decades. Uekiya Daisuke stepped forward, swinging his naginata in one fist. "And was that... You don't have a zanpakutou, do you?"
She shook her head. "I'm not allowed, Uekiya-san."
"You, of all people, should call me Daisuke," he said ruefully. She shook her head vigorously. A fingertip touched the hilt of her knife, and with a shock, Fong found that she could feel his touch as if it were a caress against her skin. "You're quite good at hiding."
Fong couldn't find words, so she just nodded and looked at the ground.
"Well, well, it looks like they can learn," Uekiya said quietly. "Or maybe the first duckling's example has taught the others as well."
Fong looked up to see all the other small scatterings of nobles slowly gathering around Yamamoto's stretcher. "Oh, thank Heaven and Earth," she breathed.
One very harried looking man, half-balding and dressed in Hatsuzora blue, ran up to them, fell on his knees, and knocked his head on the ground. Utterly affronted by a nobleman putting himself so low to her, Fong tried to raise him up, but he refused to budge. She remembered seeing him in the cave. He had been one of the three people with enough awareness of the situation to use a kido spell against the Hollow that had attacked Yamamoto.
"Leave him be," Uekiya commanded. Fong obeyed, but crouched by Uekiya's side. She couldn't stand up while the noble was so far down. "What is going on?"
"I am Takahashi Shirou," the man said. "I am the last remaining Hatsuzora representative, and I throw myself upon your mercy."
"You are welcome to our help," Uekiya interrupted. "You need not make pledges that might..."
"Might jeopardize me further?" Takahashi's voice edged close enough to hysteria to make Fong's teeth grind. "I thought that since we were all armed and capable and had already cut through this path once before that it would be safer than being trapped like a rat under stone, but this..."
"I'm not sure what you're complaining about," Kuchiki Ren drawled. "We're fine. Maybe it was the quality of your..." The Kuchiki contingent stood behind him; a few were cut or bruised, but all were standing. Fong counted again just to be sure, but the numbers matched the one that she'd known when they'd left the caves.
"My leaders are dead," Takahashi bit the words out. "With our Lord cut down before our eyes, how else would we react?"
Ryuu Hinata laughed and her contempt poured from her like an icy mist off a mountain. "Ten years ago, the head of our clan was cut down before our eyes by the Lord of Hatsuzora. We reacted with rage, not fear. You should be cutting all the Hollows down that killed your people, not sobbing in fear."
Uekiya frowned. "Lady," he said with reproof, "a little more understanding would be appreciated." Ryuu Hinata snorted and looked away. "It's easier when we're all trying to survive the trip to the Shiba Estates."
The Ryuu hadn't fared quite so well as the Kuchiki. There were a few wounded being supported by their counterparts, and Fong counted at least three heads missing. Hinata bared her teeth at Uekiya, but nodded. "So be it. We shall combine our strength with yours and that poor Hatsuzora lordling. Just don't try to order us around."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Uekiya said, peacefully.
"Though I would suggest that we form up again. There are more Hollows coming."
Takahashi Shirou struggled to his feet with a whine like that of a kicked dog. Fong sighed and got to her feet as well. The sheer mass of the white bodies looked like a cloud against the mountain, and it flowed down the hillside like an avalanche. There was a smaller Adjucha urging them on, like a sheepdog with a flock of bony, flesh-eating sheep, and the Adjucha looked far too much like it knew what it was doing.
"Whose great idea was it to make this run?" Fong muttered under her breath. "And how many has he lost?"
Uekiya lifted his chin, his eyes narrowing at her. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Probably, Gardener. Probably." Sometimes Fong cursed her years in the shadows, but now, seeing the understanding and respect for her ability to anticipate in Uekiya's eyes, she found herself glad.
"Then we'd better survive this to see if you're right."
Fong groaned. If her supposition that the Kuchiki leader had some sort of control over the Hollows was right, it was going to make for a horrible fight. "I hate being right."
The screaming horde of Hollows tumbled down the too-steep slope and hit the first of the defenders. Grabbing Uekiya's shoulder, Fong acted on her instincts and pulled both of them to stand next to Kuchiki Ren and his retainers. Yamamoto's stretcher bearers automatically rallied to them, swelling the Kuchiki ranks, and the wave of white broke around them. To Fong's bitter satisfaction, none of the on-coming Hollows attacked Kuchiki Ren directly.
Kuchiki Ren looked back over his shoulder at her, and his dark eyes met Fong's gaze. The flick of his intent felt like the lick of a lash against her soul, and for an instant she wondered if she'd made a fatal mistake. If Ren could control the Hollows, then he could easily set them all on her and Uekiya. To Fong's surprise, Ren smiled at Fong, a wry, ironic twist of thin lips. In that instant, a Hollow snarled and went for his throat, claws outstretched.
Without hesitating, Fong flicked her knife up and threw it into the mask of the attacking Hollow. It burst to dust.
Ren-san whirled, picked the blade up off the ground. Fong frowned at feeling the cool touch of Ren-san's fingers on her soul. The noble's slender eyebrow lifted, but he took the three paces over to her and handed it to her hilt first before gifting her with just a slender a bow. She bowed deeply back, and watched, troubled, as Ren-san turned his back to her and returned to the fight.
Uekiya's voice floated to her above the screams and clashes of metal on bone, "It's not the first time you've been wrong, too."
Fong sighed at her own gut feeling that this was all betrayal well-masked. Her reflection in the steel of her returned knife looked no happier. "I know. I know. And I really wouldn't mind being wrong now. Let's go."
Uekiya nodded, and they turned to face their enemies, together.
Ryuu Hayato sat on the peak's crown, under a pale late winter sky. Fat flakes of snow drifted down: spring snow, wet snow, not the dry powder that he was used to in his Northern mountain home. A black cloud was moving in from the Ryuu mountains on the wings of a rising wind, swallowing the far peaks in mist, and Hayato narrowed his eyes to see.
Those traveling East back to the Shiba Estates were far out of his sight, and even out of Hayato's sense of reiatsu. He closed his eyes and felt around him. His father, Lord Kurogane, had taught Hayato that the Ryuu clan's farseeing ways were part and parcel of the land they lived in. On the tip of the mountain, Hayato sat cross-legged, the bare stone hard and chill through his robes. With a charred stick from the fires in the caves, he drew a circle diagram with four quadrants and wrote characters in each quarter. He sat back, contemplated the drawing, and then recited the kido spell his father had taught him. Hayato pushed reiatsu into the spell and felt the spell bite. Wings of power spread, and his own spirit forces swirled up in the flutter of transparent feathers, and he could suddenly see for miles out.
A few Hollows on the slopes showed up hungry and black. Crouched next to Hayato, the living reiatsu of the messenger boy Kaoru had insisted on pulsed with warm light. Hayato could see all the souls clustered in the cave beneath him. Unohana and Kaoru blazed brighter than the others, and even little Yamada Itsuke seemed to glow. Huh... guess the old man has more to him than meets the eye, Hayato thought, amused. Something solid shone, much like the constructed spell before him, from where it was nailed to the top of the doorway into the caves. Hayato hadn't noticed it before and now wondered what it was and who had put it there.
Further underground all sight grew weaker. Hayato could barely see the lights that were Jyuushiro and Shunsui hurrying further down toward a huge pool of something sucking and Hollow. That's going to hurt if it gets through, what in the world are just the two of them doing facing that? Hayato frowned, pulling his attention up. They were walking into a trap and he wondered if they knew it. With that huge a reiatsu signature they'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss it, so they had to know. Hayato growled. This was when he hated having to rely on others. He couldn't abandon his post just to rush down there and help them out. Instead, he pushed his attention to the hillsides around his perch. There were the black dots of Hollows on the slope, but none were right by the entrance. They were leftovers from when all the able nobles and students had left and cleared the way to Shiba.
Hayato still felt odd about why and how the Clans had left them to their own devices. He didn't like parting from his Aunt Hinata, but she'd been rude to his teammates in a way he couldn't ignore. Besides, she would be better able than Hayato to protect Yamamoto-sama, for all that she had drawn Hayato aside later to argue that Yamamoto-sama should stay in the safety of the caves with the rest of the wounded. That was when Hayato realized what kind of play Daisuke-san had made in putting Yamamoto-sama's unconscious body in the care of the able nobles. While Hayato might have words with her, he trusted her to stay on his dad's good side. Hayato's father and the head of the Ryuu Clan had invested in the Academy by teaching his sword skills to all comers. By putting Yamamoto in her care, she had to step up and show Lord Ryuu that she would put her sword where her loyalties lay. Hayato suspected that was also true of the Shihouin and Kuchiki representatives as well, since their clans backed the School overtly.
Satisfied with his thoughts on that matter, Hayato circled wider, feeling like a hawk on the wing, gliding and riding the currents above the peaks. It seemed all clear, but the brewing storm nagged at him like an aching tooth. He sighed and flew toward the curtain of snow, and as he feared, under the shadow of the cloud was a horde of Hollows as far as Hayato could see.
In an instant, Hayato snapped back into his body. He was swearing before he could even orient himself enough to stand. The formation of the Hollows was too precise. It was chilling to see them all gathered, respecting the boundary of the shadow above them, moving together in concert. Something small, hard and warm collided into him, and Hayato managed to come back to himself enough to not hit the boy who was struggling to keep Hayato balanced and upright.
"To the caves," Hayato spat out. "Help me," he managed through the backlash of the shattered spell.
The two of them tumbled down the steep slope, Hayato desperately trying to find his footing. In his head, Hayato started sorting images from the glimpse he'd seen, and he realized that there was one smaller Hollow and several gigantic ones urging on the white mass of hungry dead. A few yards further into the run, Hayato was coordinated enough to scoop the child into his arm and use shunpo in huge leaps down the slope.
The boy whooped in glee, making Hayato smile, distracting him from his fear of entering the cramped caves again. Getting through the narrowed entrance was easier while holding the kid; he gave Hayato something to concentrate on. Stepping through the entrance, Hayato wrinkled his nose. The caves smelled of blood and sweat and too many people confined in one place.
Unohana was in the center of the mass of wounded. She was bending to check a dressing, and she looked up when Hayato rushed in the door. There was a burst of air and Kaoru appeared, on the run, using shunpo too. To Hayato's surprise, the appearance of the arrogant Kaoru made Hayato feel better. There was something about having his teammate, even if he couldn't have his clan folk, that settled Hayato in much the same way. He wasn't alone in this mess.
"Hollows! A huge group of them! Moving in under an oncoming storm!" The enormity of the careful strategy hit Hayato. "They're organized, somehow. They're all moving together. It's weird. It's like they have some kind of leader."
"Leader?!" The shock in Kaoru's voice helped. Hayato nodded.
"Running behind a bunch of them. It looked like it was herding 'em."
"Like some kind of cattle dog?" Unohana looked perplexed as she washed her hands in a basin of now bloody water.
"They are headed toward the entrance from the north?" Kaoru asked, mouth pursed.
"Good." Inexplicably Kaoru looked like a cat who had eaten a canary. "There are three separate paths to the entrance of these caves. The major one was the road leading to and from the Shiba Estates, but there are two other arroyos and valleys that open into a flat area that shelters the entrance."
"It usta be a mine," Yamada-ji cut in. "S' why they put it so near the main road between lands."
"Yes, the walls are too regular and have been shaped by human hands and minds," Kaoru said patiently. "I noticed that in here."
Hayato looked up with a frown. He hadn't bothered to look mostly because he hated being underground so much it didn't really matter to him. But sure enough the ceilings, while rough, were mostly of a similar height, and the walls of caves looked as if they were cut to clear a space. Since they were near the entrance, it was probably a staging area or something for people and equipment.
"The passageway down is similarly cut, but I was thinking more of the surface and the roads and obvious ways to the entrance." Kaoru smiled. "Since they were so obvious, I set up traps on the routes. Nothing fancy, just some of the explosives that the army brought with it in case of a cave-in. I persuaded my cousin to leave some of it when he went back to the Estates."
There was a boom, and he saw Kaoru nod. They all looked up as dust and pebbles rained down form the walls.
"I guess that mean they're coming." Hayato got to his feet.
"Surely a hundred foot section of stone wall would take care of..." Another boom shook the caverns, this one from a different direction than the first explosion. Kaoru's eyebrows went up in surprise. "That's along the Northern pass... does that mean...?"
Hayato shook his head. "When I said that there were a lot of them, I meant that there were a lot of them."
"I'm not a numbers man," Hayato said ruefully. "All I knew was that I couldn't see the end of them..."
Eyes widened all around him.
"It's like seeing the mountain mist come in as snow, but every flake turns out to be a Hollow," Hayato said, spreading his hands in resignation. "Maybe your cousin Ren really did know what he was doing when he left with Yamamoto and the others. I thought this place would be so much more defensible, but between that and what Jyuushiro and Shunsui are up against, I don't know anymore."
"You saw what they were up against?" Kaoru asked.
"Not exactly. All I could see was a vast pool of Hollow hunger, creeping up like the tide," Hayato said, frowning. At the look on Kaoru's face, he suddenly remembered that Kali was at the other end of that particular passage.
Everyone in the cave was staring at him, and Hayato gulped.
Then Unohana's voice calmly said, "Then we'll just have to defend this entrance."
"What about Ukitake-kun and Kyouraku-kun?" Yamada-ji asked nervously.
"They will not die," Kaoru said coolly, and Hayato straightened at the tone. "And we will not die, either. I have reasons to see this through."
Kali. Hayato met Kaoru's eyes and they nodded to each other. "Well, then, I'll get going back outside, then."
"You cannot go alone," Unohana protested.
"He will not," Kaoru answered. "I will go with him."
That was when Hayato remembered the glowing thing set above the doorway. Curious, he stepped through the entrance, out of the cave, and looked up. There was a tattered charm made of ink, ribbons, silk, and paper stuck to a crack in the wall with a sliver of wood. The characters for protection stood out in the bold black sweeps of an intent brush. Hayato walked up to it and tried to see it with his reiatsu sensing, and sure enough, it glowed bright.
"Ukitake-kun put it up there," Unohana said softly. "I think it will help."
"I'm not sure how..." she said ruefully.
"It's a protection spell," Kaoru said. "I guess we'll see how effective it is, and if we both know that all the wounded in here are safe..."
"We'll be able to fight all the better," Hayato finished. "Do you have a strategy for us, Kuchiki Kaoru?"
Kaoru actually smiled at that, making Hayato grin. "Indeed, Hayato. I suspect we must defend this entry to allow Jyuushiro and Shunsui the space and time to deal with their problem. Since our enemy seems to be coming at us from outside, let us discuss it under the sky, where you will be more comfortable."
Hayato grinned and shook his head. "You're making it easier on me, Kaoru, should I be nervous?"
Jyuushiro and Shunsui raced down the dank stone tunnel. The previous stand they had made with Daisuke-san had been ineffective. Yamamoto had done all the real work, beating off the Hollows and sealing the passage, keeping the rest of the horde from spilling through. Remembering the unending flow of Hollows, Jyuushiro didn't think he liked their odds, but the Ito brothers had fallen and had to be rescued.
Torches flickered, set in the walls of the stone tunnel at regular intervals, only going dark when Jyuushiro and Shunsui neared where they'd been before. Shunsui grabbed the last lit torch and Jyuushiro grabbed an unlit one. They ran into the darkness by Shunsui's light. There was no knowing how far the darkness would extend, and Jyuushiro felt better with a backup. Soon loose pebbles and rolling rock made for tricky footing. The ceiling turned jagged, blackened, and broken.
"Careful," Jyuushiro cautioned.
Shunsui nodded, slowed, and held his torch up. Jyuushiro saw the blackened ring of the blast that had broken open the ceiling to allow the rock to pour down. A pile of loose rock had blocked the tunnel. Now there was a new opening, near the top of the mound, and the edges glistened in the flickering light of Shunsui's flames.
Following Shunsui, Jyuushiro climbed up and pushed himself through the new hole. The closed-in confines were oppressive. The roof of the new tunnel was rippled, cooled from when it had been molten on the near side, and thick with an ice-like substance that seemed to absorb the light and never melted. Jyuushiro didn't like touching the slick black surface, so flattened into the rubble to avoid it.
"What is that stuff?" Shunsui asked thoughtfully, once he'd climbed out the other end.
"No idea," Jyuushiro said, as they moved forward again.
"... bad," Jyuushiro said shortly. That the Hollows had created the substance bothered him. They were acting in concert, and they were making things that they shouldn't be able to make. Both indicated a level of intelligence that was unprecedented.
"I'm worried about the Ito brothers," Shunsui said, sounding almost lazy, and the tone told Jyuushiro all he needed to know about Shunsui's concern.
"Likewise," Jyuushiro said.
The floor smoothed out, and they both started running. They suddenly came into a brightly lit cavern. Their path continued, cut smoothly between mounds of stone. It twisted right, then left, and another jog to the right, and Jyuushiro saw a dogpile of Hollows covering two still forms. He threw his now useless torch to the side, and saw Shunsui's torch fly like a comet at the backs of the rummaging Hollows. Swords left sheaths in a hiss of steel, and before the Hollows could react, six of them had burst to dust.
Yelling, the Jyuushiro and Shunsui pressed their advantage. Jyuushiro got his blade into the backs of two more Hollows, who were too preoccupied with eating. Shunsui's two blades swung in deadly precision, taking three more. With dust flying everywhere, the rest of the Hollows scrambled back. A right to left swing of Jyuushiro's single sword at eye level smashed two more masks, and Jyuushiro won his goal. He straddled Indra's mauled body, and put his back to Shunsui, who stood over Rudra. The startled, confused crowd of Hollows milled about, and one found courage or hunger enough to attack. Fending off claws and teeth with a screech of steel, Jyuushiro snarled and powered through an overhand strike that shattered claws and sank the point home.
"Shit," Shunsui spat. "There's a lot of them."
"Yes." Jyuushiro coughed, but nothing attacked again immediately, so he took a look around.
A light source glowed far above their heads, at the top of the natural cavern. Jagged spikes of rock hung from the ceiling. A like sheet of spikes created walls to the right and far off to the left. There was a single open path, which is why the Hollows could only come at them in twos or threes. Much of the cave was filled with lumps or columns of damp rock, but the path from the entrance to this point was clear. The open space continued further into the cave, but an edge or cliff fell off just a few dozen yards to their left. A gap of darkness yawned beyond that.
Another Hollow flung itself at Jyuushiro, and he had to take a step forward, parrying claws to the side, getting inside its distance, before drawing back his blade to strike at its jaw. While the dust still flew another bony body slammed into Jyuushiro's side, and he swore and pushed back, trying not to be overborne.
There was a crunch of bone, and the weight was off him. Jyuushiro wiped the dust from his eyes. "Thank you."
Shunsui grunted an acknowledgment and kept his gaze on the watching Hollows. "What now?" he asked.
Jyuushiro dropped to one knee by Indra, and he pressed fingertips against Indra's throat. A faint pulse beat. "Indra's alive," he said softly. Indra's leg was bent at a very bad angle. Cuts and gashes crisscrossed his body, and bites had been taken out of his thigh and shoulder. He wasn't going anywhere. However, even unconscious Indra still clutched his zanpakutou in one hand. Rudra chose that moment to moan and stir, blood trickled sluggishly from several deep cuts across Rudra's torso and his gnawed throat, and one of his legs looked badly chewed.
"How the hell do we protect them both?" Shunsui asked perplexed.
"I think we need to attack," Jyuushiro said, thinking it was going to be the only way to protect themselves, much less the brothers. "Drive the Hollows farther back, see if there's a good stoppage point on this path, where one of us can hold it at a time."
"But we can't leave them," Shunsui protested. "If the Hollows get around us, they'd have no protection."
"Well, we can't let the Hollows around us anyway, or else they'd get to the villagers, and the whole point was to keep them bottled up," Jyuushiro said. Doubtfully, Jyuushiro added, "I guess we could take them with us?"
Rudra groaned, twitched, and opened his eyes. He looked at Jyuushiro and Shunsui without comprehension, but then he took a deep breath and recognition brightened his features. "Kyouraku-kun. Ukitake-kun..."
Jyuushiro nodded. "Yes. Can you move?"
Rudra blinked and slowly sat up, dragging the chewed on leg. He shook his head, his hands patting the ground around him. He found his unsheathed zanpakutou and laid it across his lap. "No. I don't think I can, but that means that I will stay by Indra."
"We're going to try and drive them back, some may get around us," Shunsui said, curtly.
Rudra smiled, shifted with a wince, and then relaxed with a rock against his back. "There's a bridge ahead, spanning a wide river that can't be easily crossed. Do what you have to do, Kyouraku-kun, I can cleanse a few, if they get by you."
Shunsui's gaze met Rudra's. Rudra nodded, and Shunsui looked away. Jyuushiro could feel the regret and ache of loss in Shunsui's reiatsu.
"Let's go?" Jyuushiro suggested. Shunsui nodded, tightened his grip on his zanpakutou, and together, they attacked the standing Hollows.
Jyuushiro found himself grateful for all the times they had fought together. They could sense where the other was through the chaos of the melee, knowing how the other struck or was unguarded, allowed the other to hit or shield as necessary. It was no longer thinking of right-this or left-that; together, they blurred through the motions of what had to happen to lay their enemies low. While Shunsui side-swiped one Hollow, Jyuushiro blocked the jaws of another Hollow from hitting Shunsui's shoulder. While Jyuushiro swung, taking out the legs of an over-eager attacker, Shunsui made the head-shot to cleanse.
Step by labored step, they cut their way forward, and the Hollows fell back and then further back. There was a sudden scramble, a splash that sounded as if it came from below their feet. They took another few yards of ground, and Jyuushiro could see a natural bridge of stone spanning a broad chasm in the floor of the cave. Running water burbled below. It had cut the open cavern in half, but for the rough bridge of some stone darker than the walls or the rest of the cave floor itself.
"That's it," Jyuushiro said. "Exactly what Rudra said."
"It is." Shunsui sprang forward in a sudden flurry, cleansing two. The rest shoved their brethren back, trying to get away and giving Shunsui and Jyuushiro more room. "Can you break the bridge?" Shunsui asked, breathlessly.
"I don't know, but I'll find out." Jyuushiro put up his hands, trusting Shunsui to protect him while he cast the spell. Remembering the Academy research he'd done with Hoshiko-chan, Jyuushiro tried weave some of the same reiatsu he got from his zanpakutou into the spell. It was distracting hearing the voice in his head ask, Jyuushiro? Can you hear my name? He couldn't shut it out and still get what he needed, so he let the mild voice speak and tried to call out the spell over it.
"Sprinkled on the bones of the beast! Sharp tower, red crystal, steel ring." The inner voice suddenly fell into alignment with Jyuushiro's, saying the exact same words he did. "Move and become the wind, stop and become the calm. The sound of warring spears fills the empty castle!"
A wave of yellow energy roared from Jyuushiro. Wailing Hollows caught in the blast frayed, staggered, and fell into dust. Three surprised the hell out of Jyuushiro and leaped into the air and flew. The bridge and cavern floor shook but remained whole, but several jagged teeth of stone fell out of the ceiling. Two stone spears impaled flying Hollows. The third Hollow dodged and twisted.
Shunsui frowned, raised a palm, and sent a fireball after the flying Hollow. The spell hit, and the Hollow fell into the ravine. There was a wail and a splash. Drained and spent, Jyuushiro bent over, fists on knees, trying to catch his breath.
"Well, you bought us some time," Shunsui commented. "And that cleansing wasn't half-bad, either."
Jyuushiro wheezed a laugh, and he sat down where he stood. The seething crowd of Hollows at the far end of the bridge swayed toward him, but Shunsui let off another quick fire kido, and they retreated.
"Can you go back and carry the Ito brothers away from here?" Jyuushiro asked.
"Not if you're staying here," Shunsui said in a far too knowing tone.
"Be that way," Jyuushiro said with rather more bitterness than he'd expected, and he saw Shunsui's eyebrow rise. "Sorry, I'm not sure where that came from," he said apologetically.
"Well, given that there are probably..." Shunsui squinted at the far end of the bridge. "... a few hundred Hollows within hailing distance, who are doing their best to eat us and everyone we've vowed to protect, I'd say fear, despair, and a few tasty morsels of 'I can't move so I might as well just give up and die here' are all shoving away at your vaunted composure."
That made Jyuushiro snort an involuntary laugh. The Hollows surged back at the sound, which intrigued Jyuushiro. "I think they feed off despair."
"You think?" Shunsui's smooth tones were maddeningly calm.
"And whose composure is so damned vaunted anyway?" Jyuushiro said with a smile up at Shunsui.
"You do keep just jumping in," Shunsui said, disarmingly. "Not to say that I'm not scared witless, but I'm very thankful for whomever made that light." Shunsui tipped his head back to get a good look at the cavern ceiling.
Jyuushiro looked up. There was definitely a light source up there, bright enough to fill the cavern. It exuded power. Closing his eyes, Jyuushiro extended his senses and got hit with a flash of exuberant rage.
"Oh. Indra," Jyuushiro breathed. The spell that burned above them was fueled by the youngest Ito's life force and was distinctly flavored with the man's spirit.
"Yeah," Shunsui said. "Think you got it in one."
There was a ripple through the crowd on the far side. Jyuushiro saw all the bone masks turn toward the wall behind the gathered souls. There was lowing, the sound of breaking stone, and then darkness bulged from shadow. Three Gillian broke through stone and started grabbing the smaller Hollows. All the white masks reflected the light from Indra's fire in the middle of the room. A tiny figure jumped from the roof of the cave. It spread white wings, soared, and landed on a gigantic shoulder. The Gillian raised a huge, clawed hand far too late to swat at the creature and bellowed when its arm came off with a sound of tearing meat.
The Hollows broke away like surf breaking on rocks. They scattered, fleeing in all directions. Many went through the openings the Gillians had made. A few scampered over the bridge, but Shunsui stepped to meet them with his blades. He made quick work of the first few, the rest ran away from him, back into the chaos. More rose in flight, but this time spears of blue fire rose to take them from where Rudra sat. It seemed that Rudra could still throw kido.
Shunsui returned to stand by Jyuushiro. Together, they watched the Adjucha roar and take the Gillian apart. Horribly beautiful in its grace and speed, the Adjucha's slender jaws widened to a maw that gaped and gulped down blood, white skin, and splintered bone. Luckily for the panicking Hollows, the single Gillian was large enough to occupy the Adjucha for a while. The two other Gillian helped by smashing more walls while they escaped. Hollows pushed, shoved, and scrambled their way after them. That should have relieved Jyuushiro, to see the horde gone, but the weight of presence from the single remaining Hollow was more than the entirety of the crowd that had been there before.
It turned to regard them from across the bridge.
An immense intent pressed Jyuushiro to the rock floor. And it was flavored with the same power that had eaten the other Gillian in the tunnels before Yamamoto had come to rescue them. So it hadn't been hurt or killed by Yamamoto's blast. With a grunt, Jyuushiro fought to sit up, and then, because there was nothing better he could think of doing, Jyuushiro put his hands against the floor and worked to stand. Shunsui stood stock-still by Jyuushiro, fists tightening about the hilts of the long and short swords in his sash.
Jyuushiro finally made it to his feet, and Shunsui nodded without taking his gaze from their opponent on the far side.
"Good," said Shunsui. "You need to be up for this."
"You're going to hit it?" Jyuushiro asked, unsteadily.
"I don't see any other choice," Shunsui said, sounding rueful. "Do you?"
"Just one," Jyuushiro said.
Shunsui glanced at Jyuushiro, and Jyuushiro quirked a grin, swallowing his fear. "Let's attack it together. Not apart. Together."
Shunsui nodded. "Yes. Let's."
Jyuushiro readied his stance, felt Shunsui's reiatsu flare rise, and pushed all his will into raising his as well. Then he put one foot in front of the other, saw Shunsui's foot fall beside his, and they rushed the Adjucha together.
Next Chapter -- Reflections >>