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The Coven War

This article, The Withered Branch, is property of ShonenChicoBoy.

This article, The Withered Branch, is property of Zf6hellion.

This article, The Withered Branch, is property of Seireitou.

This article, The Withered Branch, is property of Njalm2.

Note: this article contains mature themes. Viewer discretion is advised.

What Remains

The sky above the Seireitei, split into eight crystalline shards marked by glowing cracks of dimensional space, slowly stitched itself back together. There was a low, reverberating boom as its canvas once more became whole, and for a moment afterwards the only sound that could be heard was the calm rhythm of the rain falling on the Sougyoku.

Hein imagined it had been a sight to see.

The captain of the seventh division remained balanced on the hilt of his Zanpakutou, crouching as if he needed a higher seat to get a better picture of the battlefield. He quietly considered the remains of the head captain, as though he were a crow perched above a carcass. It was ironic. Given any other situation, he would have relished the opportunity to witness the Gotei 13 brought so low. He himself had been a long-time enemy of the Shinigami, and likely would have taken advantage of the situation to strike back at the ones who had despised him for so long. But under the current circumstances, there was nothing to celebrate. He felt as though the balance of the world’s power had simply shifted from the hands of one power-drunk megalomaniac to another, and an altogether too familiar sense of anger and helplessness began to well up within him.

Whatever his personal thoughts may have been, the only sign of his turmoil was the fact that his expression was still grim, lacking his characteristic grin as he stepped down to the pavement and slung his sword over his shoulder. For a moment, he paused and rubbed the smooth threads of the tachi’s hilt, considering the irony of the Coven’s threat to destroy all Zanpakutou. Had they made the same proposition years earlier, he would have gladly handed over the sword, but now it was a thorn permanently imbedded in his side.

He imagined it would be an inconvenience, at any rate.

Hein faced the mage who had been left behind, tucking one arm into the fold of his haori as he waited for the enemy to address them. Aside from the captain of the 12th division, last seen standing between the Coven and the Gotei 13, the arena had been stripped bare of Shinigami. Typically, Hein avoided the landmine known as Jaromira Dragan, but this time he turned to her, hoping she was intending to execute some plan of action that would allow him to slip away in the maelstrom. But when she did not immediately react to the apparent teleportation of their comrades, Hein began to grow anxious. However, he was more concerned that any possible distraction that would have allowed him to slip away unnoticed was now removed, as he could have cared less about the disappearance of his fellow captains.

“So,” he finally began, breaking the silence between him and Jaromira. “Are ya gonna say something, obahan?”

“Oh, you’re still here?”, the Captain of the Twelfth replied, a twinge of surprise to her tone. She hadn’t noticed any of the other Shinigami had been present, freely casting them out of her mind the moment she assumed they were thrown to the four winds. A pity, she thought, that she had been left with the firebrand of all things. She had been content there, pondering over thoughts of her wayward child and the message the Coven had broadcasted through their potent magic.

“Its an offer most tempting, what say you, firebrand? That we see how far the Coven’s hospitality extends?”, it was rare that she included anyone in her plans, free to do as she pleased, but for once, she cast out an olive branch. Perhaps this one would be smart enough to accept.

“Sure, terrible generous,” he growled, “If ya don’t mind takin’ the bottom position. Way I see it, we ain’t got much choice, or such-and-such.” While Hein was certainly far from the most intelligent captain in the Gotei 13, he knew how to survive, and he was not about to blindly waltz into the Coven’s offer. He was intimately familiar with the power a spellcaster could wield over those they enthralled, and the statue of Kyouraku stood as a testament to back his convictions. “And it isn’t that I love the Gotei 13… but there ain’t any way to guarantee that those gaudy excuses for fruit stands won’t turn us into something like the old man over there,” he said, jabbing his thumb in the direction of Shunsui’s remains. Still, while it may not have seemed like Hein was being careful about what he said, he framed his words carefully, and his tone suggested that he was considering Jaromira’s suggestion, even though he had no such intentions.

“Hmph!”, Jaromira scoffed at the very idea. “So long as your little rat-fire burns, I can bring you back from the brink of anything they’d do to you”, she explained, taking Hein’s worries as if they were a slight against her talents. Of course, she wasn’t known for being generous so it was obvious to see where his caution came from, though she’d take offense regardless, as was her want.

“Our dear Captain-Commander gave up, as such there is nothing left for him but reincarnation. But you, my dear firebrand, I imagine, would prefer a life long-lived”, she made assumptions of course, but it was all in service to her worldview. She didn’t so much analyse Hein or anyone else but take stock of what she saw and painted her own picture of them, true or not, it was how she saw them.

“If you doubt my skill, then do as you please”, she offered, turning away in the direction of the Seireitei. “If not, then come along, I assure you-”, she spoke confident as she began her stride, not even taking heed of the other presence around them. “-the wings of Jaromira are wide enough to safeguard many more than you”.

“Ha,” Hein chuckled, “While I appreciate the offer obahan, I ain’t exactly convinced. Not that I doubt yer, uh, wings... but I learned a long time ago that the only person you can really trust in this pathetic excuse for existence is yourself…” Hein paused as he turned his face towards the sky, apparently contemplating the rain. “Leastways, ain’t much of life when ya’re livin’ on someone else’s terms,” he said more softly.

Amidst the conversation between them, Kamui remained rather silent, observing them with the cool and composed gaze that was considered characteristic of him. The lavender-haired male held both hands at his sides as he addressed the two of them. "What you choose is no real consequence to myself personally. Whatever once existed is irrelevant. As things stand, the only thing that matters is what remains. Before you, lies naught but the absence of your comrades, the rotting stone corpse of your former leader, and the vision of a new world. Therefore, it really becomes a matter of choosing thusly: will you remain in the past of a destroyed world or join us in the future of a promising world?" Kamui answered with his usual means of harsh tone yet calm attitude.

“If those ears of yours are more than just for show, I think are our answers are already clear”, said Jaromira having only just registered Kamui's place among the three of them. She had chosen to see just what the Coven had to offer, and Hein had all but declared his intentions to do what he desired instead. How that mattered to the mage before them she didn't bother to guess, her assumptions were a simple toss up between letting the blind man walk, or gutting him where he stood. Though she respected his decision, she had no intention of lifting a finger if he desired his freedom so deeply.

"Foolish, really." Kamui answered, paying no heed to Jaromira. "But as I said, it makes little difference to myself personally, what you choose to do. In this life, one can always find a proper way to experience the world so long as they follow the path they pave for themselves. But do understand. If you return here, it will be as an enemy. All paths that you have drawn for yourself, all manner of existing that you seek to achieve— it will all end, with me needing naught but to raise a single finger." he addressed, turning his back to Hein as he made his way for Seireitei; for the creation of a new world.

Dying Flame

The path you pave for yourself? My ass, Hein thought. Despite the fact that his life had been generously spared, it was not as if he had been afforded freedom. He was perceptive enough to see that his choice had been made for him: he would either bow to the Coven’s will or become fodder in their new order. Those were his options.

Hein remained motionless as Jaromira and Kamui receded into the distance. They did not look back, but Hein’s pulse continued to rush in his ears. Would they really allow him to walk away? For a moment he considered the possibility of an ulterior motive lying behind their offer, but he was certain that the sorcerer, or even Jaromira, could have snuffed him out in a moment had they so desired. Thus, it seemed their offer was genuine... but Hein was not about to risk having them change their mind.

Then, just as he was about to turn and head in the opposite direction, he felt a familiar, uncomfortable weight settle upon his mind. A distinctive prescience called him, and he swore.

“What the hell do you want?” he asked, and along with the pain that began to spread in the center of his chest, panic began to overwhelm him. The Seireitei had fallen. The Coven was closing in, and Hein was alone, having nowhere to turn to as he was dragged against his will towards yet another purpose, powerless to resist.

Leastways, ain’t much of a life when ya’re livin’ on someone else’s terms. His own words echoed in his mind, taunting him. Freedom had been extended to him... and it had just as quickly been snatched away. Hein was no fool. He knew that he would be living a lie, believing he had made his own choice in refusing the Coven when in reality they controlled the fate of the world itself, and offered his only true escape. But he would rather choose to live blindly then submit to the will of another.

Hein resisted the subliminal beckoning, and as he did so the pain in his chest worsened, becoming a scalpel that twisted deep into his sternum. This time, there was not subtlety in the command. He was not being toyed with: he was being forced to respond. Hein pressed a hand against his chest, thinking frantically.

Rana. If only he could find Rana. The medicine women could alleviate the pain, at least enough so that he could think of a better plan. With that thought in mind, Hein set off for the Seventh Division headquarters, vanishing with a flicker in the air. As he soared above the Seireitei, he could sense several battles taking place in the area—Shinigami against Kidō-wielding Coven members—but they seemed of miniscule importance to him.

Hein was only concerned for himself.


With little ceremony, Hein threw the gates of the Seventh Division open and stepped into the courtyard. He did not sense Rana’s presence within the compound, which caused him to frown deeply.

“Ueda-taichō!” he heard the shouting of the divisions’ men and the clamor of their feet as they ran towards him.

“What happened to the head captain?”

“Sir, the enemy has invaded the Seireitei, what do we do?”

“What are your orders?”

“Do we attack?”

But instead of answering them, Hein strode right through their midst, brushing past them. The men fell silent, stunned.

“Where is that woman,” Hein demanded, “Rana.” When no one answered, he repeated himself. “Where is she?”

“We... we don’t know, sir,” someone volunteered nervously. Hein did not reply, but his hands clenched into fists at his sides. While he remained silent and seemingly composed, his spiritual pressure was gradually becoming more tense and volatile in his agitated state. It was obvious that his subordinates could sense his reiatsu—uneasy and barely suppressed as it was—as they cleared a wide circle around him, shrinking back to allow him space. What they could not see was that, as Hein’s spiritual pressure increased, so too did the pressure in his chest. It was a vicious cycle, and a battle that he was quickly losing.

“What was your decision, s-sir?” the fifth seat, a young man with an honest voice, asked again. “Do we surrender?”

Hein moved without warning, blurring out of sight. In one instant he was standing with his back turned to his men, in the next he had grabbed the young officer by the throat and was lifting him off his feet. Steam rose from the captain’s shoulders as his level of reiatsu exceeded his ability to control it.

“Riddle me this, Kawamura-han,” Hein asked the young man, his voice a low growl, “Is it better to be crushed like an insect between the forces of fate, or to live however the hell ya please and have your free will strangled as a result?” The fifth seat did not respond, and he continued, “I made the only choice I had, and you want to know what that was? Nothing. Fuckin’ nothing.”

Understanding seemed to dawn upon the fifth seat. “I didn’t think...” Kawamura gasped, “You were afraid of anything.”

What he said caught Hein off guard, and for a moment his grip on the Shinigami’s throat tightened.

“Well, sorry to disappoint you. Ain’t a man alive who doesn’t fear something.” He hurled the young man onto the ground, then turned to the rest of the division and raised his voice. “All right, did ya all hear that? I ain’t stickin’ around to stand behind an organization that’s chokin’ on its own damn blood. If ya want to stay behind and get real clobbered, feel free. The choice is yours, but don’t go askin’ me for what to do. From here on out, you’re own your own.”

The only person who answered him was Kawamura, who was still fighting for breath. “But why? I always respected you,” he coughed, struggling to his knees. “That’s why I wanted you as my captain.”

Hein turned his attention to the officer, and his lip curled with disgust.

“Fear and respect are the same thing, ain’t it so?” he asked. Hein reached across his chest and took hold of the sleeve of his haori before ripping it from his shoulders. He threw it to Kawamura, who held the captain’s coat in disbelief.

“Ueda-taichou...” he stammered, “You can’t mean this. If the Seireitei falls, there’ll be no one left to stop them!”

“Well then, let the Seireitei burn for all I care.”

Hein turned away from the fifth seat, and in the next instant the haori Kawamura held burst into flame. The Shinigami screamed as he was enveloped in a blistering cocoon of fire, which flashed before quickly burning out, leaving his body writhing and smoking on the pavement.

“Anyone else?” Hein asked the shocked onlookers. When no one replied, he said, “Didn’t think so.” It was then that Hein became aware of a presence that stood in a gap created by the circle of Shinigami.

There was Rana.

The old woman remained silent, but Hein sensed immediately that she had come for him. It was as if they were the only two beings left standing on the precipice of a blank world, alike in their solitude. The irony struck him. After all that had occurred, Rana was the only one who had remained by his side. While part of him was relieved, he felt uneasy, as he always did around her. Her gaze never wavered, neither approving him nor condemning him. What did she see, looking at the pathetic remains of his rage?

“Let’s go,” he said as he walked past her, and she followed him wordlessly as he left the Seventh Division behind.


Hein’s pace slowed considerably as he made his way towards the Red Hollow Gate—the southern entrance to the Seireitei. Rana continued to walk behind him without speaking, and for a long time the clattering of her medicine box and the shuffling clack of Hein’s geta was the only sound in the deserted streets. The rain had stopped, and dead stillness hung over the Seireitei, as if the Shinigami were biting their breath, waiting for the verdict of the Coven to fall. Sickly, anxious tension hung palpably in the air: there were still ongoing battles that would determine the scale of power held by the participants, even if the war itself had been lost.

“I assume ya found what you were lookin’ for,” he said, “At Central 46.”

Rana did not reply, and Hein was unsure if his ability to surmise what her true intentions in coming to the Seireitei were had surprised her or not.

“What are ya goin’ to do now?” he asked, “Once ya return to the Rukongai.”

“I have my own matters to deal with,” she assured him, cryptically fingering the strap of her medicine box. “The question is what will you do? Will you return to him?”

“Ha,” Hein spat to the side derisively, but he did not answer.

“I can already see the strain on your soul. Even I cannot help you in this case.”

Rana was referring to the invisible knife buried in Hein’s chest, which had only dug itself deeper since he had left the Sōgyoku. Now the pain was spreading throughout his core, at times a clenching vice, other times sharp stabbings, but always, always burning. It was so severe that when the next crushing wave came, Hein felt his strength drain from his limbs, and he stumbled forwards. He collapsed against the wall, leaning against it for support, and when he coughed he felt warm blood on his hand.

Confronted with his own weakness, Hein drove his fist into the wall. It caved way instantly to the force of the expelled mass of fire, which burned across several streets beyond and left a smoldering hole in a series of the stone walls.

“Tell me, why... is it worse than it was before?” he panted.

“Your resistance is killing you,” Rana pointed out, as calm and unhurried as she had ever been. “And your own fear is eating away at your strength, feeding the curse’s power. You are running out of time.”

Hein straightened up, breathing deeply as he forced himself to vent.

“I ain’t blind. I don’t need to be told that,” he growled. But Hein paused, and for a long time he remained motionless as the gravity of his situation began to dawn upon him, “Funny ain’t it?” he said at last, although it was unknown whether he spoke to himself or Rana. “For so long the only thing I was ever concerned about was survival, ya know? And maybe, maybe I...” Hein stopped, and then laughed at himself, “But leastways that’s goin’ for nothing. Someone like me could never reach it anyway, no matter how hard I kept fightin’ for it. They say there’s no glory in battle, ain’t it so? I guess it was too much to ask for, for a demon like me.” He shook his head. “Yet ya decided to follow me here anyway.”

Hein stopped, and seemed to realize something. “Wait a damn minute,” he said with growing horror, “Just why the hell did ya come back anyway?” Although it caused him pain, he began to turn towards her, “Don’t tell me ya’re here to...”

Otokowasu,” Rana said softly, and a grin spread across her face. Hein sensed the sudden shift in reiatsu as her intent became instantaneously malicious, but he was unable to react in time to avoid the Hadō. The spell erupted silently, but soon followed with a sudden burst of sound that caused the air itself to waver and thicken. A powerful, resonating disk of pressure slammed into him, reverberating through his core. Hein was instantly overcome by the high-pitched, piercing decibel of the sonic wave, and he screamed as he covered his ears, trying to block out the sound. But it persisted, echoing in his mind and drowning out all other senses. Naturally susceptible to sound-based techniques due to his refined sense of hearing, the degree to which Rana had ratcheted the intensity of the low-ranking spell caused him such pain that, for a moment, he completely forgot about the pressure in the center of his chest. By the time the sound finally faded out, Hein had fallen to the ground and lay on his side, panting as he tried desperately to regain a grasp of the world around him. All his senses had been disrupted, and he felt as helpless has he had years before when he first lost his sight. The black fingers of empty space wrapped around him, wavering and taunting him. Not even the ground felt solid as he fumbled to find his footing. He heard Rana approach him, but she seemed miles away, lost in the depths of a muted tunnel. Somehow Hein managed to push himself to his feet. Rana had waited until he was standing, and she followed with a second command, “Bakudō number thirty, Shitotsu Sansen.”

Three lines of crackling energy emerged in front of her, forming a triangle whose points were marked by more solid fangs of energy. Hein gasped, raising his hands in a futile attempt at defense as he tried to predict which direction the attack would come from. An instant later, the triangular keys slammed into his upper arms and torso, carrying him back until he was pinned against the wall of the alley. While the impact left a crater in the plaster, Hein barely felt it as he was still drifting in a state largely devoid of physical sensation. Completely immobilized, he could only wait as Rana approached him, slowly.

“So you always intended to betray me?” Hein managed to ask.

“A perceptive question, a shame you didn’t figure it out sooner.” Her voice was growing stronger, but still ancient and thick as she responded. “How long did you really think I was on your side?”

“Bitch,” Hein felt her standing in front of him, and spat blood in her direction, “I never trusted you.”

“But you kept me close, nonetheless. And that was your mistake.”

“Well ya know what they say,” Hein grinned, even though his back was literally up against a wall, “It’s always better to keep your enemies close. Leastways, I always knew you were dangerous... Still, I never thought ya’d be part of the Coven.”

Rana laughed, and it was the first time Hein had ever heard her do so. “I’ll admit, your ability to discern the intentions of others continues to fascinate me. Tell me, what gave me away?”

“It only makes sense. Someone had to be on the inside, to pull off a stunt like that against the head captain.” If Hein’s implication was unfounded, Rana did not correct him. Instead, she set her medicine cabinet on the ground and opened it, rummaging through various vials and bottles. Hein began to grow nervous, but knew he was powerless in his current state against the spell that currently trapped him.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t worry, I am not here to assassinate you, and I would have already done that by now if that were my purpose.” Rana told him as she straightened up, a needle in her hand. “Even though you are a coward, you are still a powerful individual, Hein Ueda, and one who would serve our cause well. You asked me earlier why I came back for you: I came to offer you a second chance. Perhaps the reason you refused to join us earlier was because you were not sufficiently convinced of the power we hold. So allow me to enlighten you.”

She stabbed the needle into his chest, near the epicenter of the curse’s pain. Once Hein’s screams had subsided, the old woman reached up, and in an almost caressing fashion untied the blindfold that hid Hein’s scarred eyes, allowing it to fall to the ground.

“You no longer have a place in this world,” she told him, “But why give yourself up to oblivion? Come now, isn’t it time to see the new horizon?”

As she spoke, something strange began to occur. Bright light started pouring into Hein’s eyes, which elicited a new kind of pain. He squinted his eyes shut, trying to stave off the discomfort until he had grown accustomed to the new sensation.

Then, like awakening from a dream, Hein opened his eyes, slowly.

He saw the lines of the stone tiles beneath his feet in stark detail, and the fringe of his own black Shihakkushō. The glow of the Shitotsu Sansen was warm and translucent, and as he looked up he saw the white walls of the narrow alley they were in. Beyond that was a darkening, deep blue sky. The storm from earlier had begun to clear, allowing the rays of the setting sun to pierce through and shine on the underbellies of the clouds, turning them gold and pink in the dusky twilight. Above him the first stars had appeared, and Hein caught his breath, the beauty of it all bringing nothing but greater pain.

Rana, in contrast, was as old as he had imagined her, with a face set deeply with hundreds of wrinkles and drab, gray hair falling over her worn shawl.

“What the hell did you do to me?” he asked her. “Why are you mocking me?” He was powerless to stop the tears that ran from his now-seeing eyes.

“Of course, this is only a temporary effect,” she explained, “But this is a taste of what a world ruled by Kidō would look like. The burden you carry can be taken away. We can give you a new name. Indeed, as you can see, we can even restore sight to the blind.” Rana raised her hand, holding two fingers in a line in front of her nose. “But I am glad that you are able to witness this, after all...” She smiled, and her skin began to flake away, fluttering off in thin squares that quickly seemed turned to pale scraps of paper before being carried away by the breeze. The true Rana was revealed gradually, bit by bit until the mask of an old woman was stripped away, leaving behind a younger, more androgynous woman with ivory skin and pointed ears. She had red markings under her eyes and on her nose, and her silver hair had turned blonde, falling loosely over her shoulders. Only her eyes had remained the same, brilliantly azure and empty as she stared at him evenly.

“The dawning of a new world.”

Hein made no response. Those were the same words that the mage from earlier had used. Was the Coven truly so convinced of their cause? What future did they see? He only saw further destruction and chaos. Nothing was ever permanent. Bloodshed was the way of the world. War never bred peace, only more war. Formerly, Hein had gloried in that bloodshed, and feasted on that war. But now, he stared straight ahead as the slick pools of remnant rain water on the ground, which had become perfect mirrors of the sky, reflected the dying light. Then, he lowered his head to his chest.

He had surrendered.

“Now, Hein Ueda,” Rana went on, “Since you have seen what we can offer you, I will ask you again. And I will only ask you once more: Will you join our cause and become an ambassador of the Coven’s order?”

There was a long moment of silence before he finally answered her.

“Go to hell,” he muttered feebly.

Rana’s expression soured, but she seemed unsurprised by his response.

“A shame, you would have been a great asset to us.” Rana extended her hand as she came closer, “In that case, I will simply extract what I want from you and leave you to wallow in your own misery before you perish. As I said earlier, you don’t have much time left anyway.” She placed her hand on his forehead, tilting his head up to stare into his deadened, crimson eyes. “Tell me what I need to know, and your end will be painless,” she coaxed. When Hein made no reply, she sighed, then concentrated the energy in her fingertips as she began to probe into his mind.

Hein had thought the worst of his pain was over, but now he felt her fingers extending like white hot needles that ran through his brain. He grit his teeth, trying to resist as she pulled out memory after memory. Like savoring the slow extraction of a tooth, the roots of his thoughts were plucked out and brought to the surface. Soon, Hein was lost within the overturning of his own mental state. Confronted with all the horrors of his past in quick succession, a rush of engraved color and searing images that failed to subside, he felt himself slowly drifting away from consciousness.

Itsumi.

Fury of a Crow

Her name was Itsumi.

Hein did not remember the first time he had become enamored with her, but he recalled watching her slender fingers on the strings of her shamisen, stroking the notes gently and weaving beauty in the darkened, soot-stained room. The men around him, fellow Takeha-kai members, would laugh roughly as they raised their glasses, drowning out the music. But Hein saw that her melody was much more than mere entertainment. The song carried a deep timbre, a barely masked silence, and Hein studied her face closely for any hint of emotion.

She would stare placidly into blank space, her clouded gray eyes seeing all and nothing at the same time. She allowed him no glimpse into her inner thoughts. And so Hein became incensed.

He could have used his power to demand her for himself immediately, but he was unsatisfied with the thought of forcing himself upon her. Perhaps it was from curiosity, perhaps a distorted sense of lust, but he wanted to unravel the goze's mystery slowly. Gradually, as she came to the upper room of the tea house week after week to entertain the men with her shamisen, he began to wonder if she sensed his attraction towards her, and if—possibly—she felt the same towards him.

Months passed, and winter gradually turned to spring. The rainy season came like it did each year in late June. Water poured in drunken rivulets over the South Rukongai, turning the dirt streets into rivers of mud. All activity stalled in the district, and a feverish restlessness sunk deeply into Hein’s bones. He spent his afternoons idling under the eaves of the tea house, and one day he saw her. Through the veil of rain, he watched as a thin, familiar figure was thrown roughly from a doorframe across the street by three men, who laughed as they tossed her broken shamisen after her. Itsumi fumbled in the mud, trying to readjust the shoulder of her kimono that had slipped down. For some reason, he recalled its calico blue print, which had quickly become soaked through and was sticking to her skin.

“You little whore!” one of the men swaggered out from the building, “To think you would have the nerve, to crawl back here?”

Transferring the dango stick to the other corner of his mouth, Hein shoved his hands into his sleeves and stepped out across the street, ignoring the rain as he approached her. Her hands were now searching through the mud for her shamisen, and Hein reached down to give it to her. She stalled, somewhat startled, and then accepted it before she turned away from him, kneeling on the ground.

“You bitch, don’t ignore me!” The man in front of her made a move as if to kick her, apparently failing to see Hein standing there. Without a shred of mercy, he grabbed the man by the side of the head and slammed his skull into the ground, crushing it beneath the mud. He made subsequently short work out of the other two, and when his bloodied fists came to rest, he and Itsumi were alone: the only two living souls in the deserted street.

“I suppose you pity me,” she began.

Hein did not answer her.

Itsumi stood, clutching her shamisen tightly. “Why did you save me?” she asked.

“I should ask you why you didn’t save yourself first,” he retorted, “You could have made short work of those bastards.”

Itsumi smiled, a bit dangerously, and Hein drank in the beauty of it. The spirit of the goze was noble despite the mud that smeared her face. With the rain forming a halo across her shoulders, he realized then what had initially drawn him to the woman. Despite living beneath abject subjugation, she was free. He, in contrast, had become a slave to his obsession.

Did he pity her? No. He only pitied himself.


They spent the rest of the rainy season together. Hein came to know Itsumi’s blindness as it was expressed towards him through her searching touch: He knew the way she knew him. Her fingers moved across his skin as delicately as they had when she stroked the strings of her shamisen, and like a puppet he was enchanted under her hand. Instead of dominating her, he gave himself completely to her. Yet as their limbs tangled together, as flesh pressed against flesh and their breath formed white clouds in the humid air, Hein asked himself if the pleasure he felt could ever truly be called love. Like the timbre of the shamisen, they rose and fell, in harmony and dissonance... but the melody was empty.

Knowing that their relationship would only bring about his own demise, Hein eventually drifted apart from her. He had sought liberation from himself within her embrace, but eventually realized the futility of such an act. Her body had opened his cage, but she could not release his soul. It was then that he learned from one of his subordinates that Itsumi had been hired by his own kumichō, Mizui, to assassinate him by poisoning him or slitting his throat at the height of his vulnerability. When he was told that she had only been allowed such an opportunity due to her close relationship with the leader, Hein was not surprised in the slightest: it was well-known that she had also played the part of Mizui’s lover. Hein had long suspected her of some form of treachery, and he intended to find out the reason why she had not carried through with it.

Then he would snap her neck.

Hein traced through the maze of single-storied nagaya, mindlessly following the path that led to where Itsumi lived. He recalled the first time she had taken him through the endless alleys and corridors, the staff she used for guidance tapping in constant, hollow rhythm against the sides of the walls. Now, its absence was filled with the barking of dogs, the cries of starving children, and other sounds of abject poverty. It was strange how he would come to crave that sound.

He at last reached her home amidst the slat-board row apartments. A cloud of white dust from Takeha’s streets drifted across the street, and as it cleared he saw her sitting on her doorstep, strumming calmly on her shamisen. She did not acknowledge him, even though he knew she could sense him standing before her. At last her hands stilled, and she set the plectrum aside, laying the shamisen across her lap.

“So you know,” she stated.

“I came to ask you why,” Hein said. “I always believed it was too ridiculous to think you’d have opened your arms to me so readily, but then why’d ya let me walk away?”

Had she known he would come back?

“Come,” Itsumi said as she stood, sliding open the door, “I would hate for there to be witnesses, for your sake.”

He followed her inside the dim interior, and was immediately struck by its familiarity. He knew the place well, feeling it to be an extension of Itsumi’s own exterior that she had shown him. It was ironic that it should end here, after all those rainy afternoons they had spent together. But today the room felt different. The dry heat outside had turned sticky within the enclosed space, pressing heavily against his chest. He could hear flies thumping against the paper screen of the door, and noted the peppery scent of the incense from the small altar in the corner.

“If Mizui sent you to me,” Hein began, “Then I assume he knows everything.”

“About your attempt to overthrow him, yes.”

“Then why did he send you to me? You're his lover, aren't you?”

“Killing you in front of your followers would have split the gang,” she explained, “Mizui wanted to convey a threat: not a declaration of war.”

Hein had already known all that. He crouched on the edge of the genkan, his face turned away from her. He knew that if he looked into those unseeing eyes, he would only see his own desires reflected, and he would once more be captured in her mirror.

“But you didn’t take your chance when you had it,” he told her, “Why would you—”

“Hein,” hearing his own name cut him off. She had wrapped her arms around his neck, and her hands followed the lines of his neck to his face, tilting it towards her. As Itsumi fitted her lips over his, he felt himself slipping away from his purpose once more. How could one simple word hold such power over him? It was only a name.

“Humans are full of contradictions,” Itsumi whispered in his ear before biting briefly on the cartilage. “Who can say that, in chasing after the source of our futility, we don’t discover our meaning? Even so, I would cast away that knowledge in order to follow you... to chase the glory that was never within our reach.”

“I haven’t even discovered the path for myself yet,” he told her, “I may only lead you to hell.”

“It won’t matter if you become its ruler,” she concluded.

Hein, in recollecting the entirety of his existence, had never known love. But at that moment he loved her. It no longer mattered if she had betrayed him, as she was the first who had ever shown him faith. Still, he had the uneasy sense that she was placing her faith in a demon. What, after all, did she expect of him?

He would never know.

Laying aside his inhibitions, he bared his soul to her. That time was unlike any of the others. No longer a hollow song, their hearts throbbed with the rhythmic pulse of living fire. Fervently, Hein searched for purification within the folds and lines of her skin. His passion consumed them both. Fighting for a hold, their fingers dragged across each other’s backs, trying desperately to relieve the tension. Leaving no room for words, his mouth returned to hers again and again, as if drinking to quench a terrible thirst. She in turn resisted him in ecstasy, and he struggled against her until at last, stretched to the limit, they were saved by the moment of release. Itsumi cried out, then laughed. The sound filled Hein’s ears, and he was content.

“Itsumi,” he said at last, still panting. “Do you pity me?” Sweat dripped from his chin, but she pulled his face down and kissed him again, combing through his damp hair with her fingers.

“If I did,” she asked, “Would it be wrong pity someone?”


Later that night, as the sun burned orange over the horizon, charcoal smudges of smoke could be seen rising from the mud-tile roofs of south Takeha district. In the dry heat of late summer, the fire was soon stirred into a frenzy, greedily licking up the slat-board houses like chaff swept away in a harvest. As the furnace built, swelling with the heat and smoke, the screams of countless souls caught in the destruction could be heard as they tried to escape from the fire’s grasp.

Hein stood on the crest of a bridge in the northern part of the district and watched as the wall of flames built, its light dancing across the surface of the river beneath him. Itsumi stood by his side, passively listening as the city cracked with the heat. While he had taken measures to ensure that Mizui thought she had perished in the fire, he was aware of the fact that an act of arson alone would not be enough to defy the kumichō’s power over the Takeha-kai. Still, having repressed his own emotions for so long, he had at last found something worth protecting. Gazing into Itsumi’s face, with the glow from the fire shining upon her skin, he swore he would go to any lengths necessary in order to guard that small flame. To do so he would need even greater power, and knew that the only place to find it was inside himself. As ash fell in thick white specks from the darkening sky, a ghoulish light began to smolder in Hein’s eyes. For a moment, he thought he saw the shadow of a scorched figure wrapped in flames from the corner of his vision. A characteristic grin spread across Hein’s face as he breathed deeply, allowing the smoke that choked the air to bite in his lungs.

Let it come.


Like a cinder, Hein’s rise within the Takeha-kai was both brief and brilliant. Having once more opened the avenue to his inner world, he was able to achieve Bankai within a year. He made his move quickly. Hein and his followers converged upon the last stronghold of Mizui, and with his notorious brutality he punched out a hole in his rival’s chest as his branch instated themselves as the new leaders of the Takeha-kai. But while the black flames of Maō-en afforded him a distinct advantage over his enemies, they had also provided fuel for the spirit of the demon lurking within him. Soon, Hein felt it creeping into the corners of his soul, its irrevocable shadow beginning to consume him bit by bit as it feasted upon the new-found power of his Zanpakutou. When he found a sharp pain burning in the center of his chest one day, Hein knew he was running out of time.

Only Itsumi stood by his side. She alone saw his constant pain. But as he slipped into uncontrollable bouts of rage and madness, the corners of her mouth would turn down in such a look of pity that eventually Hein came to hate her, even though he clung to her as his sole source of life.

The last time he saw her, she wore that same look of pity upon her face.

“You can’t stop me,” Hein shouted above the roar of the wind and flames that spiraled around him. The earth had cracked beneath the power of the demon as it gathered the fire into itself, preparing to crush him beneath its weight. That such a thing had dwelled within the confines of his soul was truly terrifying. Just what manner of monster was he?

Itsumi made no reply. She stood still, biting her lip as what looked like tears began to form in her blind eyes. Hein’s hatred burned even greater against her, and he laughed. “What is this shit? Pullin’ out the water works at a time like this obahan? Ya make me sick.”

The demon roared, the flames snapping dangerously close to his face, and Hein swore as he concentrated on reinforcing the Kidō barrier around the perimeter of the inferno. He clenched his teeth, his face contorting in a mask of effort and rage. Sweat poured from his temples, but it was instantly evaporated by the heat from the fire. Nearly drained of energy, having used almost all of his Reiryoku to force the demon out of his own soul, Hein new he had only one chance left to survive. He could not fail.

While he may never be free, he refused to be pitied. To be pitied was to be scorned. Invisible. Weak. Lowered beneath the dirt under his geta. Itsumi had shown him that at least. And like the demon raging before him, he would reject such humiliation. To be pitied was to be human.

It was a fate he could not accept.

“Ruler of the sun!” Hein began the incantation, clasping his hands over the talisman that hung around his neck, the beads allegedly helping him to focus his energy on weaving the spell, “Eye in the black mud, the scarred blacksmith forged a blood red blade. Ash-maker, adulterer, knit together from the sacrifice of a serpent’s shed skin, now cry out and defy heaven...” as he continued, red lines of glowing energy traced over his skin: the marks of sacrifice. He felt fiery pain pour through his veins, and knew the bounds of the spell were about to burst. But he ignored the building sensation of impending destruction, struggling to contain the power of the Kidō. “Consume the withered branch,” he gasped the last of the incantation, the heat sucking the very air from his lungs. Focusing all of his fury upon the demon who flickered in and out of sight in the sea of flames, which had turned pitch black as Hein’s Bankai was forcibly activated, he delivered the final blow: “Hadō number ninety-six... Ittō Kasō!”

For an instant, there was stillness. Burning motes of light, shed from the demon’s movement, hung frozen in midair. Hein drank it all in, captivated for a moment by the beauty that had overtaken him in the midst of the chaos. There was no sound in the stillness. Looking up, like gazing through the wall of a hurricane, he could see a circular patch of clear blue where somewhere was the sky. He extended his hand towards it. Somewhere, he supposed, there was a blackbird flying without a care in the world. Without a name. Perfectly free. Chasing the glory that would never be within its reach.

A disk of pressure flattened the black flames, the earth cracked in two, and a blade of burning, hellish red flames erupted, completely drowning the demon within a torrent of fire. Its roar could be heard all across the southern Rukon districts, and when it finally subsided, having burned for a significant amount of time, the sun seemed a slight degree dimmer.

The blast radius had completely destroyed any surrounding structure, reducing all landforms to smoldering embers. A blanket of gray dust covered the ground. Amidst the charred rubble and drifting ash, Itsumi heard Hein scream. It was a torn sound, something pitiful and human. Steeling herself for the worst, she moved towards it.

She found Hein on his knees, groveling in the thick ash. Blood ran from his eyes in place of tears as he writhed in pain.

“Itsumi!” he screamed, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” He held his hands in front of his face, but when he realized it was hopeless he bowed his head into his open palms and sobbed. Itsumi knelt in front of him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.

“Hein,” she began, “I still lo—”

He grabbed her by the throat, cutting off her words as he began to strangle her with both hands.

“Don’t say it,” he growled, “Don’t say it Itsumi. You never loved me,”

“N-no,” she gasped.

“You only ever pitied me.”

“He-hei...”

He twisted his hands. Her neck snapped.

But as he allowed her limp form to slip from his grasp, Hein realized what he had done.

“Itsumi,” his voice was bound tightly with horror, “Hey, Itsumi,” he cradled her head in his lap, the pain of the Ittō Kasō completely forgotten. “Don’t play games with me, bitch.” He bowed his head, pressing his ear against her chest. “You know I love you.”

She would never respond.

A Drop in the Bucket

The Ittō Kasō had left him drifting in permanent darkness, utterly alone. Even the demon had disappeared, finally vanquished but taking the spirit of his Zanpakutō with it. Hein concluded that it had been a small price to pay for all that had transpired. Eventually, he learned how to sense his way in that black, empty world. Eventually, he learned how to fight without a Zanpakutō. Eventually, he learned to function despite the self-loathing he carried with him. But he had never truly healed, and likely never would. He had become as empty as the shamisen that he taught himself to play following Itsumi’s death. Like a flame destined to burn out, he lived in the moment, fighting to rekindle a sense of vitality. When even that hope failed him, he sunk into despair, allowing his sole emotion to consume him: the hatred that had continually burned within him since the beginning of his existence.

Rana had found him in that state, somehow gravitating towards him despite his emptiness. Like Itsumi, she had been the one who had remained at his side through his suffering, and had even followed him into the hell of the Gotei 13. But Hein had never completely trusted her, mainly because he knew what he was, and knew that she had seen him for what he was. There was nothing within him to inspire such devotion. The only possible explanation was that she planned to use him for her own purposes before betraying him. It was a cycle he had repeatedly lived; over and over again.

Now, Hein found himself standing on the edge of a precipice. Before him stretched an open void, and he could see nothing but darkness.

“So you really did know love,” Rana’s voice drifted towards him, mingling with his lingering memories. “You are such an empty shell, I’m surprised.”

Her laughter was interwoven with Itsumi’s. He felt Rana push even deeper into the recesses of his mind. She had exposed his innermost weaknesses, like rubbing salt into raw flesh, but she had not seen all of him.

She would never see the form of a small, helpless child with sickly white hair, crouching beneath the floorboards to hide from those who searched for him as fodder for their black ritual. She would never see his fear as that same child lay pinned on an altar drawn in his own blood, facing a demon whose eyes shone greedily as it considered the feast spread before it.

Why do we eat? The voice of the demon asked him again, echoing in the empty space.

To survive. Hein responded as he always did.

We eat because we are hungry. The demon corrected him. Your aspirations were always too noble, Hēiniǎo. You will never know satisfaction.

I was never looking for satisfaction, Hein responded.

Then, what are you searching for?

Power?

No, what he wanted was...

Hein opened his eyes.

Rana was grinning as she held one hand level, pointed at the well of his throat. A scalpel of spiritual energy surrounded her fingertips, humming dangerously as she prepared to drive it into him the instant she found what she was looking for. But Hein saw past her. Walking towards him from the other end of the alleyway, the dying rays of the sun glowing on his silhouette, was the figure of the demon.

“So it’s you,” Hein growled, “What do you want?”

The last time Hein had seen him was the instant before he had lost his sight in Ittō Kasō. He noted that the demon’s form had changed, taking on a fully humanoid shape. While its limbs still seemed charred and withered, white bandages now held true skin in place, scrawled indecipherably with the runes of a seal. He wore a strangely familiar strand of beads around his neck, and tufts of white hair stuck out through the bandages wrapped around his head. The demon reached up to pull one of the strands of cloth free from over his mouth. To Hein’s shock, he realized the face of the demon had largely come to resemble his own.

“It’s been some time, Hein,” the demon’s voice was his own. Hein stared into his glowing crimson eyes. They too were his own, and he wondered how the creature had managed to snatch them from the claws of the sacrificial Kidō.

“I thought I’d taken care of you,” Hein told him.

The demon stopped in front of him, standing by Rana’s side even though she apparently could not see him.

“How could I leave my precious master all alone?” the demon taunted him.

“Are you here to finish me off?” Hein asked. At that, the amusement slipped from the demon’s face.

“Unfortunately, things on my end became complicated ever since you tried to end me,” the demon stated flatly, “A futile attempt, in the end, but it seems that as much as you would like to be rid of me, and as much as I’d love to extinguish your pathetic excuse of a soul, fate had other ideas. As it now stands, I’d be greatly inconvenienced were you to die.”

Hein considered what he said. Then, without warning he threw back his head and laughed. Rana drew back slightly, taken aback by the sudden reaction. Her eyes narrowed.

“Exceptional, real exceptional!” his laughter was cut off by a fit of coughing, and more blood spewed out of his mouth, running down his chin. “So you tried to eat the rest of my Zanpakutō and ended up becoming it, that’s terrible irony right there, greedy bastard," Hein laughed again.

While Rana only heard half of what Hein was saying in his unstable state, her eyes widened suddenly as she realized who Hein was talking to.

“Impossible,” she frowned, “You have no Zanpakutō,”

Pulling away quickly from the mind-probing spell, she drove her fingers towards Hein’s throat, intending to kill him before he could become a threat. By that time, Hein had regained enough Reiatsu to free himself of the Shitotsu Sansen’s paralysis. He kicked her in the stomach, driving her back away from the wall before she could reach him.

“Let me get this straight,” Hein addressed the spirit of his Zanpakutō, “What ya’re sayin’ is that, as much as we hate each other, under the circumstances we might as well form a truce and escape alive?”

“More or less.”

Stripped of leverage, Hein realized that straining against the Shitotsu Sansen had no effect, so he dug his fingers into the plaster of the wall and began to push back against it. The teeth of the spell snapped, the tile roof caved in, and a pile of rubble collapsed on top of him. As the dust cleared, wet blood shone from forehead where he had been hit by a piece of debris. Somehow, however, he remained standing. Still panting for breath, he wiped the blood away from his mouth and levelled his gaze at Rana, frowning.

“I’ve never relied on anyone but myself,” Hein told his Zanpakutō, “But at this rate it doesn’t matter anymore, ain’t that so?” He pulled his sword from his scabbard, and the metal gleamed in the dim light of the alleyway.

"After all, the demon is me."

Hein grinned as he pointed the tip of his sword in Rana’s direction, who had warily maintained her distance from the former captain.

“Now then obahan,” he called out, “I have to thank ya for restorin’ my sight. It’ll make things that much sweeter when I see the look on your face as I proceed to grind it into the dirt.”

Rana remained silent, but she raised both hands in front of her as if about to begin a puppet show. She smiled slightly, beckoning him to attack.

“Now smolder,” Hein said in a low voice, “Moehai!”


There was virtually no warning as a torrent of bright flame, spiraling from the hilt of Hein’s sword, spread out to the walls of the alley. With a roar the tunnel rushed towards Rana, completely unhindered by the rainwater that had soaked into the tile. The remnant moisture in the air evaporated instantly, and Rana felt the heat push into her face as she leapt back.

“Dankū!” A wall of translucent energy snapped into existence, and the flames flattened against the barrier. Despite the high rank of the spell, Rana could see its bonds begin to disintegrate, the Dankū warping from the force of the raging inferno. Bright specks of flame spilled over the top of the barrier... and Hein appeared amidst them. He flew over the top of the thin wall, his limbs pulled close to his body as he somersaulted through the flames. Rana barely had time to raise her dagger as he descended. His sword followed the spinning arc of his body, and there was a flash as he made contact.

Unable to maintain the force of the impact, the ground cracked. There was a screech as the Dankū burst from the pressure, erupting in an abrupt explosion. A few moments later, Rana emerged from the expanding cloud of smoke, gray fingers trailing behind her as she sprinted towards the opposite end of the alley. She clutched her shoulder where Hein’s sword had carved into her skin. At the last second she had used Kyokkō to divert his strike, but he had largely ignored her Kidō: cutting through it and deeply into her bone. Rana grit her teeth in annoyance as she began to weave her fingers, enacting another incantation.

Hein flickered into existence in front of her. Crouching low, with the blade of his Zanpakutō held between his teeth, she saw the vengeance burning in his eyes for a split-second before he placed his hand on the ground and delivered a sweeping kick, knocking her from her feet. For a moment she considered the folly of her own mistake in trying to outrun him, as Hein was now in full control of the fire coursing in and around him. Flung into the air, Rana redirected her own trajectory and flipped upside down as Hein followed with a second strike. This time, his fist turned as he drove it towards her now-vulnerable abdomen. But Rana had hidden her own attack behind her back, and as she twisted to the side she revealed a white orb of cracking energy. Pushing the Hadō towards Hein’s chest, she unleashed the balled lightning at point-blank range.

“Byakurai.”

The air split in two, instantly ionizing as a stream of pure, deadly electricity seared into its designated target. Curling his fingers, Hein caught and redirected the lightning in a wide, shimmering disk around him. For a moment there was tension as he pushed back against the spell, and his expression was grim as he seemed to toy with his own death. At last, unable to fully dispel its power, he pushed the lightning into the ground. It snapped in an undulating wave against the tile for an instant before there was a crack, and white light flared. A point of concussive force slammed into Hein’s center and he slid back, steam rising from his shoulders.

He looked up to see Rana fold her fingers. She was no longer smiling.

“Bakudō number ninety-nine,” she commanded, “Kin!”

Hein started to sprint towards her, but black bands wrapped around his chest and entangled his limbs before he could reach her. He crashed into the ground, immobilized as square keys locked the bands of the spell into place, anchoring into the ground and walls. His body heaved against the constraints, and flames rippled along the black bands, disintegrating each of the locks in quick succession.

But Rana would not allow him to escape: at this rate her own life depended on it.

“Bankin,” she continued, mercilessly enacting the second stage of the spell as she slammed her palms against the ground. A wedge of condensed stone appeared in the sky before it fell, pinning Hein under its immense mass. Crushed by the weight of the spell, his body stilled completely, although flames still curled over the edge of the pillar.

Panting from exertion and the pain in her shoulder, Rana raised her hands once more, spreading her fingers as she summoned her shikigami. Hundreds of small paper squares materialized in the air, circling around her before she directed them towards her target. Like a storm, the paper rushed around her and then circled the Bankin’s pillar, adhering to the sides of the stone and the walls on either side of Hein. The shikigami then unfolded into strategically-placed paper lotuses.

Rana stood, shakily, and raised her hand. “Bakudō number 73...” Blue lines of energy circled around the trapped Shinigami before shooting into the sky, tracing the outline of a triangular cage. “Tozanshō.” The walls of the pyramid solidified into a hard blue film, sealing Hein within the barrier.

But she was not quite done. Using a few, painful steps of Shunpo, Rana made sure she was some distance away before beginning the final part of her ritual. Standing from the tile roof of a gateway, she directed her attention towards the barrier. The atmosphere around her began to shake, and the ground rumbled as she conjured the raging tides, channeling them through the shikigami that had been trapped within the Tozanshō. “Hadō number eighty,” she said, “Aoikyūtai.”

Water poured into the Tozanshō, unseen but heard as it streamed through the paper lotuses and completely filled the enclosed space. The pillar of the Bankin, barely visible as a dark shape in the center of the barrier, was completely submerged as the Aoikyūtai filled the bounds of the spell to the brim. While Rana’s actions might have seemed excessive to another sorcerer, she knew the power of Hein’s flames and would take no chances in dealing with them. Despite his weakness, he posed a unique threat to the Coven and would be impossible to deal with if given enough room to breathe. Thus, Rana had aimed to extinguish his flames before he had a chance to properly attack.

Ruminating on her success, she allowed a few of her shikigami to surround her wounded shoulder and bath the injury with the green light of Kaidō. If she had been allowed more time, she would have layered a secondary effect within the Aoikyūtai in order to drain Hein’s Reiatsu. But Rana was still unused to fighting in her true form, and she felt the pull of exhaustion on her limbs. Still, it was a shame to lose such a valuable puppet, Rana thought, as during her time in the Gotei Hein had served his purpose well. But she had found what she had wanted at Central 46, and now it was only a matter of time before Hein drowned within his watery coffin.

Minutes passed, and at last the sorceress dispelled her shikigami, satisfied. It was time for a reunion with the Coven, she finally decided as she turned away.

She was interrupted by a pulse of Reiatsu that could be felt even outside the Tozanshō. Rana stopped and looked back over her shoulder.

“You’re a persistent one, aren’t you?” she muttered darkly.

A black spot had appeared on the side of the pyramid, spreading like ink as it quickly swallowed the space contained by the barrier. “Now what in hell is that...”

The Demon is Me: Refrain

The Tozanshō cracked. White lines spread like a spider’s web across its hardened blue surface. Then it shattered. A tight sphere of rotating gray steam unraveled from the bounds of the broken barrier, and the blast from the explosion was deafening. Hein’s reiatsu spiked in the atmosphere, bringing an ominous sensation of a building pressure that was dangerously close to igniting, and Rana braced herself against the roar of the wind. Narrowing her eyes, she waited for him to emerge from the cloud of smoke.

But then Hein’s reiatsu vanished entirely.

Rana glanced around her, alarmed. If she could no longer sense his spiritual pressure, then that meant... As she waited for him to emerge from the cloud of steam she drew her dagger, gripping its hilt tightly. Instead of dissipating, the smoke only seemed to grow darker as it continued to wind tightly about itself. Then, she realized that she was not seeing smoke, but black flames that seared and danced in the air. Hein himself was nowhere to be seen.

“How come ya look so shocked, obahan?” The voice came from behind her, and Rana whirled around. Hein had landed on the same roof as she, and was casually walking along its crest as he approached her. The upper half of his Shihakkushō had by that time completely burned away, revealing a barely-contained tension that rippled across the muscles of his chest and torso. He held his Zanpakutō to one side, allowing the tip of the sword to drag across the tile.

“This is your Bankai?” she asked, taking a step back, “Rather unimaginative.”

The arrogant smirk plastered on Hein’s face did not falter, but she heard the tsuba of Hein’s tachi rattling as the hilt shook. She knew that his calm was merely external: he was just barely constraining his rage.

“Tell me,” Hein ignored her as he came to a stop, “Who's your real enemy in all this?”

“We have no true enemy,” Rana responded, “We only seek to eliminate those who stand in our way.”

“Then why go through all this trouble,” Hein said as he motioned towards the Seireitei, “Seems like goin’ for nothing, if ya ask me.”

“Indeed,” Rana chuckled, “Yet as it stands, the Soul Society poses the greatest hindrance to our plans,” she explained, “Once we’ve removed that hindrance, this realm will serve as the seat of our power: a realm in which we may act without prohibitions. From there all other realms are within reach... But I’m sure that’s not what you’re asking,” she said. Hein did not respond, so Rana continued. “You and I both are both intimately familiar with the fact that the Soul Society has imposed its will upon the very fabric of the world for far too long. But who determined the justice in the cycle of souls? Who set the Soul King as the lynchpin of existence? There is a better way, is there not? A world in which those who wield true power are instated rightfully as its rulers, and all others lie subjugated beneath their feet.” Rana then questioned him directly, “What puzzles me is that you refuse to see the error in your choice. I offered you power, and you elected to remain a dog, groveling at the feet of lesser beings.”

“You sure know how to run your mouth,” Hein retorted, scoffing derisively. “Leastways that’s nothin’ new. All I see ya offerin’ me here is a new collar.”

“Perhaps,” Rana smiled.

“Let me ask ya this, obahan: who’s gonna guarantee that place of yours once this new order or such-and-such is set up? The only rule I’ve ever known is this: there can only be one king at the top. You’re just kissin’ the ass of the guy behind all this, ain’t it so? And here ya say I’m the coward. At least I’ve got enough of a spine to stand for my own way of doin’ things. Your cheap talk about strength makes me laugh when ya’ve got terror written all over your face.”

Hein raised his sword. “So ya wanna see true power? I’ll show ya power.”

A shroud of black flames enveloped Hein like a cloak, consuming the tiles around him.

“As always, your short-sightedness will be your undoing,” Rana threatened. Hein chuckled.

“I’m not the one who’s blind here,” Hein brought his sword down and a canvas of flames crashed from above his head like a wave, drowning the entire space where Rana had stood. Her figure seemed to be caught in a state of shock before her body quickly disintegrated into scraps of paper that vanished in the fire. It had been a diversion. The real Rana appeared some distance away, watching with no small degree of awe as the entire building she had been standing on collapsed into a veil of ash. Hein dropped to the ground in the midst of it, crouching as the curling flames formed a ring around him amidst the destruction.

“Shouldn’t ya be watching your back?” he asked, suddenly behind her. One hand steadied the tip of his sword as he drove the tip towards Rana’s right lung, piercing from behind. The tachi made contact, Rana’s body arched with pain... and then dissipated into fragile scraps of paper as the black embers rapidly spread. Hein clicked his tongue against his teeth in annoyance.

“This ends here,” Rana’s voice commanded as she stood in the sky above him. Hein watched her drop her tantō, with the tip of the blade pointed down, and it rippled as it sunk into midair. Hein did not hesitate. He gathered the flames burning around him into a tight circle, and then launched himself towards her.

The sky seemed to darken as a thousand arms materialized around them, forming a tunnel as they towered above the Shinigami. Hein was one dark spot as he moved towards Rana, and then the hands descended. They reached towards him, fingers extending through nothingness to snatch him and crush him in their grasp. The writhing mass of limbs looked like teeth as Hein entered the domain of the nightmarish shikigami. He drew back his sword arm and the black flames mimicked his movements. When he cut through the first wave, the paper-white skin of the hands caved way instantly to the heat of the fire, and ash quickly ate through the entire structure. But the hands were endless, and Hein found them pressing in thicker all around him as he tried to reach Rana. His sword moved in a frenzy, black flames spiraling out around him as he cleared a space within the monstrous hall of arms. It seemed to be a losing battle, but then Hein closed his eyes. He quickly saw through the mass of shikigami to where Rana stood outside the chaos, a sphere-like ward protecting her from attack as her smaller lotus shikigami circled around her. Levelling the tachi at Rana’s direction, Hein allowed the flames shielding him to flow back into his sword.

For a moment the arms reeled back in the empty space, fingers twisting as they prepared once again converge upon him. And in that span of a breath, Hein unleashed a concentrated spear of fire. A hole appeared instantly in the arm in front of him, a smoldering ring the only indication of that blast had passed through it, and beyond it another gap had appeared, all the way until Hein could see the sky beyond. The blade of black flame had contacted Rana point-blank, burning through her protective sphere due to its sheer intensity. She was missing her left arm as a result.

For a moment their gazes locked. Both seethed with hatred. Then, Rana swept her arm to the side and the giant hands quickly shifted into fists. The shikigami turned in on itself before slamming together in an attempt to crush Hein. From the reverberating boom, it appeared as though it had.

But like blood, a stream of ash fell from where the arms had converged in the sky. Rana’s eyes widened as the arms of her shikigami, one by one, were converted into nothing but ash. She glanced towards the ground where she had originally sealed Hein in the Tozanshō. The stone pillar of the Bankin had vanished, as well as the building that had been consumed by the flames of Hein’s Bankai. That was the moment when she realized she had made a critical mistake.

The last light of day slipped below the horizon, and burning gray specks fell like snow across the roofs of the Seireitei. The shikigami melted slowly, its arms spreading out into streams of black dust before falling gently from the sky, like the remnant powder from a fireworks display. Soon, the entire area would be converted into ash.

Rana began to leap through the air, raggedly trying to escape with Shunpo. Without warning an immense disk of pressure slammed into her from above. As she hurtled towards the ground, she saw Hein standing far above her. Bringing has tachi down as a judge would a gavel, a streak of fire appeared and followed her downwards descent. Rana crashed into the ground, and a split-second later a line of flames fell across the crater, igniting in a sudden flare. Her shikigami had transported her at the last instant, dragging her away from danger, but the fire spread, snapping closed in an inescapable ring around her. Fed by the ash of the buildings around it, the circle of flames began to creep towards her, a tightening noose.

Hein landed, a mere shadow against the black flames. Above them, the walls of fire closed into a dense dome. The temperature around them began to rise, cracking the tile beneath Hein’s feet as he sauntered towards her. Perhaps most terrifying was the fact that there was no light within the enclosed space. All around them the dark fire hissed insidiously, but while she could feel its heat, she could not see it. Even though Rana remained objective, she began to feel a creeping sense of claustrophobia and wondered if perhaps this was the true expression of hell—darkness and unquenchable heat.

“Don’t try and run away now, we just got started.” Fully within his element, Hein’s laughter carried through the darkness around them, strangely hollow. Rana directed two of her shikigami to unfold before igniting them with a fire of her own, causing the glowing blue orbs to levitate and circle around her. Hein’s face suddenly appeared in the light, and Rana stumbled back. It was too late. The blade of his tachi whistled as Hein brought the sword down in a diagonal slash that cut through the woman before him, severing her from shoulder to hip.

Kurohitsugi,” the true Rana said from beside him as her paper form crumbled, having tricked Hein by the light. With a growl he spun towards her, but his blade was halted by a human arm that shot up from the ground and caught him by the hand. Rana’s shikigami had not been completely destroyed by Hein’s fire, although its hands were now human-sized due to the decrease in its power. The shikigami quickly crumbled shortly after touching Hein’s skin, but as it burned away it was replaced by another, and another. Innumerable hands grasped Hein by the ankles and wrists, attempting to seal off his tenketsu as they immobilized him. Meanwhile, the walls of a black coffin began to close as Rana continued to murmur the incantation for the spell. “Seeping crest of turbidity. Arrogant vessel of lunacy... Boil forth and deny...”

“Damn you!” Hein screamed as he fought against the hands. He would break free only to be pulled back again, the paper-like skin closing over his throat to jerk him back into true darkness.

“Fill with soil and know your own powerlessness!” she completed the incantation, and the Kidō sealed shut, cutting off Hein’s screamed curses. Countless spears of energy pierced the box, some stabbing completely through the barrier, but Rana knew the spell had failed to kill him.

The black flames of Hein’s Bankai continued to rage around her, but as the dome began to split apart Rana suddenly realized the danger she was in. She called a few of her smaller shikigami to her side and they unfolded into strips of white paper. Surrounding herself with Sentan Hakuja, she disappeared just as the dome split open. The sudden onrush of oxygen hit the fire, and it erupted in a dark tower that fanned out across the streets of the Seireitei, obliterating anything in its path.

Gradually, the flames began to die down, replaced by a thick sheet of ash that covered the violated ground. It settled heavily on top of the black box of Kurohitsugi, smoldering on the surface of the Kidō.

Hein burst from within it suddenly, punching through the wall as he stumbled out, gasping for breath. His Bankai was forcibly deactivated, and a stream of ash rushed back into the hilt of his Zanpakutou as it seemed to re-sheathe itself. Hein collapsed to his hands and knees, watching as his own blood pooled beneath him.

“Damn it,” he spat. Hein grasped one of the spears of the Kurohitsugi that protruded from his abdomen and, grimacing, pulled it free from his body. He repeated the painful procedure for the two that had stuck into his back and one that had driven into his shoulder, swearing each time he plucked one out of himself. The ash had gotten into his eyes, and he blinked against the stinging pain. “Damn it.”

Rana was nowhere to be seen, so Hein sat back and stared up at the night sky, tasting the salt of thick blood that had risen up in the back of his throat. He noticed that the few, distant stars seemed to be dimming, and he dragged his arm across his eyes to clear his vision, but to no avail.

The world around him began to darken once more, shrinking in around him. It seemed to blur and grow distant as the effect of Rana’s potion finally faded away. Hein lifted his hands in front of his face as he stared at his blood-smeared palms. His fingers were trembling with pain and exhaustion. With bitter irony he noted that they should be so frail.

And then, once more, Hein found himself in darkness.

Epilogue

A few hours later, a lone figure appeared in the skies above the north Rukon districts. For a moment, the Shinigami paused as he seemed to stare down at the castle beneath him, its rose-colored walls bathed softly in the full moonlight. Not that he could see the colors anyway.

Hein landed in front of the main entrance. He stood slowly, but then pressed a hand to his side as he gasped. While he had wrapped bandages tightly around his abdomen, the blood had managed to seep through from the excess movement. Needless to say, he was not in a good mood.

Hein approached the gates, the clacking of his metal-line geta the only sound as he reached the doors. They swung open for him, and a few servants in masks bowed as he entered. For a moment he considered snapping off their heads to make a point, but decided against it.

He continued alone through wide corridors and empty courtyards, strangely silent in the dead of night. His injuries caused him to move slowly, and he limped past pillars and ornate panels, the rich decor of the foyer completely lost upon Hein’s less-than-refined sensibilities. At last he stood before a carved wooden door, and aside from a single lamp that cast strange, flickering shadows in a sickly pool around him, the place was as still as a mausoleum.

Knowing that he was probably sealing his fate, Hein reached out and opened the door.

The voice that greeted him spoke darkly, each syllable tense and hanging in the air. "So, you've ceased your futile acts of resistance have you? And like a good hound you crawl back to your master’s side.” The man was sitting by his desk, and something much more than annoyance spilled over into his tone. “I regret to inform you that there will be consequences for wasting my time in this manner."

Hein did not respond, fixing his blind glare fully upon the figure in front of him.

“What do ya want,” his own voice grated harshly in his ears, and the words tasted like ash as he pronounced the name,

Shigenaga.”

END

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