BRANCHES AND WITHERS
The distant upheaval drew closer – the sharp sound of metal clashing followed by earth-shattering booms, the emphatic crack of lighting and violent thunder, dried tinder creaking and collapsing to withers and rubble under the immense heat of the crawling flames eating away at the village. A flock of raven on the dusty road just edging the village pecked away at the numerous bodies scattered about.
They tore away at tattered cotton to get to the burned and perforated flesh underneath. Now and again, one would raise its head toward the village, and return to its meal with more urgency as if keenly aware of the tumult headed its way.
The pine trees outlying the dry knoll on the other side began to rustle. That was their cue. Raven wings filled the sky, retreating to the surrounding forest, leaving behind an unfinished feast for the moment – and just in time. The nearby shanty detonated into fragments and flame as Ujisato crashed through it.
The Peacekeeper struggled to gather himself in the dirt, battered and bloodied, reaching for Gengetsutsuki just feet away. An enormous shadow engulfed him, plummeting from on high. Ujisato hollered as his wrist was pulverized between hard earth and the callous rubber sole of a massive boot.
“Uh, uh,” his gargantuan aggressor taunted from above, waging a large finger. “I think we’re done with your little paint brush for the day.” Ujisato dug his claw into the leather, trying futilely to move his foot off him. “I don’t much care for the color – so morose.” Tamon grabbed his other wrist and lifted him off the ground like a ragdoll, kicking the shinigami’s spade out of reach. “Such a beautiful day – and such a monumental occasion – shouldn’t be spoiled with deep black.
“A fine scarlet – resplendent, shimmering, everywhere – is infinitely more becoming, isn’t it, little Uji?”
“Finish this, Bishamon,” a disembodied voice called out.
Tamon raised his head, eyes shifting lazily underneath his massive forehead protector, searching. “You know I don’t like that name, Komoku.” Ujisato dangled lifelessly in his colossal grip, having finally lost consciousness. “We’ve been chasing this sneaky little bastard around for weeks. I’ll take my time with him if I damn well pl–”
“Save your energy,” the voice interrupted. A quiet calm swept in. “He’s near.”
Tamon gasped, and then smiled.
The dyad inspected the timbers and thickets, watching the alleyways of the adjacent hamlet. Tamon tossed Ujisato aside like bone scraps, perusing his spiritual perception. Expecting an overwhelming presence, they found only illusory traces of the sleuth, their distinct spiritual particles dispersed over a wide range, hidden behind each tree and peeking behind every corner. Tamon choked up his grip on his oversized, straight-peen hammer.
The giant spun on heel, bringing his Uchide no Kozuchi up overhead, instantly engulfed in blazing red flames.
He was gone.
Ensconced within the dried undergrowth, an unnerved Komoku retreated further into the brush, eyes dancing in their sockets. He didn’t see him at all. He was definitely there – he’d left behind just enough condensed reiryoku to taunt them – but he was far too fast for either of them to track.
A little jumpy, ain’t cha?
Komoku sprung from his hideout, cloaked in a lengthy straw cape and tengai. How’d he get behind me, he thought. His words were deathly close. He’d felt the heat his breath on his neck. But now, as he looked back, once again – nothing.
The straw man wasn’t fond of being toyed with but was more than willing to play his game.
He landed in the massive shadow of his companion, and two long arms shot from his bristly cloak. Komoku clapped both hands together and concentrated his energy. Slowly, his palms parted to reveal a charm – a silver ring with three tapered horns arrayed on the outside – levitating and spinning between them.
It continued to spin, growing darker and darker until it turned to a glossy black. Scrying his domain, he finally found his mark.
“Don’t play your best card just yet, Jikō.”
Tamon snapped his eyes toward the other side of the road, eyeing the figure cloaked in the shadow of a low-hanging underbranch. The raspberry-colored rope belt stood out immediately inside his deep grey haori. He emerged from the darkness with a calm stride, neither hand reaching for either sword at his waist. The sunken brim of his straw hat concealed his visage above his lips.
Komoku and Tamon scoffed internally but were exuberant to finally be reunited after so many years.
“Why start the show so soon? It’s been a long time,” Manzō jested, lifting the brim of his roningasa to meet their eyes. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, fellas…”
The devilish undertone in his eyes and grin was keenly familiar to them both.
Beneath his heavy veil, Komoku’s smirk mirrored his.
“Indeed, it has been,” Komoku answered, stepping around Tamon. “Fifty-four years to be exact.” He released his charm and stowed both arms in his cape. “And, indeed, we do. These many years seem to have welcomed you with open arms, Manzō.”
“Yes,” Tamon interjected, heaving his massive cudgel over his shoulder. “Not in a thousand years would either of us dreamed to grace the presence of an actual officer of the thirteen imperial squads.” He widened his grin, flashing his pronounced canines. “Much less it being one of very own held in such high esteem. Your new division suits you well, nii-san.”
Manzō tilted his head to the side, ignoring the slight. “I did mean to invite you two to the party.” He gestured to his mutilated subordinate. “I sent him out here with the invites a while ago. I came out here myself to see what happened to all you no-shows.”
The Peacekeeper squinted on his mangled apprentice, and the other fallen shinigami dotting the road. His mirth slowly evaporated. His left hand rose up, coming to a rest on Tatsunokuchi’s hilt.
“And, to think, this is what I come to find…”
“Well, he certainly lacks the decorum of his superiors,” Tamon said, motioning to the bodies scattered about with his hammer. “As did the others. We had our own ‘welcome wagon’, so to speak, for little Uji and we hadn’t heard from them in quite some time. I come to address him personally about the issue and, what do you know?” He slammed the weighty hammerhead down. “Words were exchanged and things got a little – out of hand.”
Manzō glanced down, noticing a similar charm welded to the hammer’s square cheek. He could feel its residual heat, and there were dried patches of blood all over it. Manzō raised his scowl on the giant.
“That’s what you call out of hand?”
“That’s what I call restraint.”
The two shared a tense moment before Manzō relented.
“Well,” he said, resting both hands at his hips. “It’s not unlike you to forget you own strength, Bishamon-san.” The giant frowned. “What’s the old man been feeding you exactly?”
“Shinigami,” Tamon shot back through a grimace. “Lots of them. Specifically, yours.” He could see the chink in the Peacekeeper’s façade widening. “Not literally, of course. We’re not so barbarous. But their reiryoku was especially satisfying. And with the dozens of platoons you’ve sent into the area recently, I’ve had a veritable buffet of prey to choose from for quite some time.
“For that, I must thank you, nii-san.”
There had been forty-five casualties within the Ethos Corp in the prior two months. Thirteen of them were fatalities, most of them lower-ranking members of the division. Curiously, each of them had been completely drained of all spiritual energy, exuding not an ounce of pressure even after making a full recovery. It hampered efforts simply to identify those that had been attacked.
Of those that survived their attacks, all were soon after discharged from service and returned here to the Rukongai. As they spoke, a joint investigation by the Fourth and Ninth divisions was underway concerning these enigmatic cases.
To date, no definitive answer had been determined – until now.
“So it was you three, then.”
Komoku nodded under his vast hood. “Four,” he corrected. “I’m sure you remember little Kogyō.”
The silver-haired adolescent flashed in his mind’s theater.
“Inseparable, the two of you were,” the straw man continued. “Luckily, Shanao-sama was there to fill the void left in your wake.”
Komoku took measure of the shadow just behind Manzō, and held up five fingers.
“Fifty years. Fifty long years it took to perfect the technique. Time I’m certain he’d agree was well spent – far more fruitful than the two centuries prior.
“Don’t concern yourself for the numbers lost amongst your colleagues. Necessary as they were, our efforts were predominantly concentrated on a particular technique inherent to Hollows. As few samples ever managed to find their way into Soul Society, it took quite some time to find one capable of siphoning and sealing reiryoku directly at the source. It wasn’t until Shanao-sama managed to traverse between this dimension and that of the Hollows that his experiment truly progressed.
“Thereafter came the admittedly arduous tasks of reverse engineering the process.”
“Using Kidō?” Manzō asked.
Again, Komoku nodded. “Indeed. I’m sure you would agree it is well within his purview.”
“I’m sure,” Manzō interjected. “I hate to say it, but you’ve likely done more to draw a target on your back than anything else.”
Tamon howled even louder. “Were that not the point if it all, I’d be concerned.” Manzō’s brow shifted curiously. “You don’t poke the bear without anticipating the fangs, nii-san.”
The Peacekeeper looked at the two of them, confused. “And you guys couldn’t come up with a less dramatic way to commit suicide than this?”
“Quite the comedian you’ve become–”
“Well, thank you but,” Manzō interrupted again, scratching his head. “Which part of that was funny? The ‘all-four-of-you-are-gonna-die’ part, or that you guys wasted the last fifty years for nothing?”
Komoku and Tamon paused for a moment – and then smiled. The straw man turned to his colossal counterpart. Manzō could practically feel the derisive smile from under his hood.
“I did say the four of us, didn’t I?”
Tamon looked down on the Peacekeeper with a perverse beam, a sadistic avarice frothing from his every feature.
“That you did…”
The giant reached up under his forehead protector, pulling out a mask seated under the chain mail over his head. It was a plain, tapered plate that connected to the protector, covering most of his face. It locked into place with a heavy click.
Only his bloodshot eyes stood out under dusk’s deep shadows.
“Loose lips sink ships,” Tamon said, holding a finger up to the visor. “As you said, nii-san, we’ll continue to play our cards close to our collective vest for the time being.” The heat resonating from his war hammer spiked significantly. “In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind indulging us for a little while. I’ve spent half a century waiting for this moment.
“And for you to have ventured so far for so little would be unthinkably inhospitable of us, wouldn’t you agree?”
Uchide no Kozuchi rose up, blistering the air around it. Manzō watched the kidō emblem on the side collect energy to it, which streamed into the hammer. Reiryoku flooded from the weapon, overwhelming in comparison to its wielder and slightly dissimilar. It was as if the two energies were amalgamating unevenly, one attempting to coalesce and amplify the other, as if the weapon were alive itself.
“From the thousand grains of sand,” Tamon growled behind his mask. “to the very tops of the mountains. Let us hear you roar, Earth Mother. Subjects of fire, dance. From the spirit of the earth, and by the wrath of heaven, be purified.”
It sounded familiar to the Peacekeeper, but he couldn’t quite place it.
“Ye Lord, mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man. Inferno and pandemonium, the sea barrier surges, march on to the south!”
Now that one he’d definitely heard before.
“The crimson goddess weeps upon the fallen demon.”
Komoku stood idly by, observing the last of the town’s shelters catch fire. Tamon lifted the bludgeon high, now swallowed by fire.
“Seven suns,” Tamon continued, his eyes full of rapture. “Forty-nine martyrs.”
Manzō reached for his blade, but felt something off. Looking down, he realized it was Gunshin. He paused, hesitant.
“The heavenly flower burns for an ephemeral aeon.”
Swirling and churning even faster now, the fire converged above the eye. The fireball was tremendous, raging – barely holding form. The crows perched overhead came alive – as if salivating for the coming ruin.
Breathe, he repeated to himself. Breathe.
Tamon shifted the handle, and the fire was tamed. The beast’s grin widened.
“You might wanna step back.”