|Weekly Fix #15: Prince of Shadows, Part 4
||[Sep. 11th, 2005|10:26 pm]
The SOC Puppet
|||||Sheryl Crow - Leaving Las Vegas||]|
Enjoy. Two more hearings this week. Life sucks. The usual.
Naruto: Prince of Shadows
by The SOC Puppet
Chapter 4 – Lines in the Sand
Summary: Yasumasa found the Stranger a new manager for the inn, who turned out to be a very intelligent – if manipulative – choice. The Stranger accepted after some brief misgivings, and tasked her not only with handling business while he was away, but also helping to raise Naruto “not to be a fool.”
Disclaimer: I don’t own Naruto, Bleach or any of the characters in this story, except for originals that may pop up along the way. All jutsus/zanpaku-to/shikai/bankai are also not my property, other than the ones I think up.
“ ” – Speech
Italics – Thoughts
“The art of war,” Arisawa Genya said deeply, “is only art if it serves a purpose. Whether that be for honor, the protection of others, or for basest duty, is your choice. All else is barbarism, the needless spilling of blood and the waste of precious life. If you learn nothing from me, learn this lesson well.”
Ten pairs of eyes stared blankly back at the Magnificent Butcher. Genya sighed and hefted his battered cleaver. Teaching four-year olds to fight was not easy in itself – the more so trying to teach them the ethics of war.
“Never mind. Choose a partner and practice basic blocking.”
The children separated into their “normal” groupings, the way they had since Genya had first considered his chief pupil old enough to start learning. His own daughter, Tatsuki, paired off with an orange-haired boy, son of a local Shinigami. Kurosaki, the family name was – or so he remembered. The boy tried hard enough, but Tatsuki regularly walked all over him. Even when Genya didn’t look at the matchup through a father’s eyes, his daughter far outclassed young Ichigo. Not that the boy cared, of course.
No, the problem was this particular pairing, Genya mused, as he came upon another boy and girl. Naruto, son of Sadou Masamichi, was supposed to be here. Inoue Orihime, daughter of the local Shinigami captain and Naruto’s intended wife, was not. Yasumasa was many things, but careless with his daughter wasn’t one of them. The Shinigami’s desire – and for once Genya agreed – was for his daughter to be able to avoid the chaos of the battlefield. With the future Stranger as her husband, she would never be threatened or have to fight (or so Yasumasa believed). That was before Orihime had gotten her hands on the latest drivel being marketed in manga form to young girls in the Lightning Country: Miki-Miki, the Warrior Princess.
Genya had no problems with female role models, though he regularly despaired that his wife preferred to teach Tatsuki how to be a good little housewife in the future. But Miki-Miki was no role model.
Miki-Miki, last princess of a doomed race, wandered the wastelands of some unnamed and unlamented world, interested only in two things: a good fight, and money. She dressed simply – if you considered an exaggerated dominatrix outfit simple. She drank heavily. And woe betide a man who even strayed into her field of vision – regardless of his intentions. If Miki-Miki did a good deed, or even a just deed, it was completely unintentional, or she was being well paid to do it. Even then, dozens of people were guaranteed to have died graphic, gory deaths under the Warrior Princess’ saw-toothed swords before the job was done.
Women loved it when they admitted to “borrowing” their daughters’ books to read them. Girls were absolutely over the moon for it. Orihime had taken the damned thing to heart. Oh, the girl wasn’t nearly as cold-blooded as her new idol, and she was too gentle at heart to treat people like Miki-Miki, but she definitely wanted to be able to, as she put it, “kick ass.” Again, not a problem in itself. If Tatsuki could be trained, why not her little friend?
But by the time Orihime had sneaked into his class the first time, Genya had already drilled Naruto on his duty – to cherish and protect the girl who would wed him someday. The wife of a Stranger – any family relations, really – were at constant risk from people trying to influence future decisions. This was why most Strangers were widowers before taking the job, or at the very least publicly cut ties with their family. Genya had compared it to a prince protecting his princess.
Naruto, predictably, flatly refused to do anything that would risk harming Orihime. Unfortunately, there is no protecting a princess when she decides she would rather do it for herself. So while Naruto would not so much as throw a practice punch at her, Orihime had no qualms about laying into him. Kanako, the closest thing the boy had to a mother, had already given Genya one of her infamous “death glares” when Naruto had come home from one training session with two black eyes.
The butcher had tried to fix his mistake, but this time Naruto was the problem. Four-year olds were stubborn as a rule, but the Stranger’s son was even worse. Having promised his sensei he would protect Orihime, he absolutely refused to go back on his word, and how could Genya gainsay him? Both he and the Stranger had told the boy since he was old enough to understand that a man’s word was his bond. They could not very well teach him otherwise, not in the honor-driven underworld. Besides, any attempt to separate Naruto and Orihime invariably failed. For someone who laid him out on the tatami so often, Orihime was still enthralled with the idea of having her very own prince.
Arisawa Genya could only resign himself to teaching the first Stranger in a century who would be a purely defensive fighter.
* * *
Yasumasa was equal parts annoyed and glad that his daughter was being distracted from his work and duties. Annoyed that Orihime might well learn too much and put herself at risk, for certain. But faced with the sight before his eyes, the Shinigami was glad that his daughter could not tag along with him as she had done before Genya’s fighting lessons started. One of his men lay in an alley, gore painted liberally over his chest and head, the Shinigami very obviously dead.
“How long has he been dead?” he asked the other Soul Reaper with him.
Unohana Retsu, Chief of the Fourth Division and Medical Squad, took her hands off the dead body. The young woman sighed, braided hair waving softly in the autumn wind.
“He’s still a bit warm. I’d say no more than an hour or two. He was as good as dead for about another hour before that, if the amount of blood is any indication.”
Yasumasa stared as the carnage, deep in thought.
“A sadistic Hollow?”
Retsu shook her head, pointing to wood and metal fragments littering the floor of the alley near the corpse.
“Not unless Hollows have learned to use barbed arrows, Inoue-san.”
The Twelth Division captain’s face twisted in abject hatred.
“Quincys,” Yasumasa spat.
“That was my first guess as well.”
An alien voice intruded on their somber conversation, from the other end of the alley.
“I was wondering when the little bastards would find their way to our soft underbelly.”
Yasumasa had never liked Zaraki Kenpachi. The captain of the Eleventh Division liked to fight, which was true of a lot of Shinigami, but that was basically all he enjoyed. Anything else, such as the research and theorizing that Yasumasa’s Twelfth Division did, was a waste of time to him. Alone among the Shinigami captains, Kenpachi had gained his rank through war; the name “Kenpachi” was bestowed on a Shinigami with the most kills. Yasumasa knew his losses didn’t mean as much to Kenpachi as they did to him. He expected that from different divisions – they all spent most of their time in separate countries. But Kenpachi’s attitude felt less like being distant and more like devaluing his people.
“Go to hell, you maniac. I don’t need you here gloating.”
Kenpachi scratched his broad chest and belched.
“Who’s gloating? The geezer sent me to defend you eggheads. Figured the Quincys weren’t gonna leave you alone much longer. Guess he was right. Now you can sit back and let the Eleventh do the heavy lifting.”
The “geezer” was better known as Yamamoto-Genryusai Shigekuni, the Shinigamis’ overall commander and captain of the First Division. If Genryusai had given the orders, it was probably the right thing to do. It still didn’t mean he had to like it.
“I’m the captain here,” Yasumasa snapped. “You think I’m going to let you do my job and defend my people while I relax?”
The giant Shinigami nodded his head in the dead man’s direction.
“Wouldn’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”
“You son of a - ”
Yasumasa’s hand went to the sword at his waist before Retsu’s quiet voice calmed the situation down.
“I think there’s something here you both need to take note of.”
“Make it quick,” Kenpachi said briskly. “I’ve got Quincys to hunt.”
The healer pointed to the wounds on the dead Shinigami.
“The exit wounds are coming out from his chest. This man was shot in the back with enough force for the arrow to go completely through him. Hunted or sniped, I’d bet. Every battlefield casualty we’ve had against a Quincy up to this point was in a battle over what to do with a Hollow. They all came from the front. If the Quincys are shooting from behind, it’s no longer about proving their point.”
Kenpachi’s smile was terrible and savage, white teeth amid dusky, scarred skin.
“I’ll be damned. The pukes have declared war.”
“It certainly seems so. So if you do decide to go hunting them, watch your back. This isn’t about beating them to Hollows anymore.”
The big Shinigami waved a hand in dismissal as he strode off.
“Are you kidding? This is my kind of action. Now they can’t even claim they’re trying to help us out.”
“The only thing we’re trying to do is to see you all dead!”
There was no need to look for the source of that particular yell. The glowing arrows arcing over the rooftops towards the Soul Reapers were answer enough. Kenpachi laughed, watching the Quincys’ attack descend towards him.
“You should have stayed in your holes!”
Reaching up to the no-dachi on his back, the Shinigami grasped the hilt of his blade and twisted before pulling on it – and drawing forth an empty hilt, the metal blade remaining in its scabbard.
“The day I stain good steel with the blood of a bunch of limp-wristed fairies will never come! Ignite!”
The empty hilt didn’t stay that way for long. A blade of pure energy blazed forth from within, neatly mirroring the metal katana that still lay within its sheath. Kenpachi’s zanpaku-to thrummed with the sheer force of its wielder’s spirit energy, emitting visible waves of power and killing intent.
As Shinigami had to operate within the confines of the mortal world, operating in spirit alone was a dicey proposition, one abandoned after less than two generations of Soul Reapers had descended from the Soul Society to the “front lines” of their eternal conflict. It was soon discovered, however, that operating in the flesh had its own hazards – including the odd human trying to protect a Hollow, or worse, a human seduced into following a Hollow.
The traditional zanpaku-to was out. It had to be – nobody could manifest it in the flesh without some serious meditation, and honestly, who had the time while hunting Hollows? Furthermore, normal humans had so little spiritual energy that a zanpaku-to wouldn’t damage them. Out of necessity a rather inelegant system had had to take the place of the Shinigamis’ ancestral weapon.
All earthbound Shinigami now carried two-in-one weapons; a normal steel katana blade contained inside an unlockable sword hilt, which itself contained a precious resource – the spirit of a deceased Shinigami who had volunteered to stay his or her journey to eternal rest in the Soul Society in order to help the next generation. Unlock hilt from blade, use your spiritual energy to call forth the bound spirit’s energy, and you had yourself a zanpaku-to.
Thankfully, this secret had remained safe from the eyes of the Quincy, forcing them to resort to their own ways of fighting, just as effective – with bows and arrows both physical and spiritual. Now these two weapons were about to clash in the streets of Karakura.
Kenpachi watched the arrows with barely-disguised contempt. Hefting his zanpaku-to, he dispersed the Quincy attack with a single swing, the arrows torn apart by the mere energy shock wave before they could reach the blade.
“Watch yourself, idiot!”
The Eleventh Division captain looked down to see Yasumasa, his own zanpaku-to burning brightly, deflect more arrows that had been shot through the intervening buildings, intent on neatly bisecting him.
“Unless you want to get cut down like my man did, watch the entire battlefield. I won’t have Retsu and her people wasting their energy healing fools who depend entirely on brute force.”
“Can a gnat kill an elephant?” Kenpachi snorted.
This time it was Yasumasa who pointed back at the dead Shinigami’s corpse.
“Wouldn’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”
“Fine example, that one. Try someone who could hack it to compare me to.”
“Screw it. I’ll tell you this once, and you’d better remember it. You stand out to people with our power like a torch in the darkness. Wherever you go, they’ll know exactly where to find you, where to attack. You’re a fucking liability, Kenpachi. To yourself, to your men, and to everyone here. Either get it fixed, or go play barbarian hero somewhere else.”
The bigger man scoffed, raising his sword and vaulting onto the roof of the building the Quincys had shot through.
“You saved my ass, Inoue. I owe you. We can save the rest for after I send these small fry to join their ancestors.”
Then he was gone, leaving only the screams of the Quincys to be heard as his counterattack began.
Shinigami were not the only humans who could see spirits, and certainly not the only ones with the spiritual power to affect them. But where a Shinigami’s ultimate aim was sending rogue ghosts and spirits – Hollows – to their eternal reward, good or bad, Quincys aimed to kill any Hollows they ran across.
In itself, that wasn’t all bad. Hollows lost all reason during their transformation and would kill indiscriminately, starting with their own families if possible. Shinigami sent them on in order to protect the living from just such a catastrophe. But that was part of the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Spirits went to Heaven or Hell, were reborn, and things continued on. Killing a Hollow damned it to oblivion, removing it from the cycle. Kill too many and the balance between life and death would blur – bringing chaos to the living world.
Some Quincys could be reasoned with; most couldn’t. Where the Shinigami could outrace them to Hollows, things went fine. Where they were outraced, there were now more and more “turf wars” over who got to do what to the emerging spirit. Now, apparently, the Quincys weren’t bothering to race and were figuring on eliminating the competition instead. Yasumasa snarled a curse, startling the normally unflappable Retsu.
“No escaping it now. It’s war. We’re going to have to start patrols at least two to three strong now. If they can grab enough weak-willed ghosts we’ll be fighting snipers and Shinigami before this is all over.”
Sometime during their evolution, the Quincys had discovered ways to “harness” all but the strongest Hollows to do their bidding – kill other Hollows. If the harnessed Hollow died too, so much the better. Doing that was well within the powers of a Shinigami – but it was, to them, the utter degradation of a living soul. When the Quincys had revealed this power to their rivals, the possibility of any reconciliation had died. This war had been brewing ever since.
Retsu looked at the corpse, lost in thought.
“I could see clear to splitting the Fourth Division and including medics in each team, but that would limit our movements. They’d be limited even if I kept my division apart. We can’t hunt Hollows and defend ourselves at the same time for long.”
“We’re not going to. Genryusai-dono sending Kenpachi was as good as an order to fight. I’ll split my division, send half to join the Eleventh, and the other half will keep patrolling Karakura. Kenpachi won’t want help himself, but I’d say you’ll need to break off a few people to join the combat teams and save the rest for emergencies and triage. My Hollow hunters should be all right on their own for a while.”
“Famous last words,” Retsu murmured to him. “Take care of yourself, Yasumasa.”
The captain grunted.
“It’s not me I’m worried about.”
* * *
“Fool! I told you to use your spirit arrows! Relying on physical tools will only let them know that we are here and arrayed against them!”
“You only told me to finish him, not how to do it! He’s been eliminated and harnessed! What’s to complain about?”
The whispered conversation made no sense to Kanako, mistress of the Stranger’s Rest. The brown-haired woman listened anyway – it was her talent and her job. Anyone could masquerade as traders like these men, but few could disguise the marks of the underworld. Hardened eyes, a capacity for speaking in hushed, yet urgent tones, and that general swagger a man got when he could do what others couldn’t dream of.
The Shinigami, even unflappable Yasumasa, had been agitated for weeks. Now dozens of them were moving about the streets, rushed yet affecting an air of nonchalance. Kanako had never seen such an atmosphere before, with tension evident everywhere, but the Stranger had.
“You may not know a single detail about the situation, but you don’t have to. When war is brewing, you feel it. Fear is everywhere, especially if there are a lot of veterans around. They know better than anyone the consequences of battle, the likelihood of death. Only a fool doesn’t fear it. Now, the veterans know how to deal with that; they harness their fears and project them outward. Normal people, on the other hand, don’t deal with that level of fear at all well. Everybody moves around on pins and needles, without even knowing why. And if you ever see that, hell, if you feel it, take the ryokan straight to lockdown and stay there until it’s all over. Because if you don’t, by the time you decide to run, it’ll be too late.”
That had led her to shop in the market district, stocking up on supplies for both herself and Naruto, as well as what few guests remained at the ryokan. The longer she was out, the worse the fear and apprehension in the air got. Talk of eliminating people made the men in the alley prime suspects in causing it.
Even assuming they were, there wasn’t much Kanako could do about it. The Shinigami already knew something was up, and the Stranger was still on his way back to Karakura, if his last carrier pigeon message had been correct. The best thing for her to do would be to protect the Stranger’s Rest – and Naruto. Gathering up bags of groceries, she prepared to head home, just as the rest of the conversation reached her ears.
“Never mind the bollocks. What’s done is done. Where’s the next target?”
“Outside town. The damned fool sent her there thinking he could hide her by blending her in with a bunch of wayfarers and innkeepers. He’ll think twice about that – and fighting us – once we’ve burned the place and slaughtered his issue. Wipe out the problem at its source.”
Kanako’s mind raced at a thousand miles a minute. If the Shinigami got involved in this war, Yasumasa would be right in the thick of it. There was, then, no doubt that the “target” was Orihime. Today was Naruto’s regular fighting lesson with Arisawa Genya, which Orihime always accompanied him to – and she always went back to the inn with him afterward. Naruto was no Shinigami, nor was the Stranger, but that didn’t seem to matter.
I should have just told Masamichi to rename him Trouble and be done with it.
Kanako’s acidic tone had no force behind it. Her relationship with Naruto was not and probably never would be normal. She was neither the Stranger’s wife nor the boy’s mother; just a caretaker. Even so, Naruto held a place in her heart (what there was of it) as important as the Stranger’s place. The two of them were very much alike, abandoned by their families, and without even the benefit of a clan name. The Stranger had refused to add his son into the Sadou clan, remarking only that the boy was “better off without it.”
The more the men in the alley said, the more her instincts screamed for her to go. Run, walk, creep, do something, as long as she could get home. But she would have to do it slowly, unrattled and unflinching – or else what little family she had now would be in even greater danger. These men either didn’t know or didn’t care that the ryokan belonged to the Stranger – and that attacking its staff and inhabitants would provoke a terrible vengeance.
It was incredibly stupid. It wasn’t surprising. It terrified her anyway. As Masamichi sourly observed all the time, “Great fighters destroy their enemies. Fools destroy nations.” Kanako turned slowly and, instead of making her way back to the ryokan immediately, headed for the Karakura messenger station, which housed both runners and carrier pigeons. The station manager was by her side immediately – she never showed up in person unless the message was an emergency directed at the Stranger.
“Help you, Lady Kanako?”
“Yes, Rikichi. Please fetch Senchimaru from the coop and bring him to me. When you’ve done that, I suggest you close up shop and go home to your family.”
He stared back at her quizzically. Kanako of the Stranger’s Rest did not give information away. Ever. Not without an ulterior motive, anyway.
“The Shinigami are going to war, Rikichi. You live three miles outside of town, and if you don’t leave now, you’ll be well within the range of the fight. These people don’t use normal weapons. Walls may not be good enough to protect you. The Stranger would hate to lose you – and so would I. But it’s your choice. Were I you, I’d go.”
It pays to let the help know they’re wanted.
“Yes, m’lady. I’ll go right away!”
Kanako ignored him, her good deed for the day complete. Instead, she took off the pearl necklace Masamichi had given her, prising three jewels off the string. When Rikichi returned with an iron-gray pigeon, she dropped the pearls into the message tube the little bird obediently held out on one leg, sealing it immediately afterwards.
It was a remarkably expensive system, but it worked for Kanako and the Stranger. One pearl in the tube meant “the boy is annoying me.” Two meant “one of your clients is annoying me.” Three – which she had never sent before now – meant “drop everything and get your arse home before this places goes up in flames.” Hopefully the pigeon would find him in enough time for him to speed up and get back. She doubted it because of the distances involved, but best to try anyway.
Now all that remained was to get back home – if she could.
* * *
Naruto grumbled something unintelligible as Orihime smeared ointment liberally all over his arms. After he’d learned to block better, he no longer wound up with black eyes, but “Nurse Orihime” still insisted on treating the wounds she inflicted on him. Fine and dandy, but with all that goop on his arms he couldn’t touch or pick up anything for hours afterwards.
Overly enthusiastic as she was, Orihime was a lot gentler than Kanako was. He never called her mother, but that was what she was to the boy’s inexperienced mind. Anytime Kanako took care of his injuries, a lesson was always right behind, including her usual annoyed reminder that Orihime wasn’t a porcelain doll who’d break with one punch.
That much Naruto knew. It didn’t really matter to him. Genya was always saying that an attack could never do any real damage if you didn’t mean it. Orihime never meant to hurt him, so why fight it? Besides, that was just who she was. The little girl always made up for it anyway with a fun game or a few treats from her mother’s kitchen. If you wanted scary, Tatsuki was scary. Naruto thought the black-haired girl had read a little too much Miki-Miki manga for her own good. What was it the old men always said?
“She’ll never find a husband that way.”
“Who is that?”
Orihime’s question made him realize he’d said that out loud.
“Aw, Tatsuki. She’s too scary. She always beats people up, like Ichigo. Who wants ta marry somebody like that?”
“I beat you up. You don’t want to be my prince anymore?”
“S’different. Your daddy doesn’t want nobody to hurt you, so I can’t neither. And anyhow a princess gets ta do whatever she wants. Alla stories say so.”
His future bride cocked her head to one side, thinking hard.
“But I’m not a princess until we get married. That’s not for a long, long, long time.”
“Aw, what’s the difference? All ya get when ya get married, if ya listen to my mom, is a cheap ring and a piece of paper. If ya like somebody, ya like somebody. What’s paper gonna do about it?”
The only thing saving Naruto from a good glomping at that moment was the sudden loud shouts outside the ryokan.
“Is this the place?”
“It’s the only inn I see for miles around! Move in!”
“Hold it, you jumpy bastard! This place could be crawling with Shinigami. The big one is here all the time. Scout it out at least before we all go stumbling into an ambush. Send the new boy.”
Orihime went over to the window and stood on tiptoe to look out, before Naruto pulled her back, smearing ointment liberally over her overalls. The “princess” pouted.
“But I wanted to see…”
The Stranger’s son was used to being around hard men, who spoke in hard voices. What he had noticed was that men never talked like that if they could help it. People only started getting all gravelly-voiced when a fight was about to break out. Nobody fought at the Stranger’s Rest. Either his father or his mother made sure of that. But right now neither of them was here. That meant trouble for sure.
“What’s ta see? They must be bad guys, talkin’ about gettin' ambushed like that. My dad never lets anyone bad into the inn, but he ain’t here. We gotta hide until somebody comes back!”
Orihime ignored him in favor of pointing over his shoulder.
“Ooo! Uncle Yoshi-Yoshi is shiny now!”
Of all the young children learning from Genya, only Naruto had shown Shinigami abilities from the start, a legacy of the demon sealed within him. This energy had awakened Orihime’s latent powers the more the girl was near. In the future, it might prove to be useful. For now, all it meant was that Naruto and Orihime could see spirits and ghosts – including Hollows.
Naruto turned and froze immediately. It was true that the thing floating through the wall looked like a young local Shinigami, Ookido Yoshino. It even had his shihakusho with the distinctive yellow piping. But the last time Naruto had checked, Shinigami didn’t go around wearing Hollow masks unless they themselves were already dead.
The typical Shinigami, according to Genya, never even got the chance to become a Hollow. Either they moved up to the Soul Society immediately on death, or they consented to the binding of their spirits into weapons, to serve the next generation of Shinigami on Earth as zanpaku-to. That a Shinigami was here, and a Hollow, meant one thing, dredged up from whispered conversations in the inn, the alleys and the town of Karakura.
The Stranger didn’t react much to the name, but Uncle Yasumasa usually did. His face would twist like he smelled something rank, something he hated. And if Uncle Yasumasa hated Quincy, he had to have a reason.
“What the hell do you want?” Naruto snarled at the Hollow.
Yoshino’s spirit didn’t respond. It couldn’t have while harnessed, not that Naruto would have known. Outside the shouts arose again.
“It’s the target! No defense, just a couple of kids!”
“Good enough. Smother the girl – the less blood, the better the effect on those damned Shinigami.”
Yoshino moved about a foot before Naruto blocked his path.
“The hell do you think you’re doing tryin’ ta attack yer own guys?”
His vision blanked out as the Hollow backhanded him into the wall, thoughts only on defending his princess even as he sank into unconsciousness.
“Young fighter, what is thy purpose?”
Naruto opened his eyes to find himself in a dim, darkened room, a giant man with a red face and long, black beard on a throne at one end.
“Were ye not taught that war must have a purpose? Wherefore dost thou fight a spirit of the dead?”
Naruto scoffed. Why else would he fight?
“Cuz he was gonna hurt Orihime!”
“And why is that wrong? Explain thyself.”
“She’s my princess! One day I’m gonna haveta be Stranger and she’s gonna be my girl.”
“The girl was not born to do such. Why must ye do so?”
“Cuz I told my daddy and Uncle Yasumasa I would! A man’s word is never busted!”
The giant laughed, a booming, echoing roar.
“Excellent! We have not had many worthy avatars. Ye shall do.”
“Ye shall know in time. First, we must secure our power. Awaken, spawn of Makai!”
Behind both of them, red eyes opened, an inhuman presence stirring, something Naruto only felt in his worst nightmares. The giant grunted as the little boy shivered.
“When we are with thee, young fighter, thou art safe from all demon and their kindred. Dost thou recognize us, Ninetailed Demon Fox?”
The Kyubi spat.
“Guan, the Saintly Emperor. Am I not degraded enough in this prison without answering to your beck and call?”
The Saintly Emperor laughed.
“We will refrain from taking offense, foul creature. As ye say, fate has served its punishments well. We offer an opportunity to brighten thy existence.”
“I will not lower myself to serve a kami,” the demon fox snapped testily. “Nor will I act for this damned vessel!”
“Thou art menaced by a grave threat. Should thy vessel die, thy fate would be sealed as well. Do not let obstinacy cloud thy judgment.”
It was a long moment before the Kyubi said anything.
“What do you want of me?”
“Being young, thy vessel lacks power and control,” the god rumbled. “As such we cannot manifest through its energy. Thy energy is strong and well experienced. We will be amply supplied with the tools of victory by manifesting through it.”
The Kyubi sounded like it was grinding its fangs with every word squeezed out of its mouth.
“Very well. But let us not make a habit of this.”
The Quincy outside the inn – and the girl and Hollow inside – were thrown back as a monstrous wave of energy surged forth from Naruto’s prone form. Yoshino’s spirit disappeared immediately, the Quincys’ hold severed immediately by the sheer force of the energy striking it, freed to go to his eternal rest. The energy spread upwards and outwards, a gargantuan crimson form resolving halfway in and out of the ryokan. Its mouth opened and the voice of a god thundered forth.
“VERMIN! KNOW YE WHO STANDS IN THIS PLACE?”
An older man wandered into the front of the Quincy ranks.
“I warned you, boy. This place belongs to the Stranger, the arbiter of us all. Now you’ve brought Second Brother Guan into the conflict! You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t flay the flesh from your bones in retribution!”
Ishida Ryuuken scoffed.
“I’m here to destroy the Shinigami’s heir, Father. What does that have to do with the Stranger?”
Ishida Souken grunted, voice hard.
“Inoue Yasumasa betrothed his daughter to the Stranger’s heir three years ago, and he’s trumpeted it from the heavens ever since. You’re not deaf, son. We have the right to be frustrated at the lack of understanding the Shinigami show. We don’t have the right to kill indiscriminately!”
“I appreciate the advice, Father,” the Quincy leader grated. “but the Stranger can find his son another wife. Leave the inn and the boy untouched. Kill the girl and let’s be off!”
The Saintly Emperor roared from on high, eyes betraying his contempt of the Quincys.
“DO YE TAKE US FOR DEAF, DUMB AND BLIND? NO BLOOD HAS YET BEEN SPILT. WE SHALL OVERLOOK THE SLIGHT TO OUR AVATAR IF YE LEAVE NOW. FAIL AND THY WOMEN SHALL HAVE NAUGHT TO DO BUT WAIL AS THEY BURY YOU!”
Ryuuken raised his bow and screamed defiance.
“One spirit against forty of us and our familiars? Don’t make me laugh!”
Another voice echoed from the clearing behind them, the air of command unmistakable.
“Only one spirit, Ishida Ryuuken? Shut your mouth and save your bluster for those who can be cowed by it!”
The Stranger stood behind them, eyes blazing, staff converted to a three-section battle weapon – with Kenpachi and three dozen Shinigami at his side.
“An arbiter, Father?” Ryuuken snapped. “Behold your arbiter, standing with our enemies! What do you have to say now?”
“Enemies?” Kenpachi laughed in contempt, drawing his zanpaku-to. “I ain’t here as a Shinigami, you fucking fairy. Friend calls needing a favor, you drop everything and run to the problem. But you wouldn’t know the feelin’. Forget I said anything. You’re gonna be too dead to care in a minute.”
The Stranger held up a hand.
“Hold it, Kenpachi. Souken-dono, there is still time to end this conflict. A settlement can be agreed to. My boy will heal. Continue and we both know this cannot end before blood stains the streets of Karakura and countless other towns.”
“I am leader here!” Ryuuken snapped. “There will be no peace! Not while you Shinigami stand in the way of our duty and stand by while our families die at the hands of Hollows!”
Sadou Masamichi snorted.
“Talk is cheap. You spout empty desires for justice and doom the world in the process. Do you expect to be taken for anything other than a barbarous mob?”
Turning to Souken, the Stranger addressed the old Quincy.
“I’ve heard your proposals, Souken-dono. There is no reason why Shinigami and Quincy cannot work as one to safeguard the world around them. As long as the spirits you harness do so willingly, and the cycle is kept in balance, there is no need for conflict. It will require work, and trust must be built, but is that not better than needless violence?”
The old man never got the chance to answer - Ryuuken interjected first.
“Speak and you speak for yourself, father. And that goes for any one of you bastards who chickens out now! Leave these ranks and you can keep on walking!”
Kenpachi roared with laughter, brandishing his weapon.
“You sure you want to be giving them ideas, girly boy?”
The Stranger sighed and motioned to his strike force.
“Kenpachi, you’re not helping. If you would, take your men and secure a perimeter around the ryokan, maybe a few to go inside, check on Naruto and the rest. If they try to send so much as an arrow past you, attack. You have my blessing.”
The towering captain grinned.
“I’m gonna hold you to that, Stranger.”
“A man’s word is worthless if it cannot be held true.”
“All right,” Kenpachi yelled, “you heard him! Move out!”
Everything moved at once. The Quincies raised their bows, the Shinigami drew their own weapons, zanpaku-to blazing into existence, and the Saintly Emperor, looming overhead, readied his own curved sword. The Stranger raised an eyebrow and glared at Ryuuken.
“Don’t try my patience, boy. They’re moving into defensive positions. Start something and you’ve only yourself to blame. I will not be responsible for the consequences!”
“Go ahead and try it,” the Quincy leader sneered. “You think that gorilla of yours will be any good with an arrow between his eyes?”
Kenpachi made a gesture with one finger at him.
“Last I checked, toy bows don’t kill real men. Take your little twigs and shove them up your ass. Better yet, put suction cups on them. They might actually look right.”
“They did a good enough job on that stupid sap inside the inn.”
“He was a researcher. I’m a stone killer. You’ll understand the difference when I split your skull.”
“ENOUGH!” Souken shouted everyone down. “I’ve heard enough of this. Lead them into destruction if you will, Ryuuken, but you will not do so as an Ishida, nor as a Quincy! If you escalate this conflict, you are outcast, and all those who follow you the same. Decide now, my brothers, my students, if this is what you trained for. Act as your conscience guides, not as passion inflames.”
“Big words from one who doesn’t lead us,” his son snapped. “I should have known you’d try to pull something like this. Fine. Take your victory and enjoy it, Stranger. It’ll be your last. Those of you who want out, get out now before I change my mind, and don’t let me see your faces again. If you’re fool enough to crawl back, what we do to the Shinigami will pale in comparison.”
Ryuuken stalked off, half the Quincys following him, the rest remaining behind and warily eyeing Kenpachi’s group. Souken watched his son go, his expression unreadable. The Stranger took his straw hat off and ran a hand slowly through his graying hair.
“I think that takes care of Karakura for now. Souken-dono, is there any chance that others of your kind in the major countries will push for peace?”
The old Quincy shook his head.
“A year ago, even two, I would have said there was. I am afraid the bulk of our leaders now think as my son does. Peace is the last thing on their minds.”
“Surely all Quincys are not out for blood.”
“No, no, of course not. But it will be difficult for any to follow their conscience. Peer pressure will be tremendous to fight, especially as other leaders can characterize today’s events as a defeat for our people.”
“Nothing got killed here but pride, Souken. That’s a loss?”
“When pride is all you have left,” Ishida Souken said wearily, “it means everything.”
Not even Kenpachi had an answer to that.
* * *
“My apologies, Lord Guan. I had not thought to call on your presence, and now my son has become a bother.”
The Saintly Emperor, now normal size, stroked his beard.
“Such a trifle is no bother, and in any event needless blood was not spilt. Thy child shall be a worthy avatar for us, but without training his potential will not emerge. We entrust this to thee.”
The Stranger bowed slightly as the patron god of his office vanished. Naruto stirred slightly, head still in Orihime’s lap as the girl watched over her “prince.” Kenpachi cocked an eyebrow suspiciously.
“If you had that kind of power, why didn’t you just call the guy out and waste those Quincy pukes?”
“I don’t have it.” Masamichi admitted. “Second Brother Guan is the patron god of the Strangers, but he’s also a god of virtue and honor. My life before meeting my master wasn’t the most virtuous. Lord Guan looks out for me, but he’s never offered his assistance like he did for Naruto.”
“Well, at least he’s got that going for him,” the big captain said.
“Yes, he does. You, on the other hand, have something going that’s a blessing and a curse. I know you don’t want to hear it, but you need to go ask Yasumasa’s people for help with it.”
“Help with what?”
“That freak of nature you call your spiritual energy. You have, if that can even be said, too much of it. If Lord Guan hadn’t been distracting them, the Quincys would have seen us coming a mile away. You stand out, even for a captain. If this war continues, that’s going to be a liability for you and your division.”
“If they want to find me,” Kenpachi scoffed, “they know where to find me. What’s the big deal? Kill one or kill a dozen; there ain’t a Quincy alive who could stop me face to face. You and Yasumasa ought to just relax already.”
“That’s the problem, boy. The Quincys know that as well. They don’t have to face you to kill you, not with bows and spirit arrows. If you’ve anyone else with you, you’re setting them up to be ambushed too. Get it fixed, Kenpachi, or you won’t get another warning. You may not care, but your people will.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll ask the geezer.”
“You do that.”
“Well, we’re not going to be seeing him for a while,” Kanako mused, watching Kenpachi and the other Shinigami leave mere minutes after she had arrived.
The Stranger raised an eyebrow, inviting explanation. She hated it when her employer did that; knowing she was right, but making her say why all the same. Masamichi spoke as if chiding a schoolgirl.
“You have a habit of making general statements and deliberately leaving them open-ended. You force the listener to make his own assumptions based on what he knows himself. Not everyone has the kind of information you do. If you were involved in a delicate negotiation, making such statements could undermine your position.”
“Ishida Ryuuken was hotheaded enough not to look deeper behind the explanation you say Kenpachi gave for being at the inn. Other Quincy leaders aren’t. You can’t afford to be seen alone in the company of Shinigami until this war is over and peace is restored, or else you lose all credibility as Stranger. It was hard enough to regain the trust of the underworld when you moved here, but if you’re considered to have taken a side in this war, it’ll be impossible.”
“Correct. Although I must say some of the motive was personal. I cannot afford to have Shinigami here because it will make targets of all residents at the inn and those related to me. Had Lord Guan chosen not to interfere, my son might be dead now.”
“Sending Yasumasa and Kenpachi away isn’t going to end it, Masamichi.”
“No, it won’t. Kanako, pack a bag for Naruto and then get me the list of missing-nin shinobi I have hidden over the years. I will have the clothes from my latest trip laundered and then I will be taking Naruto traveling. The ryokan shall be entrusted to you until we return, as always. We shall stay in touch using Senchimaru and the other pigeons.”
“Why the list of missing-nin? They’ve nothing to do with this war.”
The Stranger’s eyes were weary and cold, even as his tone became flippant.
“My dear, I am off to build myself an army.”