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 Hope for Morning[SOLO]

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Subject Post 1PostSubject: Hope for Morning[SOLO]   Wed Jul 26, 2017 12:27 am

The stage was set. Shio had spent a good ten or fifteen minutes placing candles around his quarters, and boiling a pot of water to the appropriate temperature. Grinding tea leaves with his mortar and pestle, adding the aromatic bitters and the appropriate herbs, making sure to tilt the candles at just the right angles. He could already envision the changes in his head; the way the new shadows would play across the walls and his face alike, the way that every motion in the room would play out in stark contrast on the walls behind him. Every distortion, every elongation, was accounted for in his head. Every symbolic gesture researched and studied and accounted for. Whatever came next, he would be prepared for.

Or at least he would like to believe. In his experience, preparation was simply the ammunition one carried with them into battle. It inevitably turned to shit the moment other parties got thrown into the mix. He'd momentarily contemplated bolting his door, or casting some manner of kido on it, to leave it barred to outside intrusion. Ultimately, he'd decided the gesture would be an insult to his zanpakuto spirit, and the lessons she had been trying to impart on him. Whatever paltry distractions stemmed from someone entering his room could be dealt with as they came.

He began to disrobe, folding the cloth in front of himself meticulously, without modesty. Each of the scars on his body appeared to be unsettling to the eye, poorly healed in many cases, and a few of them showed the telltale signs of being worried at and stressed over; no doubt, a nervous habit, built over years of secrecy. And now, were anyone to walk in, the number of questions would be immense. Shio found a strange sense of zen in this situation; he had finally decided to stop worrying over it, to simply let the world do with it what it would. And if the result was undesirable, he would find a way to change it. It had been quite some time since he'd felt that familiar fizzing sensation in his blood, the pure unfettered desire that he'd once felt. Like lightning in his bones, or acid in his blood. Searing in its perfection.

Shio finally poured the water over the leaves and herbs he had gathered, taking a few slow, tentative sips. The bitterness washed over his mouth immediately, leaving him wretching. All the same, he downed the rest of the cup, and began to knead at his nostrils, allowing the substances contained within to do their work. Wormwood. Nutmeg. Certain, very rare breeds of mushrooms, well known for their hallucinogenic effects. Shio had concentrated so many vision-inducing substances into such a small place, he would have been more surprised if he survived than if he died.

He began to light the candles, one at a time, striking a new match each time. The flame flickered and cavorted before his eyes, and after the fourth he could even become convinced he saw shapes within the flames. What was it humans philosophized about? How many angels could dance on the head of a pin? Were they even angels that he saw, within the flame? Could there even be called such a thing as an angel? Given the one asking this, it was a very distressing thought to suddenly find himself wondering about.

He lit each candle, and settled into the center of his room, folding his tanto over his lap, and then the robes, for modesty; though the rest would be quite visible, there would be no need for concern about anyone entering and seeing something so intimate they couldn't excuse it. He inhaled, slowly and rhythmically, allowing his mind to wander, and broaden. He honestly had no idea how this was supposed to go; he'd been told by countless comrades that the process was automatic, and instinctual. All the same, he couldn't leave something this important to chance. He would have a vision quest, one way or another.

He would have to, if he was going to do something about the state of the Gotei.

Do you think this somehow heroic? That your death from a self-induced overdose, nude, in your quarters, will suddenly open the eyes of everybody? Do you think that a corpse will be a strong enough message? With no suicide note, no declaration of intent, no true comrades to mourn your passing? Does it strike you as the action of a sane man?

"It doesn't matter. They will do what they do. I cannot make them into something they're not."

Wrong, sweetling. You made them into monsters. You showed them what they could never be, teased them with visions that would always be outside of their grasp. You taught them to aspire for something they could never have obtained, no matter what they did. This goes well beyond the parable of sour grapes; you flaunted your gifts, before each and every one of them. You turned good men into green-eyed monsters.

"Perhaps I did make my own demons. I acted without thought, without compassion, without a single spared thought for how my fellow man was struggling. I carry a share of the blame in my own fate. It's natural, after all; balance has always been a necessary part of life. I lack it."

Sweetling. My poor deluded sweetling. You have never lacked for anything in your life. You shut yourself off. You had it, and discarded it. Everything you've wanted was in your grasp, from the very start. You simply allowed your perspective to be skewed.

"Love. Acceptance. Sympathy. Support. All of these things and more, I turned aside. In favor of self-improvement. In pursuit of a perfection I could never attain. In my hubris, I never once realized how my attempts to soar would isolate me from those around me."

Such a wicked, sinful child. You think you can outline all of your flaws up to now, and be forgiven? You think that this is a problem which you may fix by confession? You are naive. Your resolve is tepid, and your cognitions muddied by decades of misuse. You will never reach your full potential, so long as you long for peers. Those who stands at the top are without peers. The unmatched superiors of the world are alone. Always. There will come a time when you must choose.

"I chose to turn a blind eye for so long. To pretend there wasn't even a conversation to be had. I shut you out for so long. I made you sit idly by and watch, as I tread water. I have been cruel to you, who among all others has sat by my side without fail. Waiting for the moment I was ready to listen."

Are you not listening -still-, sweetling!? You are guilty of far worse than neglect! You have ruined everything you touch! Your presence belies the rot beneath the gilding! The worm that hides within the core of the crisp apple! The infection lying asymptomatic, killing the host! Why do you not -refute me-!? Why do you not -fight back-!? Do you think you can sit passively, even now, and that I will forgive you for surrendering even now?

"I'm ready to receive your wisdom, me. I wait only for you to speak."

I speak even now! Are you so deaf, so hardened, that you cannot hear? Listen to me, you wretched child! Don't you dare shut me out!

I will not.

...Pardon? You invoke me, and ignore me when I arrive to speak with you?

You are not my zanpakuto. You are my fears. My self-loathing. My hatred made manifest. You are the litany of every victim, held deep in their heart. I was never speaking to you from the very start.

Shio opened his eyes, slowly, hands resting on his lap...as he craned his head around, taking in the sights. It was almost breathtaking, to behold his own inner world. Pillars of wax melted and dripped from the ceiling, forming into stalagtites far larger than his own body...and in other places it seemed to drip from the ground itself towards the ceiling, as if gravity had been reversed. Everywhere he looked, there seemed to be some new form of illogic, some impossibility or trick of the eye which led water to run uphill, or led a stream to flow through a solid obstacle with no impediment whatsoever.

"You're so clever you might just cut yourself one day, Shio Mora. Was that your hope, then? That by partaking of that tea, you might be able to push your darkness into a corner and lock away the key, for a time?"

Shio simply shrugged, pushing his way to his feet, and brushing off his own body. His expression was faintly wry, just a little bit amused.

"I theorized that you would attempt to deceive me, regardless of my own actions. This way, I can take back control. Any illogical behavior, any subterfuge on your part, will be for naught. I can chalk it up to a bad dream, brew another batch, and start over from scratch. Each time, for me, will be the first. You will not be quit of me until I have what I wish for."

"Indeed? And you would secure victory a thousand times, against a thousand illusions, to grasp the only true victory? I could supply you with countless meaningless names."

"I called you me. That's what you are. A person can create a thousand convincing lies, but they can never fully hide the truth. Even in a hallucination, I will find the truth. This is my resolve, me. This is who I am. You cannot defeat me any longer. You're nothing. You don't even truly exist. Not that I can ever hope to prove."

"...This? This is your resolve? That you would...turn away from the truth, and let yourself be trapped in illusions, forevermore? I could give you a reality in which you succeed. I could craft powers for you. Friends for you. A lover. Children. Nemises. Hurdles. I could keep you trapped here forever. Cheering for a victory that didn't exist."

"For years, they resented me. They called me a prodigy, a monster, an impossible presence. They would stare at me with shock, and with disgust, and dismay. The strong of will amongst them would look up to me. Shout to the world of my accomplishments. They all only ever called me exceptional."

"I was there. I know all of which you speak. You bide time, in the hopes that you may have another hallucination, and invalidate your trial."

"I always wondered. Why they called me exceptional. What is so special about me, me? The speed at which I run? My memory for complicated tongue twisters?"

"This line of questioning can serve no further purpose. Are you prepared to be tested, Shio Mora? Do you hold any doubt whatsoever I will kill you, and end your story here?"

"The truth of it is...I've never felt special. Exceptional. I never saw the difficulty in those acts. The words came to me with the same ease as a child's rhymes, when jumping rope. I outpaced them all with ease."

He reached down a hand, touching it against his tanto, and drawing it out slowly, with great flourish, and then taking a stance in front of him.

"Try me if you must, me. Perhaps in myself, I can finally find a limit to surpass. The truth is, I've been waiting for an accomplishment I could hold dear. Something that I didn't make it through with my mind on autopilot."

Shocked silence met the declaration, punctuated only by the faint, far-off sounds of dripping wax...and then, from far above, a flapping of great wings, as of some enormous, unfathomable bird of prey. Shio turned his gaze skyward, a smile of unfathomable joy there. It was something so utterly unlike Shio, something that those who knew him well would've said had no place there. But then again, no one really knew Shio well.

The creature that descended from above was nearly ten feet tall, with a wingspan almost twice that size. Her tongue was nearly ten feet long, and held at the very end a thin, warped flame. At the end of each feather, another flame burned. It was also very obviously feminine, clothed in robes of majesty and modesty in equal measure. It tilted its head this way and that, staring down at him with an appraising tone, and when she spoke this time, there was mirth, and pleasant surprise in her town.

"...How is it that it has taken you this long to come here? I am finding it hard to see this Shio Mora as unworthy."

"Don't you go flattering me like all the others. Come at me with intent to kill, me. Let this be the first real wall for me to clash my self against. Let me see if even I can hold myself back any longer."
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Subject Post 2PostSubject: Re: Hope for Morning[SOLO]   Wed Jul 26, 2017 9:28 pm

Shio waited, blade at the ready, staring at his zanpakuto spirit without flinching or hesitating. His blade rested at the ready, his other hand by his side, fingers gently flexing. He watched her without a single word, without any sense of hurriedness or concern; as if this was no different from a person waiting for their cue to step onto the stage and give a long soliloquy. There was a faint sense of tension there, and sweat could be seen coating the shinigami's skin in a faint sheen, but he looked completely fine and hale, prepared for nearly anything.

And indeed, his free hand flung up in a warding gesture as soon as she flapped one wing, shedding five feathers in a display of theatrically bright flames and trailing wax that was incredible to behold. They smashed against an invisible barrier, as Shio shouted aloud the incantation to his bakudo, tilting his head to the side, and hopping from one foot to the next. His blade rested in his palm, unmoving, as he circled slowly, clearly waiting for any opening in his opponent.

He began to charge forward, focus almost intently upon her right wing, and a bundle of muscles there that looked suspiciously supple and vulnerable, readily exposed for a blade, even one as small as Shio's, to sink into. He leapt off the ground with his leading foot, making a rapid downward slice towards the exposed flesh...only for the wing to flow around in a wide, scything arc, knocking him back to the ground. He grimaced, touching a hand against his own side and letting out a pained pant as he felt the bruise forming already on one of his ribs. He rose back to his feet, once more keeping his unoccupied hand by his side, trailing ever so slightly behind.

"I take it this isn't something quite as simple as 'bringing you to the ground and then slitting your throat'."

"This is your trial. It is up to you to determine the details of what is to be expected of you. This is life, my child. They do not always tell you what one must do to succeed in life."

"They told me, over and over. And it was never the same thing more than once."

There was another pregnant pause, as the angel's hand swept out around them, to encompass the area around them; the enormous peaks and valleys of wax and wicks and flames big enough to consume Shio whole were he to stumble into one. There was a sigh, as she fluttered higher into the air, out of his range of striking, and began to intone, with a surprising amount of compassion and sympathy.

"Wax is instability, little one. Flexibility. Change. This realm's physics are as malleable as the very wax that makes up a candle. Do not count upon safe footing, whatever your instincts may tell you. And life is no different in that aspect. What you are called upon for will never be the same thing for overly long. Life calls upon us all to have the flexibility and stability to determine for ourselves what is most needed at each moment. This is the only hint you will be given. Understanding the criterion for success is part of succeeding. Your trial has begun. Expect no help, even from yourself. Find victory, amidst a myriad many futures which all spell defeat. See beyond, and ahead."

Shio paused, tilting his head back and laughing as he did. He gestured all around them, once again, and then towards himself. It went on for ten, perhaps fifteen seconds, before he finally began to rock back and forth, on the heels and very tips of his toes, as if he were going to overbalance and fall forward or back at any moment.

"Wax. Flexibility. Fire. Change. Candles. Very clever, me. I see what is going on here. It's been time for change for decades, and every change was...the wrong one. Except that's not quite right. Change isn't right or wrong. Change is a process of trial and error. The errors don't invalidate the trials. A substance must burn countless times before it is transmuted."

He launched himself forward, from a standing start, with surprising force and power, each step some manner of strangely forceful and precise slam upon the ground; it looked more like he was trying to nail a substance into the ground than actually find safe footing, and the entire time feathers were being flung, from a point in the air that no man could've reliably expected to jump or walk their way towards without being noticed. The game was begun now, and it was clear: The rules would keep changing, likely without him even noticing, until he was able to prove himself more clever than...well. Himself.

He made four or five of those histrionic, absurd steps, before his foot sank a touch too deeply into the ground with his insertion, as if it had suddenly gained the elasticity of rubber...or the viscosity of pudding. He could already feel himself overbalancing, about to faceplant into a puddle of warm wax that would probably suffocate him as quickly as quicksand. He could already feel his ankle being enveloped, and sucked down with great force...and he thrust down with both hands, smiling as his own forward momentum sent him nearly spinning into the warm, silken depths of demise...until a red pill, the size of his fist, formed in his palm, and shot at an angle that sent his body into a vertical spin, leaving him twisting so viciously that he could feel the muscles in his trapped leg growing dislocated from the bone. It was a wound that would've left him crippled in any other circumstance; the sheer pain and spasms would've made any movement impossible. In this circumstance, the circular motion sent his foot plopping out of the wax with force enough that he overbalanced once again, kicking high up into the air, so high that he was now falling onto his back.

And as he was falling, the grin on his face never went away. He thrust both hands downwards, towards the treacherous ground, and two more pillars of flame shot forth, each roughly the size of his torso...blowing holes into the ground so deep that he could hardly even see where they ultimately ended up. He found himself being flung up into the air, spinning with so much force that he could feel vertigo taking onset...and throughout, he kept his gaze directly on the angel, prepared to strike the very moment that she tried to capitalize on this vulnerability.

"What are you doing!? Have the drugs you taken driven you truly mad? You are turning this trial into a farce, and I will not have it!"

"Hadō number 31: Shakkaho. And...urgh, hard to focus like this..."

"No doubt! When you fall, you will either shatter every bone in your body, or sink into a pool of certain death. You don't honestly think you can find some way of getting out of this? With one leg, no less?"

"Bakudo number...30...Shitotsu Sans-"

"I shall not let you!"

The angel swooped forth, hands extending to form two sizable fireballs, easily large enough to engulf his head. One seemed to melt her own fingers, causing them to run and trickle, forming within a split second into a chain and sickle, which she flung at Shio with enough force to split open a stone. The other hand simply flung the fireball, straight for the center of mass in the spinning shinigami.

"Bakudo number 8: Seki!"

As he continued to spin, one of Shio's hands moved away from his own chest, revealing a faintly glowing blue orb there, which he twisted and arced his body, with the flexibility of a cat, to strike the fireball directly...and repel it into the oncoming sickle's blade. It melted harmlessly, splashing searing hot wax across his own chest, and leaving him choking back a scream. But the attack had been averted, and now he was free to strike back with abandon.

"The northern star, the southern seas, and the eastern breeze reject you, foul heathen! Let yourself be struck deaf, dumb, and blind by the judgment of the gods! Bakudo number 30: Shitotsu Sansen!"

He rose both hands, sticking his one remaining good leg downwards at as straight an angle as he could, allowing the reaitsu to form at the tips of each palm, and his own foot; it looked, for a split second, like some absurd parody of crucifixion, before three pale yellow darts shot out, striking against the angel's wings, launching her backwards, screeching discontent the entire time.

"You missed your killing strike, child! Don't count on this paltry magic to hold me at bay for long. You will still fall to your death, and should you find yourself lucky enough to survive, I will have your head!"

"I didn't intend to kill. Or even to subdue. I just needed you...about there. Bakudo number 37: Tsuriboshi!"

This time, the energy he flung downwards from his own hand looked very much like a spider's web, that flung its way out in eight directions. Each one struck against one of the enormous stalagtites off in the distance, creating a solid anchor...and one of those anchors just so happened to have a zanpakuto's spirit in the way. Struck by the sticky, almost glue-like susbtance that Shio had formed from his own spirit energy, she was flung backwards even faster, to impact against the waxen wall with force enough that it sounded like it could've broken someone's spine...and a split second later, with a ragged, wet scream of pain as Shio landed in the center of the mass of webbing, the downward force tugging at her very body, trying to rip her downwards, even as her wings remained pinned in place. With a hideous, painfully organic sound, the wax wings were yanked from their sockets, leaving the zanpakuto spirit falling towards the ground...and Shio rolling off in the direction of the now unanchored netting, landing on the ground with enough force merely to shatter a rib or two this time, instead of killing him.

"I've grounded you, me. I may have surrendered a leg to do it, but from this point on you can't keep evading me. I'd consider this my victory."

"You...insolent, hideous child! Did you also rip the wings off of butterflies when you were feeling distraught? This is simply -cruel-, to clip an angel's wings!"

"If I'm to join the stealth division, cruelty in combat must be my creed, don't you think? Let the enemies fear me. Let my comrades fear me even more."
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Subject Post 3PostSubject: Re: Hope for Morning[SOLO]   Sat Jul 29, 2017 11:10 pm

"You tore my wings off. You've disgraced and spurned me, left me unwhole. How could you -do- such a thing, Shio!? To me, of all people? To the only one who stood by your side, who -wanted to see you succeed-!?"

"Ngg....shut up. Your attempts to tug my heartstrings won't change anything. I don't intend to listen to any more of your attempts to sway my resolve. I will complete this trial."

He turned over on the ground, hand sliding over his side, letting out several agitated hisses in quick succession, his eyelids fluttering as he felt the pain wash over him, leaving him blacked out for a split second...and reality ever so slightly fuzzy when he finally returned to reality, as if he were looking at the background in a movie. He closed his eyes, reaching a hand down to his savaged leg, and the horribly torn muscles there; such a thing would need massive surgery and weeks of bedrest to get fully healed, but a patch-job and some painkillers for now was the best he could hope.

"How are you holding up, then? I'm pretty sure I heard your spine snap when you impacted. And your shoulders must be aflame. Do you need a breather? Are you really alright with letting me recover like this, while you...nnngg! Lick your own wounds? I'm perfectly content to let you rest up and start again when we're both hale and hearty. I'll tear your wings off all over again."

"Mocking a fallen foe! How much you've changed since you arrived here, Shio! If your comrades could see you now, what would they think of you? Do you honestly think this is the route to those happy smiling normal days you always wanted?"

At this, Shio actually paused, looking up at the roof. He could feel that one clutching at his heart, leaving his throat feeling heavy, full of something hot and unpleasant. He balled his fists, blinking away hot tears, and tightened the muscles in his leg...the one that could still respond, at least.

"No. No, I don't think my comrades would want anything to do with me if they saw this face of me. My 'win at all costs' expression. I don't think they'd want anything to do with a man who throws away the lives of others like commodities for the good of the system. But they don't need to see this side of me. They don't need to know the kind of man I actually am. Perhaps it will hurt less as time goes on. Keeping this secret. I don't actually believe that, but I think that making the attempt will be in everyone's best interests. To let them all go on smiling, and laughing, and enjoying their carefree lives...that's the only reason I need. The fact that I can't join them there is no reason to stop them from reaching it."

This statement was met with silence...absolute, almost pained silence. For a few moments, Shio began to worry that she had recovered faster than him, and was about to lash out with an especially vicious killing blow. But nothing happened for five, ten seconds. Finally, Shio reached down towards his mangled leg, allowing the spirit energy to coalesce in his hands, mending the torn muscle tissue, turning spirit energy into new flesh and muscle. It was still exceptionally tender, nothing made for explosive movement...but it would be enough to stand, for now.

"I will not ask you if you truly mean that; I am a part of yourself, so I can sense the truth beneath your words. But you are still so painfully ignorant. The candle is that which brings light to the world, Shio. The candle never dwells in the darkness. It is the job of the candle to bring others into the light...to find the source of their darkness, and banish it. You mustn't ever let your flame diminish to that extent, Shio. Burn bright. And show your comrades the path into the light."

"Tried that. It didn't work so well."

He rolled onto his stomach, attempting to push himself to his feet...and then rolling over onto his bruised ribs, breath going out in a pained whoosh. He stared up at the candles once more, and the strange, distracting shadows they splayed across the roof high above. He panted and groaned, doing his best to kip up and only narrowly succeeding.

"I've always tried to show others the right way. To show them that the key to success was to trust in the rightness of our actions. I've always tried to impress upon my comrades that their shortcuts and their frustrations would only serve to hurt themselves in the end. They never wished to listen."

"There will always be those who call into question the hue of a candle. Or the scent. Or the length of the wick. They will attempt to manipulate it, and change it. The purpose of the candle remains unchanged, whatever form it takes. You are to be the guiding light to your comrades, however you may feel about it. You of all should know the depths that mankind can sink to in the throes of despair, and isolation. There will exist those who have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they stumble across the light only by accident, or with a truly dedicated and talented guide. But even they will understand the simple pleasure of a light in a dark place. All mankind wishes nothing more than to reach out into the darkness, and be assured that there is someone else out there. Someone who is suffering in the same way, or has suffered."

Shio laughed, just once, and then clapped a hand to his ribs, gently, grimacing. He could only manage a wan, almost tired smile.

"Well, me. I will concede it's been a while since I've felt the drive to brighten the world around me. Most of the time, I felt it was enough to make a nice mantlepiece item, and look good to those who would consider using me."

He began to run a hand along the filigree of his blade, eyes darting this way and that. The conversation was going on far too long now, and her voice was growing clearer, less wracked by pain and anguish. That meant she was healing, and that meant she would strike out in a moment.

And indeed, with little notice, a fireball was flung from around the side of one of the enormous pillars, and she came swooping around it, sans wings, arm extending into what looked very much like a whip...one she had somehow coiled around the entire base of the thing as they spoke. She twirled around it, tossing three more fireballs in total, as she pushed off from the surface of the waxen construct, eyes alight with hideously alluring yellowish-red flames...ones Shio could've gotten lost in if he wasn't careful.

He ducked past three of them, raising his blade to slice the fourth in half...and letting out a pained yowl as the wax contained inside splashed across his hand and chest, once more taking away his breath. She was already closing in, too close, dangerously close...and the blade slipped from Shio's grip, as his fingers spasmed and opened from the sudden pain. His zanpakuto spirit's mouth widened into a smile of delight, as she swooped her other hand around in an arc, literally melting into a scythe as it came.

Shio's -other- hand slid up from below, without notice, with an almost negligent ease, and snatched up the falling tanto. He stepped inwards, allowing his right leg to buckle, and the pain to tear through his entire body, ripping away all thought, all reason, all cares...and leaving him moving on autopilot. His blade, already moving up in a slicing arc, would've neatly severed the muscles in her shoulder, even leaving a sizable chip in a normal person's collarbone.

Shio's buckling motion as he stepped forward left her attack only barely enough to slice off the top of his scalp, to leave a wound that, though largely harmless, would distract him...and with her own arm incapacitated, leave the shinigami doubtlessly at the advantage. Her whip arm twitched, retracting and drawing her back towards the pillar, both attacks aborted in an instant.

"To turn your own weakness into strength so easily. To allow your wounds to benefit you in the midst of combat. You are such a brilliant child, Shio. How could you ever be anything but illuminating towards others? You must stop being so...negative."

"Weakness doesn't truly exist, me. A wound is simply another option. Whether it's one to be added, or one to be removed, there are always only ever new options being presented and locked away. I have no weakness, and no strength. It's all just choices."

"Such flowery wording. Unbefitting of you. That...arrogance. You've not yet won, Shio."

"I choose to win. Therefore, I've won. Everything else is just a matter of metrics. If the metrics don't support my choice...then I simply have to grow strong enough to change them."

"Ohhh....oh, you misguided, arrogant child! You speak these things with such conviction! Do you honestly plan to carry this out into the world? Or will you paint a cage around yourself, to hide your wingspan? You know, of course, they will seek to clip your wings."

"Nothing has changed. Not truly. They're all as they have been. If I were to do what I have always done, it would end the same. It's obvious I need to find a new way. But I'm tired of choosing to be defeated. I choose to win, me. I am a winner."

"Very well. I can see you're running out of energy. Running on fumes, is the term mortals use? Let us end this properly. One strike, child. You have shown me so much. Certainly, you won't begrudge me one more? It is my duty, to push you beyond. These self-inflicted wounds will not satisfy my thirst, Shio. I must taste of your anguish at least once, or I could hardly call this a trial. In a sense, these things -are- one battling themselves...but never to this extent. So I'm afraid I must ask this be settled traditionally."

Shio shifted his stance, low towards the ground, grabbing his tanto in one hand, holding it close to his hip. The other hand was red and scalded, covered halfway in thick wax that seemed to hinder the mobility. He said nothing, simply nodded once, curtly, and pushed back to a standing position. He took one, two, three experimental steps...and then nodded again, eyes locked onto hers.

She released herself from the pillar, landing before him, and then flicking a hand negligently. As she did, a new pair of wings sprouted from her back immediately, folding forward to cover her heart and her face...though there was space enough left between the feathers for her eyes to be exposed. One hand transformed, with great slowness, into a morningstar; the other, into a shield.

"I will hold nothing back. Your strike will not find a home in my breast, Shio. You have only that short blade. My arsenal is far greater."

Again, Shio said nothing, simply lowered his stance even more, blinking once, ever so slightly, and then inhaling. As he let out the breath in a heavy, trembling gasp, he took two lurching steps forward, to be met by a far more graceful, almost...gliding motion by his zanpakuto spirit. Her weapon swung high from above, arcing out to strike at the very base of his skull, smashing the spine to powder if it landed. Her shield raised at the ready, face guarded, and heart obscured, it seemed effectively impossible for Shio to find any way to strike against her, especially unarmored as he was.

Her attack swung down, gravity and inertia doing its work, hitting Shio just slightly off-course, but still far hard enough to drive him to a knee, and force a spurt of blood outwards, to coat the ground. He let out a pained gasp, and tightened a fist, looking up at her.

"Again. I do not yield."

"Your blade is too short. Your passion is respectable, but your battle ends here. You simply cannot pierce my feathers with a tanto."

"Then give me another weapon. Or let me die."

"...This is your trial. Already, I have rendered too much aid. Watched you strike yourself down too many times. You must best me, child. In your own way. You have proven so many things, but that is not the intent of this trial. Your endurance will not win you my name. Yield, now. This task is impossible. You are not yet strong enough to change the criterion for success. Come back later. This is your first attempt child. After so long ignoring me. Did you think this, like all other things, you would succeed at so quickly and easily? You have earned my respect. Let that be sufficient."

"No. Your respect means nothing to me, self. I will have what I came here for. I choose to win. Your name is mine."

The angel ruffled her feathers, spreading them wide for a split second, and then allowing them to settle back into place, covering any of her most vital points, her shield poised to parry the blow he planned to strike.

"Very well. It pains me to join the others in this endeavor. But I will impress upon you the truth of the world; futility, Shio. Some things simply are not meant to be."

She rose her hand once more, transforming its shape into something more befitting a trident, or a spear, and taking a long step back. She thrust her blade directly for his breast, only to give an appraising nod when he stomped a foot down on its shaft...and to smash her shield into his face, hard enough to break his nose when he lunged forward, for a strike.

"You are concussed. You have one leg. Your mouth will soon fill with blood, and then you will be unable to breathe. You are outmatched. Your weapon is inferior. Your tactics are incapable. Your kido is admirable, just like your tactical acumen. But that same acumen must be fit to tell you when you lack the tools."

"No. I will not accept defeat. My victory has been written of already. I will tell you the story, when this is over. It's a beautiful one."

"...Very well. Out of respect for your accomplishments to now, I will continue this farce. Steel yourself, and come at me. One strike apiece."

Shio cleared his throat, spitting out a glob of blood, and rising to his full height, running a hand across his face, avoiding his nose quite carefully, and running it through his hair now. He shook it afterwards, and then took the same stance, far shakier this time.

"This is how the stories go, me. It's always the third try."

"Beowulf was struck down on his third trial. The third brother learns from his relatives the route to success. The epiphany comes. Such is not the case here. My defenses will not be breeched, on this attempt or any other. Your blade is unfit to the task. Train your fists. Your reflexes. Your kido. Grow stronger, and return here."

"I am strong. The strong write the story. I will win here. Against myself."

"Then tell me, Shio. What have you learned up to now?"

"Tenacity will not sway you. This test is not about my ability to get back up each time I fail. I must truly fell you, to succeed."

"Yet you persist. Do you think that Mirja would ever allow you to win in a circumstance like this? I am. Trying. To -kill you-. To wipe the life from your eyes, or crush your body to the point you can no longer stand."

"And still you fail."

"...Rrrrgh! You are frustrating! I can only assume you are trying to stoke some heat in my breast, that I will grow sloppy, or weakened!"

Shio chuckled, cracking his neck with a long, torturous twist to the left, and then gesturing.

"Pick your weapon."

Again, the angel's hand morphed and molded, taking on a form closer to a kukri; she swiped out towards his throat, watching the shinigami tilt his head back narrowly, just enough to turn it into a shallow nick, rather than a killing strike. He swiped upwards with his unburned hand once again, at an angle that would've, with any luck, sent the hilt into her chin, and directly into her mouth.

And her wing swiped down, with force great enough to break a pair of fingers, and send his blade skittering off to the side. She watched as Shio walked towards it, stooping over to pick it back up, and struggling to regain his feet.

"...I cannot handle this. I am calling an end to this trial. You have lost. My defenses have no weakness you can pierce. Leave this place."

"I refuse. Dictating terms are for the victorious. You have limited my options, true. But I am not defeated."

"You will -die-!"

"I will win."

She shook her hand, kukri forming into a longsword this time, pulled back.

"The moment you get within striking range, I will pierce your heart. Leave this place. I tire of this self-absorption. It is no longer endearing."

"You can pierce my heart. I will still win."

"You -cannot bypass my shield and my wings-! Not with that pitiful blade!"

"Strike, then."

Shio moved forward at the closest he could manage to a proper jog, his hand hip twisting at the last moment, as her blade descending, allowing the blade to strike against his lung instead of his heart; one rib shattered instantly, his lung deflating, filling with blood. His stomach was struck, and he could feel the hideous spreading warmth of stomach acid leaking into his body, as he lunged forward.

The shield rose, but it was too slow, too late. Shio could see the eye behind the feather widening, even as Shio's hands both thrust forward, one grasping the hilt...and the other grasping the blade, about an inch above. He thrust with force and precision that a normal strike never could've hoped for, his arms both spasming just right, at just the perfect moment, to pop out of their sockets, gaining a half-inch of thrust just a split second before the shield could be raised.

The blade slid through the air, as if guided by something greater, slipping neatly between the feathers, and piercing her eye immediately, popping it with an almost delicate sound. Her shield finally slotted into place...and with a vicious thrust of his own forehead, Shio smashed against it, forcing it against her wings, and driving the blade into what should've amounted to the brains on any normal foe.

"You...half-blade..."

"It's normally meant to be used with a longsword. And you wouldn't provide me something more suitable. So I improvized."

"You...sacrificed your arms."

"I made a longsword where there was none. I gave myself a new blade. I did what I had to, to secure victory."

The angel fell backwards, a knife sticking from an eye socket, laughing in delight, her mouth dropping open and her hands resting between her breasts, as her wings flared out, at their full length.

"I was wrong. You're not a candle. You're a bonfire. You burned so hard...and then you went out. That was always your problem, Shio. Your passion is the stuff of legends...and then it's gone. Spitting up sparks only occasionally. You know how to be the light. But you seek to burn yourself out, and destroy yourself. You wish to push yourself to a place you cannot go. And you do not consider the consequences. There will come a day, Shio...that you must think of your own well-being. Bonfires are dangerous. You could burn for a thousand years, and bring far more light into the world, as a candle."

"Enough. Your name."

"...Yes. Yes, Shio. You've earned it. I am Taroba. I will answer you, when you call upon me. Remember what you have learned here today. Do not...let the darkness encroach. Let your light burn long and strong. You needn't banish the darkness. It is enough merely to keep it at bay."

With those words, Shio awoke in his own quarters, the candle burned low, his muscles burning, tense, and his head pounding. He rose, stumbled, placed one hand against a wall, and only narrowly avoided his desire to vomit.

"I've won. Now it's simply time to move on to bigger things. And eventually...Mirja."
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