Chapter 21: A Shadowy Game

"There are always games in the darkness.. games where winning means nothing but surviving to the next day, and where losing means to be lost and forgotten." ~ Nobunaga Shihoin, First Commander of the Stealth Force

That Evening, Location: Unknown

"How many did we lose?"

"Nineteen so far. Six shadowing that blonde bitch and her toadies were dumb enough to get caught. The rest were taken by the Praetorians or their agents."

"I don't care about them you moron, how many drops were lost?"

"Four. At least three reached the mortal postal services, they should have arrived by now at the latest."

"Good. Next time answer the question I ask."

"Apologies sir, I will not make that mistake again. Should I position a new team to follow the Arrancar?"

"No... not yet. The Necromancer will be on guard now, throwing more resources at them would accomplish nothing. Say what you want about that asshole, but he's competent at his job. Maintain the teams on the other question legions for now. If that creature steps out of line, we'll just have to handle her in a different way."

"Very good sir."

"You're estimate of this engagement?"

"I cannot see how it will be anything beyond a bloody stalemate, which would effectively mean an Atlantean victory."

"Explain. The Legions' reserves are depleted after the battles of Tamoanchan, a long war will gain them little. Their potential recruiting pools are nearly exhausted, while the Gotei's are hardly touched. Don't bother me with their ideas of conscripting souls from the Rukon or Tamoanchan's outer reaches either, anyone with sense knows that those are non-starters."

"Of course they are sir, but there are still enough bleeding hearts in the Gotei to ensure that they will not not abandon their outer districts, however squalid and worthless they actually are. The three committed legions could easily tie down a third to half of their squads over the next several months by simply engaging in protracted, defensive battles."

"I see... your insight into these matters is excellent."

"I live to serve you."

"Yes.. yes you do. Now tell me, how would you upset this delicate balance that they hope to create?"

"By insulating the wearer in a cocoon of their own spiritual power, it helps them endure far higher levels of latent energy than they would be able to take without the armor. It is this that allows for our Legionnaires to combat beings that would normally paralyze them by their simple presence." ~ An Atlantean Armor Smith to his Apprentice.

1 Day until Engagement, Department of Research and Development

"A work of art, is it not Captain Soifon?" It was hard not to feel relief at returning to someone who at least knew how to address her properly. She had nearly developed a tic after spending far too many days with Ukitake.

The question was clearly rhetorical, but she nodded regardless. "It is impressive, Captain Kurotsuchi."

Standing before them like a model was Nemu Kurotsuchi, her face as expressionless as ever. Rather than being dressed in the usual Shihakushō however, she was clad in a tight fitting leather outfit that would have shown off everything if not for the plates slid into sleeves within the material. Most of her torso, legs, and arms had multiple pieces of protection. It was easy enough to see that it would fit quite well under a shinigami's usual garb.

The strangest Captain in the Gotei eagerly clasped his hands together like a schoolchild, his painted face practically glowing. "Far more advanced of course than what our enemies are reportedly using. Their methodology must have stagnated centuries ago. My own design far surpasses even our own expectations, with room for improvement still remaining."

"It is removable, correct?" Standing next to a man who's reiatsu signature stank of toxin was hardly pleasant, and his daughter's felt like razor blades against her wrists, but some things simply had to be tolerated.

"Of course of course," A long fingernail missed her face by a hairsbreadth as he waved an arm about, "That was just the proto-type. I still don't understand what the fuss was, it would be far more capable if we could simply integrate it directly into the soldier's bodies."

And that's why you're a giant creep, seriously..

Astounding. Something so obvious even you are correct. "How many do you have?"

"Production has already begun, but there are currently sufficient numbers for all of the Captains and their lieutenants, already sized."

"Capabilities? Vulnerabilities?"

He moved away from her, thankfully, and gestured at Nemu as he spoke. "The armor protects all of the major organs and arteries, save for those in the head. There is separation in the plates as you can see, to allow for the greatest levels of flexibility, but those gaps are filled with traces of Sekkiseki dust linked into a bound matrix. Observe."

Drawing his blade from its sheath, And between his legs like that.. guh agh.. I want to vomit now, he brought it down one handed directly against one of the separations.

Her eyebrows rose when Ashisogi Jizō sent red sparks flying through the air, leaving a dark line behind, but failed utterly to separate Nemu's arm from her shoulder as such a blow would normally have done.

"How does it stand up against thrusts?"

The teeth grinding that he emitted at the question was audible, "The plates can take them."

"Your matrix cannot?"

Rather than speak, he simply lashed out with his sword. Again sparks flew, but this time Nemu's eyes widened almost imperceptibly in pain. Blood dribbled onto the suit when he pulled back, he expression more unpleasant than normal. "No. It cannot."

So touchy about your failures, as always Mayuri. "You mentioned other enhancements?"

As intended, the question restored his relative good humor at once, "Ah yes, the upgrades. Well, there are a few that someone such as yourself would surely appreciate. For example, the lack of a full armor plate around the foot means that our aerial capabilities will remain at full strength."

Her eyes narrowed, "You're saying that the Atlanteans will be limited in the air? And in shunpo skills?"

"That is only partially correct, but at least you grasped the basic tenants of what I was saying." There was a theatrical sigh that made her want to rip the gold plating from his teeth, followed by a gesture towards Nemu's feet with his still dripping sword, "Full armor plating around the foot, insulated with reiatsu, would by its very nature make it difficult to summon enough reshi to stand in the air. Possible yes, but difficult. Shunpo, so long as the wearer has a solid surface to rebound his energy off of, would be only marginally affected."

Vast advantage in the air. Slight but possible advantage in speed on the ground.

"Master.. Mayuri.. may I tend to my wounds?"

"Wound? That is hardly a scratch, I avoided anything major in an act of mercy apparently beyond your miserable ability to comprehend it. Now be silent."

"Kurotsuchi." her arms crossed as she regarded the deceptively large man. She'd learned a long time ago to not bother attempting to force him to treat Nemu like a person rather than a test subject. As far as she knew, Unohana was the only one who could manage even a temporary improvement. "Are healing kido's built into the armor?"

"The prototype caused my fifteenth seat to grow a third arm. On his neck."

Oh.. yeah, going to go vomit into the bushes now.

"You, Akon. Tend to your Lieutenant." Kurotsuchi promptly whipped his head towards her, snarling in anger. "What is its resistance to kido?"

His mouth worked slowly before he spoke, his tone laced with irritation, "Highly resistant to explosive and blunt force type spells. Injury is far more likely than death."

Behind him, the Third Seat edged towards Nemu, handing her bandages and vials of materials she couldn't recognize. "Has your department achieved any advances in regards to Lieutenant Hisagi's petition for more advanced communications equipment?"

"Hm? Oh, that trifling matter. Akon! Brief the little ninja here, I must return to my private labs. Nemu! You worthless lug, clean that blood off your new armor and then I want all of them delivered to their intended at once! And you'd best be back before nightfall!"

"Yes, Master Mayuri."

Without a further word, or insult, he stormed out of the lab.

I really hate him..

Enough Suzemebachi.

Akon, his aura of tepid water filling her nose, sighed after his Captain left. "The Captain's been in a bad mood ever since the Commander refused his request for Atlantean bodies to dissect."

"Charming." And utterly pointless. Atlantean soul reapers were just that, soul reapers. Physically there would be no differences between them. The varying differences between how their zanpakotou functioned was entirely a result of how they were forged, nothing more. "What is the status of your project?"

"I've got three dozen or so headsets with a twenty kilometer range between them in a box over there for you." There was a pause as he pulled a cigarette of some kind out of his lab coat, and lit it with a minor kido. "Enough for a few units, more will be ready over the next few weeks."

"We might not have weeks." she fought back the irritation with some effort. Everything will be ready in a few weeks.. what happens when the enemy strikes before we're prepared?

It was her turn to grind her teeth, causing Akon to blink in confusion as he puffed on his vice. "Captain?"

"A few weeks will not do. I need sufficient sets for the entire Onmitsukidō by the end of the week."

"Uh.." A hand rose, hastily pulling the stick from his mouth before it could fall to the floor, "With respect Captain, that's more than four hundred."

"Sixty six sets per day should be satisfactory. Lieutenant Kurotsuchi, where is the armor assigned to me?"

Nemu blinked slowly, her hands continuing to bind her wound. "There will be twelve cases in the exit hall, each marked for the proper squad."

"I will retrieve mine. Third Seat, make sure that the equipment is delivered to the Shihoin complex by the end of the day."

"Uh, yeah, sure Captain." The man was already lost in thought, his eyes flicking one way and then the other, likely trying to work out how the hell he was going to produce that many communication sets inside of a week. "It'll get there."

"I expect it to." The or else didn't need to be said. She was, after all, the only Captain besides the Commander who could punish members of other squads. There were some perks to being Empress of the Onmitsukidō.

You know Lady Yoruichi doesn't like it when you think things like that..

Sometimes it is necessary. The defensive thought was reflexive. I know the records, she did far more than I ever did when she was in command.

And you know that's why.. she knows what it's like.

Not now Suzemebachi. I don't have the time to become a bleeding heart.

There was an oddly quiet sigh before the feeling of her zanpakuto faded away. Frowning to herself, and ignoring the subtle glance between Akon and some of the other scientist shinigami in the room, she spun on her heel and departed.

Next up is Chapter 22: A Militant Beginning

As you could probably tell from the long countdown in the chapter starts, we're about at the point where the fighting is going to actually start. This story will cover the initial battles and their aftermaths, probably wrapping up somewhere in the low thirties as far as chapters go.

This was the last of the old chapter sections, so from here on out the story will be on a bi-weekly release schedule. Expect the next chapter, Feb 8 / 16, either taking place from Rukia's or Harribel's point of view, I haven't really determined it for sure yet.

Please read and review, criticism is welcome, flames not so much, as usual. Reviews are my lifeblood as a writer.. every-time my email goes off with a review it makes me want to write more, so please take the time to leave one. Guests can leave them as well, and it only takes a minute, so please. Even if it's as simple as "I enjoyed it, please continue."

Thanks, Kat