Prologue

Holy War

1,000 years in the past… Mount Ichimonji, Afterlife…

AWAKEN!

Red eyes snapped open as the body on the stone floor began gasping for air once again, gulping it down like a bellows. The pool of blood he was lying in was sticky, beginning to turn into a dark glue; the taste and smell were bitter on his palate.

Putting a palm to the floor, the man tried to lever himself up, only to fall back as the right side of his chest exploded into an inferno of pain. Writhing on the ground, he bit his tongue, causing fresh blood to choke him.

Recovering a bit, the unfortunate man in the robes of the dead rolled over onto his back; he became aware that his left eye was blurry and reached up his uninjured arm to clear it, hissing in fresh agony as his fingers touched raw flesh and slick bone.

Steeling against the pain he knew was coming, the man pushed himself to sit in the middle of the blood puddle, gritting his teeth so hard that he was surprised the enamel didn't shatter.

He caught his breath…and then remembered.

Blood. Screaming. An attack in his home.

Praying to whatever god that might have been listening, the Guardian of the Mountain allowed his senses to spread out, probing, touching here, prodding there, searching for any spark of reiryoku that would tell him someone, anyone, in the fortress was still there, still alive…

Nothing…no answering echo against his signal.

Except…

His stomach turning against itself, he slowly managed to turn his battered shell, to look directly behind him…

And the sight of the little, broken body beneath the rubble made him scream his anguish to the cold stone ceiling…

200 years in the past...Black Forest, Germany...

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Isla Marinn sat upon her knees before the altar, offering devotion to the large, five-spoked wheel made from the finest truesilver.

This was the Aegis of Petrine, the mark of the Quincy people.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Typically, she would be joined by several other maidens in her worship of the Light Goddess, kneeling alongside with heads bowed, palms up in supplication. As she was priestess of this little village, it fell to Isla to lead her flock in giving the Lady their sacrifice of praise.

Today, however, there was no congregation, no other young women of virtue to swear either holy chastity or blessed motherhood to the Aegis, no young men, stout of heart and strong of body, to devote themselves to the Hunt, forsaking family and hearth.

No, Isla Marinn was the last.

For he had come.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

There had been tales. Of course there had been tales; there always were about monsters from the ages past. The most common had been about the Masked Devils, those corrupted souls whom her people still hunted today, and then there were the stories of the Traitors, those Humans who broke bread with those very cursed spirits. Also to mention were their natural enemies, the Black Robes, who had misguidedly formed the tradition of "sublimating" the Devils.

And then there was him, who had led the Black Robes in their genocide against Petrine's Chosen nearly a millennium before.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Isla was safe in the temple. The others, foolish in their arrogance and fear, had tried to fight or had listened to their doubts and run away, but not the high priestess. They may have ignored her words, but her faith was pure.

Mother Petrine would save her.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

He had appeared from nowhere, it seemed. It had been a completely normal Market Day. Neighbor had greeted neighbor, friend had greeted friend. Theirs was a farming community, content to eke out a living in their forest clearing and trade the produce the good earth gave them with each other, and her family, the noble house of Marinn, had watched over them for centuries.

But no more.

Isla's senses had gone numb some time ago, which told her that either her flock was all dead, or they were too far out of her ability to feel them.

Well, perhaps numb was a bit strong.

There was one person outside of the small cave that served as the village temple.

His presence to her was as apparent as heat in a frigid room.

Immense but controlled.

Tempered but fiery.

And angry. So, so angry.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

If there was any sign of fear or trepidation from the young woman, it was present only in the quicker utterance of her ceaseless prayer, in the slight swallow of her dry throat as she paused for breath.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Her eyes found the enormous wheel, the blessed mythryl glowing faintly, the sign of the Goddess' presence reassuring her, giving Isla courage in the face of her trial.

Never would it be said that Isla Marinn shrank from her sacred duty.

Today was the day she would face the bane of her people.

Today was the day the power of the Goddess of Light and Order would be plain to all.

Today was the day the Butcher would breathe his last.

With the coming of the dawn, Mother Petrine's sacred time, Isla Marinn would lift the black shadow from the hearts of the Children, and—

Clang.

Her heart skipped a beat at the sound. Metal. A sword upon stone, the noise made to frighten her.

It would not work; the priestess would not allow him to sway her, would not—

Clang.

Taking her eyes from the icon, she bowed her head and raised her palms again, lifting her prayer to Heaven.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Clang.

Closer now, the staccato sound now punctuated by the sound of sandaled feet crunching the dirt and stone of the cave floor.

Clang.

"Praise Petrine, Queen of Bliss, the Light of All. Blessed art thou for thy wisdom, and blessed be thy people, the Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, defend thy children, now unto the end of all. Amen."

Clang.

Isla's heart leapt into her throat, her stomach suddenly an ice-cold pinpoint in her body. The upraised palms began to shake, and a sheen of chill sweat appeared on her brow.

"P-Praise Petrine, Queen o-of Bliss, the L-L-Light of All. Blessed art th-thou for thy wisdom, a-and blessed be thy people, the Fai-Faithful. Holy Mother, Lady of Light, d-defend thy children, now u-u-u-unto the end of all..."

Isla Marinn heard the last clang, and the footsteps ground to a halt—directly behind her.

He had finally arrived.

She swallowed drily.

"Amen."

Gently, slowly, Isla's palms laid themselves flat on her knees, and the urge to wipe the dampness from them on her simple white cotton robe was tamped down. She straightened her spine, squared her shoulders, raising her head to look upon the Aegis. Forcing her voice to cease its trembling, the little priestess addressed the murderer, every inch the Daughter of Petrine she was.

"So, you've come."

No answer was forthcoming, and Isla found this almost as unnerving as if he had openly told her what he had planned for her involving her innards and the edge of those unnatural, living blades the Black Robes used.

"I…cannot say that you've been…expected…"

Silence met her voice once again, and in that silence, in that moment of no answer, Isla Marinn noticed, for the first time in her short life, just how small her voice was. This had never been noticed before—every time she had spoken in here, her voice had been drowned out by the worship of her flock, or raised as she had expounded upon the teachings of the Goddess. Now…

Now, she sounded like the young girl of eighteen she was, alone in a cave with an immortal murderer.

Unconsciously, slender fingers tightened around white cotton as the cold sweat began to run again…and then the Aegis seemed to cast a little more light upon her…

"I understand your silence," she said, a sense of warmth spreading through her. "Being in the presence of the Great Mother has that—"

"Your Mother…," a harsh voice rasped, "is a fraud."

Isla stiffened; never before had any man or woman dared interrupt her, raised from birth to be High Priestess, and she found herself quite unable to form an appropriate response in her usual, quick-witted way.

"…o-of course, I'd expect a Black Robe to dispute her existence…"

A rustle of cloth sounded itself behind her, and the grind of gravel spoke of shifting weight. "It isn't her existence I dispute, little girl; merely her deity."

She herself shifted, not for the first time wishing that there was a cushion protecting her knees from the rocks and stones she was kneeling upon. "To acknowledge her existence is to acknowledge her omnipotence, fool." A sense of steel had entered her tone, the same steel she used to correct unruly children brought before her when their parents had hit their wit's end. "One cannot be without the other."

Silence for a short moment. "Then," said the hoarse throat of the man behind her, "call upon her. Please."

The request, combined with the completely unexpected use of manners, took the young woman by surprise, and she had to resist the urge to turn and stare incredulously at him. "I…I beg your pardon?"

"Call upon her. It should be a simple task, correct?" The shifting of gravel behind her spoke of another step being taken closer to the altar, and thus, her. "She is the Mother of your people. Mothers come when their children call. Call her. Now."

Isla swallowed hard. "The Goddess is not some dog to be called upon for no reason," she said icily. "Particularly not to prove her power for a nonbeliever."

The man behind her sighed heavily. "I see…"

Isla allowed herself a moment of smug pride…which promptly vanished and was replaced by fear as an icicle of steel suddenly lay flat against her cheek. Breath caught deep in her throat as a sick terror began to build deep within her spirit.

"Will she show if you are in danger for your life?"

The little priestess remained stone-still, her eyes fixed to the upwards flare that replaced the conventional tip of a normal sword. Isla could feel the entity within the strangely clean, unstained sword from the steel pressed against her face; ancient, intelligent, regarding her with a hatred it did not seem to bother concealing. It suddenly occurred to her that her assailant was speaking to her.

"—a deal with you, little one. Summon your Mother. If she comes to save you, I will let you live; not only that, I will allow you to take my head. However...if she does not show…" The edge of the blade was suddenly pressing against her face, and the rest of his message was made entirely clear without another word spoken.

Slowly, shakily, she raised her hands and bowed her head, eyes not leaving the Aegis of Petrine until it was not physically possible to keep it within sight. Squeezing her eyes closed, she began to fervently pray under her breath, praying for protection, for her assassin to suddenly be struck dead, for him to experience the wrath of the Mother of Light Herself. Isla had no way to do this herself; for a High Priestess to carry any form of weapon was to deny the existence of the Goddess' protection, which was an obvious taboo.

The angle of the blade suddenly changed, lowering itself to her neck, the tip pointing down to the ground as her assailant stood.

"Thirty seconds."

'Save me, Lady Petrine, dearest Mother, visit your vengeance upon this animal, bring justice to your people, strike him and his ilk down with your terrible might, let not your servant suffer this trial—"

"Twenty seconds…" The voice, so rough and coarse, had gained an edge of anticipation to it, as if the Butcher was willing the time to hurry.

'O Great Bringer of Order, Breaker of Dawn, show yourself in your awful glory and burn his eyes to the sockets, send your mighty envoys to hold him to the earth and destroy him with many lightnings—'

"Ten seconds…" No denying it now; the terrible man was eager for this, was waiting for her to fail. Oh, how sweet the look of dismay on his face would be when Petrine came storming through the ether to protect her devoted…and then, a niggling little voice came into Isla's head…

What if she didn't come?

'Oh, my Lady, forgive me for my doubt! My faith is strong, I know you will come for me, if not to destroy this beast of a man, then to at least carry me away to safety! Great Mother—'

"Five…"

'Praise be to you—'

"Four…"

'Please show yourself to us—'

"Three…" The blade removed itself from her flesh, but there was no relief in the sensation, for that meant he was drawing the blade back to finish her—

'O Mighty One, all things are in your time and praise to you for this, and though your Daughter is in danger for her life, I will praise you, please come—"

"Two…"

'Where are you, my Lady?! Please show yourself, he's not going to stop, he will kill me, don't you hear me—"

"One…" The upward curve of the blade's flared end gently touched her between her shoulder blades, and pressure began to build, the razor edge beginning to gently slice through the fabric of her robe—

'Where are you, Petrine?! I gave my life to your service, allowed myself to never experience love for a man, let myself starve for you, and for this?! Where are you, where are you, YOU PROMISED ME, WHERE ARE YOU—'

"Zero." A hand gripped her shoulder and the pressure upon her back suddenly became a strong push and Isla Marinn threw her head up to stare with wild eyes at the suddenly-dark wheel and she screamed at the thing, shrieking her anger and terror at the top of her lungs.

"SAVE MEEEEEE—!"

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The Shinigami known as the Butcher of Quincies allowed the body of the girl to slump forward, the last breath rattling out of her lungs as the long blade of his Zanpakuto slid smoothly out of her back.

Reaching down, he used the hem of her now-crimson-stained robe to wipe the blood from the steel, then allowed it to sheathe, his thumb guiding it in. Looking balefully at the symbol of the Quincy faith, he murmured a quick incantation, raised his hand, and proceeded to melt it to slag with a blue-hot jet of fire.

The Butcher sighed then, blinking tiredly; it had been a long night, not made much shorter by having to chase down the villagers. A scant handful had escaped, but they were minnows, easily scared back under a rock by the slightest disturbance in the water of their lives.

They wouldn't dare Eradicate another soul for fear of attracting his attention…not that it would stop him from tracking them down later. The average Quincy was very community-minded, and they would invariably begin to clump together sooner or later.

The only Quincy to not do so was the same one that had started this cycle, so many years ago.

Rattleshakeshakequiver

Crimson eyes stared down at the hilt of his Zanpakuto, and he patted the hilt idly. The sword was right; time and tide waited for no man, and he had to keep moving.

Journeying to the cave entrance, he looked out over the village. Little houses, wood, stone, straw roofs…simple and homely, rustic and quaint.

And full of dead bodies.

No souls, though; Quincies, what with their existences being spent with one foot in the mundane world and the other in the spiritual one, were automatically Sublimated and sent to either the Soul Society or Hell upon their demise, depending upon the alignment and moral character of the individual.

Saved him the trouble of doing half a favor...but robbed him the pleasure of screwing the other half personally.

Sniffing the air, the Butcher ignored the smell of blood. There was bound to be some food in one of these little huts, relatively hot and ready to eat. It wasn't like anyone else was going to enjoy it, and he deserved something good to eat after such a long night. The energy was a necessity, after all; he had a whole other colony within the Balkans to take care of before they heard of the presence of the Butcher and cleared out overnight, leaving him with a cold trail.

Couldn't have that, now could he?

Shakeshakerattleshake

Walking into the village commons, the assassin shook his head in the dawn light. "Yeah, yeah…something with meat, I know…"