Chapter 16: Touch and Fear

Byakuya felt a hard chill pass through him as consciousness returned and he realized that his body had been bound to a bed with strong ropes made of highly concentrated reiatsu. He felt pressure where his wrists had been lashed together, above his head, and more around his ankles where they were fastened to the footboard at the end of the bed. A small fluttering of his eyelids yielded the information that he had fortunately been blindfolded and not blinded. He sensed someone powerful in the room, and did not have to think too hard to figure out who had taken him.

"You are awake," As Nodt's cold, eerie voice said, matter-of-factly, "That is good. I imagine that your family and friends have already begun to seek us. And I have other duties to see to as well. But before we go on with that, I would like to explore you more closely."

Byakuya flinched as a gloved finger touched his cheek lightly, sending a wave of fresh shivers down his spine. A whisper of breath touched his skin, and he felt the sense of being dangerously close to dying.

"You still react on a physical level to my power," commented the quincy, "But, it seems that the fear remains on the surface. Where before, it reached your heart and paralyzed you completely, now you feel the emotion, but you do not freeze. Why is that?"

Byakuya remained silent, unable to think of any answer.

"You don't know?" As Nodt asked calmly, "Well, then, we shall explore that question together."

The bed moved as the quincy sat down on it. As he moved closer, sweat broke out on the noble's pale skin, and his heart began to race. But, as the quincy had pointed out to him, as much as he felt the fear in his body, his mind remained unusually clear and focused.

He is right. Something is very different this time.

As Nodt's voice sounded again, stealing him out of his thoughts.

"There are two kinds of power that we quincy's can use. One kind of power exists within some of us already. These are innate talents that manifest themselves in some way, much like your own powers. Then, there are powers that are granted to us by our leader. Sometimes, the granted power is unique, but sometimes, as in my case, the granted power enhances the innate power that is already there."

The quincy's gloved fingers touched Byakuya's face again, and As Nodt watched approvingly as the noble shuddered in reaction.

"I learned very early that my touch was deadly," the quincy explained, "My parents, of course, were spared, as were my blood relations. But...the first time that anyone other then a family member made contact with my skin, that person died."

Byakuya flinched as As Nodt's fingers stroked his face, and images flashed in his mind.

He caught a glimpse of a woman, lifting a baby into her arms, looking into his deep, black eyes and smiling.

"Oh, such a sweet little thing!" the woman cooed, tickling his cheek.

As her fingertips touched his bare skin, an odd glow rose around them. The woman gave a strange, echoing shriek, her eyes rounding as intense, gripping fear exploded through her body and began to consume her. The baby's mother snatched the infant back from the other woman and held him tightly against her, watching in horror as her friend's screams filled the air, and the woman collapsed onto the floor. The others in the room stared at the fallen woman, no one daring to move. Finally, the baby's father moved forward and knelt at the woman's side. With shaking hands, he turned her from her side onto her back. Soft exclamations of horror issued from the others gathered in the room as they encountered the woman's terrified eyes and the truth dawned on them.

"She died of fright," As Nodt whispered in the noble's ear, "My innate power in its uncontrolled form was too much for her. That incident left my family too petrified to touch me. My parents devised a special layer of clothing that encased my body, protecting any who touched me from making direct contact. But the damage was already done. They were forced to take me and to flee from our home before someone would have tried to have me taken from them. We moved somewhere far away and they bought a large estate in the country. They kept me there always, never allowing anyone to know they even had a son and never letting me leave the grounds."

Byakuya considered the quincy's words carefully.

"It sounds like a lonely existence," he said softly.

Even As Nodt's laughter, he found, chilled him to the core.

"Sympathy, Byakuya? Coming from you, that is amusing."

"What do you know of me?" asked the noble.

"Kuchiki Byakuya," said As Nodt, citing the data he had read, "Son of Kuchikis Soujun and Sorano. Grandson of Kuchiki Ginrei, and leader of the Kuchiki clan, and Gotei 13, Sixth Division. Hakudo master, kido and flash step expert. His sword, Senbonzakura, releases small blades that are nearly too small to be seen, but look like falling cherry blossoms where the light catches them. His bankai, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi is one of the more deadly among the shinigami taichous. A larger release of petals with the command 'Scatter.' Bankai has additional levels, 'Senkei,' a thousand blades that form a chamber, where defense is sacrificed to raise the blades' killing power. 'Gokei,' a sphere of blades that surround the opponent, striking from every conceivable angle. And 'Shuukei Hakuteiken,' a brilliant white aura and sword with tremendous cutting ability. Yes, you are formidable, Byakuya, but you are known to be arrogant and callous, taunting your opponents as you attack with no more power than you think it will take to make them fall."

They don't know about the hurtless area?

"So, it is not like you to spare sympathy on an enemy. I must assume, then, that you are studying me for weaknesses. Go ahead. You will not find one to exploit."

"I offered no sympathy," Byakuya replied quietly, "I merely reflected that it would be lonely to be raised in isolation, with even your parents being too afraid to touch you. Even though they had already witnessed that you could not hurt them."

"Perhaps they felt that it was not that I could not hurt them, but that I had the potential and simply chose not to kill them. And they were wise to be so cautious, Byakuya. But as wise as they were, they were fools to try to imprison me. And finally, I was forced to kill them to escape. It was then that Juha Bach-sama appeared and told me that he could help me to control and perfect my powers. He bestowed upon me, the power to manifest those golden thorns I struck you with, to confine my power within them so as to better concentrate and control the inflicting of fear."

Byakuya took a hissing breath as he sensed the manifestation of one of As Nodt's thorns above him, then felt it sink slowly into his shoulder. His teeth clenched and he closed his eyes, even beneath the blindfold, fear making the blood turn icy in his veins.

"Interesting," said the quincy, "I think I begin to understand. This resistance you have, this shield around your heart is powered by something outside your body. Although fear permeates every part of you, you are not consumed by it, because it does not envelop your heart. Tell me, Kuchiki Byakuya, what means did you find to thwart my power?"

Renji's face appeared suddenly in the noble's mind.

"I don't know what you are talking about!" he insisted.

Could it be?

"You are lying."

Byakuya winced and groaned as more thorns formed and penetrated his restrained body.

"Tell me!"

"I don't..."

"TELL ME!" As Nodt snarled.

Byakuya went breathless as another thorn formed and the tip touched one blindfolded eye. He managed a panting breath, then succumbed once more to unconsciousness. As Nodt glared down at him and let the golden thorns fade.

"A short respite then," he whispered darkly, "but this is not an escape. Do not dream you will escape from me, Byakuya. You are going to yield everything to me!"

XXXXXXXXXX

"Hantarou-kun!" Torio cried, recognizing the young healer as the four carrying Tetsuya and Koji burst into the fourth division, "We have two gravely injured men. Help us, please!"

Hanatarou rushed to them as they stopped inside the doors, then he leaned over Tetsuya, taking a quick scan. He repeated the same with Koji and nodded.

"Bring them this way. They need to be healed by Inoue Orihime. She is resting after healing some others that were near death, but she should have recovered enough for this."

Torio and the others fell in with the healer, following him to a treatment room, where several other healers waited. They moved the injured men to two beds in the room, then one of them led the group that had brought them to a waiting area.

"Someone will come to inform you as soon as there is any news."

"Thank you," said Torio, "But there is something that you will want to know."

"Sir?" queried the healer.

"Kuchiki Tetsuya has an unregistered bankai, water type, that he shares with his stallion, Arashi."

"He sh-shares a bankai with...?"

"Yes!" Torio said urgently, "The enemy tried to use one of their medallions to steal it, and they seemed to have done so. But although Tetsuya-san could not use his bankai after, Arashi was still able to do so. We do not know why this happened, but we thought that Unohana taichou should know so that she might have more to help her figure out how the medallions work."

"Thank you," said the healer, bowing, "I will see that Unohana taichou is informed immediately!"

Torio watched as the healer flash stepped away, then turned back to the other who had accompanied him.

"You should return to the precipice world to find Renji-san," he told them, "I will remain here to see to Tetsuya-san and my brother. But we need to offer Renji-san whatever help we can!"

Michio considered the attendant's words for a moment, then nodded.

"As you wish then. But Torio-san, you must stay here with them, then. Whatever happens, do not attempt to return to the clan alone. It is too dangerous."

"I won't," Torio promised, "I will stay here to help care for my brother and Tetsuya-san, once they have been stabilized."

"Very well. We will go then."

The three flash stepped away, leaving Torio looking after them.

"Help is coming, Renji-san," he whispered, "We owe you for helping us to get them through!"

XXXXXXXXXX

"Abarai Renji," said Kuchiki Nori, looking up as the redhead strode into the council's gathering tent, "We are glad to see that you have returned to us safely. But, something serious has happened, and we need to ask for your help."

"Arashi told me that Byakuya was kidnapped," Renji affirmed, "I'm going to go after that bastard, but you guys should really get out of here and find somewhere else to go, for your own safety. For all you know, As Nodt gave away your position to the enemy, and others could be on the way to annihilate you!"

"There will be no others," Nori said with certainty.

"What?"

"That quincy," said the head councilor, "came into our camp and stole our leader out from under our very noses. And as he left, he told us that he would send no other, but would return to destroy us with his own hands."

"Not that you can believe everything an enemy tells you," said Renji.

"No," said Nori, looking around at the other councilors, "We are not so much trusting in his words as gathering our power for the final confrontation."

Renji nodded.

"Arashi said that you had something to help Byakuya and me in the fighting?"

"We do," said Nori, lowering his eyes.

He reached into his robes and withdrew a small golden pendant that had been cut in the shape of a sakura blossom. Renji gazed silently at the lovely charm, then met Nori's eyes questioningly.

"What is this?" he asked, softly.

Nori gave him a fleeting smile.

"This is an empty charm right now. But...in a few moments, it will be filled with the strength of the Kuchiki family...all of the Kuchiki family."

Renji frowned.

"I don't understand. What are you saying?" he asked, staring at the charm.

"We have run for as we can," Nori said, looking down at the charm, "There is nowhere else for us to go. Our leader has lost his bankai, and he needs our strength to defeat that monster that took him."

"Okay," Renji said, a little weakly, "This is getting kinda...weird. What are you going to do?"

"I will give the command," said Nori, "And every man, woman and child that is encamped here will be drawn down into that charm. We will be held in suspension, and our power will be joined to provide our leader with a power that cannot be stolen. It is both a protection for us, and power for him. We consider this a last resort, as the destruction of the charm would mean the destruction of our clan. So...I ask you, Abarai Renji, as our leader's soul bonded, as the one with whom he has joined to bless our clan with his progeny, will you take this token of our power and when you find him, give this to him to help him in his battles?"

Renji's face paled.

"You're going to what?" he asked, swallowing hard, "You're shitting me, ne? You aren't serious?"

He looked around at the proud faces of the men and women around him.

"Oh kami," he mused breathlessly, "You are serious! You're out of your minds, taking a chance like that! Byakuya wouldn't want you to...!"

"Our leader needs us," Nori insisted, curling his fingers around the charm, "You and Arashi will be charged with taking the charm to Byakuya. Find him, Abarai-san! Find him. Free him. And give him this power so that he can reclaim what was taken from him!"

"But...all of you could..."

"We know what is at stake," the head councilor assured him, "And we know where our allegiance and our duty lies. We know that the enemy he faces is strong, but we also know that the three of you have the power to defeat him. Our hearts and our prayers will be with you, Abarai Renji."

"W-wait!" Renji cried as light began to flare around the pendant, "Nori-san!"

"Giri no hinote," the old man whispered, invoking the charm's power.

"Holy hell!" Renji gasped, watching in dismay as the entire encampment around him glowed white with light, flickered sharply, then flashed and disappeared into the depths of the pendant.

The charm began to fall towards the ground, but Renji reached out a hand and caught it, then stood in the middle of the now silent forest, staring at it. He heard a delicate step behind him and turned to meet Arashi's widened eyes.

"Well, Fleabag," Renji said in a stunned voice, "It looks like it's me and you now. C'mon. Let's find Byakuya!"