Before he was aware of anything else, beyond any other sensation, was indescribable pain.
It took a Herculean effort just to force his eyes open and even then his sight was blurry and his sensitive eyes burned from the heat and noxious fumes in the air. He took in a breath of the putrid air, which felt like sandpaper as it shredded its way down his airways and into his lung, and he coughed violently.
Blood came up with the cough, the very action feeling more akin to fine shards of glass tearing through the tender flesh of his trachea.
"Ah, I take it you're finally awake..."
Kokutō ignored the unfamiliar voice for now, blinking slowly a few times to clear his sight as he tried to discern where he was, exactly.
The first thing he could tell was that he was in a scorching-hot metal casket suspended in midair by heavy chains, his entire body encased, sans for a small hole for his face. Inside the cramped box, what little room for movement that should have been available to him was denied as his body was strapped securely -painfully, even- in place.
Christ, even his fingers were restrained!
"This casket is an interesting device..." explained the voice conversationally. "It slowly sears your flesh away, then casually restores it. It seems to slowly heal absolutely any wound you might incur, but only so the suffering will never end."
The suspended casket was slowly spinning backwards, leaving Kokutō with the constant sensation of helplessly falling. As he fell backwards, he noticed a track in the ceiling where the suspended coffin would rotate in a slow circle around the massive chamber as it spun, but that wasn't what really caught his attention.
Black shapes moved across the ceiling, thousands of them, a pulsating sea of insectoid life the likes of which he had never seen before. They moved among each other aimlessly, chittering their oversized mandibles together as their long, spindly legs clung to the rocky ceiling, barbed tips sticking into the stone.
"Ah, you've noticed our companions, have you?" continued the voice. "Dreadful little things... Periodically, they like to crawl down the chains to say 'hello,' whether or not you want them to. They like to crawl inside you to eat and lay their eggs, and they'll use any orifice they can find to get in.
The voice paused a second before repeating itself, emphasizing. "Any orifice."
Kokutō flinched at the implication.
"Nothing we can do to stop them, if you're curious... And if you think they hurt going in, wait until their eggs hatch and it's time for the newborns to eat and leave the nest... Once again, the box refuses to let us simply die from the agony."
The casket continued its painfully-slow spin backwards, away from the menacing insects and finally tilting the Damned upside down entirely, letting blood rush to his head. He craned his restrained neck as best he could to see the cavern floor, but what he saw directly beneath him was a scalding pool of boiling water.
He already knew it was acidic; there wasn't a drop of water in Hell that wasn't acidic.
Even so many hundreds of meters above the bubbling pit of pain and suffering, the steam was still wafting up, burning his eyes and relentlessly assaulting the sensitive, scarred half of his face.
"That, my friend, is our bath," explained his companion in the other casket, for Kokutō was now sure there was at least one more casket near his own, though he had yet to see it clearly. "Periodically, they will slowly lower us into the water to cleanse us of our impurities...or simply to boil our skin off. Agonizing beyond words, but again, the caskets won't let us die.
"They also prevent us from becoming physically accustomed to the pain," he added after a long minute of consideration. "It's always fresh, always new."
Beyond the edges of the massive scalding pool were countless thousands of Kushanāda, though they looked considerably smaller and meaner than the ones he was used to seeing.
"And those would be our jailers..." continued the cultured voice. "An entire legion, all devoted solely to keeping us in check... I'm flattered, personally."
The voice paused again, letting the situation sink in.
"It matters little, anyway," it said finally. "That pain in the center of your soul right now? Our spiritual powers have been severed from our bodies; we haven't the strength or capacity to fight our way past a single one of them, much less the entire army. There are ways to restore powers, of course, but none available to us in our current predicament."
The casket continued its slow spin, now held face-down horizontally and giving Kokutō a better view of the area and the guards. At first he had thought there to be thousands, but as he looked again at the massive crowd of demons, he began to suspect they were without number.
So many Kushanāda...
He hissed in pain as gravity pulled his body down against the top of the casket, the metal searing his naked chest painfully and filling his nostrils with the scent of burnt flesh. He sucked in his gut and tried to pull back from the red-hot metal surface as best he could, but there was no escape.
Across from him, he heard the other prisoner hissing as well, accompanied by the sound of sizzling flesh.
"Like I said," rasped the other man, "you never get used to it."
Kokutō could not comprehend how long it took for the casket's slow spinning to begin to approach vertical once again, but he was thankful when the force of gravity no longer held his chest against the superheated lid of the coffin.
The downside was that now his bare feet were being cooked against the hot metal, and he could do nothing to escape the pain.
But now that the casket was vertical and his vision had mostly cleared, he could get his first real look at his fellow prisoner in the casket hanging directly across from him. As expected, only his face was visible as the chain-wrapped coffin obscured his body, but the face was striking with its swept-back brown hair with a single long string hanging down in front of his face. Sharp brown eyes, full of ruthless, malicious cunning, met Kokutō's own and a strangely-charismatic grin spread across his face.
"Who," Kokutō finally managed to choke out painfully, "are you?"
The smile widened.
"My name, dear friend, is Sōsuke Aizen."
Author's Note: And the Long Halloween is finally over!
First things first: big thanks to Ziggy and Ryumaju for their help over the course of this endeavor; this project turned out to be considerably longer and more stressful than originally anticipated and their assistance was instrumental in getting me through the humps.
If you've stuck around this long, I hope you've enjoyed the ride (though I don't blame you for feeling irritated with how long it took). I was never happy with the Hell Verse movie and while I'm not 150% satisfied with this, either, I do enjoy the overall story here more.
So I killed off a minor character we met back in Winter War, fleshed out some of the other new characters, tied some story threads together, tied some up completely, and added a few new ones to play with going forward and go forward I will; I have plans for a follow-up that will return to the Espada's Masquerade format of following characters in their lives one day at a time to see how they're all coping with life and the strange turns it so often takes. Not entirely sure when I'll get started on that, but I will say in advance that it will likely have a sporadic update schedule since there's no concrete plan in place. It will also likely be my last foray into Bleach as it will tie up all existing loose ends.
Last but not least, thank you to all my readers, silent and outspoken alike. I may not always agree with some of the comments and assessments left, but I do appreciate your willingness to read and give me feedback. Even to those who have said nothing, thank you for reading. To those few who wish to remain anonymous and left me PMs with heartfelt words of encouragement...thank you most of all. So many times I wanted to simply give up because it was all such a headache and while Ryu and Ziggy helped a lot, I don't think anything was more motivating than some of those PMs. I hope that I didn't disappoint you.
So yeah, this is the end of Long Halloween. Final thoughts/comments are, as always, welcome and appreciated.