Welcome back people. Hope you have a great year. (Meanwhile, I'm dying from exam stress for my Biology degree)

Not much action in this chapter save for the omake at the end, but things will be picking up in the next one.

Hope you enjoy.

Chapter 37:

Paradigm shift

(Ichigo's house: Ichigo's bedroom):

Ichigo groggily opened his eyes. He was on his bed, with Kuroka next to him and using his right arm as a bolster. Her arms were only loosely gripping his limb, possibly due to how exhausted she was when falling asleep. The battle against the modified fragment earlier in the day had taken a large toll on the couple's stamina and energy, mostly due to its troublesome gas that it used at the start of the fight.

Gently extracting his arms from her light grasp, he rolled onto his side to face her. His right hand slid under her body and slowly puller her closer. His left arm encircled her from the other side, ending with his hand resting atop her head. His fingers trailed over her cat ears like a feather, eliciting a few satisfied purrs from her as she subconsciously rubbed her head into his palm. The sight caused a content smile to grow on his face.

He spent a few more moments gently petting her head and ears, finding it therapeutic and relaxing. Eventually, Kuroka lazily cracked open one of her eyelids. Her half lidded hazel orb watched him in mild confusion. A second or two passed before she properly opened both her eyes and gazed at him warmly.

"This is a nice way to wake up." Her tone revealed the lingering remnants of tiredness, but her words were mostly conveyed with genuine appreciation.

"Maybe I'll do it more often," he mused. "It's pretty enjoyable."

There was a knock against the door. Enough to be heard, but not so loud that it would have seriously disturbed anybody. Rather considerate actually. Ichigo halted his ministrations and pushed himself up into a sitting position, leaning against his right arm. Kuroka opted to remain prone, snuggling into the bed.

"Come in," he called out. "Don't worry, we were both up before you knocked."

The door slowly swung open, revealing a casually dressed Rossweisse carrying a tray with some food and two glasses of water. "Pardon the intrusion. I just thought you might be hungry. Nina cooked."

He gave her a small, grateful smile. "Thanks Rossweisse."

The silver-haired teen carefully handed the tray over to him. "You're welcome. It's the least I could do, since you're accommodating me. Please don't hesitate to request my help if there's anything I can do for you."

Kuroka rolled over to glance at the Valkyrie curiously. Her eyes flickered to Ichigo, then back to Rossweisse. A moment later, the nekoshou flashed her an encouraging yet teasing smirk accompanied by a discreet thumbs-up. Rossweisse took a second to register the meaning behind her behaviour, her face lighting up when she did.

"N-no, you've got it wrong!" she pleaded in embarrassment. "I'm not trying to make a move right now, it was honest consideration!" Kuroka's smirk elongated into a full blown grin.

"I feel like I'm missing some context here," remarked the orange-haired protector.

"Oh don't worry about it," Kuroka deflected as she rose up to be able to eat comfortably. "It was just some personal stuff between us."

"A-anyway," Rosseisse stammered. She was mostly recovered, save for the small blush persisting on her cheeks. "I'll be waiting downstairs with Ophis and the others. Please come join us once you're done." Without further ado, she quickly turned around and saw herself out at a slighter faster than normal pace.

Kuroka let out a minute giggle at how flustered the other girl was. Ichigo's brow creased in confusion, but he ultimately decided not to question things further. Last thing he needed was to make Rossweisse feel even more jumpy or insecure around him.

When they eventually finished eating and began to make their way downstairs, the couple could hear happy cheering and laughter. Curious, Ichigo pushed open the door to the living room and entered through. An odd, though not unpleasant sight greeted him.

The blonde girl dressed like a fantasy magician was all but quivering in her seat from excitement. One of her hands was energetically pumped into the air and an enthusiastic cheer was streaming from her mouth. "You can do it Koneko-chan! He's under ten percent HP! Go, go, go!"

"You're nearly there!" Nina encouraged supportively. "Finish him off, use your Ultimate!" Sitting in the dark navy-haired fragment's lap was Ophis, waving a small "Fight!" flag passively as she observed.

The others were also spectating with palpable anticipation, even without vocalising how immersed they were getting. Varying degrees of excitement could be seen in their eyes.

The target of their motivation was entirely focused on the screen before her. Her face was a mask of grim determination. The younger neko girl was furiously dodging and countering against the gargantuan boss trying to kill her game character. Her thumbs flew across the controller, rapidly tapping in the combo sequence. Her efforts were rewarded with the initiation of the short cutscene depicting the character's ultimate ability.

When the boss' HP depleted, causing the large monster to collapse, the ring of spectators broke out into a whoop of victory. Koneko turned around to face Nina and Kuro, (and by extension Ophis and Shadow,) flashing them a victorious smirk accompanied by a peace sign.

Vali, being the most subdued, noticed Ichigo and Kuroka first. He cleared his throat and called for the others to finish up so they could move on to business. The group quickly regained their composure and sat down whilst giving their full attention.

Ichigo took a seat next to Koneko. Naturally, Kuroka helped herself to the spot on his free side. The orange-haired guardian kept his focus on the white dragon emperor. "Let's cut right to the chase Vali. What is it you've come to tell me about?"

"As Azazel may have told you, we left the Khaos brigade," Vali began. "This is partly due to Ophis herself leaving. We don't really have any investment in the organisation's activities, we were content doing our own thing and finding strong opponents to fight. We also used to hang around Ophis a fair bit, and pretty quickly realised that she was just being used as a figurehead to rouse fear in others when they'd hear about the group as a whole. We got along pretty well, so we simply decided to throw our lot in with her."

"That explains what you guys are doing here," Ichigo accepted. "Now what about all the others."

All members of the Vali team simultaneously grimaced. "As you can imagine, the other factions within the brigade didn't take the news very well," said Vali. "Some are still going to try acting as though Ophis is heading the group, for the sake of scaring opposition. However, many have decided to retaliate for the perceived 'betrayal', particularly the old satan faction and hero faction. They want to try subduing Ophis, so that they can harvest power from her."

Kuroka frowned. "I'm guessing this involves something to do with the snakes a lot of them were given beforehand?"

A blond boy with glasses, Arthur, answered her. "Yes. Many of the splinter factions have taken to experimenting with the snakes Ophis left in their possession. Some have even been attempting to capture those creatures you call "fragments" in an effort to see if they can be somehow weaponised for their own agendas."

The orange-haired substitute's mind briefly flashed back to the unusual fragment monster that he'd faced earlier. "As well as trying to see what happens when they shove those snakes into the fragments."

"Yes, that's one of the projects going on," Arthur affirmed with a slight dip of his head.

Kuro sighed deeply. "Man, talk about a mess. These idiots are cranking everything to a whole new level of worse."

There was silence for a few minutes as everyone pondered over the possible consequences of what they'd just discussed.

"We'll have to start training everyone who's combat-capable within the three factions and their allies," said Ichigo grimly. The Khaos brigade is feeling desperate. That means there's a high chance of more attacks with increased ferocity. Worst case scenario, a supernatural war will break out."

Vali folded his arms and leaned back. "To an extent, the devils have a good foundation with their rating game system. But it needs to be something more serious than just a competition, they need to know what's at stake. We'll also need to set up a guard unit for Ophis, since she's going to be a prime target."

"Ophis is our responsibility," Nina declared firmly. "We'll handle looking after her. But, considering the scale of what's on the brink here, all of us who stay here in Kuoh might be assigned to that task."

Vali stood up, followed by the other members of his group. "The faction leaders can handle all the logistics and important decisions. Many of them have extensive experience in handling large-scale cases like this after all." He trained his vision on the teenage soul reaper. "We'll probably end up seeing each other more often. Stay sharp and take care of yourself, I still want another match against you once this is all over and done with." With that, the group made their way out the room and saw themselves out of the building.

"Same old Vali," Kuroka commented with a sigh. "He just lives to fight."

"At least he'll be fighting on our side," said Kuro.

Rossweisse stood up, drawing everyone's attention. "I'll need to meet with Azazel-sama to help with the preparations. I will return later." She swiftly turned around and took her leave.

"Guess there's nothing left to do but see what the bigshots are able to come up with," Ichigo mused out loud.

(A few days later: Kuoh academy ORC room):

Both Rias and Sona's peerages were assembled together along with the residents of Ichigo's house, minus Ophis. Azazel was stood behind the large wooden desk, accompanied by Sirzechs and Grayfia. The fallen angel's face showed only seriousness, a sharp contrast to his usual laid back expression.

"In light of what info Vali has given us, we leaders have decided to implement certain additional measures," Azazel began. "The various groups making up the Khaos brigade have started going on the move. At the moment, we're most concerned over the old satan faction and the hero faction. In addition to the usual attacks against our forces, they seem to be trying to gather materials for something. There's also the high likelihood of an attack upon you kids if they decide to pursue Ophis."

Sirzechs spoke up. "In respect to that, we've decided to add a supplementary patrol squad to help guard the Kuoh area." The crimson super devil raised a hand to halt a response from his younger sibling. "Don't take offence to this Rias. This isn't a move against either you or Sona; you both have been doing a good job of watching your joint territory, but please understand that this is a necessary precaution. Both you and your respective peerages are still in school. That in itself severely limits the time you can devote. Also, while you may possess amazing talent and potential, that alone isn't enough against experienced enemies who will attack you with the intent to kill." Rias nodded to convey her understanding.

"You kids have your rating game matches coming up soon too," remarked Azazel. "Use your training period to improve as best as you can. You're not expected to go beyond. In fact, doing so may be detrimental for you."

"Where does that leave us?" Ichigo inquired, taking a step forward from his housemates. "We're not involved in the rating games after all."

"Our request for your household, is to keep your own watch over the area and provide defence as necessary," Grayfia answered. "From what the white dragon emperor told us, it seems that those creatures you call fragments are becoming something of interest to the Khaos brigade. Since you've stated previously that you will personally deal with them, we thought it would be best to leave that matter in your hands."

Azazel folded his arms. "We've also officially designated you as Ophis' guard detail. This is primarily because she's most co-operative with you and her already staying in your house makes the job a lot easier." The man shifted his focus onto the Valkyrie in Rias' peerage. "Rossweisse will continue her previous duty of living with you as an official caretaker and observer for Ophis, as well as being the liaison."

Sirzechs nodded after the head fallen angel finished. "For the time being, that's everything that involves all of you here. If there's a change in the situation, one of us, most probably Azazel, will contact you." He turned his head towards Grayfia. "Is there anything else?"

The ultimate queen shook her head. "No Sirzechs-sama."

"Very well." The devil king regarded the gathered teens. "We shall take our leave. Please remain cautious, but do remember to also enjoy yourselves and keep relaxed as well."

A magic circle manifested beneath the couple and transported them away. Azazel snapped his fingers, creating a magic circle from which a large metal case dropped out onto the desk.

"Alright. Gasper, I need to speak with you for a bit. Same with Ichigo and whoever lives with him, barring Koneko." He gave a dismissing wave with one of his hands. "Rest of you are free to go."

A brief round of farewells was exchanged between the friends before they moved out, leaving only those specified. Azazel motioned Gasper forward. When the blond bishop was stood right in front of the desk, Azazel placed his natural hand onto a panel located at the centre of the large box. The panel momentarily glowed with a green light. The man then placed his artificial left hand into a slot along the rim. A second later, an affirmative beep rang out, followed by the sound of locks opening.

The leader of Grigori removed his hands and gently opened the lid of the metal case. The dhampir's eyes widened in surprise when he saw the contents. Inside was a sword. It was roughly the size and length of a standard short sword, with a single bladed edge.

The hilt was ebony black with some kind of engraved golden clasp at the part close to the guard and a matching pommel. The guard was a dull silver colour and shaped like a wide V, save for two slight prongs at each end that pointed out horizontally. An amber gem was inlaid at the centre. The blade itself was straight and angular, ending in a sharp point. The blunt section was pitch black, whereas the sharp side was a dully glowing, slightly translucent crimson. Nestled next to the sword was a black scabbard adorned with engraved golden clasps at the middle and bottom.

"This is for you," Azazel presented with a smile. "I made it using my artificial sacred gear research. Consider it a gift from Ichigo for completing your training with him."

Gasper whirled around to face the older teen. "Ichigo-senpai?"

The orange-haired soul reaper gave a casual shrug. "I figured it would be better to have your own blade rather than Kiba constantly producing one for you."

"I decided to call this the Midnight Hunter," Azazel informed. "It'll bind itself to you when you hold the hilt and take it. After that, you can summon and dismiss it at will. I tried to come up with something that could compliment your status as a bishop piece. This blade can absorb and store magic power from those it cuts, which you can then use for yourself. Theoretically, it should also be able to cut through energy based offensive magic, like fireballs for example, but it hasn't been fully tested out. Just don't try cutting apart anything too large or highly charged to stay on the safe side. Taking into account that you're a devil with vampric blood, it will have stronger draining abilities when used in the dark. The scabbard can use stored magical energy, either from the sword or your own, to provide increased defence and even deploy a magic barrier." He nudged the case towards the awed boy.

Gasper carefully grasped the hilt with his right hand and the scabbard with his left. A dark red glow emanated from both as he pulled them out. The light died away quickly and he began looking over the paired weapon with grateful admiration. A moment later, both vanished from sight.

"Thank you very much Azazel-sensei," he said sincerely. He turned to face the others. "You as well Ichigo-senpai."

"Remember kid, sacred gears evolve and grow according to the will and desires of their possessor," stated Azazel. "That sword has plenty of room to grow yet." Gasper nodded in grateful understanding. "Alright, get going and join the rest of your peerage."

Once Gasper had exited the room, a serious atmosphere settled once again. "What's happened?" asked Ichigo.

"An internal issue that's unfortunately grown out of proportion," responded the fallen angel. "It seems as though someone decided to turn tail and switch. There's been a bunch of attacks on some of our squads. One point they all had in common in their reports is that there were a bunch of strange creatures assaulting them, along with what appears to be a fallen angel."

"Khaos brigade?" the teenage substitute suggested whilst folding his arms.

The dark haired man nodded. "It's very likely especially considering what Vali told us about their newfound interest in fragments."

Kuroka sighed heavily. "How troublesome nya." Her eyebrows furrowed into a frown. "So what is it you want us for?"

Silence fell upon the room as Azazel gazed at them with a steeled expression. He leaned forward against the top of the desk, his hands balled into tight fists. His purple eyes held a mixture of determination and desperation.

"The most recent group who suffered an attack were transporting some of my prototype artificial gears," he began, grimacing before continuing. "During the fight, something happened that made them go haywire."

The group's eyebrows shot up in concerned surprise. "How bad did things turn out?" Nina inquired solemnly.

"A chaotic explosion of magical energy," Azazel answered. "We still haven't been able to properly determine why or how, but it's caused a spatial anomaly in the area too. We're unable to detect anything within the affected area because it keeps messing with whatever we use. There's also another team assigned there to maintain a barrier and prevent the magic leakage from spreading before they can safely disperse it."

"So you want us to go in and be the strike force," Kuro finished.

Azazel shook his head. "No, not as a first priority anyway. I want you go in as recon and rescue. We haven't observed anybody leaving the anomalous space, and we lost contact with the first squad sent in. I'm only turning to you kids because Ichigo specialises in dealing with those fragment creatures, and because you as a group have some experience in this kind of thing when you were clearing up Zeoticus' place."

Nina held her chin in thought. "Fair point. Say we do agree, should we take Ophis along with us?"

"No," Azazel refuted. "In the chance that this is a trap set up by the Khaos brigade, then we can't risk letting them grab her. Rossweisse will take care of her. I'll contact Vali too and ask his group to also act as guards."

Ichigo nodded in acceptance. "When do you want us to go in?"

"Tomorrow morning, at around ten. I'll come and take you guys myself."

With a final round of agreement, the teens turned around and walked out of the clubroom. Watching them leave, Azazel let out a long breath. He could only hope that their allies, particularly a certain orange-haired warrior, could pull through and fix this mess. For now, he had to start making preparations to provide them with as much assistance and safety as possible for the upcoming mission.

Omake: Rise of the Vampire Bishop; Gasper's journey to power- Part 1: Graduation

Gasper released a battle-shout as he swung his practice sword diagonally, slashing from his right shoulder to his left hip. His mentor Ichigo hopped back to avoid the blond's attack, then retaliated with an upwards swipe of his own wooden blade. Gasper shifted his feet and narrowly deflected the strike, but his inferior raw strength meant that he had to quickly backpedal a few paces due to the exerted force rebounding onto his body. To be fair though, he'd anticipated that very outcome and used the recoil to boost his evasion.

The vampric bishop steeled his focus, warily observing his training opponent. Ichigo had no signs of strain or effort detectable on his taller frame. His face was a calm, if slightly stern, mask that betrayed nothing. Gripping his weapon with both hands, Gasper tapped into his vast magic reserves and visualised the energy flowing into all his limbs, strengthening them.

Kicking off against the ground, Gasper blinked into a blur of movement, rapidly moving into the air just behind Ichigo. His wooden sword was already travelling down on a course for the older teen's skull. The orange-haired soul reaper spun around and parried using a heavy horizontal slice.

The dhampir's arms were thrown wide. He kept a firm grip on the hilt of his weapon, but his body was still open to attack. Ichigo didn't let the opportunity go to waste. Removing his left hand from the handle, he arrested the practice weapon's motion and slashed back towards his disciple's unguarded chest.

Just before contact could be made, Gasper's body burst apart into a swarm of black bats with glowing red eyes. The bats quickly flew to the ground and clumped together, reforming the bishop's normal body. With a desperate roar, Gasper gripped the wooden sword and sprang up with a thrust aimed at Ichigo's gut.

The taller teen rapidly brought down his wooden blade onto the flat edge of Gasper's, forcing it down. He quickly flashed-stepped out of reach, then lunged forward barely a second later, already beginning to execute a downwards diagonal strike. The blond defended by sweeping out his left arm, creating a trio of levitating ice spikes which he hastily launched to intercept the incoming warrior.

Ichigo readjusted the path of his weapon, knocking away the projectiles and breaking them. Using another flash-step, he closed the distance between Gasper and himself. A kick was sent into the latter's last-minute block over his abdomen, pushing him away. The spiky-haired teen readied his blade prior to jumping forth to pursue. A sudden warning flared in his mind from his combat instincts, causing him to start repositioning his arms into a defensive arrangement.

Pushing himself off the floor, Gasper levelled a determined glare upon his instructor. There was a pulse of power as his Forbidden Balor View activated, freezing time within his field of sight. Unleashing a scream, he pumped another wave of magic energy into reinforcing his body and threw himself in the stationary Ichigo's direction. His control slipped at the last second, his target's movement resuming moments before he could connect a blow to his sternum.

Gasper's training sword was redirected into skimming over the top of Ichigo's left shoulder. Undeterred, the first year forced himself to quickly retreat in a blur of magically augmented movement, before jumping back in. He transformed into a swarm of bats while in mid-air, speedily spiralling upwards and reforming.

A short volley of fist sized fireballs was shot at Ichigo below, followed up by five large icicles with sharp points. Gasper moved behind his arcane attacks, sword drawn inwards and primed for as powerful a thrust as he could deliver.

Ichigo flared his spiritual power in a quick burst, weakening the incoming fireballs and allowing him to easily avoid them, or swat them away and disperse them. He dodged the first two icicles and deflected the third into landing a few metres away to his side. The fourth was smacked in the side by his wooden blade, knocking it into the first two and cracking all three of them. The fifth and final frozen spire was subjected to a merciless assault of rapid strikes, completely breaking it apart into countless ice shards.

Gasper broke through the cloud of shards with a loud battle-cry, his arms springing out as he delivered the thrust to stab with all his might. Ichigo put his free hand to the flat side of his training sword to reinforce his defence. He blocked Gasper's attack before it could impact his forehead.

For a moment that seemed to stretch on for its own eternity, the pair remained locked as they were. Ichigo with his feet spread out to help distribute and disperse the force, and Gasper with his body almost vertical in the air. The mentor with his face mostly neutral, save for a glint in his eyes that conveyed a sense of satisfied pride. The trainee with his eyes wide open in an expression of desperate fortitude.

The short yet long moment passed when Ichigo angled his guard and stepped out of the way, allowing Gasper to crash into the ground via his own momentum. "Alright, that's enough," the spiky-haired soul reaper declared. He turned around to face the younger teen, showing him a confident smirk. "Congratulations Gasper. Your training is complete."

The vampric bishop's eyes widened as the words registered in his mind. He looked like a confused rabbit to be perfectly honest. "It is?"

"Yep," Ichigo affirmed. He held out his free hand, then pulled up the smaller boy once he grasped it. "I've drilled all the necessary basics into you, and Kiba's helped you get accustomed to comfortably wielding a sword. How you develop from here onwards is all up to your own efforts."

Koneko approached the duo with a stopwatch in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. She offered the water to her fellow peerage member, along with a congratulatory smile. "Good doing Gya-kun. You lasted almost ten minutes against Nii-san, who was forcing you to go all out."

"Eh? Seriously?" the dhampir asked in amazement.

The sound of enthusiastic clapping was heard, diverting the trio's focus. It turned out to be the resident fragments who lived in Ichigo's house. Kuro had been the one clapping. Nina was holding Shadow in her arms like a plushies. Both humanoids had smiles on their faces.

"That was some impressive effort there Gasper," Kuro complimented as he stopped his clapping.

"You've really come a long way," Nina told him. "You should be proud of yourself."

A large grin broke out on Gasper's face as he experienced a surge of happiness rise through him. To be acknowledged by all these incredible people who were strong in their own right, he felt an indescribable sense of fulfilment and appreciation. His form was no longer spindly and frail-looking, having grown with his development to give him a firm and sturdier-looking frame. An evolution of his being, both mental and physical aspects, made possible by their efforts and patience. He quickly wiped away the joyous tears that were starting to form.

Gasper turned to face Ichigo again. He bowed down with his back perfectly straight. "Sensei, thank you very much! For all the time and instruction you gave me." He rose back up and stared resolutely into his mentor's chocolate coloured eyes. "I promise to keep practising what you've taught me and improving myself. I'll become someone that Buchou-san and everybody else can rely on! I'll be the greatest bishop ever!"

Ichigo chuckled. "Yeah. I'll be watching you Gasper. Make me proud little guy."

The action will be launching off in the next chapter, along with a few twists.

Gasper has obtained his Protagonist Sword! Now bear witness as he unlocks his hidden potential and attracts all sorts of (unwanted) attention! Just kidding. That could make for a funny future omake series though.

I won't be able to upload anything for the next month or so due to my rapidly approaching university exams, but I'll get backing to working on this once they're all done.

Till next time readers, remember to leave a review!