Hello all! Chapter 12 is ready to go!
I'm incredibly happy to see the positive response garnered by the most recent chapters, this installment should keep that train going! (hopefully.)
Anyway, I have a question for you all. Due to the— less than favourable response to the initial chapters, my Beta and I have decided that a re-imagining would be for the best. Overall, the main plot won't change. (Stuff goes down in Kyoto, big fights, stuff goes down in Karakura, etc.) However; Motivations, Character personalities, and the overall enjoyability of the story will all improve greatly. I've read over the reviews and have realized that the biggest issues were that people felt OOC, conflicts weren't natural, and the story was needlessly convoluted. This will be fixed, that is a promise.
On to the question; Would you all prefer I upload these fixed chapters one by one, and continue with the current chapters simultaneously? (Upload chapter 1.1 and chapter 13 together.) Or should I do a bulk upload when they're all ready to go and just continue with the main story for now?
A break is out of the question, as much as that might be the best. I've got a bad habit of losing motivation when I stop writing, hence the super long hiatuses ahah
Please let me know whichever you all prefer, and I will go with the majority answer. Review or PM me, either or works!
With the long-winded A/N out of the way, please enjoy the chapter! As always, let me know what you think!
Ichigo walked through the cracked streets of his inner world with Juha at his side. A lonely wind danced through the ruined city, howling as it slipped through a sea of broken glass. Neither of them spoke, focusing on the sound of screaming Shades in the distance. According to Juha, the fake Masaki was holding Zangetsu captive in the city's heart, where its den was located. With the city outskirts behind them, they pressed on against the wind, knowing that failure was all that waited behind them.
"The city centre is just ahead. Are you ready, Ichigo?" Ichigo stopped when Juha spoke, who pulled him towards a street corner, "We can't return unless we succeed."
Ichigo nodded, "Of course, I'm ready. Why even ask?"
Juha held Ichigo's gaze, pensively reading his partner. Turning his head away, he stepped away from the skyscraper and began walking. He was followed immediately by Ichigo, who anxiously adjusted his grip.
"You noticed at last," Juha looked over his shoulder as he spoke, his tone was almost accusatory. "I'll ask you again," Turning once more, he looked down at Ichigo with a frown. A fierce set of eyes hidden behind tinted lenses, "Are you prepared to face your mother?"
"That thing isn't my mother."
"It resembles her though, can you overcome that?"
Ichigo tightened his grip to the fullest, staring right back at his other half. Juha's words rang painfully true, leaving Ichigo speechless. No matter how much he tried to justify the coming events to himself, the guilt that festered inside him all these years refused to diminish in the slightest. Even hearing Juha mention his mother struck a nerve, though he did his best not to let it show.
"I'll be fine. Let's get this over with, okay?" Ichigo brushed past Juha, putting an end to Juha's little test. "I've been here for too long; I need to deal with this and get back to my body. I learned my lesson with Grand Fisher."
With his intentions clear, Ichigo left Juha no room to debate. Silence overcame them once again, lending the floor to the Shades' howls in the distance. The wind picked up once the duo entered the creature's den, alerting the creature of the intruders. A threatening roar came from the darkness ahead, putting them both on edge. Any hope of a quiet escape was dashed completely by the roar, though neither man expected their plan to be easy in the first place. Goaded by the alert beast, Ichigo and Juha quickened their pace. Starved screams ricocheted off the barren streets, nipping at the heels of Ichigo and his spirit as if they were right behind the duo. A nearby building collapsed, scattering debris across the road, blocking Ichigo's progress to Zangetsu.
"Get ready, Ichigo! They've arrived," Juha shouted and concentrated his reishi; his broadsword's flames grew excited. They burned at the street's darkness, lapping against the air— it was a challenge.
Shades crawled out of the ruined building, clamouring over the rubble in their ravenous pursuit. Heeding Juha's warning, Ichigo leapt away from the debris and took to the air, swinging Tensa Zangetsu with a flourish. The air hummed as it parted around the blade that sent a torrent of energy at the ground; what debris blocked their path was destroyed by the crimson wave. Whatever Shades remained dispersed from sight and scuttled into the cracks of adjacent buildings. Ichigo touched down beside the burnt crevice, courtesy of his attack, no doubt.
While Ichigo regained his footing, Juha rushed ahead broadsword at the ready. Lunging straight forward, the ground alongside him caught fire and rushed towards the nests that lined the roadside. Shades screamed in agony as holy fire smoked them out, trapping them in a blue inferno. He overtook Ichigo and swung his sword-arm out, creating a veil of light to act as a vanguard against the incoming wave.
"Which way do we have to go?!" Ichigo shouted over the roaring fire, amazed at the control Juha had over the flames. They parted just enough for safe passage forward while denying entry to their pursuers.
"Straight. There is no point in a quiet entrance, they already know we're here," Juha hurriedly answered, narrowly dodging a swipe from a Shade. It's body encased in blue flames yet still attacking, showing no care to its pain. "Pest," He snarled and swung his arm out, severing the Shade in two from the ribs up. Shades began to rush through the flames, disregarding their own life, just to continue their attack.
Mirroring their behaviour on the surface of Ichigo's inner world, each Shade moved like a cog in a machine. Something dictated their movements, like a puppet master with an army as a marionette. They were at risk of being overwhelmed by the Shades, Juha stopped running to face the horde head-on. Noticing his partner's absence, Ichigo spun to look for Juha, cursing when he saw the swarm.
"Juha! I'm coming," Ichigo moved to join the fight, Tensa Zangetsu already in a position to strike.
"Don't be a fool, Ichigo! I'll handle this, you go!" Juha snapped, clearing a line of Shades at his side with a snap of his arm, leaving a cloud of ash in its wake. "Don't stray off the path; stay focused. I'll rejoin you soon!"
Despite Juha's insistence, Ichigo hesitated. Abandoning his spirit didn't sit right with him, but he knew he had to trust Juha. "Fine," Ichigo declared, at last, turning his back to Juha. "Don't lose!"
Running through the flames, abandoning it's now paltry defence, Ichigo bit back the urge to join Juha. A sudden blast of heat soon assuaged any fear he felt, a whirlwind of reishi-fire spiralling up from Juha's position. Free of his worry, Ichigo steeled his resolve and began his sprint anew, unabated by the Shades' pesky intrusion. Few stragglers targeted Ichigo over Juha, though he quickly dispatched them while avoiding their haphazard assault. Claws scratched against Tensa Zangetsu before they were cut from their bodies, falling to the ground in an eruption of ash.
'I can't slow down, Zangetsu is right in front of me. I can feel it,' Driving his heel into the road, Ichigo tilted his sword down and channelled his reiatsu. Another wave of Shades revealed themselves to Ichigo, blocking his path to Zangetsu once more. "Get out of my way…!"
As his shout rattled the mindless Shades, Tensa Zangetsu discharged the mass of reiatsu Ichigo channelled into it. Another wordless getsuga ripped through the pavement, blowing the Shades away like scraps in the wind. The attack caught him off guard, it was almost instinctual. Briefly observing the smouldering pavement, he thought back on what Juha said, about his powers, failing to see what had changed since then. Moving past the destruction, Ichigo ran through what remained of his getsuga's energy, leaving the city block behind him. The sounds of combat grew quieter; the distance between him and Juha growing by the second. Ichigo slowed down— a familiar hulking mass stood before him, guarding the entrance to a crater.
With a body large enough to rival Yammy in his resurrección, and skin harder than steel, the beast froze Ichigo in place. It had no distinguishing features beyond a gorilla-like body and stance and a mask that resembled Masaki Kurosaki. He couldn't see the tendrils from earlier, secretly thankful that it's destructive whips were missing. He kept his eyes on the beast, avoiding its mask's sickening resemblance to his mother. Surveying the crater behind the creature as much as he could, Ichigo spotted a limp figure. It was distant, but he caught sight of a white figure, limp and restrained. There was no mistaking it as anyone other than Zangetsu. His sword shifted slightly, his grip tightened and at the ready. A glint flashed across the beast's eyes as Ichigo's murderous intent flared. The creature reared up, towering over Ichigo as if it were a skyscraper itself, a booming roar erupting from its gaping maw.
Tensa Zangetsu sang when Ichigo moved, slicing through the saliva before biting deep into the beast's shoulder. "Zangetsu," Ichigo shouted, perched on the freshly wounded shoulder, "I'm coming! Just hold on!"
A rush of air alerted Ichigo of an incoming attack, he jumped off the beast and fell towards the crater. Tensa Zangetsu shone while he spun and caught himself on the crater's edge, just in time to see the beast smack its shoulder with a thunderous clap. Sweat lined Ichigo's brow now that he prepared to fire off another blast.
"Gestuga—" He pulled his arm back, a crimson torrent of energy disturbing the air surrounding them. "Tensho!"
Caught off-guard by the full-power getsuga, the beast managed only a simple defence, using its massive arms to protect its vitals. The wind whipped violently against its body, tearing its darkened flesh apart, culminating into an explosion that blew the beast off the ground. Ichigo fell away as the creature rocketed through building after building, demolishing several city-blocks before it lost momentum, soon enveloped by dust and debris.
He landed on uneven ground, skidding farther away from the crater's edge with his back to the ground. Buildings continued to fall, creating a disaster-zone out of the abandoned city. Ichigo pushed the destruction from his mind and turned on a dime, running downhill towards Zangetsu. 'Come on. Please be okay!'
The Leviathan's Berry
A sea of miasma submerged the shrine paths' peak, at the centre of the shrine stood a single creature. Encased in a dark cape like the rest, it was unmistakably a Wraith. Across from it were Yoruichi and Uryu, both fighting to resist the miasma's pressure. The Wraith's presence alone turned their stomachs, from the stench of rot to the hatred oozing off its body. To say that he felt evil would be fitting.
"So, you've come at lasht," The Wraith caught its tongue between its teeth, anger flashing across his eyes at the flub. "Ahem. Last."
"What a tone to set for the fight, hey Uryu?" Yoruichi remarked, "We really can't slip up."
Uryu refrained from commenting, opting instead to observe the Wraith's reaction to the taunt. To his disappointment, the Wraith gave nothing away visibly. He was stone-faced and silent. However, his killing intent spiked briefly. If anything, repeatedly taunting the Wraith would be to their advantage. Holding his arm out in front of Yoruichi, Uryu ushered her away from the Wraith.
"Uryu…?" Yoruichi questioned with a tilt of the head.
"Keep your distance, Yoruichi. We can't risk him calling back any of the Wraiths that split off from him. I want you to keep him distracted, I have a plan," Uryu spoke gingerly to avoid the Wraith's detection, noting his growing impatience. "Keep him talking, and you should have no problem with it."
Yoruichi quickly agreed to Uryu's vague request, though she was curious about what he was planning, exactly. Something told her that he wouldn't clue her in right now, no matter how much she bugged him for it. Placing her trust wholly on Uryu's shoulders, Yoruichi took one step forward, launching herself towards the Wraith with shunpo. She kicked into the ground, and her momentum shifted, spinning herself around. Aiming for the Wraith's head, she lashed out with her free leg only to kick a wall of solidified miasma.
"Now that is hardly polite," The Wraith said slowly, careful not to flub another line. His tone was sharp, judgemental, as he addressed Yoruichi. "You attacked before you even introduced yourself. I don't have a name, but I'm sure you do. What is it?"
"None of your business," Yoruichi retracted her leg and hissed, letting her golden eyes bore into the Wraith's obscured face. "But if you're so keen on talking, why not tell me what you're doing in Karakura?"
The Wraith laughed heartlessly, pulling it's hood down to reveal nothing but bone. Eyeless sockets held a dim red glow that mimicked the habits of a flame. They flickered as he spoke, pieces of charred flesh still visible on some parts of his face. As if Yoruichi said something funny, the Wraith continued its fit of laughter much to the others' chagrin.
"If you refuse to talk, I'll just have to make you talk," Yoruichi jumped back slightly to distance herself. Readying herself to let loose another kick, she stumbled, seeing the Wraith raise a skeletal hand. "What?"
"I'll answer that question before we fight… but shouldn't you be more worried about your little Quincy friend? He sheems to have abandoned you," Ignoring his slip-up entirely, the Wraith gleefully pointed out Uryu's absence.
Yoruichi looked behind her and clicked her tongue, more than upset with Uryu's secrecy. "It doesn't matter; he'd only slow me down. At least like this, I can kick your bony ass in peace."
"You're quite the talker, aren't you? Well, it doesn't matter. Once the plan is complete, you'll be dead regardless of your bravado." The Wraith set his hollow eyes on Yoruichi, "To answer your question, I'm here to bring about mass despair. Nothing more, nothing less. It is simply—!"
Yoruichi's kick struck faster than lightning, knocking the Wraith's jaw out of place. Before she could even recover from the state of unbalance, a spear of miasma shot up. It narrowly missed her side, tearing through the cloth of her shirt. She didn't want to take any chances and leapt back to the shrine's edge, a group of identical spears bursting from the ground where she once stood.
"Drop the fancy talk, Wraith. I know it's an act," Standing to her full height, Yoruichi called the Wraith out. He glowered at her in response, snapping his jaw back into place with a loud pop. "Who sent you here?"
"You made it worsh!" The Wraith shouted, tossing a few teeth from its hand to the ground. More holes lined his mouth now than before, and just as Uryu suggested, the Wraith had almost no control over his emotions. "You thoul reaperth hab no re-respect!"
'It makes sense. Wraiths are creatures born of hatred and other nasty emotions. It's only natural that they're unhinged.' Yoruichi thought to herself as the Wraith ranted on at her, mispronouncing almost everything until he grew frustrated enough to go quiet. "Want to try that again, Wraith? You'll get it next time, I promise."
"Damn you! Die!" Caving to Yoruichi's provocations, the Wraith cast an arm out and sent a shadow racing toward Yoruichi. "Die! Like eberybody elsh in thish town!"
Sensing danger, Yoruichi dashed away from the encroaching shadow as spears shot out from her peripheral, "Tongue isn't sharp enough to keep up, huh? Figures!"
She lowered herself to the ground like a cat and lunged across the shrine, following a zig-zag line to avoid the Wraith's summoned spears. Her charge ended as she came to his feet and planted her hands onto the ground, twisting her lower body to catch the Wraith in a scissor kick. Yoruichi knocked him off his feet before he got the chance to summon another spear, slamming him down hard into the stone slabs under them. While he recovered, she hurriedly rolled back and kicked up into a ready stance.
"Fine… I'll thow you…" The Wraith rolled onto his stomach, shakily pushing himself up off the ground. "There's something… about you… that grates on my nerves."
Yoruichi's eyes widened as the Wraith's voice lost its rattle, the lisp vanishing as teeth returned where they were once lost. Muscles and tendons reappeared across the Wraith's skull, giving him colour once again. Standing tall, taller than before, he stared down at Yoruichi with developing eyes and a sneer on his skinless lips. He was no longer a skeleton but a living corpse only a step behind the Wraith that they fought not long ago.
"This isn't good," Yoruichi remarked with a grimace, off-put by the sudden spike in power the Wraith output.
"Aw, what's the matter, Shinigami? Cat got your tongue?" The Wraith teased, his words dripped with contempt. "Here, let's see if we can't cut it loose!"
Lunging forward, the Wraith closed the gap between him and Yoruichi in an instant, jabbing his hand straight for her throat. His strike narrowly missed, and Yoruichi capitalized on his broken form. She gripped his wrist and pulled him close, delivering three swift knees to his stomach before she flipped him over her shoulder. He hit the ground with a bounce, and gasped, breaking free of her hold to roll away from a stomp. Once he scrambled to his knees, the Wraith swept Yoruichi's leg.
Falling back, Yoruichi slammed her hand into the ground and propelled herself into the air to land a significant distance away from the Wraith. Her eyes narrowed, his grin widened. They were both keenly aware of how much she was underperforming, and if Kisuke were present, he'd surely have said something stupid about it. Her jaw clenched when the Wraith stood up once again, silently gloating at her expense.
"Seems like you're struggling a lot over there, Shinigami. Where are your comments from earlier? Huh?" Rolling his shoulders, the Wraith looked around for a second searching for something. "It seems that your friend honestly has left you to die. That's fine with me."
'Uryu… what the hell are you doing!?' Yoruichi cursed as yet another foul wind blew, followed by a second surge in the Wraith's power.
Patches of skin covered the bloody mess of muscle and tendon; his irises reflected Yorucihi's anger in their deep redness. Muscle definition returned to his body, as did the most critical feature. Across his chin was a scar, long and deep, belonging to one who fell in battle against Ichigo long ago.
"That leaves only one more, and I'll be almost complete," The Wraith mused to himself, patchwork fingers running through spotty strands of silver hair. "Doesn't that excite you, Yoruichi? That is your name, yes?"
"...It is," Yoruichi answered carefully, stalking around the edge of the shrine, ready to leap away at a moment's notice. "How are you here?"
"Ah, that is not a question with an easy answer, Yoruichi," The Wraith answered evasively, "I saw nothing but darkness for so long. All of a sudden, I'm alive again. You don't need to know any more than that; I'm more concerned with beating you before losing control."
"I don't care how much of a threat you were. You're nothing more than a pest to me, and this town," Yoruichi remarked with a glare.
"How harsh, Shinigami. I see that you still harbour hatred towards us Bounts…"
"I don't hate Bounts, you're just special," Yoruichi bit back, "Prepare yourself, Kariya. I'm putting you right back into the ground!"
Kariya laughed, his jaw and teeth still visible through one cheek, a cold laugh like before. The fresh air against his skin, the sensation of his power returning bit by bit, the idea of marking his return with a dead shinigami. He couldn't deal a better hand himself, and with no Ichigo to get in his way, he planned to use his luck. Kariya's presence was just as great as it once was, though there was something off about him. He was intimidating, just like the stories told, yet he felt distant. From his shifting eyes to his hands' slight tremble, Kariya looked anything but happy to be alive again.
"You're going to kill me, Yoruichi?" Kariya asked with a humourless snort, his reformed hands held challengingly out beside him. "I'd like to see you try, come, Yoruichi!"
The Leviathan's Berry
Sweat rolled off Uryu's chin while he ran through the shrine's overgrown brush, two canisters remaining in his possession. He was moving as fast as possible from the start, but ever since he saw Kariya's deformed figure through the trees, he'd pushed himself further. Jin Kariya wasn't a foe that he expected to see ever again, and judging by the few things the Bount revealed to Yoruichi, Kariya felt the same. Now wasn't the time to reminisce on past battles, however, as Yoruichi was losing ground by the second. Back when the Bounts were a violent threat to the Seireitei, Kariya's mole, Maki Ichinose, provided him with information on any Shinigami he could. Very few escaped the intel breach, and Youichi was not one of them.
Despite being at a glaring disadvantage, Yoruichi kept herself in the game by pushing herself to go faster. Even if her wounds were still recovering, her title of the fastest wasn't one to be taken lightly—as Kariya did. The impact of Yoruichi's kicks and punches rattled the trees around Uryu, nearly exposing him on several occasions. It took all he had to conceal his presence so tightly, and since Kariya knew his signature first-hand, Uryu was even more on edge.
"Two of three down. I just need to—!" A slab of debris shot out of the battleground, skewering the tree beside Uryu with ease. "Not die…"
Taking a moment to collect himself and catch his breath, Uryu signalled to Yoruichi. She didn't respond, though a random spike in her reiatsu served as her acknowledgement. He nodded and took off running once again, cleanly dodging nature's obstacles like he was running a familiar track. Times like these were where Uryu truly appreciated the benefits of Hirenkyaku; this would have finished already if concealing himself wasn't so important. At last, he came upon the trap's final point. Gingerly setting the metal capsule into the grass, watching for the faint azure spark to tell him it was ready.
Thinner than a spider's web, the azure trails presented themselves, so fine that Uryu almost missed them. His palms were clammy, memories of his last Ginto spell playing through his mind. What if it didn't work, what if he wasn't strong enough? Thoughts mirroring those tried to overwhelm him, but he silenced them all. He was stronger now than he was in Hueco Mundo, stronger than when he fought in Kyoto. The plan would work.
From beyond the brush, Yoruichi caught Kariya's fist and twisted it. She then jumped, propelled by Shunpo, and buried her knee between his eyes. Kariya let out a loud grunt of pain and stumbled back; however, Yoruichi's assault continued. In the air, still, she laced a leg around his exposed neck and roughly twisted her body to the side. They both flipped and hit the ground hard, Kariya trapped in Yoruichi's leg-lock.
"Now!" Uryu declared to himself, openly, as he leapt out of the brush.
A frustrated shout left Kariya's constricted throat while he thrashed in Yoruichi's grip, the sight of Uryu dug deep into him. Yet what disturbed him even more than Uryu was the lone capsule held between his fingers. His red eyes caught the strand's glimmer and followed it as far as his head would turn. He walked blindly into their trap. Kariya refused to lose yet again, especially to the same people and willed himself to break Yoruichi's hold.
"Not yet…" Kariya growled and scrambled to his feet. "I won't fall yet! I refuse to die before I'm even alive again!"
Desperation flooded his voice, and panic set into his glossy red eyes. As he rose to his full height, Kariya extended his arm to disrupt Uryu's throw. To the surprise of everybody, arrows pierced Kariya's legs. Identical to Uryu's, albeit stronger than what he could muster. Another fired from somewhere unseen, piercing Kariya's recovering heart. Blood erupted from his mouth as he fell to his knees, his head hung forward in defeat.
"Damn you all…and Damn that monster to hell," Kariya whispered as a sardonic smile stretched across his face. "Get it over with, Uryu."
"Not yet. Just because you've given up doesn't mean that this is over," Uryu spoke slowly, sparing Yoruichi a nod once she was standing. She looked just as surprised as he felt regarding Kariya. How quickly he gave up, how suddenly he wished for death. "You mentioned a monster. Who were you referring to?"
Kariya forced a harsh laugh out from his lungs before speaking, "A woman brought me back, took what little left of me there was floating around. Offered me a second chance to live, but she tricked me."
"Tricked you how? Who is this woman?" Yoruichi questioned, joining Uryu in front of Kariya.
"I don't know her name, but she didn't feel… there. It was like something was missing, something that should have made her human," Kariya answered plainly, though his voice carried an uncertainty to it. "She brought me back wrong. I wasn't in control; I had to watch as something else controlled me."
Uryu looked to Yoruichi for answers, but she looked even more confused than him. "This woman…you said she's human? Where can we find her?"
"She's more than just human… as to where you can find her, I'd suggest you question the man that fired these arrows. I can smell her disease from here. It's pervasive. Quincies usually are, after all," Kariya supplied and let his tired eyes settle on Uryu's harsh blues'. "For a moment, I wanted to try living again, this time without hurting people. But with two parts of me gone…I would never be whole again. So, Uryu, please kill me...and make sure not even the Gods' can bring me back again."
"Two parts…? I only killed one. What are you talking about?" Uryu pressed, gripping the capsule tighter. He barely held himself back from questioning Kariya about this Quincy woman, if what he said was true— Ryuken would know everything he needed. It was just a matter of making his father talk.
"You'll find out soon enough," Kariya answered curtly, "Now please. While I'm still me. I've felt her trying to take control back ever since I regained consciousness."
Despite this man being his enemy, Uryu couldn't stop the pangs that ran through his heart. The man whose power he once feared now begged for death on his knees. Uryu gripped the final capsule tight enough for the lip to bite into his palm. He answered Kariya's request with a nod, after confirming it with Yoruichi. It was no loss to them...especially if he went down without a fight.
"Thank you," Kariya whispered as the reishi in the capsule fell onto his head.
Three azure strings shot out from the bushes and pierced his body. Kariya let out a groan of pain as the reishi flooded his body, eating away at the Wraith's infection. His fingers went numb, and when he looked at them, he found that his entire hand had vanished. Bit by bit, the reishi dismantled his body from the inside out, parts of him blowing away in the wind. Before he lost the ability to speak, Kariya left the duo with a final message.
"The Quincy… she's part of something much bigger. There's a storm coming for you all— be prepared…" His warning, given out of respect and honour, was Kariya's final words before he faded from the world. There was nothing left this time, not even the robe that covered his patchwork body.
With Kariya, and by extension the Wraith, defeated, the dark weight smothering the city evaporated instantly. Yoruichi took an exaggeratedly deep breath in hopes of breaking the oppressive atmosphere that surrounded the shrine. It failed, though it managed to pull Uryu from his thoughts.
"We should go check on Ichigo; he should be getting up soon. Even if he isn't— we have to inform Kisuke of what happened here," Uryu said coldly.
"Yeah, but then you're taking a few days to rest. Ichigo and I can handle the cleanup, you've done more than enough this time," Yoruichi replied, "Okay?"
Uryu looked down at the Ginto capsule that he still held, replaying Kariya's final words once last time before he nodded, "That's fine. It gives me ample time to train and get answers from my father."
Yoruichi watched Uryu take off, driven by Hirenkyaku, with a solemn expression on her face. Their jobs were supposed to get easier after Aizen's defeat, yet here they were. Gearing up for yet another war…so soon after the last. Swallowing her concerns, for the time being, she kicked off the ground in pursuit of Uryu, in the direction of Kisuke's shop.
The Leviathan's Berry
Rain pelted the crater's dirt surface, turning the area into a mud-filled hole in no time. Ichigo trudged through the murky water without care, determined to set Zangetsu free from the chains that bound him. The mud and rain plastered his hair to his face, both of his arms covered in the filth. He paid the discomfort no mind and stared between his bangs; every step felt more draining than the last, yet he pushed on. There was no sign of Juha since they split apart, but judging by the pillar that remained in the city, Ichigo figured he was fine.
"Hey!" Ichigo exclaimed over the thunderous rainfall, mindful of the now chest-deep pool he waded through. His shout failed to stir his bleached spirit. Holding Tensa Zangetsu aside, Ichigo grabbed the collar of Zangetsu's shihakusho and shook him. "Zangetsu, wake the hell up! I don't have time to deal with your lazy ass! Now!"
"AH! Choke on it. I don't care!" Zangetsu snapped, his eyes opening in an instant. "I was fuckin' comfy, why'd ya have to go and wake me up?!"
Zangetsu's hostility would give many others pause, yet all it could manage with Ichigo was a thankful smile. A swipe or two of Tensa Zangetsu had Ichigo's sword-spirit cut free from the chains that kept him bound; his body fell from its perch and into the rising water with a splash. Ichigo knelt and grabbed Zangetsu's collar to hoist him from the murky water and into view again.
"We don't have time to argue. Get ready to fight. That thing will be back any second," Ichigo declared and jerked his head towards the top of the crater, "Hurry."
"O-Oi! Don't boss me around, you little shit! Get back here!" Zangetsu snapped, shaking the mud from his snow-white hair before leaping out of the crater to pursue Ichigo. "You and the Old Fart abandon me down here for over a month, and now you're in a rush for my help? Bite me."
Ichigo stumbled upon hearing Zangetsu's resistance, though his shock was relatively short-lived as the beast's roar snapped him out of his stupor. One glance at Zangetsu gave Ichigo all he needed for him to know Zangetsu was ready.
"It's either you help, or we all die," Ichigo brandished Tensa Zangetsu and lined the blade with the concrete horizon. "What you do is your choice, but we both know you're too proud to let someone other than me beat you."
"..." Zangetsu pulled his sword from his back and charged forward ahead of Ichigo.
Shaking his head, Ichigo gave chase and followed Zangetsu to the edge of the ruptured city block. The beast stopped both of them, its muscle-bound mountain-for-an-arm blocking their path. Zangetsu paled even further than he naturally was at the sight of their foe, a bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face.
"It's bigger than that dumbass in Hueco Mundo… looks stupider too," Zangetsu remarked snarkily, "Was that pansy-ass gash your work, King?"
"It was deeper a few minutes ago," Ichigo answered with a glare, "Besides, somebody who got caught has no right to criticize me. Shut it."
"Shut it… whatever," Zangetsu mimicked childishly, "I'll do what I want, same as always!" He swung his sword arm out and grabbed his forearm tight. One phrase left his lips, drowned out by the rain, that created a pillar of crimson reiatsu rivalling Juha's in the city. The burst of power brought a smile to Ichigo's face, which grew once Zangetsu shot out of the pillar directly at the hulking beast.
Trails of reiatsu fell away from Zangetsu, his body moving too quickly for the beast's eyes to follow. He targeted the recovering gash left by Ichigo, landing with his feet on either side of it. Zangetsu plunged his Tensa Zangetsu into the open wound until the hilt was flush with the rest of the shoulder, a feral grin on his face as he charged up a fresh getsuga. Twisting his grip, Zangetsu tore his sword from the wound right when the beast moved to counterattack. Blood splattered into its eye, and Tensa Zangetsu bit into the slowed limb with ease, capitalizing on the beast's struggle.
"This… is how you leave an impression, King!" Zangetu howled, his energy flared out of control as the aura overtook his semi-buried blade. "No fancy attacks, No big scream— just results!"
Tensa Zangetsu hurtled down through the beast's wrist, leaving a deep gash in its face before severing it from the rest of its arm. The zanpakuto's trajectory was sharply changed, what remained of the getsuga's energy fired into the beast's ribcage. Zangetsu kicked off the beast's chest with a grin that would give Zaraki a run for his money, laughing as he fell back into place beside Ichigo.
"I see, mind explaining how to deal with that then, teach?" Ichigo tilted his head sarcastically, pointing the tip of his Tensa Zangetsu at the beast. The wounds it just received were already recovering, and it's severed wrist started to grow back, a fact that drove Zangetsu through the roof. "That's what I thought… you have no clue."
"Listen here, Ichigo," Zangetsu began, baring his teeth at his other half before he looked away.
"Nng. You're so damn annoying! OLD MAN! LEAVE THE COCKROACHES ALONE! GET OVER HERE AND HELP!" Zangetsu howled out in frustration, both he and Ichigo shunpo'd away from a falling hammer-fist. Blood splattered across the shattered pavement from the closing wound.
"There are more than just a few over there! He can't just leave!" Ichigo barked while parrying some debris that the impact knocked his way, dashing in to cleave the Achilles tendon behind the beast's ankle. It snapped with ease under the pressure of Tensa Zangetsu's sharpness, a sensation the Zangetsu mirrored on the other leg with his sword. Crossing paths to finish their strike, the two warriors reared back and grabbed the Tensa Zangetsu's with both hands.
Zangetsu and Ichigo cried out in unison; identical arcs hurtled from their swords and met in the middle. They warred for a brief spell, just long enough for the beast to fall to its knees. Neither Ichigo's nor Zangetsu's getsuga gave an inch pushing against the other until they finally merged to form an x-shaped variant. Both warriors watched the display, satisfied, as the new attack made contact with the beast's back.
It slammed both hands into the ground, desperate to overcome the joint attack from Ichigo and Zangetsu, managing to push up onto one healed foot. It never got the chance to move any further as a third blast, this time Quincy in nature, met the x-shaped getsuga and set all three off. A tide of dust blew out from the epicentre, knocking Ichigo and Zangetsu off their feet with ease. Once the winds released them, they were far from ground zero.
"You… crazy son of a bitch," Zangetsu grumbled out, peering at the dishevelled Juha through the settling dust. "Y'ain't lookin' too hot there, Old Man. Getting weak in your old age?"
"The same can be asked of you, Zangetsu. Do not cause trouble for Ichigo again," Juha warned, one hazel eye visible through his broken glasses. Scratches littered his body, some visible from between the tears in his favourite robe.
"Get off my ass," Zangetsu grumbled, propping himself up on his elbows. "Where is the brat, anyway?"
Juha surveyed the scene, scanning for any signs of Ichigo. He jumped from his perch atop a fallen skyscraper and landed next to Zangetsu, "He's over here. Come."
"Ichigo has been spendin' too much time with you…" Zangetsu remarked, lazily climbing to his feet. Grabbing Tensa Zangetsu on his way to rejoin Juha, he kept an eye trained on the fallen beast in case it decided to live through their three-way attack. 'Can't lie, maybe we should make that a thing. The normal getsuga is getting a little stale for my taste now."
Lost in thought, Zangetsu mindlessly followed his twin spirit back to the crater. Down near the bottom, where the beast held him captive, Ichigo hung grumpily from a protruding piece of steel that skewered his shihakusho's back. The look on his face, at least to Zangetsu, was priceless. Something to frame and slap on a greeting card. Ichigo seemed to pick up on his spirit's less than supportive ideas and began shouting at him, most of his words muffled by the fading storm.
"I say we let him hang for a few hours," Zangetsu turned to Juha, shrugging once his counterpart shut him down with a stern glare. "Buzzkill."
"Ichigo, do not move. Zangetsu will be down momentarily to get you out," Juha shouted, stepping closer to Zangetsu.
Sensing something off, Zangetsu tried to move away. However, his resistance was in vain as Juha pushed him over the edge and into the crater with Ichigo. He fell shouting obscenities at his other half, though they fell mostly on deaf ears. Juha was far more interested in something more important than Zangetsu's childish tantrum. He turned from the crater to stare at the beast's motionless corpse; his eyes narrowed in suspicion. Cautiously, he approached the carcass and found his suspicions were right on the money.
"So, you're the parasite," Juha muttered, staring down at the prone Wraith. It crawled out from the beast's blown-out back, covered in viscera and wounds. "You broke into this sanctuary and spread your disease, only to be consumed by the very infection you helped fester."
"Who...the hell are you?" The Wraith choked out, staring up at the dark figure, which was Juha.
Juha summoned his broadsword and mercilessly severed the Wraith's head from its body, guaranteeing that it wouldn't show up a third time. Both the Wraith and the beast that devoured it turned to ash. With the infection removed, a fresh breeze passed through the ruined city, picking up the remains of the mountain of Shade corpses left on the street by Juha. The Shades had no source of power remaining, and all began to crumble, joining the ashen flow that slowly rose to the surface of Ichigo's soul. Juha watched quietly, admiring the bittersweet beauty of the scene. Sunlight broke through the clouds, and the ashen trail vanished altogether, leaving only blue skies in its wake.
"Ugh, stop complaining! It's not like anybody ever gets this close to you anyway. Saviour the attention!"
"Your attention is the last thing I need! Get off me!"
The sound of Zangetsu and Ichigo squabbling tore Juha's attention away from his sun, he dearly admired, turning his focus to the pair at his back. Zangetsu had Ichigo draped over his shoulder, climbing out of the crater at last.
"It seems Ichigo had no problems letting you go, Masaki," Juha whispered to himself, "He relieved his guilt by the strength of his own will, you can be without worry now. Please, rest."
The squabbling from afar stopped once Zangetsu put Ichigo down. He turned to call to Juha and felt his words die in his throat. There were no words to describe the sight that stood before him, to explain how he felt seeing his mother— at least part of her, standing behind Juha. She wore the serene smile that used to hold their family together, the smile he convinced himself guilty of robbing from his family. He knew that she wasn't truly there, but it tugged at his heartstrings nonetheless.
"C'mon King, let's get you back to your body," Zangetsu spoke gently, moving from Ichigo's side.
"Y-Yeah…" Ichigo nodded, locking eyes with Juha, then his mother, before turning to follow Zangetsu.
He failed to make it even a step before a sharp burning in his pocket stopped him. Ichigo reached inside his shihakusho to grab whatever the source was, only for a delicate hand to cover his.
"Don't question it, Ichigo. I can be here because of it… what part of me remains, I could take your hand like this,"
Ichigo's eyes widened, his throat grew tight. Never in a million years would he forget that voice and how it melted all his pain away. He looked up from his shihakusho to find that his inner world had vanished, as did his two spirits. His mother stood before him, faintly glowing, still wearing that serene smile.
"Mom…" Ichigo whispered, unable to take his watering eyes off of her.
"It's been a while since I saw you last, but you still look just like my precious little boy," Masaki whispered, running her fingers down Ichigo's face lovingly. "Please stop blaming yourself for that day, for me, Ichigo. I saved the life of my son, and that is the only thing that matters. You have to move on and carry me in a lighter heart; despair doesn't suit you."
"But…if I had just—"
"Shush. I said, stop blaming yourself! Now go home and make sure your father eats a big dinner for me, alright? I worry about him every day. Your sisters too…take care of them for me."
"...I will, Mom. I promise." Ichigo declared at last, finally able to look his mother right in the eyes.
His words widened her smile, and she backed away, her hand covering her heart as she began to fade into the blinding white expanse. Her final words echoed in Ichigo's head, repeatedly playing until he was sure she was gone. Ichigo didn't cry or break down but instead muttered a simple;