In Darkness, Reborn

- Chapter 3 -

Ichigo would be the first to admit that traversing the rocky terrain had been a pain in the ass at best and impossible at worst, without his new companion beside him he likely wouldn't have made it. Be it the incredibly steep rock faces or the sometimes mile wide canyons there was just no way he'd be able to make it with the limitations of his human body. As fit as he was, these were obstacles that only those of the supernatural could conquer, it was a world of Dragons after all.

The most pleasant part of their journey thus far had to be the lack of bloodthirsty Dragons trying to cook him alive. Perhaps it was because his companion had already driven off the one violent Dragon in this world – 'yeah right' the teen snorted inwardly – or, the more likely reason was that the Dragons wanted nothing to do with his companion. Was it from fear? Respect? That he couldn't say, the only thing he knew for sure was that the other Dragons seemed content to let him do as he pleased.

Casting a sideways glance towards the armour clad man walking beside him he felt the perpetual frown that had remained on his features ever since waking up in that fake forest deepen. He still knew nothing about him, not his name, not where he came from or what he did there, not why he was here or what his purpose was, he knew nothing.

Despite what you might be thinking that wasn't actually the reason his frown had deepened, in truth the teen didn't really care. Would he like to know more about his saviour? Of course, but would he hold it against the man if nothing about himself was said? Hell no.

The reason for that mentality was because of the few words they'd shared between each other in the short time they'd spent together he'd come to one realization, anything that Ichigo had gone through in his life was nothing to the burdens this man carried on his soul every day.

He didn't need to be told his life story to realize that. This was the kid who was praised for his ability to read his opponent's hearts and understand even just a little bit their motivations, whether good or evil, and the things he'd felt from the man next to him had made even his heart clench at times.

The pain and emptiness that radiated from within him was almost unbearable.

It was a feeling he was quite familiar with, those seventeen months after his defeat of Aizen when part of his soul had been ripped away were hell. He still remembered it vividly, the way the rain beat on his hunched form as he lay on that rooftop broken and crying in agony at the crippling emptiness he felt within. His inability to do anything.

When Rukia plunged that sword through the core of his being and he felt that spark of reiatsu deep within his soul once more, heard those oh so familiar voices in the back of his mind, it was like he'd been reborn. It was because of that experience, because of his familiarity with the emotions he could feel from his companion that he wouldn't ask for the man's past.

He would just hope that one day – whether that day was tomorrow or somewhere in the distant future – the man beside him could heal whatever it was that caused him such pain, fill that emptiness within his soul.

"We are close to the base of the mountain," the armoured warrior called out, "this is where we will part ways."

At the sound of the man's voice beside him Ichigo's concentration shifted from his thoughts to the world around them, it only took one glance upwards the realize just how hard this journey would've been for him had he been alone. The 'throat of the world' as his companion had called it was even more unfathomable in person than when he'd seen it at a distance.

"There are seven thousand steps to the top," he continued causing Ichigo to seemingly choke on nothing.

"So that's why you're ditching me," the teen joked, "I guess I can't blame you," he sighed out. He certainly hadn't expected a response from his companion at his poor joke, so when a muffled huff of laughter could be heard from within his helm the teen couldn't help but smile.

"I've already met with the four Greybeards on a couple of occasions, they don't like to be disturbed for trivial reasons and thus I will stay down here," he explained, earning a nod from Ichigo.

Though that rose the question, "are you sure they'll be fine with helping me then? I feel like I'd be more of a bother than anything."

"No, they will see you," he assured, "do not mistake my words Ichigo, they are not cruel old men you should fear, they've just been working to achieve the impossible for hundreds of years, if not more. As such they don't like to be disturbed when unnecessary. You, however, are someone new to this world, and a human no less, I have no doubts they've already noticed your presence and are intrigued."

Well, that was a relief, wouldn't that just be his luck to climb all the way to the top in hopes of meeting these Monk's who may be his only hope of finding that voice only to be turned away at the door. He didn't want to think about such a depressing possibility.

"Anything I should know about for the path up there?" Ichigo asked, head tilting to look at the man to his left.

A shake of the head was his response. "It should be clear, the Dragons avoid this mountain because of the Greybeards perched atop. So long as you don't fall off the side you should be okay."

Ichigo rounded on the armoured figure with wide eyes at those words, he hadn't even considered the possibility of falling!

Bringing a hand up to scratch the back of his head he let out a rough sigh and took a few steps forward, pausing he turned once more to face his temporary companion. "Look, I'm not really good with these kinds of situations, goodbyes have never been my forte so.. I just want you to know I appreciate everything you've done for me, if you didn't help me back then I'd either be a burnt crisp in some ditch or digesting in that stupid lizard's gut."

Receiving a nod in response, the teen turned back towards the base of the mountain where the path began and started forth. When he'd gotten about twenty yards away and was nearly at the start of the winding pathway, he heard his name called out.

Turning back once more to face the speaker of his name the teen was shocked at the question which was proposed to him, though the answer was obvious.

"Ichigo, you were very forthcoming with information about yourself when we first met, extending a hand of trust towards me when you had no obligation to do so, and now before we part ways, I would like to return that hand of trust."

Seeing the newcomers eyes light up in interest and gratitude the until now mysterious figure began his tale. "My name is Artorias, and before I was banished here, I was a Dragon Slayer."

~ Hueco Mundo

"The amount of low-levelled Hollow's coming here to seek shelter is incredible," Nel called out absentmindedly, her attention locked on the hundreds, if not thousands of Hollow's currently residing under the fake sky of Las Noches.

"It's to be expected. Due to Yhwach's tampering at the end of the war, the Hollow's who are brave enough to venture into the human world and survive are rewarded greatly with the vastly more powerful souls they can consume." The defacto leader of Hueco Mundo replied, coming to stand by her fellow Espada.

Nel cast a small, sideways glance at her blond friend, she had very clearly heard the bitterness which seeped into the woman's voice when the former Quincy King's name had escaped her mouth. It was understandable that she had yet to get over it.

To be defeated so lopsidedly, taken and held prisoner as some trophy of conquest, it would be humiliating. The former Tercera Espada could still vividly remember to look of relief in her teal eyes when she and Grimmjow had entered her holding room.

"It's certainly inspired the younger Hollow's to give in to their savage nature's." Nel finally responded in a sombre tone. It was a shame really, despite what most people would think Hueco Mundo had never been too violent or chaotic of a place.

Of course, there were some Hollow's who gave in to their base instincts, mercilessly hunted others to try and fill that emptiness within themselves, to evolve and regain their sanity, but for the most part, it was peaceful.

It was just too daunting of a task for the majority of Hollow's, even without any semblance of rational thought their instinct's told all they needed to know. The amount of fighting and devouring you needed to get through just to reach the Adjuchas evolution was astounding. And that was only the start of it.

Say you reached the level of Adjuchas and escaped from the Forest of Menos, then what? Now you have to fight to survive against all the other Adjucas class Hollow's up there with you, each and every one of them fighting for the same thing you are, to not lose the sanity that you'd finally grasped.

If you hesitate for even a moment, your evolution will begin to degrade, all that hard work lost. So what is your other option? To once again fight and devour every waking moment of your existence, as soon as one battle is over you set off in search of the next one, without rest. All in the hopes that you can reach the final stage of evolution, the Vasto Lorde class, where your once never-ending hunger and emptiness finally leaves you. When you no longer have to fear about your sanity slipping.

But, no matter how hard they fight not every Hollow is destined to reach the pinnacle of their race, so why bother?

At least that's how it used to be.

Now, most Hollow's were in a frenzied state, mindlessly swarming the human world in hopes of sinking their teeth into one of these now abundant and powerful souls.

"So what did your Fraccion find out?" She asked further, looking now towards the three females in question, she couldn't help but smile at their continued antics. Despite how much they argued with each other the care each of them held for one another was clear.

"We're no longer bound to just Japan," she answered, "I had them try travelling far outside the country with Sonido as well as through Garganta, both worked."

It took them quite a few years to realize that the invisible boundary surrounding Japan even existed. Their instincts always just kept them in that one place, never even considering the possibility that they may have been more out there. It was only when they started hearing whispers of new places in the human world and enemies other than the Shinigami and Quincy that they started looking into it.

"Mila Rose said that she encountered an armoured woman who called herself a 'Valkyrie.' She was strong, not enough to defeat my girls but they could sense many other strange reiatsu signatures as well as more of the Valkyrie and thus decided it would be best to retreat."

Nel nodded, before she could respond however a loud voice echoed throughout the chamber.

"Hah! Sounds like I need to head down to the human world myself then. Who knows how many strong guys are down there just waiting for me to kill them!"

"Grimmjow.." Harribel began, fully intending to scold him for his reckless thoughts, though when her eyes landed on his form the words got stuck in her throat.

Nel wasn't so composed, as soon as she seen the hot-tempered Arrancar she burst out laughing, tears streaking her cheeks. "G-Grimjoww.. wha- what happened to you?!" She chocked out between laughs. The reason for her outburst and Harribel's loss for words was, of course, the appearance of their companion. He sported many dark singe marks over his body and clothes and his normally messy blue hair was stood on end and blackened in spots. It looked as if he'd tried to stick a fork into an electrical socket.

The man in question looked ready to blow a blood vessel, he was all but growling at the two women, his fangs bared in frustration. "Shut up!" He roared, for all the anger that could be heard in his tone surprisingly enough there was also quite a good deal of embarrassment. "It was that fucking Quincy bitch! I was about to gut her so she did this to me!"

As if summoned by his words the very same Quincy he'd been referring to came stomping down the hall. "Haaaah?! Who're you calling a bitch you overgrown kitty!" She yelled back, sparks starting to fly as they locked gazes, "the only guts you're busting around here are theirs," she continued with a smirk, jerking a thumb in Nel and Harribel's direction.

"You bitch.." he growled out lowly, cracking his knuckles.

"I don't know what you're so mad about, it's not like you looked any better before," Bambietta teased as she along with the rest of the Quincy entered the room.

"Che," was the simple response given to her, Grimmjow unwilling to humour them anymore. Then, more to himself than anything he added, "Why couldn't you guys die instead of Kurosaki, that bastard, he was so scared to rematch me that he went and let Yhwach kill him."

"I could say the same about you," Candice added, subconsciously bringing her hand up to rub her left arm which had been annihilated by Ichigo's attack. If not for Gigi she would still be without it.

Deciding that they had fooled around enough Harribel stepped forward, bringing the attention of each of those present towards her, "I'm glad you're all here, there's something I'd like to discuss with you all regarding the Shinigami."

"What? Are we going to go finish them off?" Candice cut in again, animosity clear in her blue eyes, "those arrogant bastards," she finished with a click of her tongue.

It was surprising, especially when you considered who was stood in that room with her, that no one seemed to keen on her idea of 'finishing them off.' In fact, it was one of her own that chastised her this time.

"I don't know why you're still so angry Candi-chan, they could have easily killed us off or left us to an even worse fate, but they didn't, they let us go." The pink haired Meninas reasoned.

Fists balling up Candice shifted a halfhearted glare to the floor, "I know that, okay!" Honestly? Not even she knew why she was still so mad, especially since she was grateful to that flamboyant bastard for letting them go. If she had to guess why she was still so hung up it would probably be because the Captain Commander only gave them such kindness due to Ichigo, even in death it felt like that orange haired punk was mocking her.

~ Flashback, three weeks after the war

With a small groan, light green eyelashes fluttered open and stared blankly at the white ceiling above her.

Ignoring the sluggish feeling that weighed her limbs down, she jerked upright and ran her eyes thoroughly over the medium-sized room she found herself in.

She was quick to notice that wherever she was, it was not the Silburn. It reminded her of the Seireitei if she was honest, but how could that be? Surely his Majesty would have destroyed all of it.

Glancing at the two other figures in the room with her she held mixed feelings. She was happy to see other Quincy because that meant wherever she was, she wasn't alone. On the other hand, however, she was wary because there were no true friendships among Quincy. No one could truly be trusted. And that was especially true when she was sharing a room with Meninas McAllon and more so NaNaNa Najahkoop, both of whom appeared to be sleeping right now.

Hearing the door to her room start to open she shifted her gaze to the lone figure entering, immediately she was on guard. No matter how meek looking the boy may have been that was undoubtedly a Shinigami.

Her mind froze, she couldn't understand why his Majesty let any of the Shinigami live. Perhaps because they could heal, that was the only reason she could think of, but still, it didn't make sense.

"Ah, I see you've finally awoken!" The small Shinigami called out with a smile, bringing the woman in question from her thoughts.

"Stay back, Shinigami!" She shouted, bristling when she noticed the boy trying to approach her.

Her shout not only caused the short boy to jump in surprise but it awoke her two comrades who had been peacefully sleeping.

"What's all the yelling for, Candi-chan?" Meninas asked drowsily, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Immediately she turned her ire toward her fellow Quincy. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. "What the hell are you both doing sleeping so peacefully?! Why haven't you killed this damn Shinigami!"

"Its no good, Candi-chan," she admonished with a serious look on her face, "they've sealed our powers," she finished bringing a hand up to brush the collar around her neck.

Candice, following Meninas' movements, felt the collar around her own neck. Coming to the frightening realization that her powers were sealed she began to tremble with rage.

None of this made sense though! Why were their powers sealed? Why were Shinigami tending to their wounds and watching over them? It was almost as if his Majesty lost. "It can't be," she whispered out.

Sensing the myriad of emotions coming from the woman the Shinigami took a brave step forward, "excuse me.." he began, "please don't be alarmed. I assure you we mean no harm. I am Hanataro Yamada, 3rd seat of the Fourth Division."

What was this brat saying?!

"You mean no harm?! Hah?! Are you stupid?!" She continued yelling, her mind unable to come to terms with what was happening. "Why are you healing us anyways? I don't know what the hell's going on here but we've slaughtered a whole bunch of your allies, shouldn't you want us dead?"

"Perhaps," a new voice called out, the three Quincy jumping in shock at the newcomers they hadn't noticed coming. "But can you really say you aren't happy to still be alive?"

"Kyoraku-soutaichou, Kotetsu-taichou!" Hanataro called out, bowing lightly in their direction. Twin smiles were the response he received.

"Happy to still be alive? I suppose that depends what our fate is now," NaNaNa cut in, finally breaking his silence. "Every part of me screams that it isn't possible, yet no matter how you look at the situation his Majesty must have lost, and we are your prisoners."

"What our fate is? Don't be stupid. They're obviously going to hand us over to that psychotic scientist so he can experiment on us."

Kyoraku chuckled darkly. "You wouldn't be far off from the truth right there if this was still the old Gotei 13, Catnipp-san," Kyoraku admitted, earning a glare from the woman that told him if she could kill him, she would.

"However, Kurotsuchi-taichou has already completed his research on the Quincy so handing you three over to him would simply be cruel." He trailed off, tone falling a few decibels lower and causing a shiver to run up the spines of all those present. And then, fast as a snap of the fingers, he was back to normal. "A cruelness that the late Ichigo-kun would have detested."

Those words brought surprise to the faces of the three Quincy, and sombre looks to the Shinigami.

"Eh? Is he really dead?" Meninas affirmed, she found it hard to believe that the head of the special war powers, someone who could hold off eight Sternritter at once without even paying attention could be dead. It must have been Yhwach.

"Yes, a double-suicide with your former King," those words again brought surprised looks from the Quincy, Kyoraku had just confirmed that Yhwach, the Soul King empowered, Almighty wielding Yhwach had been defeated. Or so they believed, so the rest of the Shinigami believed.

The story he, the other Captain's and the Royal Guard had come up with was a double-suicide.

In a valiant effort, their great hero had once again sacrificed himself to defeat their enemy. It wasn't exactly a lie, without Ichigo none of them would be here right now.

"Our debt to Ichigo is endless, not in a million years could we pay him back for everything he's done for us, but you three are a good start." He knew full-well that Ichigo would want them to be set free, not because of naivete but because of compassion. The same compassion he'd held ever since bursting into their lives, the compassion which turned once enemies into allies.

"You're really going to let us go?" NaNaNa asked suspiciously, "Isn't that foolish? What if we come for revenge?"

Huffing out in laughter Kyoraku gave the man a look that said don't be foolish. "Ma, I'd say letting you go is a bit eager." And once again at the drop of a hat his posture, his expression, they were completely different.

"I'll be blunt, you three have two options here," he continued with a weighty gaze. "The first option is to stay here and help Kurotsuchi-taichou with his research, the second is to try your luck in Hueco Mundo. The world of the living is for obvious reasons off-limits."

With a smile that didn't quite extend to his eyes, Kyoraku made a sound of realization before speaking again, "well I suppose you have a third option as well. If you'd like I could also kill you right here, send you happily on your way back to the cycle of reincarnation."

Again a shiver ran up the spines of those present.

Not wanting to appear docile and weak Candice snapped back at the Captain Commander, though she would admit in the depths of her mind that she felt the full weight of the situation, she was scared of the flamboyant man before her.

"You want us to go to Hueco Mundo with our powers sealed?! Are you stupid?! That would be a death sentence!"

Again Kyoraku laughed. "Come now, we aren't that cruel, those collars will be removed once you are about to be on your way, of course, there will be a couple more Captains there to make sure your departure goes smoothly," pausing briefly he brought a hand up to scratch the stubble on his chin in a thoughtful manner. "Perhaps Zaraki-taichou would enjoy the break from work?" He shook his head and got back on track, "You three will need to be able to defend yourself, especially so if the remaining Espada aren't very welcoming of you."

Instead of responding right away to the Captain Commander, Candice glared at the sheets covering her. So they could either die right now, become lab toys for the Shinigami's sick scientist or go fight for their lives in Hueco Mundo. The options weren't great but then again why was she expecting otherwise.

Well, she had never been one to go down without a fight, "tch, I'll go to Hueco Mundo then."

"Aw, well I can't leave Candi-chan so I guess I'll go too."

Looking toward the final of the three Quincy the man simply nodded in agreement with the other two.

"Great!" Kyoraku said jovially with a clap of his hands, "Well prepare a Garganta for your use later today."

Seeing that none of the Quincy had anything left to say Kyoraku gave a final look towards Isane and Hanataro and made for the door. Just as his hand was about to grasp the doorknob he paused, "ah, one more thing before I forget."

Not even turning around to see their reactions he spoke, "Make no mistake, and do not forget, this is a kindness gifted to you from Ichigo-kun and born from our debt to him.. If you make me regret this decision, trample on the kindness of Ichigo-kun, you will be slaughtered without remorse by the full might of the Gotei 13."

And then he was gone, his threat lingering in the air like a haunting ghost.

~ Flashback End

Seeing that Candice had calmed down somewhat Bambietta got down to business, "So, what about the Shinigami?" she asked, directing her gaze towards Harribel. Their situation was somewhat unique, while the Quincy hadn't outright pledged allegiance to the Queen of Hueco Mundo they did respect her position and weren't completely against following her.

What other option did they have? Go to the human world so they could be hunted by the Shinigami? As much as they hated to admit it, they would stand no chance. While their base power levels were comparable to that of a low to mid-tier Captain they no longer had Vollstandig, and without that, they stood no chance against Bankai. It was the same with the Arrancar, while in base form the Quincy could keep up fairly well with Harribel, Nel or Grimmjow, but as soon as they activated Resurrection it was over.

And, the female Arrancar had been pretty forgiving by letting them stay in Las Noches, especially after everything the Quincy had done to them. So, with nothing better to do, they followed her. Glancing back up and the woman in question her intentions were made clear.

"I would like to form an official alliance with the Shinigami."

~ Pandemonium, at the throat of the world.

He didn't have the energy to appreciate the large stone monastery when he'd finally reached the top, he'd just spared it a cursory glance before falling forwards and shifting into a half-seated position. His head resting on his shoulder he lifted a tired gaze towards the swirling mass of colour above him. Absentmindedly his left hand slowly massaged his thigh, the muscles trembling lightly from the strenuous workout he'd just put them through.

He knew from the start that the seven-thousand steps wouldn't be easy, but he never could've imagined the six or so hour long trek would have been that tough. Huffing out the teen's lips twisted into something close to a grin but not quite there. He never realized how much he missed having a sense of time, something that had been obviously absent since he first woke up in that fake forest amidst the Astral Plains.

No, a wristwatch hadn't suddenly appeared, nor had the Pandemonium suddenly adopted a day-night cycle. It was merely an educated guess born from past experience. He could still remember it now, a time long before he had been thrust into the supernatural. A time before his mother had been taken away and their family had still been whole. They had gone on a family vacation to visit Risshakuji, or Yamadera as it was more commonly called. It was a scenic temple located northeast of Yamagata City, founded over a thousand years ago.

In order to reach Yamadera, you needed to climb a little over a thousand steps, a feat that had originally taken his family about an hour. Though considering all the breaks they took to admire the breathtaking views and the fact that his parents had to carry himself and his sisters most of the way it slowed them down a lot.

Ichigo assumed that with his current physical shape it would take him no more than forty minutes to make the climb now. The only difference between that time and this, however, was an extra six-thousand steps.

There was no way in hell he could do that in one go and so with roughly fifteen-minute breaks in between each set of a thousand steps – and yes he had counted – he guessed it took him a little over six hours altogether.

A faint roar echoing off in the distance pulled his eyes open once more, the fatigue which had been plaguing him lifting from his body. The legendary creature's voice had served as a reminder to why he was there, what he needed to accomplish. So without another thought, he stood, brushed off his clothes and turned to face the stone monastery once more, this time examining it thoroughly.

Visually it wasn't anything mind-blowing, well at least when compared to everything else he'd seen recently. A large building with a stone tower splitting its front staircase into two, both paths leading to separate doors.

The most incredible thing in his mind was that this place existed altogether. He couldn't help but wonder who had built it and how. Perhaps it was some form of energy manipulation like in the Seireitei? He wasn't sure.
Upon reaching one of the twin sets of bronze, double-doors he noticed with growing curiosity the dragon's skull that had been etched into its surface. Tracing one of the jagged lines of the Dragons eye with his finger, he was forced to pull back sharply when the doors began to creep open.

The air that swept over him as he stepped inside was surprisingly chilly, and it carried with it a smell of smoke both acrid and sweet. There were four metal sconces in the entryway, two on either side of him and all lit with what he guessed was a magical flame considering there was no tinder burning below it.

Leaning to the right he tried to catch a quick glimpse of what he guessed was the main room. He could see much stronger golden glows flickering off the walls and stone floor so perhaps there was a larger fire pit inside.

He paused briefly, he hadn't seen anyone thus far and wondered if he should really be just letting himself in like this. Then again there hadn't exactly been a doorbell he could ring, and the doors did open on their own so he would just take that as a sign of his welcome.

At the very far side of the room and up a set of small stairs, he could see another set of the same bronze double doors which he had entered from. Splitting the staircase into two was the large pit of fire he'd guessed would be there. Asides from a few other smaller sconces like the ones in the entrance way, this pit acted as the main source of light for the room.

Turning to his left upon fully entering the room his eyes fell on what looked to be a shrine. Embossed onto the wall was a symbol of a Dragon, its wings and tail both working to create the shape of a diamond. Peering over his shoulder at the floor behind him he took note of a similar diamond shape that was etched into the floor. Glancing back towards the symbol he breathed out a soft 'interesting.'

"That is the symbol of the once great Draconic Pantheon, traveller," an elderly voice called out.

Spinning on his heel, the first thought that came to his mind when his eyes found the owner of the new voice was that the term 'Greybeard' really suited him. "The Draconic Pantheon?" the teen repeated, more of a question than a statement.

"Indeed," He nodded before descending the stairs and stopping in the middle of the room, "founded by the followers of the three Primordial Dragons, greater deities that even the mightiest of Gods revered."

The teen's eyes widened. "Who were they?"

"Asgorath, the Dragon God of Creation and World-Shaper. Akatosh, the Dragon God of Time." The man paused, brows tilting together ever so slightly, "and Vulthuryol, the Dragon God of Destruction.. the World-Eater."

"Do they still live?" Ichigo had to ask.

"Of course, beings of such an existence could never truly due." He began, the weight of his words not lost. "Asgorath's mortal body was slain by Vulthuryol in a battle that shook the multi-verse, his soul now resides in the Astral Planes though there is no known history of him ever communication with another being – Dragon or not – since he was slain.

Akatosh also resides in the Astral Planes though I do not know much more than that. Of the three Primordial Dragons, he is the only one who still retains his freedom.

Vulthuryol, like Akatosh, still retains his mortal body, however, he is sealed deep within this very realm."

A cold sense of dread ran down the teen's spine at the final explanation, pieces of his conversations with the 'mysterious voice' coming back to him.

"I can tell you a little bit, my vision right now is somewhat.. limited."

"Do not dwell on it, this world works in mysterious ways.. perhaps we shall meet yet if fate allows it."

"Because I pulled your soul from the cycle of reincarnation."

"Or, if you wish for a second chance at life, to be reborn and reunited with your friends and family then walk forwards and come find me."

As much as he wished it didn't, it all made sense.

If the elder monk noticed the distress swirling within the teen's eyes than he didn't comment on it, instead he furthered the interaction. "I believe that introductions are in order." He began, unfazed by the three other men who came to stand beside him. "I am Master Arngeir, to my left is Master Einarth, to my right is Master Borri and to his right is Master Wulfgar. We are the four Greybeards."

The three men nodded politely at him but made no move to speak, the former Shinigami took that as his cue, "I'm Ichigo Kurosaki."

Arngeir made a hum of thought, "Japanese is it? So Kurosaki-san?" He asked earning a nod from the man in question, "you may call us similarly if you'd like." Again he received a nod.

"Now then, I wonder if you could tell us what brought you here Kurosaki-san? I have no doubt that Artorias led you to us because he believed we were your only hope."

Bringing a hand up to scratch at the back of his head he sent an uneasy glance towards the tiled floor. "I think you've already answered one of the questions I had when coming here," he admitted before his face fell grim, "I think I was brought here to meet Vulthuryol."

What sounded like a startled grunt escaped Arngeir's throat at those words, a look of severity making his eyes look even darker, "explain yourself," he stated, no room for objections. Not that the teen would have any, he just wanted to know what was going on.

"Well, I died a hundred years ago," Ichigo started with a slight grimace, that would take some getting used to, "It was only recently that I woke up again and when I did a voice called out to me, this is what it said.."

It only took a few moments to explain everything that had happened, the Greybeards for their part listened diligently, not making any attempts to interject. When he did finish the four men nodded almost simultaneously, each of them clearly having come to the same conclusion.

"Please come with us, Kurosaki-san, we should hold this conversation in a more comfortable place," Arngeir said whilst turning and heading back from the direction he'd come, the other Greybeards following him. Wordlessly Ichigo too fell in step, he had a bad feeling he'd want to be sitting for what was about to come anyway.

Up the stairs to the right and down the hallway was where he was led, another right about halfway down the hall took them to what he assumed was their final destination, a large conference room that looked even bigger than the one they'd come from.

A large stone oval-shaped table was the centrepiece of the room, a fire pit at its centre and twelve stone seats – which were a lot comfier than expected – were placed around it. As instructed Ichigo sat at the head of the table on the farthest side of the room, Arngeir took the head seat on the side closest to the entryway and the other three Masters sat around him.

Another moment of silence passed between the five before finally, a comment was made on his tale. "You made the correct decision in coming to the Pandemonium, your second option was not as simple as this 'voice' would have you believe."

"What do you mean?" He asked wearily.

"I'm not too familiar with the Quincy as a whole, however, their power has been quite thoroughly explored in our research. They destroy souls, not just Hollow souls but any that are killed by their power has their soul removed from existence." He paused, a contemplative look covering his face.

"The power to destroy souls sounds like quite the grave sin to me," he finished knowingly, leaving Ichigo to put the pieces together.

It didn't take long.

Ichigo's breath hitched in his throat, the extra emphasis Arngeir had put on the word sin was the only clue he needed. As a former Shinigami, someone who had seen the gates of Hell, entered Hell to save his two sisters, he knew exactly what happened to sinners.

And that meant that Ishida, his Mother, they were both in there right now, had been for a hundred years. What if they had given up? Allowed the Kushanada to devour them. What if they had become mindless sinners like those on the first level of Hell he'd seen the first time around?

Teeth locked together in a silent sneer the teen's fist came down painfully on the stone surface of the round-table. Before he could let out another blow of frustration, however, a voice of reason broke through the dark thoughts that clouded his mind.

"I do not know what conclusions you have come to, Kurosaki-san, nor will I ask, but isn't it too early to give in to those dark emotions? If you succeed in what you came here to do then perhaps it is not too late to correct that which troubles you."

Like a splash of cold water on a hot day, the clarity that overcame him at those simple words was refreshing. He was right. He would find that voice and be reborn. Primordial Dragon or not, it didn't matter. He would be reborn, He would regain his former strength whether that meant as a Shinigami or not, he would re-enter Hell and he would free his mother and Ishida.

He had destroyed Hell's chains once before and he would do so again. He would go through Satan himself if he had too, which in all likelihood he would considering he had been told that all the Gods he once thought to be myth's existed.

With hope renewed and an end goal in mind he continued where they left off, "so do you believe my assumption is right?"

Quickly trading glances with the other Greybeards the man at the opposite head of the table nodded, "all things considered, it's the only logical answer."

"So can you help me get to him? You said Vulthuryol was sealed deep within the Pandemonium right?" He asked excitedly.

"We cannot, our knowledge does not yet extend that far, however, our Master should be able to guide you."

"Your Master?" He affirmed with wide-eyed curiosity, "Artorias only mentioned the four of you."

"Understandable, his existence was mentioned briefly however Artorias has never met him nor inquired further about his identity."

"I get the impression that your Master isn't the same as you?"

"You are correct, he is a Dragon, not as old or formidable as the one who sent us here but he is still an Elder Dragon which demands respect."

Ichigo perked up, he had been curious about the four monks origin story, this was the perfect chance to ask, "the Dragon who sent you here? Does that mean you were banished here as well?"

Sensing the small hint of frustration which lay under the traveller's words Arngeir made a small hum of realization, "so you've heard Artorias' tale have you? Truly a sad one, I recall nearly losing myself to emotion as well when I'd first heard it."

"Well don't worry," Ichigo said assuredly, bringing a look of curiosity to the elder's face, "I already promised Artorias that I'd help him, and I never go back on my word."

It was a proclamation that the Greybeards couldn't bring themselves to doubt, the look in the young man's eyes, the conviction within the words he spoke, it made it impossible to doubt him.

"We are glad to hear it. If you are indeed able to help him then consider that as repayment for our aiding you." The orange haired traveller nodded in acceptance. "Now then, to answer your original question. No, we were not forced here against our will, it was our choice and ours alone that led us here, a decision that we do not regret."


"We were once something close to Magicians, hundreds of years ago- or has it already been a thousand?" He paused, humming in thought as a hand was brought up to stroke his beard. "Well it doesn't matter," he finally said with a shake of his head, then he continued. "We wanted more you see, much like how scientists are always working to achieve greater feats, we wanted to reach the pinnacle of Magic. To use it as Dragons do.

The space between worlds, the 'Dimensional Gap' is filled with all of the residual energies left over from the clash between Asgorath and Vulthuryol, that we are millions of years past that point in time and the energies in the gap are still as unending and overwhelming as ever should give you even a small hint at how powerful the three Primordial Dragons were- are still.

It is that energy which seeps into the dimensions and the creatures that inhabit them which give us the ability to use Magic as we do, however, we are limited. We must use Magic Circles to summon forth that power, something that delays casting time and weakens the potency of a spell, yes the strongest being of the world can still use frighteningly powerful Magic even with the restriction of the Magic Circle, however, it could be so much more.

But Dragons do not have this restriction. All Dragons originate from the original three, they are quite simply masses of energy, why would they need a Magic Circle to draw on that which they are made from? They don't. And that is why Dragons have always been labelled as such legendary creatures, why even the weakest of Dragons are still to be feared."

Ichigo was enamoured by all of this information, however, something was on his mind. "But what about Shinigami?" Having been one himself, Ichigo knew with utmost certainty that he – nor his companions – were Dragons, yet they never used anything resembling a Magic Circle.

"Hmm, yes, there are exceptions. It is because of the Soul Chain that the Shinigami and Hollow can use energy as they do, though I cannot say much more on it. Our research never went far into those two races because the Soul Chain is not something one can acquire no matter how hard they tried, thus it held no value in regard to achieving our goal. It is the same with the Quincy, their progenitor "Yhwach" is the reason they use energy as they do, how he managed such a thing we couldn't know."

Ichigo nodded, satisfied with the answer he received. "So how did you get here then?"

"It was truly a fateful encounter," he huffed out, a reminiscent smile on his face. "That we would meet Kereska, an Ancient Dragon and one of the twelve original descendants of the three Primordial Dragons.. we could never in a million years have imagined that something like that would happen.

The Goddess of Dragon Magic, she was different than other Dragons, she was willing to give us an opportunity to learn to control energy as the Dragons did, though it did not come without risks.

She told us that she would tear open a pathway to this world, the Pandemonium, that if we were to succeed in our goal then we would need to learn from the Dragons themselves, however, if we would ever wish to leave this world than it would have to be through our own success."

Ichigo was wide-eyed, "so you're stuck here unless you learn how to tear open that same pathway?" The monks nodded. The teen would admit he thought it sounded crazy, however, they had said it themselves that they regretted nothing, so who was he to argue it?

There was one more thing nagging at his mind. Something he had pieced together through their encounter. It started with his original question of how this place was made, further spurred on by that Dragon logo which Arngeir said represented the Draconic Pantheon founded by the followers of the three Primordial Dragons. The number of which he had just learned to be twelve, the same number of chairs lined up around this table.

Coincidence? Ichigo doubted it.

"This place was created by those Dragons, wasn't it? Kereska and the other eleven."

The Greybeards looked pleased with his deduction. "Indeed, that is quite the puzzle you have pieced together.

Ichigo flushed slightly at the praise, "so what happened to them?"

"They are alive, some of them are in this very realm hibernating. Others, like Kereska, are out exploring in the pursuit of knowledge. There is even one who has taken residence in the forest of familiars- a section of Hell. She is now known as one of the five Dragon Kings due to her lost status as an Ancient Dragon." Seeing the curious look in Ichigo's eyes Arngeir simply shook his head, "It is not our story to tell, traveller. If you wish to hear it then you must seek out Tiamat and earn her favour."

His second climb was going much more smoothly than the first, not only was this pathway significantly shorter but it was also very well maintained. The Greybeards had offered to let him stay and rest a bit further but he had to decline, there was too much excitement, anticipation and nervousness swarming inside of him to be able to relax.

He had ascertained lots of information from the monks that he would sift through on his short journey up the foggy pathway to the peak of the mountain.

There it was. Another ten or so steps and he would crest the mountain where the Greybeards Master – a Dragon – was waiting for him. The sweat forming on his palms and the accelerated beating within his chest gave away his nervousness, though could you blame him? His first encounter with a Dragon hadn't gone well. It wasn't that he didn't trust this one, he had no reason not to, he was just scared, plain and simple.

Taking a deep breath the teen steeled his resolve and stepped forwards.

The top of the mountain was relatively flat though it looked as if the original peak had been blown up, and considering what inhabited this world that possibility was all too likely. There were, however, still some larger, more jagged pieces of stone that one could use as a platform or perch themselves on.

And the objective of his latest journey was doing just that.

As he'd imagined, the Greybeards Master dwarfed him in size and was just as ferocious looking as every other winged beast he'd seen so far. Thankfully, that ferociousness didn't extend to his eyes. Honestly, the Dragon looked as though he'd seen better days. Tattered skin on its wings and tail, broken and chipped horns and chin-spikes, dull colour in its skin and eyes. It had clearly lived a long and eventful life until this point.

"I have fought many battles, Wunduniik." The Dragon called out suddenly as if reading Ichigo's thoughts.

"Wunduniik..?" Ichigo repeated slowly, and although he had just heard the Dragon say it, it was surprisingly difficult to repeat. It felt as if he wasn't quite supposed to say it.

"It means traveller in your tongue," he answered. "Forgive me, I am used to conversing with the Dovah – Dragons."

Ichigo nodded. So basically he should expect a lot of words thrown in that he couldn't understand. Though that rose the question, "can the Greybeards speak the Dragon language then too?"

He hadn't heard anything that could be counted as another language, but now that he thought about it.. three of the Masters hadn't uttered a single word the whole time he was there. It had only been Arngeir who had spoken to him. How odd.

The Dragon hummed at the question subsequently pulling the teen from his thoughts. "Geh ahrk nid. Yes and no. Our tongue will come naturally as they reach what it means to be a Dragon."

Again he nodded. He was getting the impression that the Dragon language was more important than what one would first assume, perhaps he could inquire about it later? For now though, "I'm Ichigo by the way, Ichigo Kurosaki."

In response, the Dragons large head fell slightly forward in acknowledgement and approval. "And I am Paarthurnax. In your tongue, it would mean ambition-overlord-cruelty."

The teen gave the Dragon a weary look. "Not a very friendly sounding name," he quipped, it had just slipped out before he could even think about stopping, Thankfully what sounded like an amused snort escaped the Dragons snout and thus he would assume Paarthrunax had not been offended.

"It is not, though it suits my old nature very well."

"What do you mean?"

"Dov wahlaan fah rel. We were made to dominate. The will to power is within our blood. As a direct descendent of Vulthuryol, it was even truer with me," the Dragon drawled out.

Ichigo's brows flew up. He had noticed right away the slow, almost lazy manner Paarthurnax spoke in, however, to hear the Dragon admit such a thing with so little emotion kind of threw the teen off. "A direct descendant?! Why did you change? How did you?"

"You see my tattered body, wunduniik, it was to preserve my life. Had I not escaped my inborn nature than I would have kept fighting until my body crumbled away. Unahzal laas geh. Vokriivos niid. We have eternal life, but we are not invincible.

I overcame my nature through meditation, though not a day goes by where I am not tempted to return to that inborn nature. Zin krif horvut se seleyk. Honour is fighting the lure of power."

"What is better – to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?" Ichigo whispered distantly. He had heard those words before, a long time ago, though he couldn't quite remember where from. This old Dragons words had caused that quote to come rushing back to him, and how fitting they were.

Brushing off one of the more flat stones around him he sat down, aware of but choosing to ignore the appraising gaze Paarthurnax was directing at him.

"Y'know, I've experienced some pretty crazy shit in my life so far," he said suddenly, the corners of his mouth twitching in amusement, "but if someone would've told me a couple years ago that I'd be here today casually talking with a Dragon, I'd have tossed them in the looney bin."

"I trust you've enjoyed this interaction much more than your first?"

Ichigo merely sent a sour glance towards the winged beast at its jest, the amusement in the Elder Dragons voice was nearly palpable. "You saw that huh?" He answered with a click of his tongue, annoyance creeping onto his features.

"Other races view Dragons as mindless creatures who seek nothing but destruction and domination, this is not true. Krosis. It is regretful. You have seen it for yourself, the Dov just love to be free."

Ichigo couldn't deny that. Watching them roll lazily through the air was evidence enough. "But clearly there are some exceptions," the teen finally shot back with a roll of his eyes.

"Of course. The Dovah are instinctual creatures, they love to do battle, though Soslunviir is an abnormally violent Dragon, he has been consumed by his inner nature."

"Che, I'll say." He grunted, hand coming up to rub his left side where he had received a particularly nasty gash. The Greybeards had tried to heal him as best they could but were no experts, as such he wasn't completely good to go just yet.

He still greatly appreciated the effort, however. "If it wasn't for Artorias then I'd be dead right now."

"Hmm. Ah yes, Dragon Slayer Artorias. Dovah faas rok. The Dragons fear him. Respect him. Yes, he is very powerful indeed."

Ichigo had kind of figured that already, anyone willing to charge a Dragon head first was either really stupid or had the power to back it up. Though he had to wonder just how strong the guy really was. How would he fare against Urahara-san, Kyoraku-san or even his own father? It would be interesting for sure.

Though he had to wonder, "don't you hold any animosity towards him?" It would only be logical considering the guy had probably killed a lot of Dragons in his lifetime.

A small silence fell over the clearing at the question. For the first time since meeting him, Ichigo could see a look of uncertainty in the Dragons slitted eyes.

And then it was gone.

"I do not," he confessed finally. "While saddened by the loss of my brothers and sisters, I cannot bring myself to hold it against him. Why should one be scorned for protecting themselves and that they hold dear? That would be the height of foolishness.

Despite how free-spirited and peaceful most Dragons are, we still cause issues for other pantheons simply due to our sheer size and power." the Dragon paused, his next words coming out with a little more humility. "More so, the Dov are prideful creatures to a fault. Even the weakest of Dragons are something to be feared, they know this and it stokes their pride, it gives them a feeling of superiority. How do you think a Dov will react to someone of a 'lesser race' telling them what to do?"

Ichigo sighed out with incredulity, Dragons were becoming more and more amazing the more he heard of them, though he wasn't so sure if that was a good thing or not just yet.

With a couple strong beats of his wings, Paarthurnax jumped from the perch he was on and landed on the larger platform below with a thud. Ignoring the confused glance being sent his way he ambled to the far side of the plateau, opposite of the path which Ichigo has ascended.

Turning back he gave the teen a steely gaze. "You have indulged my weakness for speech long enough. Krosis."

Ichigo could feel the goosebumps along his skin, excitement coursing through his veins like lighting. "You mean..?"

"Mm, yes, I will help you." Seeing the relief which flooded into the boy's eyes Paarthurnax made sure to warn him aptly. "Do not rest yet, wunduniik, to reach Vulthuryol is not so simple as walking through a dimensional gate."

And at those words, any hope which had filled his heart began to freeze over. He'd always known it wouldn't be easy, but the grim, foreboding tones that laced his gravelly voice whispered of terrors he couldn't even imagine.

"What do I have to do?"

You have to go down." Paarthurnax said bluntly, earning a look of confusion. "What you see around you isn't all there is to the Pandemonium, this is only the first of four layers. The Pandesmos – where we currently sit – is the most habitable of all the four layers, each subsequent layer gets worse as you delve deeper, though I would hardly call the second layer habitable as it is."

"What's the second layer like?"

"It is named Cocytus, that should give you an idea."

The teen blanched. One of the five rivers which encircled Hades? The ninth and lowest circle of Hell? The frozen lake which is said to have giants chained around its borders.. that Cocytus?! What the hell were these people thinking? Vulthuryol, the Greybeards, Paarthurnax, they were lunatics, how the hell was he supposed to get through Cocytus and live?!

Feeling a wave of exhaustion flood through him he slouched forwards and dragged a tired hand over his face and through his hair. The toll of everything he'd been through since waking up again having finally caught up with his body. He had been alright thus far only due to the emotions of excitement, anticipation and hope which had kept him energized and willing to push on.

But the wall of reality that had just slammed into him took all the energy which he'd been riding thus far and none too kindly extinguished it. Inhaling, he held the breath for a moment before exhaling a slow and soothing breath.

Looking back towards the Dragon, Ichigo needed to clarify something. "You realize I'm currently a human right?" His voice came out only slightly higher than a mumble. Seeing the Dragon nod he continued in a humorous drawl, "I appreciate the confidence but sending me to Cocytus is a death sentence."

Paarthurnax shook his head, "Drem. Patience. I am not sending you to your death, have faith in this Dovah's wisdom."

Ichigo held their locked gaze for a moment longer, challenging the words of the Greybeards Master. When he found no hint of uncertainty in the slitted gold he merely nodded his head in a silent okay to continue.

"It isn't truly the Cocytus, it merely adapted that name over the millennia due to the fact that the river Styx flows through its barren caves. One end of which leads to the underworld, Hades domain. The other leads to the real Cocytus, the ninth layer of Hell. Obviously, it isn't so simple as sailing down one way or another and entering the respective realm, but with the right knowledge and abilities, it could be done. The Pandemonium sits on the side closest to the Underworld."

The teen sighed again – something he'd been doing a lot lately – at the information given. So instead of the frozen lake Cocytus, it was the river Styx. So much better. 'Try to stay positive, Ichigo,' he groused mentally, 'Paarthurnax said to trust his wisdom.' It couldn't be so bad right? As long as he avoided the river he should be okay right? Ichigo really should have known better by now.

"The river itself is the key to reaching the third layer of the Pandemonium – Phlegethon – though I do not know how. You will need to search for the answer yourself."

Well, at least Paarthurnax sounded apologetic.

"So you're telling me I have to snoop around the river Styx to try and get to the third layer?" He nodded. "And I'm guessing my end goal is the fourth layer?" Another nod. 'Of course, it is.'

"Yes. Agathion. It is the final resting place of things which should never be awoken. Vodahmin ko unslaad vulom. Forgotten in eternal darkness. It is only fitting that Vulthuryol was imprisoned there."

"Right. So how do I get to the second layer?" He asked simply, though instead of earning a verbal response the Dragon simply flicked its head towards the edge of the mountain it was sat near, signalling for him to come closer. He gave his body one quick stretch upon standing and started his way to the edge, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the Grand Master of the Greybeards. It wasn't that he didn't trust the dragon per se, something just felt off. More so, there was something that had been nagging at the back of his mind.

Paarthurnax seemed sure enough that Vulthuryol was well and truly sealed down below, but.. was he really? Perhaps he was just being paranoid but the idea that the one called 'Dragon God of Destruction' and 'World-Eater,' the creature who was strong enough to defeat Asgorath, the Dragon God of Creation and World-Shaper could be so easily sealed away seemed fishy to him. He would need to trust the Dragons words for now.

Upon reaching the edge of the cliff he followed Paarthurnax's gaze deep down into the valley below. He didn't need an explanation to tell him what the eerie blue glow was rising from the cracked rocky surface. It was overwhelming, the longer he stared into the sinister waters the harder it became to look away from. With each passing second the feeling of nausea grew, it felt as if his soul was being violated by the negative energies which seeped from its depth.

Anger. Loathing. Guilt. Grief. Loneliness. Distrust. Hatred. Jealousy. Depression. Anguish. Envy. Despair. It was too much.

He felt momentary relief when something distinctly tail-shaped slammed into his back, shattering his concentration on the river, though it returned sevenfold when he realized what was actually happening. Shifting in the air as he fell rapidly towards the raging waters his fear filled eyes locked briefly with the Elder Dragons, the emotionless stare he received back was oppressive.


Disclaimer: I don't own anything here. I have pulled things from many different sources and so I won't list them all but just know that I don't own any of this! The characters and worlds depicted all belong to their respective authors!

Two flashbacks in three chapters? Yikes. I normally don't like using them but for these two instances it was necessary, though I promise there shouldn't be anymore, not in the near future at least.

A few people have contacted me in regards to the power of Shouting from Skyrim, don't worry, Ichigo will not be getting that power. It just doesn't fit in my opinion. You'll have noticed that I kept the Dragon language in and that is simply because I think its really cool. I had to really force myself to use it as little as possible when writing the Paarthurnax scene, though I made sure to keep some of it in because those of you who are familiar with his character know that he uses the language quite frequently.

I've said that Ichigo won't be learning any shouts and the whole concept of shouting wont be in the story at all, however, you'll have noticed as well that Master Borri, Einarth & Wulfgar didn't say anything much like in Skyrim. The reason being that I was unsure if I wanted to include shouting or not, maybe not for Ichigo, but for the Greybeards and other Dragons. On that I am still unsure, however, one thing I am sure of is that I want the Dragon language to be somewhat significant in the story, nothing too crazy but a little.

I know a lot of people guessed that the bad Dragon was Alduin because of the Skyrim references, and I thought about it, but then I changed it to Vulthuryol. My reasons for the decision? Vulthuryol sounds more evil then Alduin and it sounds cool lol.

Also, I have a bad feeling someone is going to review saying what did Paarthurnax mean when he said 'blank' or 'blank' in the Dragon language, why didn't you leave a guide? I didn't leave a guide because there wasn't a need for one, anytime Paarthurnax says something in the Dragon tongue, know that whatever he says right after is him repeating what he said but in the English language.

I'll use Paarthurnax's final line of dialogue as an example. He says "Vodahmin ko unslaad vulom." and then right after "Forgotten in eternal darkness." Forgotten in eternal darkness translates roughly to Vodahmin ko unslaad vulom in the Dragon tongue. I say roughtly because not every English word is translated into the Dragon tongue and so I had take take liberties in some places.

Anyways, that's all for now.

If you have any thoughts on this chapter than feel free to leave a review! I'm always looking to improve my writing and so constructive criticism is appreciated. If you have any questions then feel free to message me, I always reply when I can.

- Vertius