Guardian of the Dead

- Chapter 2 -

Ichigo all but shot up out of bed the next morning, noting quickly that while his nightmare hadn't lasted all that long before he was back, blacked out into a dreamless sleep, the anger and despair he'd felt during it had followed him all the way through. His hands were balled tightly into fists, his fingernails close to breaking the skin of his palms. He also noted with some distaste that he'd persperated quite heavily through the night; the way his clothing stuck to his skin being a good indication of such.

He would definitely need a shower to start the day, but for now, that could wait, he had much more pressing matters to attend to.

Standing swiftly he strode over to the shoji door which connected his room to one of the many gardens Amaterasu's manor seemed to possess. Quietly he stepped out into the crisp morning air and sat out on the edge of the porch, easily slipping from the top half of his yukata so that the cool morning breeze could wash over his skin.

So lost in thought he was, he failed to notice the effect his exposed upper half was having on every female servant that passed by, each giving him a long and appraising look. As beings of the supernatural, the many scars which covered his torso, chest, shoulders and back were not seen as unsightly, but instead, they added to his appeal. Each one of them was a sign of his strength, proof of the many battles he'd fought in and survived since bursting onto the supernatural scene.

Staring blankly ahead his thoughts were once more dragged down to that world he was in, that hastily deserted and ghostly version of Karakura Town that he couldn't explain. It felt far too real to be a dream. The warmth of the sun on his skin, the glossy texture of that books cover, the cold metal of the table and chair in his hand. His senses were too sharp, it all felt far too lucid.

The screams of the innocent, all those horrible visions he was made to watch, it all still pierced him to his core. He had tried closing his eyes as he ran to block it out but it was no use, that dark and sinister figure continued to haunt him even with his vision blacked out. That all-encompassing terror he felt as he stumbled across his father's motionless body, Karin's dishevelled appearance as she lay motionless at its feet, Yuzu's fear-stricken and bloodshot eyes and she hung in the monsters grasp, That snap.

The sound echoed endlessly in his mind; that sickening crunch as her throat was crushed.

Lifting a clawed hand to his face, his warm, golden-brown eyes twisted darkly as the ghostly feeling of his Hollow mask rested on his skin. He hated the feeling's that dream forced to surface within him; it reminded him all too much of his interaction with Hell. When those sinners had broken free and attempted to kidnap both of his sisters to lure him in, succeeding in taking Yuzu and dragging her down into the bowels of damnation.

The feeling of helplessness when he saw the chain growing from her chest, knowing that she was so close to being lost to Hell forever. The murky haze as his consciousness and sanity began to fade away, the overwhelming madness and hate, the desire to slaughter the man before him for damning his sister for all eternity.

He hated it.

Arm falling limply back down to his side he gave his head a light shake, his bangs swaying softly before his eyes. It wouldn't do well to remember such things right now, they were all fine and that time was over. He needed to get his mind back on track, back on that world he was in. If he was completely honest with himself it felt like an inner world, his inner world, slightly different but his none the less.

Truthfully he'd already experienced something like this once before, back when he was training to try and learn the final Getsuga Tenshō. Upon entering his inner world in the Dangai the endless expanse of blue skyscrapers was not the sight he was met with; instead, it was an exact replica of Karakura Town that had been completely submerged in water.

Zangetsu had told him that the reason it looked as such was that he'd lost sight of the path before him. He had been so blinded by his fear of Aizen's power, by the madman's goal of sacrificing his town to make the Ōken that his inner world had begun to reflect it. The skyscrapers which signified his vast power and potential had vanished, and the rain which signified his despair had fallen so heavily that his entire soul had been submerged, he had become stagnant.

This occasion was so similar to that and yet so different at the same time. There were no threats to his hometown he was aware of, nor the people in it, so why would his inner world hold that form? And, more so, why was he able to enter it in the first place, he had no power right now. Zangetsu was locked away or simply destroyed altogether, and the same could be said for his inner world itself. The final Getsuga Tenshō damaged his soul to the point where he may never even regain his reiryoku again, so why then did he have that dream?

There were too many unknowns right now, too many questions that he just couldn't answer himself. Perhaps he could speak to Amaterasu about it later; if anyone could give some insight on the situation it would likely be her.

Slipping the top half of his uniform back on his head tilted slightly as the soft padding of footsteps drew closer to him from behind, stopping only a couple of feet away. Turning the upper half of his body to see who had come he was met with a pink-faced Ayame who seemed more than content with not making eye contact. It was at that moment when he'd realized what he had actually done, and a quick glance around at the other female servants in the vicinity gave him all the confirmation that he needed. A small blush of his own rose to his cheeks as he finally addressed the girl behind him, "uh, morning Ayame."

Quickly she steeled her emotions, she was on duty right now and it would do to get it trouble over such an embarrassing matter. "Good morning, Ichigo-sama, I hope that your sleep was good?" she asked, not missing the brief flash of darkness that swept through his eyes nor the brief tightening of his muscles at the reminder of that night's rest. Clearly, it hadn't been so pleasant for the young man, however, she wouldn't pry, she had no business doing so.

"Mm, it was good," he nodded, "Thanks for asking." His voice was smooth as the lie slipped easily from his tongue. He wasn't sure if Ayame believed him or not but there wasn't really much he could do about it.

"I'm pleased to hear it, I've come to inform you that the baths have been prepared for your use, afterwards I will take you to the main dining hall where your breakfast will be waiting."

Ichigo's brow twitched. 'Oi oi, I'm getting treated like freakin' royalty over here..' he honestly felt a little uncomfortable with it all, though it wasn't that he didn't appreciate the effort.

Amaterasu obviously wanted him to be as comfortable as possible during his stay and Ayame was doing her very best for him which he appreciated, but he'd never been much for formalities or luxurious living so this was just a little much for him handle so suddenly. He couldn't just say no, however, she was doing her best and he didn't wish to cause the girl any problems. "I see, well let's go then," he finally conceded. Nodding silently at his words Ayame turned on the spot and began walking down the hall, Ichigo only a couple steps behind her.

The walk was led in comfortable silence and once again Ichigo was reminded of just how peaceful Takamagahara was. This is what the Soul Society should have been like for all the souls which passed on, not those lawless districts that forced people to live every day in fear.

The Soul Society was an evil place, undeniably so. Even the Seireitei was rotten to its core, however, something Ichigo was forced to realize early on was that it's a necessary evil. One consolation in it all he supposed was that the Shinigami were finally starting to change. It was slow sure, and no doubt there would be much resistance along the way, but it was better than nothing at all.

The main problem in the situation was that just because the Shinigami were willing to finally move on with the times didn't mean that their damn government would be too. It would take a lot more than a stern dressing down to get those fools to see reason. Ichigo merely worried about how drastic a situation it would take for them to finally understand that their current system no longer worked, he could only hope that they opened their eyes before it was too late, even if he knew that hope was small.

Stopping in front of a very familiar doorway the teen gave his guide a dubious glance. "All part of the customs, huh?"

The look he received was wholly innocent with just a touch of amusement hidden in her green eyes. Clearly, she knew something he didn't. She refused to say anything even as she shut the door behind him.

Undressing and stepping further inside the teen caught sight of the two suspicious pools, bone white and blood red that were awaiting him. After washing himself thoroughly he ventured further. He hesitated at the first of the springs for only a moment before stepping inside and sinking deep into its waters.

Honestly, he could say what he wanted about their appearances but creepy or not they felt incredible. This painless yet blistering heat that reached the core of his bones and the depths of his soul was soothing beyond words. And, after the previous night's dream, this water was heaven to his frayed nerves.

An hour and two springs later he was drying off and getting dressed, pleased at the sight of his human clothing washed and folded neatly in the basket before him.

As always Ayame was stood diligently outside waiting for him. He still couldn't decide whether or not she waited for the whole time or just had impeccable timing. Maybe one of these days the secret would be revealed. Smirking quietly to himself he pushed the thought to the back of his mind and stepped out into the hall.

It was Ayame who broke the silence this time as they walked towards the dining hall. Unfortunately, she carried with her some bad news. "Ichigo-sama, Amaterasu-sama has asked me to convey to you her sincerest apologies, it seems something has come up that requires her immediate attention; as such, she will likely be unable to see you for the next few days.

She has also asked me to inform you that you are free to roam as you wish, her manor and outside. You are a guest of the highest order in these Heavenly Planes so please feel free to ask any servant you see for anything should you need it."

With a crestfallen expression, his posture fell slightly slack at the news. He'd really been looking forward to continuing their previous conversation, especially now that he needed her guidance on the past night's terrors as well. It was disappointing to think their next meeting wouldn't be for a few more days but this was a whole new world for him, he was sure he could find something to occupy his time until then.

At that moment an image of a large cherry blossom tree fluttered through his mind. If he remembered correctly there was a small stone bench that rested under it which would be an incredible place to collect his thoughts.

"That's fine then, there was somewhere I wanted to check out anyways," he replied with a smile hoping to put the girl beside him at ease, she could obviously tell the news had bothered him but he was fine now and he didn't want her to worry about him.

She returned his with a smile of her own and nodded as they continued their way towards the dining hall.

It didn't actually take much longer for them to reach their destination and so both parties bid each other farewell. He couldn't even gather his own bearings again before there was a servant at his side ushering him to the table. As with the night before he was sat down and a wide variety of foods were brought before him in quantities that he couldn't normally hope to eat, but this was the supernatural where normal didn't exist.

Lifting the first bite of food to his mouth he could feel that unquenchable hunger once more begin to take hold of his senses. It was as if he'd turned into a savage, no matter how many plates of food were put before him it was all devoured. Only after the entirety of the table was empty and its contents in his belly did he feel full.

As embarrassing as it was none of them looked at him like what he'd just accomplished was odd, like one man eating enough food for ten people was normal around here, and who knows, maybe it was? Either way, he wouldn't question it. With a genuine thank you for another amazing meal he set off with a simple wave down the winding halls towards the garden he remembered from the day before, well at least he thought he was, unknown to him he was actually heading in the wrong direction.

After a ten-minute walk of him continually going in circles, he finally gave in and asked one of the passing staff for directions. And so, with a clear path to his goal in mind, he spent the remainder of his journey grumbling to himself about overly complicated manors and the lack of maps for guests like himself.

His sour attitude quickly passed when did arrive, this spot was just far too peaceful for him to continue sulking. The temperature was comfortably warm and the shade from the tree coupled with the soft breeze that swept over him every so often made sure he never got too hot. It was blissful, the serenity which echoed throughout every fibre of his being right now was something he wouldn't mind feeling every day, just sitting here watching the fish swim around haphazardly in the pond below, without a care in the world.

'Without a care in the world, huh?' Though appearing calm on the outside that was the complete opposite of how he actually felt, he had way too many thoughts racing throughout his head.

'What am I doing here? Yes, Urahara-san told me to come so that I could get answers to all of my questions, but was that really it?'

'I understand that Amaterasu saved me when I was younger and thus wanted to meet me when I had grown up a bit, that's all fine, but it can't be all there is to it.'

'Were it truly the case, then why show me everything that actually exists out there? Why tell me – a powerless human – about the deep-rooted history between the Shinigami and Quincy? Why tell me about the current tensions between the many factions of this world? She could've easily said no.'

'I already know why,' he thought with a snort. 'Urahara-san, my Oyaji, Amaterasu, they each knew that if I heard what was going on right now; if I knew about the spiritual world war that was dangerously close to starting that I'd want to intervene, to do anything I could to prevent it. So why tell me now that I'm powerless?'

The only explanation that made sense to the young teen was that his powers were returning, it was something that filled him with a good deal of excitement, but also trepidation. It would certainly explain why he'd entered that fake Karakura which felt shockingly close to his inner world. 'Perhaps they've known it's been happening for a while and by coming here I can have them fully restored? Maybe that's why Oyaji finally told me the truth about him, about Oka-san, about my heritage, so when my powers are eventually restored I would have a deeper understanding of them; so I could be stronger for the inevitable shit storm that's coming.'

Frustration crinkled in his eyes as his thoughts continued. 'So why couldn't they just come out and tell me? Instead, they're trying to ease the information on me as my powers return when they know damn well if someone was in danger I'd do everything in my power to save them, regardless of the circumstances.'

This is what had always pissed him off, 'they're acting like the Shinigami, trying to play me for a fool, why can no one ever just be straight with me? It's like they assume I'll turn tail and run if I get wind of a potential threat, so instead they wait and wait and wait until there isn't any time left, then throw me in head first without so much as a word.'

Sighing out heavily he let those feelings of frustration fizzle away before they could build into anything more.

~ Soul Society, First Division, Office of the Captain Commander

The strongest Shinigami born in the last thousand years sat hunched over in his office chair mulling over the latest report given to him by the stealth force. It was a simple report, but its contents carried much importance. According to the words written before him, Ichigo Kurosaki was currently missing, last sighted a week ago heading in the direction of the Urahara Shop.

Yamamoto scoffed lightly, 'why am I not surprised that he might have a hand in this?'

The rest of the report didn't say much else of interest, the usual formalities and what not. They scanned the town for approximately five days after noticing his disappearance, furthermore, they monitored the emotional states of Kisuke Urahara, Yoruichi Shihōin, and his father Isshin 'Kurosaki' Shiba.

The stealth squad was unable to find the boy nor could they garner any information regarding his possible whereabouts. To add further confusion to the mix, his father and two mentors showed no outward signs of distress, the three continued their daily lives as if nothing had ever changed.

With all of this coupled together, the squad stationed in Karakura made the call last night to retreat back to the Seireitei, deciding that further orders would be required. It was the right call.

Setting the report back on his desk he stood with a grunt, while still the strongest Shinigami born in a thousand years, the old commander would admit his body was really starting to feel its age.

The loss of his arm certainly wasn't helping matters, that isn't to say he couldn't have gotten it 'rejected' back into reality by the human girl Orihime Inoue, but.. he would admit his pride had thus far stopped him from asking.

As it stood, he couldn't see himself still holding this position a couple hundred years from now. Eventually, he would need to pass on the torch, the intended target being Shunsui. He was the only real candidate for the position, perhaps Jūshirō if he wasn't so ill, but even still. The position of Captain Commander of the Gotei 13 required a certain level of decisive ruthlessness, the ability to make tough calls for the betterment of the future. Shunsui had that in spades, his carefree and philanderous personality did well to hide it but Yamamoto hadn't raised him since he was a boy for nothing.

No, this position was not something for the lighthearted. Yamamoto had experienced a lot in these thousand years, he'd seen the Soul Society at its highest highs and lowest lows, times of great frustration and anger, many great atrocities that were now told about in history classes.

And, it was his blade that caused most of them. On his head were countless lives and many genocides, most notably the mass extermination of the Quincy some two hundred years ago, and the great Quincy war another eight hundred before that.

But he didn't regret it. Often times you have to make decisions that you may not like, that may put you in a bad light with your subordinates, however, that is the downfall of holding such a position. All your life your good deeds will be overlooked by the bad, and when you do die you will be remembered more for the terrible things you did instead of the good that came from those same terrible acts.

It was the sad reality of positions of power.

Sighing out he slowly made his way over to the railing of his office which overlooked the Seireitei, a touch of melancholy entering his features. He knew that someone would eventually have to take over for him, but he would do his best to prolong it as far into the future as possible.

Glancing down at the courtyard below, the smiling faces of his Shinigami did well to ease some of the weight off his heart, this was one of his favourite spots to be when he had matters on the mind. Thinking back on the report he'd just read he came to one simple conclusion, everything about the situation pertaining to the young Kurosaki screamed suspicious to him.

The boy was powerless right now and as such, no Hollow would target him. Any former enemies that may have wanted to get revenge on him wouldn't have been able to find him no matter how hard they looked, and even if they could somehow manage it Yamamoto would send down the full wrath of the Gotei 13 on them in retaliation, damn what the Central 46 might think.

He was also aware of the various barriers Urahara had placed around Karakura in the spots the young man most frequented just for added measures of safety. More so, the twelfth division would have notified him immediately if any hostile reiatsu signatures had been located in the boy's vicinity. If such a situation were to occur than their countermeasures would need to be quick and effective.

In addition, the behaviour of the three former Captains living in Karakura only served to further prove that something was up. No matter how good they were at concealing their true emotions, if something had really happened to Ichigo Kurosaki they wouldn't be able to act so carefree. And, in the worst case scenario, that being his death, they would've had to tell the Soul Society if only so the Rukon districts could be searched and scoured to locate him once more.

Yes, he was certain that nothing bad had yet happened to the young man and he knew without a doubt that Kisuke Urahara was aware of his location, even if the troublesome man more than likely had no plans of revealing it. This, of course, was no issue to the veteran commander because of the many words that could be used to describe him, stupid was not one of them.

He already had a fairly good idea where the former substitute was, the location of which was completely classified so he couldn't tell the rest of his subordinates. Normally he wouldn't have been so willing to accept that the young Kurosaki had already made it there, but that boy really loved to prove people wrong.

~ Soul Society, the next day

As one would expect, news of Ichigo's disappearance leaked out and spread like wildfire all throughout the Seireitei. He was a known war hero to them all, even the Academy Students and some folk out in the Rukongai knew who he was. And, he even had a few fan clubs in his honour among the lower seated members of the Gotei 13, not that he was aware of course. So, it was understandable that when the news broke a lot of distress spread through the ranks. The various Captains and Lieutenants struggled to calm their divisions down in the aftermath, though an assurance that they were looking into it with the utmost haste was the best they could give.

Nevertheless, Ichigo's stubbornness and tenacity were well known to those of the Seireitei and so eventually all settled down again, well almost all.

"Damn that fool!" The petite, raven-haired Lieutenant of the thirteenth shouted, her Zanpakutō continuing its merciless assault on her fellow Lieutenants released blade. "He doesn't even have his powers anymore yet he can't stay out of trouble!"

"Oi oi, calm down Rukia!" Renji pleaded, he had no issue sparring with his longtime friend but this was getting a little ridiculous. Ever since the news dropped of his vanishing, she'd immediately hunted him down and without so much as a 'Hey, hows it going?' began to furiously assault him in an attempt to release her frustrations. He was pleased when it seemed like she was finally calming down.

"You know that blockhead better than anyone Rukia, he probably just met someone in trouble and bit off a little more than he could chew." As soon as that comment left his mouth he was forced to quickly bring up Zabimaru in an attempt to block, 'alright, note to self, don't bring up Ichigo.'

After a few more quick hits she stopped again, falling into a loose stance that Renji quickly mimicked.

"Do you... do you think he's alright?" She asked quietly, an uncertainty in her eyes that Renji hadn't see since they'd originally met the brash teen in question.

He thought about the question for a moment, as much as he wanted to believe he was alright, it was hard to say. Hell, they didn't even know for certain if he was in any danger in the first place, and if he was how severe it could be. "Honestly?" He finally answered, "I'm not really sure. But, no matter how much I think about it, Ichigo is just one of those people I can't imagine dying no matter what, the thought of him loosing just doesn't feel right," his words earned a nod and a smile from his shorter companion. "So yeah, I think he's doing okay."

After waiting a moment the red-haired Lieutenant broke the silence again. "So, have you heard anything else about the situation? Although Kuchiki-taichō has started being more open with me, he still holds back quite a bit." Renji finished in a downtrodden voice.

Rukia, of course, picked up on this. Her Nii-sama had certainly grown more open than he used to be but it was slow coming, and he had a habit of falling back into that closed off mindset at random times. Rukia was probably the only person who got to see him frequently in a more normal state when some of his defences were down, it was something she appreciated. "No, not too much has been decided so far, all I know for sure is that Yamamoto-sōtaichō is sending Suì-Fēng-taichō to the human world so she can speak with Urahara-san, Yoruichi-san, and possibly Ichigo's father too."

Renji nodded, it made sense. "Do you think they know where he is? I mean, if he was in any real trouble don't you think they would have told us?"

Part of her wanted to believe they would, but another part of her – the wiser part – also knew that the Soul Society hadn't done much for Ichigo asides cause him trouble. If perhaps they did know where he was Rukia wasn't so sure they would say so. No one really wanted to talk about either, but there was an all too real possibility he had left of his own will, that maybe he wanted some peace and quiet away from the supernatural after everything he'd been forced to do because of the Shinigami's negligence and incompetence.

She couldn't help but wonder if he would even want to return to his role as a substitute Shinigami when his powers did eventually come back. The position had caused him more grief than anything, but then again, he never once complained. And, she knew deep down how much he loved to protect, she would even venture to say he had a bit of a hero complex.

She was wrought from her thoughts when Renji called her name once more, she flushed a little, embarrassed at being caught spacing out however answered him, "I don't know if they would, Renji," she said simply, leaving the rest of her unspoken thoughts to the imagination.

There was a brief moment of silence before it was again broken by Rukia, "let's spar Renji, a real spar this time," she called out suddenly with a smirk, he was surprised momentarily though his expression quickly shifted to match hers once he'd realized what she said.

Since both of them were already in a released state Renji wasted no time in dashing forwards and met her blade mid-swing. As soon as the Zanpakutō's made contact a gust of wind was sent out from the point of contact, Renji was impressed with how strong she had gotten. Even though she hadn't actually admitted it out loud her longtime friend knew she'd begun her Bankai training, his grin widened as a thought passed through his head, 'this was going to be a really good spar.'

The blade lock ended with Renji as the winner, his larger size and higher levels of brute strength meant that Rukia couldn't hope to win in a contest of raw strength, but where she lacked in some categories she definitely made up for in others, and she was dead set on making sure Renji was aware of that fact.

"Bakudō #26, Kyokkō!" she called out, catching the red-haired Lieutenant off guard, his eyes widened considerably when the small form of his friend vanished behind a shimmering wall of light.

Quickly he readied his Zanpakutō and stood guard, he could no longer see or sense Rukia and thus he needed to be ready for anything that could alert him to her location. It was times like this that he really wished he paid more attention in Kidō classes back at the Academy, he had no clue what this spell was or the full extent of its capabilities. The regret clawing at him grew stronger when he felt ice crawling up his legs attempting to lock him in place.

He recognized the ability right away as Rukia's first dance, Tsukishiro, but this wasn't enough to beat him. Gripping the hilt of his blade tightly he swung Zabimaru down and shattered the ground at his feet, taking with it the ice that had tried to encase him. Immediately afterwards he hopped up and spun whilst extending Zabimaru so he could sweep the courtyard in a wide radius.

His guess turned out to be correct when he felt his extended blade crash against Rukia's, shattering the illusion she'd placed. "Nice try Rukia! But you'll have to do a lot better than that!" Finishing his taunt in a yell he ripped Zabimaru away from her, forcefully ending their blade lock and temporarily throwing the girl off balance from the suddenness of the movement. Not wasting the opportunity he gave a small flick of his wrist and sent the whip-like blade screaming back at her, cutting into her left arm before she knew what had happened. By the time she'd moved out of the way it was too late, her arm had been deeply gashed and rendered nearly unusable.

Rukia hissed and winced sharply when she had to find that bit of information out the hard way. It was no good, she couldn't match Renji in pure Zanjutsu, she would need to think of a new strategy to defeat him. In a soft swish of Shunpo, she was on him and swiftly exchanging blows, taking advantage of her small stature and superior agility to deflect the full brunt of some of the harsher hits. This clash was only made more difficult with her limited to using one arm.

Unseen by her sparring partner a small grin etched on her face as she finally thought of how to achieve victory, but she would need a little more time. She continued to cut at him relentlessly, pleased to note that a lot more of her slashes were getting through and either cutting his Shihakushō or body directly. As the spar continued Renji had also switched to using just one hand. 'He's getting cocky!' she noted with no small amount of sadistic glee, she wouldn't waste this chance.

Suddenly, much to the shock of her opponent, she released her Zanpakutō, letting it fly out of her hand towards the earth. Her right hand which was now empty rose up and stopped while aimed at her opponent's chest in preparation to use Hadō #31, Shakkahō. That was a spell that Renji did recognize and at such a close range wouldn't be able to dodge, so instead, he rose Zabimaru diagonally across his body and hoped for the best. Unfortunately for him, he'd fallen right into Rukia's trap.

"Bakudō #4, Hainawa!" she quickly called out, ensnaring Renji in a length of golden chain. It wouldn't be able to hold him for very long but it would give her enough time to enact the next part of her plan. "Carriage of thunder, bridge of a spinning wheel. With light, divide this into six! Bakudō #61 Rikujōkōrō!" This time, instead of a length of chain, six beams of light slammed into Renji's midsection fully locking him in place. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't enjoying the utterly shocked look on his face, this was what he got for underestimating her and she wasn't even done yet.

With another quick burst of Shunpo, she appeared behind him while he continued to struggle, with a brief mental command she used her ice rope connection to pull Sode no Shirayuki back into her grasp. Drawing a circle in the air with the tip of her blade and giving a brief shout of 'Tsukishiro,' Renji was swallowed in a pillar of ice.

And finally, to finish everything off Rukia launched one more spell to assure her victory, "Hadō #33, Sōkatsui!" The explosion rocked the training grounds, chunks of earth and ice were sent careening through the air and when the dust settled a battered and bruised Renji, no longer bound by Kidō was seen falling ungracefully to his butt.

"Oi, when did you get so strong?" he asked, annoyed with himself. He should have been able to defeat her, not because Rukia was weak, but because he was stronger than her. Perhaps once she learned Bankai their levels would even out, but for right now he was stronger than her and he should have won.

Rukia just scoffed at the pouting fool, "Maybe if you took me seriously I wouldn't have made you look so bad." she taunted. The thirteenth's Lieutenant was just about to suggest they head to the fourth division when the sound of soft clapping filled both of their ears. As she turned around she was embarrassed to see not only Ukitake-taichō, but her Nii-sama stood there as well, proud gleams in both of there eyes.

"Well done Rukia, that was a splendid display of quick thinking and versatility," Ukitake said, smiling warmly. Byakuya merely nodded his head slightly in agreement, but for Rukia, it was enough to know that he was proud of her as well.

The Captain of the Sixth's gaze then shifted to his Lieutenant who looked like he would crawl into a hole and hide right then and there if he could. "Renji, we will be increasing your training from now on." He said simply, turning on his heel and beginning to walk away with all the grace one would expect from him. If anyone had been in front of him at the time they would have noticed a small smirk crack his icy features at the groan of displeasure released by his Lieutenant.

"Thank you for your kind words, Ukitake-taichō!" Rukia called out after his departure, her small form falling into a bow.

Said Captain of the thirteenth just gave her an exasperated look at the formality she still used. "Come now Rukia, you are my Lieutenant, there is no need to be so formal anymore." Even though he saw her nod her head in agreement it was doubtful that she would heed his words anytime soon, he'd been trying ever since she got the promotion and it hadn't happened yet, at this rate it likely never would. "Now then, why don't you both head over to the fourth and get those wounds looked at?" he suggested, earning a chorused 'yes sir' from the both of them.

~ Soul Society, Fifth Division

'That dumbass, what's he gotten himself into this time?'

As soon as the news first dropped he and the other Visored in the Seireitei gathered together to discuss what the hell was going on. The report given to them was as bare-boned and useless as ever. Basically, all it said was that Ichigo had vanished on his way to the Urahara shop a week ago, what a wellspring of information right? All jokes aside though, that one detail told them quite a lot about the situation. The sole fact in all this was that Kisuke in some way, shape or form was involved. Now that could be a good thing, but at the same time, it could be pretty bad as well.

Their best guess was that the shopkeeper had somehow managed to discover a way to return his powers earlier than expected. As crazy sounding as it was considering how he'd lost them in the first place it really wasn't all that unrealistic. Kisuke was someone who could do anything if given enough time, and Ichigo was as stubborn as a mule, if he really wanted his powers back, he'd get them.

The lot of them had just wanted to march down to Karakura and demand some answers but they couldn't just get up and leave the Soul Society, not without the old farts permission at least, something they knew he wouldn't give. They all missed the kid, it was bad enough when Central 46 give the order that no one was allowed to make contact with him now that he'd gone and lost his powers, something about 'the dead not being allowed to talk to the living' and 'letting him live a peaceful life as he was originally supposed to.'

It was a load of crap but what could they do? What made it worse now is that he was potentially in quite the pinch, and what could they do about it other than sit on their asses twiddling their thumbs?


Shinji could only wonder why the hell he'd taken this job back in the first place. Well, he knew why. It was to help reform his division back to its former glory and give strength back to the Gotei 13. Despite his or his allies personal feelings on the subject of Shinigami, the fact of the matter was they were here to protect the souls of the innocent and they did a pretty damn good job at it. Of course, after those souls came here it was pretty shitty for them in those districts, but you can't change the world in a day, right?

"Hirako-taichō?" Momo called out, grasping her Captain's attention. "Are you alright? You've been sighing all morning.."

"Eh? Just thinkin' 'bout that report, Hinamori-chan," he answered dismissively.

She nodded, that was what she had guessed. Momo had never really spoken to Ichigo Kurosaki herself, but from what she'd garnered from everyone else he just didn't seem like the someone who'd go off dying so easily. No, wherever he was, Momo was sure he was doing alright.

~ Soul Society, Eleventh Division

The most fight loving squad in the Gotei 13 was in a completely different state after the recent report had been delivered. Whereas all the other Shinigami were down and feeling sorry about themselves over his disappearance and worrying over his safety, the eleventh was instead all being treated after their most recent 'training session' with the Captain. The reason for Kenpachi's sudden enthusiasm was actually what the report itself detailed.

Now, normally he couldn't even be bothered reading such things. In fact, it was actually Ikkaku and Yumichika who dealt with all of the paperwork most of the time, and every now and then Yachiru would help too, but unless there was something specific that he needed to sign he avoided paperwork like the plague.

When it was discovered that today's report had information on Ichigo he made an exception and snatched it up, quickly drinking in the contents himself. By the time he was finished, there was a psychotic, face-splitting grin on his face and his body had been coated in a fine layer of golden reiatsu.

The first thing he'd said afterwards, to the complete shock of everyone else present was, 'So Ichigo's finally decided to get his power back?! Good, I've been itching for a chance to fight him again!' and that was what had brought about Kenpachi's 'enthusiasm' to train.

Ikkaku had just finished another spar versus the man and was sitting a few feet away sipping sake when a question came to mind, something he had been curious about ever since his Captain had made that claim earlier. Yumichika and Yachiru who were sat close by obviously listened in as well, they too curious about the answer. "Hey, Captain? Why are you so sure Ichigo's training to get his powers back right now? What if he's actually in trouble?"

Kenpachi stayed silent for a moment, just staring down at the jagged edge of his blade. "I felt it the first time we crossed blades," he began, "although he may try and deny it, Ichigo loves fighting almost as much as I do, the only difference being the reasons we fight." He paused to scoff lightly, "Che, when those geezers in the forty-six ordered that he was to be left alone 'cause he'd be happier as a normal human, I laughed at the stupidity of it all. Hell, even some of the other Captains and Lieutenants are stupid enough to believe that shit, but not me."

He paused again before continuing, "when it was time to say goodbye to him and his friends and the old man ordered we all be there for it, I saw the look in his eyes. He tried to smile it off, did a good job of it too with all the halfwits round here that actually bought it, but the fact that his powers were leaving him made him miserable. I knew right there he wouldn't just wait it out and let them naturally return, he would try his damn hardest to get them back as soon as possible because Ichigo is a warrior like me. He lives to slaughter his enemies, and his instincts will always lead him to new battles."

That surprised them, Ikkaku always knew Ichigo loved fighting more than he let on, but to love it almost much as his Captain? That was saying something. His Captain was a lot smarter than people thought, most people just assumed he was a fight-loving neanderthal because that's seemed to be all he ever thought or cared about, but that wasn't true. His Captain was by no means stupid and to hear those words from him now gave Ikkaku all the reassurance he needed. 'You'd better get your powers back quick, Ichigo. Zaraki-taichō isn't a very patient person,' he thought to himself with a grin, though the grin quickly faded when he narrowly dodged the jagged blade of his Captain's Zanpakutō once more.

~ Takamagahara

Ichigo was once again back on that stone bench under the large cherry blossom tree, and he was just as content there as he had been the first time, though this time a look of slight displeasure could be made out in his eyes. It had been a week since Ichigo first arrived, and in that time he had not once talked to Amaterasu again after their initial meeting. It wasn't for a lack of effort he might add.

What was originally supposed to be a few days had turned into a week and it showed no signs of stopping. He had felt her around a few times, of course, coming and going from the Heavenly Planes, he may not have had his power anymore or the ability to sense reiatsu, but you didn't miss the presence of the Goddess of the Sun. It was something greater than simple reiatsu.

He wasn't displeased at her, or anyone else here for that matter, he wanted that to be clear. No, it was something else. Every night since arriving his sleep had been terrorized by that same monstrous black figure. None of the dreams since had been as vivid as the first, but they were still there. If that wasn't bad enough, the haunting had extended to the daytime as well – or maybe he was just being paranoid – but he swore that sometimes it felt like something was watching him, that he would hear soft whispers when no one was around, too quiet to make out but there none the less.

It was why he so badly wanted to speak with Amaterasu, but he didn't want to bug her and so he let it be. Tried to keep himself occupied. He'd actually been rather busy in his time here so far, he'd done a lot of exploring in the nearby forest's and even visited that Kitsune village he'd walked through when he first came here a few times with Ayame as his guide.

The people here were so friendly that it actually caught him off guard, not to say it was a bad thing. The children loved to play with him, the woman would always give him a taste of their latest baked goods when he dropped by and the older men would thank him with an offer of a drink and a story when he helped with their daily chores. It was a life he could easily get used too. But then he'd start hearing things, maybe seeing them too and his mood would sour, he'd head back to the manor and come right to this tree.

Glaring down at the pond his gaze held no real maliciousness, just frustration.

Another constant during his time here was the morning and night, hour-long bath sessions in his two favourite springs, that and the gargantuan meals. He still hadn't gotten anything more out of Ayame regarding that, always just the usual, 'it's part of the customs here,' but it was fine, he was over it.

Speaking of Ayame... lifting his right arm he gave a small wave towards the girl who'd just emerged from the manor on the opposite side of the garden. Receiving a wave in return the pair exchanged smiles and continued with their tasks at hand. Although... there had been something he wished to ask her, perhaps now would be as good a time as any. With a nod of his head, he began to stand, all the while sucking in a breath so he could call out to her.

He'd barely managed to lift himself off the bench when his body froze, the breath he was taking having hitched in his throat as his mind worked to make out the odd sensation that had just taken him over. It was quiet, only the barest of whispers in the back of his mind and yet stronger than anything he'd heard previously.

There were no words said but in that instant, something had called out to him. It was seductive, alluring, deceptively honeyed words from a venomous tongue.

He sprung from his seat and raced towards the manor, nearly losing his balance as his socks slipped on the polished wooden floors, it couldn't wait any longer. Slowly he wound his way through the halls following the spiritual trail leading right to his intended target, it didn't even register in his mind that a powerless person wouldn't be able to see the spiritual ribbons that every life form possessed.

His mind was set on one thing and one thing only.

Skidding to a halt in front of a familiar door the two guards posted outside quite literally jumped in shock at his abrupt arrival though it took them only a second to regain their composure and realize his intentions. With a smooth motion almost too quick for the teen's eyes to follow the Naginata both guards carried were crossed in front of the door blocking his path.

"We're sorry Shiba-dono, but Amaterasu-sama has asked not to be disturbed by anyone." The guard on the left spoke out, voice ever so slightly muffled by the mask he wore. The former Shinigami hadn't noticed the first time considering his mind was a little pre-occupied with the fact that he was about to meet Amaterasu, but now that he looked closer these guards gave him an odd feeling.

Each guard wore black hakama held up by a grey sash secured at their waist. The top half of their outfit was more form-fitting than the usual Shihakushō, it reminded him a lot of his Bankai coat if he was honest, just not as long. Both guards hair was tied into a long spike at the back of their heads before being left to hang free about halfway through the length. The spikes of hair both led to a black mask with four light-coloured lines tracing over their heads.

"I know that," he answered in a drained voice, his recent nights of sleep hadn't been the greatest for obvious reasons. "I know that, but it's very important, I really need to speak with her."

"We understand Shiba-dono, but..." the guard began in a sympathetic voice before pausing and sharing a glance with his partner. They could see the pleading, almost desperate look in his eyes, for him to make such an expression...

They would likely be scolded by Amaterasu-sama, and Shutara-sama would punish them accordingly, but... the two guards shared another brief glance before nodding and retracting their Naginata. The opposite of the two guards who had been speaking to him turned and rasped lightly on the Shoji doors, stiffening slightly when the clearly annoyed tone of the Goddess of the Sun came in a muffled tone through the door.

Oh, how she hated politics.

Conversations with stuffy nobles and eccentric Gods all vying for the same thing as her, an upper hand in this supernatural game of chess they called diplomacy. It was no different than that of the humans, half-truths and deceptive words, only they as Gods were playing for much higher stakes.

The world was in a precarious state due to the three great factions. The Angels, Fallen Angels and Devils, who still hadn't achieved true piece and were simply in the middle of an extended armistice. Neither of the three sides wanted to continue fighting – they were far too decimated for that – however, no one trusted the other enough to actually sight a proper treaty.

Each of the three faction heads was waiting to be stabbed in the back, waiting for that one triggering moment that would ignite it all again. And if current affairs were anything to go by, it looked like the Fallen would be that trigger.

The rest of the worlds Pantheons – while not in as tense of relations with each other as the aforementioned groups – were still waiting to see what would happen next with the great three because that would dictate how the rest of the supernatural would play out.

Amaterasu had already told Micheal and Gabriel that should they need it, the Shinto would go to war with them. She had been good friends with the God of the Bible and to a lesser extent those two, she wouldn't let them be wiped out.

Her brother Susanoo was very close to Odin-dono of the Norse and could most likely persuade the old warhorse to send Thor-dono and some Valkyrie to aid the white city in the clouds as well, they alone would tip the scale greatly in Heaven's favour. Thor was someone considered to be in the top ten of this world, truly frightening indeed.

Mouth twisting sourly her thoughts went to that of the underworld. She had no doubt that Hades would join with the Devils or Fallen in such a hypothetical case just to spite her. They had never been on good terms- they outright hated each other to be honest, and he would be more than happy to sacrifice some Grim Reapers if it meant causing her some headache.

Sighing out tiredly she brought both hands up to rub her temples soothingly.

What was meant to be a wondrous time spent with her young hero had turned into a week of long sighs and aching migraines.

"Speaking of my young hero..." She said softly, listening curiously when she'd noticed his presence right outside the door.

She knew Ichigo had been asking about her since their first meeting, very eager to continue where the pair had left off, she just hadn't the time. But, something was different this time, she could feel the distress seeped in his slowly returning reiatsu, what could have happened that would have him so bothered?

"Yes?" She called out coolly in response to the knocking on her door. As much as she wanted to throw the door open and embrace her young hero in a hug, appearances needed to be kept.

"A thousand apologies for disturbing you Amaterasu-sama," The guard called out meekly through the door, "Shiba-dono is here seeking an audience with you, I am well aware that your orders were no interruptions but-"

"It's fine." She cut in, "I was just thinking of taking a breather, send him in."

-send him in"

Ichigo couldn't help but smirk slightly at the sigh of release the guard let out at those words, perhaps he had asked them to do something more outrageous than previously thought? Oh well. He thanked them both and moved toward his goal.

Sliding the door open and catching sight of the woman he'd been waiting to see all week the brief bit of amusement he'd felt at the two guards completely left his mind. The realities of the situation coming back hard.

No greetings were shared between the two other than a courteous nod from both sides. She hadn't asked what he'd been up to his first week here nor did he ask her anything, now was not the time for idle chit chat.

Perhaps he was blowing this whole thing out of proportion, yes perhaps, but that's not what his instincts were telling him, and his Hollow had always told him to trust his instincts more.

The actual conversation was over a lot faster than one would expect when they'd finally gotten down to it, it took only a couple minutes to describe the nightly visions and daily whispers that had been plaguing him. Amaterasu – to his comfort – never once looked overly worried or frightened about what he was telling her. The only emotion she had really shown throughout the whole thing was surprise, further expressed by a soft exclamation of 'It couldn't be.'

And, as abruptly as their conversation started, it ended just the same. Only now he had an assurance that the next day his issue would – hopefully – be dealt with, and so they parted ways once more, the Goddess with more paperwork to finish and Ichigo with an eased mind.


Amaterasu had kept her word, well not that he doubted her of course, but the very next day he'd been brought before the Goddess of the Sun and briefed on their plans for the day. In order to find out what his dreams had meant, what exactly had contacted him, they would be paying a visit to her good friend's palace in a realm he was very familiar with.

And so, now here he stood on a large rectangular stone platform, each side lined with massive white columns. He wasn't sure if it was because they were so high up, or perhaps it was because of the reishi in the air but he found it a little difficult to breathe.

Staring out over the edge into the endless expanse of clouds it was kind of surreal to think that all of the Shinigami were currently below him, all of his friends were right down there and they had no clue.

With a small huff of amusement, he straightened himself back out and looked towards the actual destination. His eyes once more passed over the dark-skinned Shinigami currently talking to Amaterasu as he spun. The man had appeared as soon as they arrived, with genuine regard in his greeting and curiosity in his eyes, it seemed as though he had been expecting them.

Despite the large smile he seemed to always carry on his face his presence put Ichigo on edge. It reminded him of that time in the Captains meeting when his gaze met that of Kyōraku-san, a warm personality but infinitely dangerous. This Shinigami was not someone Ichigo wanted to become the enemy of.

Letting his eyes finally slide past the man he took in the rest of the surroundings. Opposite of where they stood at the other end of the stone platform was a staircase leading a large staircase up too another larger, circular platform. Further above that, floating high in the air with seemingly no path to reach them were five massive disks which looked as if they each had a massive city at their centre. And finally, at the centre of those five discs, sitting higher than anything else was a large cylindrical structure with a conical top and bottom.

The whole place was certainly impressive, as overly grand as you'd expect considering the name it held, and the being which called it home.

"Why so bothered?" The large man called out as he approached, "this is the Reiōkyu! You should feel honoured to step foot on these legendary pathways, it's not every day that an ordinary person can come here you know?" He finished jovially, his smile growing ever bigger.

"Although, I guess I can't really call you normal, can I?" He added as an afterthought. Ignoring the confused glance being sent his way he took one of his large hands and smacked the teen on his back for added emphasis, nearly sending him face first into the smooth stone surface.

Catching himself before he could completely topple over he shot a half-hearted glare in the direction of the man who had hit him before looking back out towards the floating cylinder. He hadn't realized he was making such a face, it's just... "this is the place where Aizen tried so hard to get, to be here now, before him, feels a little odd I guess."

The man gave a hum of understanding. "Ah yes, such an impudent one he is. I would've liked him to make it here if only so I could teach him a lesson in manners."

Ichigo looked towards the man with incredulity. 'So he could teach Aizen some manners?' It sounded crazy, but deep down Ichigo had a feeling the guy really could do it. "Who are you anyway? I doubt you'd like me calling you baldy."

The man actually looked taken back at his words for a moment, then suddenly he erupted in boisterous laughter. Out of the corner of his eye, Ichigo could see Amaterasu bring a disbelieving hand to her face.

"Me? I'm Ichibē Hyōsube," the now named Shinigami finally answered, his laughter having calmed down. "Given the title of 'Monk who calls the real name' by the Reiō, I'm the Commander of the Zero Division whose primary tasks are his protection and overlooking the Soul Society. And, on occasions where things get out of hand in the supernatural, we also act as the Shinto's Royal Guard under Amaterasu-sama."

"Monk who calls the real name?" Ichigo repeated curiously.

Amaterasu, who had since walked over to the pair cut in, "indeed, the five members of the Zero Division are each a person who has contributed something great to the Soul Society, and Hyōsube-dono's contribution was the 'name.' Zanjutsu, Hakuda, Hohō, Kidō, the Asauchi and Zanpakutō, Shikai and Bankai, all of it was named by him, that is why he was given the title of Monk who calls the real name."

"Wow," was the enlightened response Ichigo gave, wide-eyed at that information. 'Just how old is this guy then?'

"Wait a sec," He started again, looking towards Amaterasu, "I thought you needed an Ōken to enter this place? When did we use one of those?"

"Normally you do, though I am an exception to the rule. It wouldn't make very much sense if I needed a key to enter a dimension I helped create, now would it? She answered with a chuckle.

Ichigo nodded, it made sense. "So, what is an Ōken then?"

At this question, Ichibē rolled up the sleeves of his Shihakushō and Haori respectively and flexed. Seeing that Ichigo wasn't quite getting it, he spoke up, "The Ōken is our very bones that were altered by the power of the Reiō. We, the members of the Zero Division are the Ōken."

A look of horror covered the teen's face as the dots connected in his mind, "so when he was trying to create an Ōken..."

Ichibē nodded, "using the current Jūreichi and a hundred thousand souls he was trying to create one of us, a living being. Aizen was quite literally trying to play God."

The feeling of dread in the pit of Ichigo stomach was only growing as he encroached further and further onto the truth. "But that means the five of you were made the same way?"

Ichibē clearly sensed the direction his thoughts were going and put an end to it, "don't worry, we weren't made like that. All five of us started out as normal souls too and worked our way up."

Amaterasu who had been listening to their conversation nodded, "yes, worry not Ichigo-kun, I would never do such a thing." The feeling of relief coming from the teen at her words was palpable.

"Well, now that that's been settled, what do you say we get on with it?" Ichibē asked, earning another nod from Amaterasu, though Ichigo was still confused.

"What are we doing here exactly? Is the Reiō going to help with the dreams?"

"No, we're going to go visit somewhere in Hyōsube-dono's palace, a resting place for Zanpakutō if you will."

Ichigo still couldn't believe that those five floating disks each housed one of the members of the Royal Guard; talk about benefits of the position. Each circle consisted of their own palace centred around whatever it was that had earned them their position in the Zero Division in the first place as well as a small city of souls that they looked after as rulers.

Shifting his gaze to the monk he let out another exasperated sigh, "you guys really couldn't have thought of a better method to travel in here?" And hadn't that been a surprise; that he and Amaterasu were led to an embossed circle on the higher of the two entry platforms which he assumed was some sort of elevator or teleporter only to be flung in the air at who knows how many miles per hour?

Hell, he'd only managed to evade slamming painfully into Ichibē's palace due to Amaterasu's timely intervention. She had grasped the back of his shirt and helped him down safely like some sort of child; the amused glint in both their eyes had done nothing for the embarrassment welling inside of him.

Exhaling a bark of laughter; the man smacked him on the back again. "What are you saying?! It's such an exciting way to get around though!" This earned him another half-hearted glare. "What was that human saying again?" He murmured; bringing a hand up to stroke his beard, "Ah! That's it, there's nothing like feeling the wind in your hair!"

"You don't even have hair!"

Softly Amaterasu giggled from beside them. As always she was impressed by Ichigo's ability to get along with and befriend anyone. "By the way Ichigo-kun, it seems you're slowly starting to breath more easily now."

'Easier?!' He wanted to yell, though he couldn't draw the breath to do so. He'd barely been able to have that little back and forth with Ichibē just now. "You call this easier..?" He asked slightly hunched, sweat beading down his face.

He had noticed it when they first arrived; how heavy and dense the air was, but as soon as they'd gotten to the Monks city it increased, and furthermore as they climbed a seemingly endless staircase towards the man's actual Palace it got progressively worse and worse.

He'd originally wanted to tough the whole thing out. After all the power he once had, how sad would it be if he couldn't even climb a simple staircase? But, after nearly blacking out and tumbling back down the stairs he had given in and asked for a break. "What's up with this anyway?" He groused.

"It's because of the atmosphere here; we have an abundance of supercharged reishi particles which are harder on souls than normal reishi, even more so in my Palace. The fact that you are still recovering your powers means it's taking longer to adapt." The monk explained, sharing an amused and ever so slightly mischievous glance with the Goddess of the Sun.

The boy could really be narrow-sighted when he wanted to be, he hadn't even realized what had been happening for the past week.

Ichigo hummed thoughtfully at the answer. "Is it because of the Reiō?"

Amaterasu nodded. "Yes, his powers have a nature similar to the divinity Gods and Goddesses possess and as such the reishi surrounding him is affected."

"Is that why Gods are forbidden from entering the human world? You'll affect people too strongly?"

She nodded again; a sheepish grin twisted at the corner of her lips. "It is by no coincidence that the current Jūreichi is so abnormally powerful."

Ichigo's face fell deadpan, a twisted sort of amazement coming over him at the realization. "When you saved me..."

"I still can't believe you did that," Ichibē cut in with a shake of his head. The woman in question just looked away; hiding her embarrassment further from view.

After a couple more moments of silent travel, once they'd resumed their slow trek up the stairs he broke the silence again. He had been trying to keep his questions to a minimum thus far as not to annoy them, but this was something he couldn't hold of any longer.

"So what is this resting place of Zanpakutō anyways?"

"You should be able to see it soon, it's a special shrine that I keep watch over jointly with Amaterasu-sama and Ōetsu – another of the Royal Guard."

See it soon indeed. Shortly after those words were spoken they crested the top of the staircase and ambled further through the gate of his palace. It was quite rectangular in shape and relatively large. The main courtyard was very spacious and even standing here Ichigo could picture it being used for training.

On his right was a small building that looked like a home, flanked by a cherry blossom tree on one side and a garden on the other. Directly opposite of the entrance was another staircase easily as long as the first, a small, simple shrine resting atop it.

Finally, to his left, his eyes laid upon what looked almost like a shrine, but not quite it. Either way, he knew that building was their destination because even as he stood there struggling for breaths, whatever was in there was calling out to him.

"You remember the situation with Tōshirō Hitsugaya's friend, Kusaka, right Ichigo?" Amaterasu asked rhetorically. Of course he remembered. "Whereas all Zanpakutō are unique because they are born from a Shinigami's soul; Hyōrinmaru stands unique in that he chooses his own wielder. It was unfortunate that he chose both Tōshirō-kun and Kusaka-kun as his wielders..."

She paused and shook her head. "No, what was truly unfortunate is how we let those boys down." After a slight pause, the Goddess' brows turned downwards in a frown, frustration coming to the forefront of her expression. "Two Shinigami cannot have the same Zanpakutō at once? Says who? What sort lunacy is that?"

That whole situation had been a terrible ordeal born from an even more terrible decision made by the ruling government of the Seireitei. She had been neglecting that particular subject she would admit; always hoping that they would right their wrongs. But it never happened.

The laws created by the Central 46 were supposed to be for the benefit of the Soul Society as a whole; Shinigami and Rukon citizens alike. Instead, the only ones they helped were the Central 46 and the corrupt noble's backing them. She would talk with Ichibē again soon enough and they could begin discussing a solution to that particular problem, but that was a matter for another time.

"That rule is gone right?"

"Of course," Ichibē said resolutely, assuredly. "We don't often interfere with the Central 46 and Shinigami as we believe that all things happen for a reason; that to grow you need to learn from your own mistakes, but that was one small exception we – the Zero Division – and Amaterasu-sama agreed on making."

Seeing the look of relief on Ichigo's face and having come down from her burst of anger, she sighed once before throwing her attention back out to the subject at hand. "Well, no one ever said that Hyōrinmaru was the only Zanpakutō that could choose its wielder."

"This," Ichibē cut in with an extended arm as they stood in front of their destination, "is the home for those unique Zanpakutō who need somewhere to rest when they possess no wielder; this is where their souls reside."

He would admit he was excited to see which Zanpakutō he would find within, how many of them asides for the aforementioned Hyōrinmaru he would know. Unable to wait any longer he pulled both doors open with a gentle tug and stepped inside.

The inside of the building was smaller than he'd expected; rectangular in shape extending away from him. He would admit it was cozy within; just large enough for what was needed and nothing more. The light in the room was provided by what he counted to be ten decorative sconces, four larger ones that sat in the corners; two more on the left and right walls between the three pedestals they held; and a final two on the farthest wall flanking the one sword that remained by itself.

Using the knowledge he'd amassed from the many hours spent gaming with his sisters; the fact that the best weapons were usually stored separately from the rest; he decided that he would leave that one for last. So, with a slight struggle, he pried his eyes away from that particular sword and looked around the room again.

Glancing down at the first blade on the left he was taken aback not by the sword itself, but the condition it was in. The hilt which once must have been a beautiful, royal purple was now faded and dirty; the hilt-wrap frayed and unravelled in multiple locations. The bronze, oval-shaped guard was cracked and chipped along the edges, and the once midnight black sheath was now a faded grey and dried out.

"It's a sad sight, isn't it?" Amaterasu spoke up from her position with Ichibē. The pair had just stayed quiet at first; letting Ichigo take in the room and the treasures they held. Though she would admit the discomfort she felt at Ichigo's apparent interest in that sword. It was the one reason why she didn't want to bring him here, but she had too.

Ichigo nodded solemnly. "Why does it look so... neglected?"

"Because it is," she answered with a sigh. "This is the fate of Zanpakutō who are left unused by their Shinigami for nearly a thousand years; not of their own choice I should add, but this is the sad reality of the situation nonetheless."

'A thousand years?!' It seemed unbelievable to him that a Zanpakutō could stay unused for such a long period of time. 'She said it was someone that didn't neglect it out of choice, so it would have to be someone who hasn't fought all those years.' As he continued thinking about it, Amaterasu's words from a week prior came back into his mind.

'It was nearly a thousand years ago now that the Quincy armies marched onto the planes of the Soul Society; they lost as you would guess, but it was far too close a battle for my liking. If the Shinigami didnot have Shigekuni leading them; they would have certainly lost that war.'

"This is Jii-san's Zanpakutō."

Amaterasu hummed in approval. "Yes, this is the oldest and most powerful Zanpakutō, Ryūjin Jakka. It is the only weapon in existence with the potential to release flames hotter than my own. Sadly, in the past thousand years, Shigekuni has only needed to release his Shikai a handful of times. While this is good because it means there had been relative peace, or at least no enemy strong enough that it would call him to the front lines; it is also terrible for Ryūjin Jakka who's flames have been left to slowly burn out."

"Flames that could match yours?!" He half-shouted incredulously. 'Just how powerful really is the old man?'

"Yes, as unbelievable as it may be; though not everyone can reach such heights. Ryūjin is a lot like the thirteen Longinus in that regard; just because they each hold the potential to kill a God doesn't mean every wielder will be able too."

Ichigo felt bad for Ryūjin Jakka; however, there was nothing he could do for him. It was then that the next blade caught his attention, "Mirokumaru?!" He nearly shouted. He would never forget this sword.

His heart panged as the memories came rushing back, 'Senna...' The always curious, free-spirited and stubborn girl who had dragged him around those few days he'd been with her. It felt like so much longer. He still remembered the tears that stained his shirt in that graveyard, her tears of joy when he'd lied to her; told her that her name was etched into that stone because her vision was too far gone to make out herself.

Feeling a comforting hand on his shoulder Ichigo looked back into the warm, sympathetic eyes of Amaterasu and smiled. A smile he hoped was assuring.

Glancing to the third and final Zanpakutō in the row Ichigo was stumped. The dark red hilt which was longer than usual. And the eye-shaped guard; with each side being hollow and spikes protruding from the edges. He had never seen this before.

"This is Shiden, the strongest lightning type Zanpakutō in existence, but quite a lazy one too," she said with a quirk of her lips. "He has remained dormant for a few centuries simply because he doesn't wish to go through the hassle of finding a new wielder."

Ichigo stared flatly at the blade for a moment, disbelieving of the information he'd been given. Why was everything in the supernatural so quirky?

With a shake of his head, he moved to the opposite side of the room and started once again with the blade closest to the door. It was simple; a blue hilt and a rectangular guard, it looked like the Zanpakutō unseated Shinigami carried and he would admit he didn't know it. Or so he thought.

"You know this sword, Ichigo" Amaterasu cut in again, voice light with humour, "think of Karakura's assigned Shinigami."

It took only a moment for Ichigo to realize what she was referring too, "You've got to be kidding me... him?!"

The Goddess' laugh was melodic. "Indeed, your very own Zennosuke Kurumadani, or as you like to call him, 'Afro-san.' This is his Zanpakutō 'Tsuchinamazu,' the strongest earth type Zanpakutō and one who cares not for the strength of its wielder, as you might have guessed."

Afro-san of all people had what was essentially a legendary Zanpakutō? Ichigo just pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

Ichigo hadn't even the chance to look at the next blade before a feeling of sorrow emanated from Amaterasu, glancing back at her with worried eyes he silently asked the question, 'what's wrong?'

"This is Nejibana, the Zanpakutō of your cousin, the late Kaien Shiba." She sighed out on a shaky voice, tears threatening to escape her. "Such a tragic tale theirs is; the bond they held was like no other, a closeness unheard of for the Shinigami. And yet they were ripped apart so cruelly by one of Aizen's Hollow, nothing more than one of his experiments. She swore in her agony that she would never again bind herself to another, and I cannot blame her."

Ichigo felt a slight stinging in his own eyes though he couldn't be sure if it was from sadness at the story or anger towards Aizen, perhaps a mix of both. With a silent wish of happiness to the now names Nejibana he moved on.

Hyōrinmaru, the last of the six Zanpakutō that lay along the walls and a blade wielded by one of his good friends that needed no introduction.

Taking another glance around the room Ichigo really appreciated the weapons around him; each of which was the strongest in their element. Fire, Wind, Lightning, Earth, Water, and Ice respectively. It was all certainly interesting, a place he was glad to have come, but...

"What was the point of bringing me here?" He asked, flicking his gaze between the Goddess of the sun and the Monk who had remained in the doorway the whole time without saying a word; content with just observing.

Amaterasu exchanged a weighty glance with Ichibē who hesitated briefly before nodding, then she turned back to Ichigo and spoke. "It was to try and solve the secret behind your dreams." She started, receiving a knowing nod from Ichigo.

"Your purpose for coming to Takamagahara was not a lie Ichigo; let me make that clear, however, it also was not the sole reason. The second reason was the return of your powers." Again Ichigo nodded knowingly which honestly kind of surprised her. She knew he was more perceptive than most thought, but she didn't think he'd discerned that bit of information yet.

"Yes, the original plan was to return your powers and go from there," she repeated, an undertone of stress lining her voice, "but that dream you had caught me off guard. It meant that one of these Zanpakutō was trying to contact you, which one, however, I couldn't guess. I know each of them fairly well, yet that scene you described to me in Karakura sounded nothing like them.

So, I changed my plans.

I would bring you here and let you meet each blade. Eventually, you would resonate with one of them and that would tell us who had contacted you. Then, you would talk to them and we could once again go from there.

Well, that's how it was supposed to go at least," she finished with a frustrated sigh.

"Hold on a second. You know each of them well? I could talk to them?" He wasn't getting it.

"Of course," the Goddess replied simply. "Any who come here can speak with the spirits of these Zanpakutō simply by touching their hilts, well if they allow it that is." A touch of mischief entered her gaze, "Why don't you try?"

Ichigo turned to look at the Zanpakutō at his side, scanning Hyōrinmaru's hilt his immediate thought was to say no, it wouldn't be right for him to barge in... but his curiosity was overwhelming.

Receiving an encouraging look from both Amaterasu and Ichibē his hand slowly rose; tentatively reaching for the light blue hilt as if it would bite him, but when nothing happened on contact he breathed a sigh of relief.

And then suddenly everything was really cold.

Well, it was pretty obvious it had worked if the three feet of snow and raging blizzard he now found himself in was anything to go by. Why did he pick Hyōrinmaru again? Couldn't he have gone for one a little warmer?

Feeling a slight shift in the air Ichigo noticed two glowing red dots racing through the blizzard towards him; then, faster than he could blink a Dragon was upon him.

"Hyōrinmaru?" He questioned, feeling great relief when the freezing winds lessened their assault on his body. The Dragon who Ichigo assumed was his friend's partner had curled its long, icy body around his perimeter, shielding him from the frigid storm.

"Ichigo Kurosaki," he replied simply, his voice as rough and heavy as you'd expect from a Dragon. "Of all the visitors I considered getting eventually, you were not one of them."

Ichigo's lips twisted with mirth. "Yeah, I could say the same thing. It was kind of spontaneous."

Hyōrinmaru nodded his large head, "I've been observing."

That kind of took Ichigo by surprise, though when he thought about it he supposed it made sense. That blade was technically Hyōrinmaru's physical body; it would be weirder if he couldn't see what was going on around him.

"So, hows Tōshirō been?" He asked, letting his mind fall from the pointless thoughts.

"Well. Although he refuses to admit it to his Lieutenant, he has missed your presence among the Soul Society."

Ichigo smiled. It made him happy to know he was missed, but there was another emotion twisting within his heart as well.

"How come no one came to visit me?" The question had blurted out before he even realized it was on his tongue. The warmth he'd felt from knowing he was missed was overtaken by the pain of being left all alone.

And, perhaps Hyōrinmaru sensed it too because it sounded as if the Dragons voice was ever so softer when he answered, though it all may have been part of his imagination. "They were not able too. It was ruled by Central 46 that for Ichigo Kurosaki to have the peaceful life he deserved, all elements of the supernatural would be unable to contact him."

"What a load of shit," he grunted out, though he couldn't deny the weight which had been lifted from his shoulders, the feeling of endless relief to know that he hadn't been abandoned.

"A sentiment shared by many of my wielders companions," the Dragon spoke again at the comment Ichigo made, the slightest hint of amusement in its powerful voice.

But then seriousness returned. "You shouldn't remain here too long or else Tōshirō will be suspicious of my stirred presence, I assume you want this visit kept a secret?"

Ichigo nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I should probably go, Amaterasu and Ichibē are waiting for me." The large Dragon nodded at his words, "It was good meeting you, and don't worry, I'll be back in the Soul Society before you know it." He finished with a grin.

"Of that, I have no doubt."

Assuming it was just like his own inner world Ichigo made to leave; however, just as his consciousness was being pulled away Hyōrinmaru left him with some odd parting words.

When his eyes snapped open again he was laying on the floor of the shrine-like building, Amaterasu was smiling down at him and Ichibē was too, though there was something else in his eyes, something knowing.

Standing straight once more he placed a curious hand on his chest and sucked in a deep breath, it wasn't perfect just yet but all of the sudden his breathing had become a lot easier.

"Well? How was it?" The Goddess asked excitedly.

Ichigo replied almost instantly, as if on auto-pilot, "It was interesting, I never thought I'd meet someone else Zanpakutō."

Amaterasu gave him a curious, slightly worried glance. Although outwardly he was with them, she could feel that his mind was stuck on something else. "Did something happen?"

Again his reply was instant, "nothing bad, it's just... something Hyōrinmaru said was a little odd."

Amaterasu's confused gaze deepened and Ichibē's knowing look turned awfully mischievous for the teens liking.

'Your visit here has explained its rousing, and so I ask that you deal with it quickly. Its awakened presence spells only bad things for this world if left untamed.'

"What did he say?" She pressed further, but Ichigo ignored the question. Instead, he turned towards the one blade she wished he had never come into contact with.

"What is that Zanpakutō's name?" He asked slowly, mechanically, almost as if in a trance.

Amaterasu looked as if she wanted to change the subject but Ichibē didn't let her. "Ikomikidomoe," he answered, moving to join Ichigo in front of it.

"Ikomikidomoe...?" He repeated, testing the words for himself, though, in the end, his head tilted slightly in confusion, something about the name didn't seem right. "How is it written?" He asked bluntly, having completely forgotten that they were in a shrine for Zanpakutō, an unlikely place for pen and paper.

Though apparently, that didn't matter, not even seconds after he'd posed the question Ichibē brought a glowing finger up and began writing in the air.

The more he looked it over the less it made sense. 'The first part of its name just contains the repeated kanji for serpent and self, and the tomoe symbol at the end signifies eternity, or perhaps harmony...' Ichigo mused, his brain wracking itself over the odd spelling. 'So a serpent that devours itself in perfect harmony?' It was an odd name to be sure. And then realization hit. 'The Ouroboros?'

The teen's eyes narrowed. If the name was anything to go by – and it probably was considering how important names seemed to be to Shinigami – then, "this sword sounds stupidly overpowered."

Ichibē merely shrugged and let out a bark of laughter, "it might be, might not; we don't actually know anything about it or what it could do, it might be completely useless for all I know."

Rounding on the man with a wide-eyed incredulity he had to wonder if he'd heard that correctly. "How do you not know what it does?"

"Because of how it came to be, it's even more unique than the other six," Amaterasu said, finally coming back into the conversation, though she didn't sound happy about where it was leading. Seeing that Ichigo wasn't willing to drop it either she gave in and began to tell its story.

"Millennia ago, when the spiritual world had still not completely taken its current shape and during the dawning era of Hollows; their evolution was in a chaotic state. However, above all of the powerful Vasto Lorde coming into existence there stood one, a Hollow appropriately named as a 'walking disaster with infinite evolution' by the then King of Hueco Mundo, Baraggan Louisenbairn.

An intelligent creature that continued to evolve, possessing a torrent of reiryoku. It kept devouring everything in its way until one day it left Hueco Mundo and spread its influence towards the World of the Living and the reishi-enriched Soul Society.

Then, one day, something happened. At the end of its battle with the Shinigami, including a youthful Shigekuni Yamamoto, it ascended to the sky by trying to devour the Reiō but was defeated by the Monk and sealed by Ōetsu Nimaiya.

It was given the name Ikomikidomoe."

'What. The. Fuck.' He was stunned; frozen wide-eyed and stuck throwing his gaze between Amaterasu, Ichibē and the sword itself. "It tried to devour the Reiō?" He just needed to clarify that one bit.

"Yes, it nearly succeeded as well."

It was all so crazy to hear. "It was nicknamed as a walking disaster with infinite evolution and it nearly devoured the Soul King, how the hell can you say its completely useless?" He asked Ichibē this time, turning to face the man head-on, he merely shrugged again.

"We didn't know what to expect. It was the first time we'd tried to seal a living creature into an Asauchi, and it was at a time when the concept of a Zanpakutō was still fairly new. And to be fair, no one has ever felt even the slightest pulse of reiatsu from this blade since it was sealed."

Ichigo paused, mulling over the information presented to him. No matter how much he thought about it, however, he kept coming back to the same conclusion. The description of this Hollow- Ikomikidomoe, it was too similar to his dream. "I know you probably don't want to hear this," he began, looking towards Amaterasu, "but I think- no, I know that this is the Zanpakutō which contacted me."

Even though she knew he was right, she really hadn't wanted to hear it.

"Though I don't know why it would contact me considering I'm currently powerless, there isn't much I could do for it."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Ichibē began, "while it's true that you utterly destroyed your soul with the final Getsuga Tenshō, its been slowly repairing this whole time. And, we've been helping that process along during your stay in Takamagahara."

Ichigo's eyes widened, "the food and the hot springs?"

Ichibē nodded approvingly. "The White Bone Hell that sucks out all of the damaged blood and reiatsu in your body, and the Blood Pond Hell that replenishes your blood. And, all that food you've been eating was made with the supercharged reishi found here in the Royal Realm. For the past week we've been doing some extreme healing on your body and soul and now your as clean as a whistle and brimming with more reiatsu than you'd ever know what to do with."

"So. What am I supposed to be doing right now then?" He asked simply.

"That's completely up to you, Ichigo-kun. Either we can go back to Takamagahara and go from there, or... you can grasp the hilt of Ikomikidomoe and see what happens. I will warn you that it is a great risk, none of us can even begin to guess what would happen if you go through with it."

Nodding slowly he turned to look at the sword once again; it was certainly beautiful, and its design did nothing to alleviate his suspicions of it being related to the Ouroboros.

It was an O-Katana, not quite as big as Kenpachi's Nodachi but big enough. The same was composed of many different blues, pinks and purples and looked like a galaxy hidden beneath the black tsuka. The tsuba was black as well and round in shape, however, it wasn't just a regular circle like that of Ryūjin Jakka's guard. At the top left side of the tsuba was an embossed depiction of the sun and in the bottom right the moon. Furthermore, encircling the whole thing was a snake, its long body coiling around both celestial objects; its head stopping right at the top and angled in just a way that it appeared to be looking right at him.

He hadn't even known his arm was moving before it was too late; his hand had wrapped securely around the hilt and his vision faded.

The silence in the room was broken by a long, resigned sigh from the Goddess of the Sun. "I trust you five will look after him?" She spoke solemnly to the Monk who had caught Ichigo before he could impact the floor.

His response was simple. "Of course."


Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or Highschool DxD. All content belongs to their respective creators.

My goodness, I don't know whats crazier; the fact that we're already back at five-hundred favourites and seven-hundred follows or that fact that the first two chapters of the re-write equal over thirty-thousands words; a good five-thousand more than the original two.

So along with some quality of writing improvements we also see the first major changes to the story, and before I call it a wrap I'd like to comment on a couple things. Firstly, Ichigo's scars. I remember it being brought up in the original version and I know someone will want to comment on it in this version too so let me say it right now, I am not getting rid of his scars. This isn't some kiddy story where the world is all sunshine and rainbows, where the hero always pulls through and the good guys win overwhelmingly.

This is a story where the actions of every character have real consequences, scars of battle are one such example. Asking me to take away Ichigo's scars is like telling me that all of his battles up until this point never meant anything. As I said in the chapter itself, they are proof of his struggles, evidence of the many enemies he's faced and triumphed over, they aren't going anywhere.

Another small comment about the guards watching over Amaterasu's room, for those of you who didn't figure it out they are Senjumaru's Divine Soldiers.

Okay now onto the major changes. You'll have noticed that the Zanpakutō shrine was no longer in Amaterasu's garden, and it never really should have been. That isn't me trying to discredit the value of Amaterasu's home, but honestly, a place that holds such legendary Zanpakutō shouldn't just be out in the back yard, so I moved it to the Royal Realm. It would make sense for Ichibē to watch over it as well as the head of the Royal Guard. We've already seen in the LN 'Can't fear your own world' that Ōetsu's original hiding place wasn't very good anyway.

As for the blades themselves? I expanded on them as I should've from the very start. I'm not going to lie, the only reason the original version of this story had two special Zanpakutō was that I was being lazy, now I've corrected that. I know that to some of you seven total Zanpakutō still might not sound like a lot, and I thought of doing more, but I only had so many blades to work with and more so, it felt like having a 'special Zanpakutō' for every element and category I could think of kinda lessened the significance of it all. At least to me, it did.

I feel like my choices were good though. Mirokumaru was a must because I love Senna. I definitely wanted to keep Ryūjin and Hyōrinmaru as ice and fire. Nejibana was the only water Zanpakutō I could find other than Harribel's Tiburon, but her blade isn't really a proper Zanpakutō so I didn't want to use it. And, Nejibana was perfect for the spot anyways. Tsuchinamazu, like Nejibana, was the only earth-based Zanpakutō I could find but it didn't matter, I thought it would be funny if Afro-san of all people had a legendary blade, I still do. Shiden, the last of the six isn't a canon Zanpakutō but it worked well for the spot.

And finally, Ikomikidomoe. So there's it's backstory, none of it was made up by me. Thousands of years old and forged from an immensely powerful Hollow, one so strong that not even Baraggan could kill it with his power over time. He even named it as a 'walking disaster with infinite evolution.' I mean really, I can't be the only one who thinks that's cool as hell, right? It even tried to devour the Soul King! It's name references back to the Ouroboros and Celestial bodies, it could easily be the most broken sword in all of Bleach if you wanted it to be. It's just crazy.

I will say this now though just so everyone knows, I am not going to be making Ichigo super powerful right away, as with the original story he will grow as he trains and fights. And, you'll understand more as the story re-progresses but Ikomikidomoe won't be a world breaker right out of the gate.

One last thing before I call it a wrap; If you notice any odd errors like sentences being broken in weird spots than please let me know so I can fix them. I've been having an odd issue lately with the document formatting and it randomly breaking up my sentences. I don't know why it's doing it or how to fix it so all I can do is fix the errors as they come.

Anyway, 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 always welcome. Or, if you have any specific questions or would just like to chat with me then feel free to send me a message, I always reply when I can.

- Vertius