I do not own Bleach or Soul Eater, nor do I intend to garner any revenues from the use of their characters and universes

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Shinigami Chronicles

Act 1: Hollow Eater

Chapter 9: In Darkest Corners

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Somewhere deep below the surface of the Earth, a strangely shaped castle stood shrouded in cavernous shadows. Not unlike Death City's Shibusen castle, this particular construct also adhered to a stylistic theme in its architecture, though in a slightly subtler manner. Other than the eight leg like extensions that protruded from the castle's base, the rest of its form adhered to a more conventional Gothic structure that tapered upward from from its wide base. Inside, sheer vectors of silk glistened within the artificial light of the castle's many halls, pervading a dark foreboding atmosphere throughout its maze of stone-wrought ramparts. Somewhere deep within this labyrinth of stone, an elegant onyx-haired woman of immutable calm lounged in an enormous, sheer spider's web. The lines of her silk borne throne were echoed in the witch's calculating eyes as they took stock, not only of her surroundings, but of the world itself, from behind the veil of a similarly emblazoned fan.

Before her stood Kyouren, his bandoliers of many colored vials and trinkets exposed for all to see. The light windbreaker that he normally wore lay folded many times over the arm of a rather short man, whose old age was belied in the large grey mustache that lay just below his rather eccentrically sized nose. Indeed his entire form was full of strange proportionalities as his head, just slightly larger than a young child's torso, was just larger than his own chest and abdomen, with arms and legs that were sized to match. Even with the tailed black tuxedo and top-hat he wore, the diminutive man barely breached three feet in height.

It was he who had requested that Kyouren remove his jacket in the presence of Arachne. And while he found the short man's eccentric form amusing, Kyouren knew better than to take his chances with the tiny butler that was managing to stand just outside of his range of view . He'd learned that lesson the hard way a long time ago, and certainly wasn't about to forget it now.

The diminutive butler addressed his mistress from that same position, his age worn voice registering both duty and warmth as he spoke. "I have brought him here as you requested madam Arachne.

"Thank you, Butler" Arachne replied from behind the veil of her fan. "You may return to your duties"

"If it pleases madam, I shall remain here." Butler replied. "This one has yet to give me reason to trust him."

"First Gericko and now you? I just can't catch a break." Kyouren said, giving Butler a look of wounded annoyance. "Doesn't the fact that I fought for witch kind when Soul Society decided to go after them en masse count for anything anymore?"

"Perhaps." Butler returned, clasping his hands behind his back as he circled behind Kyouren. "But we both know that in the end, your allegiance lies not with my mistress." The tiny old manservant smiled venomously "Until you have proven otherwise, I will remain here, just outside your field of vision."

"Aheh." Kyouren gave a humorless laugh before muttering. "Some people just can't let a thing go."

Arachne shook her head in light amusement, eyes hinting at the demure smile she wore behind the veil of her fan. "You'll have to excuse Butler. He only has my best interests in mind." she gave her fan a brief flutter. "After all, you are part of one of the very few unknown factors that has managed to evade my intelligence network for more than a century." Her eyes sobered. "Your patron chose her consorts well."

"I wouldn't say we were 'chosen'." Kyouren replied off-handedly, "Me and the guys are just what was left after Soul Society was destroyed." Kyouren shrugged "We kind of stumbled into our positions."

Arachne's eyes did not waver. "And yet, your services have been retained after all this time. I doubt that was any form of coincidence. Nor do I believe," The arachno-witch continued, maintaining her elegant personage whilst projecting a querying air. "that your presence during my return was an incidental occurrence."

"She said you had a knack for seeing right through people." Kyouren smirked. "Guess that comes from being the center of Arachnephobia's world wide web." The swordsman crossed his arms. "Although I was mostly there to make sure Sakkon didn't die during all of that." He shook his head "Still don't know why she insists on keeping him alive and under watch."

"Nor will you." Arachne replied with a knowing chuckle "And the other portion of the reason for your presence?"

"I think you already know." Kyouren replied simply.

Arachne answered with an almost imperceptible nod "You are the herald to your patron's arrival." She closed her fan with an elegant flourish, unveiling the beguilingly demure smile that graced her lips. The web-like irises of her eyes, subtly disarming in their own way, were almost hypnotic when combined with that calm smile of hers. Kyouren felt himself getting lost in the arachno-witch's gaze, even though he knew the woman had not yet exerted any form mystic compulsion to sway him. It was no wonder Arachne's organization had spawned so many cults around the world after Soul Society fell. The woman had a subtly soothing natural charm and noble elegance. It was easy to get lost in her voice, her smile, her gaze. It was easy to get lost in her.

Kyouren bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from doing just that as Arachne continued. "It has been so long since we last spoke." Her eyes gained a nostalgic air to them. "The original patron to all witchkind. The Gorgon Mother."

"I'm not sure if she cares for that title anymore." Kyouren replied "From what I hear, the family's kind of disbanded."

"Medusa's doing." A slight edge of disdain entered Arachne's tone as she spoke her younger sister's name. "For all her talent, she never grew to understand family as the rest of us did." She shook her head. "I doubt she ever will." She closed her eyes introspectively, pausing for a brief moment. "If only to maintain the distinction between my sister and myself, I will continue to refer to our patron as The Gorgon Mother."

"Fair enough" Kyouren said with a grin "I wouldn't want to be lumped in with that crazy woman either."

As he said this, Kyouren felt something jab rather uncomfortably into his back. Although he hadn't necessarily been pierced by the object that was currently resting at the small of his spine, he could tell that it was only for lack trying.

"You will retain a respectful tone when you speak of your betters." Butler intoned.

Although the diminutive manservant had managed to hide it in his tone, Kyouren knew that Butler was still smiling that venomous smile of his. Kyouren hated having people stand at his back. No doubt, Butler was relishing that fact. The swordsman gave Arachne a betrayed look.

That look of betrayal was immediately rescinded when Kyouren saw that Arachne's beguiling expression had changed, becoming something utterly cold and dispassionate as she replied. "For all her problems and her disloyalty, Medusa is still my sister." The arachno-witch re-opened her fan, allowing it to reprise its role as her veil. "You, Kyouren, are not. Do remember this."

Kyouren's blood ran cold with nervous consternation as he stumbled over his reply. "R-right." he stammered "Sure."

Arachne nodded to this. "Good" She then gestured in a shooing fashion with her fan. "Butler, if you would please guide Kyouren to the training grounds."

"Of course madam." Butler replied with a smile.

"Training grounds?" Kyouren asked with some trepidation. "Why there?"

"I believe there is someone there with whom you may have been previously acquainted." the arachno-witch replied, "A certain master of 100 blades."

Kyouren's eyes widened "Captain Mifuune?"

"Yes" Arachne answered with a small nod of affirmation "Although I believe he would prefer not to be referred to as such."

Kyouren grinned, his earlier trepidation completely gone. "Man, it's been centuries. The guys are gonna love this." He chuckled "It'll be just like old times."

As the now increasingly ecstatic swordsman followed Butler out of her chambers. The arachno-witch allowed herself a private, contemplative frown as she began a routine mental scanning of her spider network for new information.

'just like old times'. The statement was rife with naivete. The past could only be relived in memories and dreams. Nothing could ever truly go back to the way it once was.

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Maka sat near the center of a small enclosed room, eyes closed in serene concentration. Her form was veiled in vectors of gold and black, the light from this afternoon's desert sun filtering into the room through a barred window high up on the stone wrought wall behind her. The vectors of light and shadow fell across the young meister's shoulders tracing the striped silhouette of the cell window's barred frame across Maka's still form, continuing across the room's cold stone laden floor to reach the feet of Ichigo, who also sat in a cross-legged stance. His eyes, however, were open and observant, watching the young girl who sat before him very closely.

He was beginning to see why Sid had spoken highly of the girl. In the few meditation sessions and physical exercises he'd taken her through, she had followed his orders to the letter, and given each activity her full attention as she went through with them. There was no point where he felt like the young meister was simply going through the motions, although he could tell that she was not at a hundred percent. He was certain she was just as aware as he was of the fact that only her symptoms had been treated, and that her soul was still in a very dangerous state.

The strength of her soul's...cohesion, if Ichigo remembered the term correctly, seemed to be greater than that of many other souls he'd encountered that were in the throes of hollowification. That could turn out to be advantageous as they moved forward with her treatment and eventual training.

Of course, he wasn't able to actually see her soul in any detailed manner unless it was removed from her body, so he couldn't be too sure about anything.

The young miester hadn't questioned him at all about her condition since he'd first released her from the soul resuscitation unit. No doubt Sid had exercised his influence as a Shibusen alumni to keep the questions to a minimum. Ichigo could only wonder what the blue zombie had said about him when he wasn't looking.

"Stance, Breathing, and concentration all look good." Ichigo said "Shibusen's trained you well Maka."

Maka didn't break her trance to reply to the complement, but the small self-adulative smile that formed on her visage was enough to betray her appreciation.

The expression didn't go unnoticed by Soul, who stood just behind Ichigo, leaning on one of the cell's walls with his shoulder. "Yeah, she's pretty good at the whole trance meditation thing. But she's got two left feet when it comes to jazz."

"Don't make me come over there Soul." Maka growled, her stance and outward appearance of concentration remaining otherwise unperturbed. "I'm not locked to a bed anymore. I will hit you."

"Alright, alright, I'll cool it." Soul replied with a brief chuckle "For now." He sat down next to Ichigo mimicking the old swordsman's cross-legged stance "So what happens next?"

Ichigo closed his eyes for a moment, his lips forming a pensive frown as he crossed his arms. "Maka, how are you feeling?" he asked.

Maka let forth a long sigh as she opened her eyes, exiting the meditative state. "Good enough" She blinked, an edge of uncertainty apparent in her eyes. "Nothing seems wrong at least."

Ichigo's eyes narrowed as a barely murmured "I see." escaped his lips. He turned his gaze to Soul. "Why don't you go and have a seat over there next to Maka. "

The red eyed demon weapon's expression wavered briefly before he shrugged and tossed a brief "Sure." over his shoulder as he migrated over to Maka's side.

As her partner plopped down beside her, Maka pursed her lips, her expression earnest as she spoke.

"Mr. Kurosaki." Maka started in an even voice. "Soul told me that you called what was happening to me 'Hollowification'. What exactly is that?" Her tone darkened "And what can we do about it?

Ichigo flinched. Partially at the honorific being attached to his last name, but mostly at the question being posed before him. He'd been avoiding the subject for awhile now. While this was in part due to the fact that information regarding the hollows was, according to Sid, sensitive, it was mostly for the fact that he just didn't want to broach the subject. He hadn't dealt with the damn things or their ilk for more than a few centuries now. From that perspective, there was a part of him that just didn't want to have to go down that rabbit hole again. As irrational as it sounded, talking about them in any great detail made them real to him again, no longer existing as mere notions from a past that was no longer relevant.

Still, he couldn't deny what was happening right in front of him. Knowing what he knew, knowing what this could lead to, Ichigo felt he had no right to turn away from this. Certainly not when someone else was heading down a similar road to the one he had all those years ago.

Ichigo crossed his arms. "To put it plain, you're becoming a hollow" He closed his eyes. "A damaged soul that needs to feed on other souls to survive. If the transformation completes itself, everything that makes you, you—your memories, likes, dislikes, quirks, emotions—all of it will be gone, replaced with echoes of what they once were and a bare bones instinct to Hunt and to feed." As he said this Ichigo allowed his eyes to open slightly, a grim expression on his visage "When all is said and done you won't even be a vengeful spirit. Just an incomplete soul with an insatiable hunger."

Maka blinked. Ichigo could tell the news had shaken her, but to her credit, the young meister had managed to maintain her resolve. "So what was it I saw in the desert?" She asked "What was I talking to?"

"Another side of yourself" Ichigo answered. "Some element of your soul that's gained self-awareness." Ichigo frowned. "More than likely something you've locked away."

Maka's expression darkened. "Something I've locked away?" her eyes narrowed incredulously, "That doesn't make sense." the young meister shook her head. "I've never done anything like that, mentally or otherwise." she paused, her voice gaining an edge of doubt as she continued, "At least, I don't think I have."

Soul shifted uncomfortably his eyes registering a bit of unwanted familiarity with the situation. "If you did it unconsciously, you might not remember." he tugged at the inside of his cheek for a brief moment, managing to regain his composure as he let it snap back into place. "Could be something your subconscious did while you weren't looking."

Maka scowled at the floor indignantly, "I'd like to think I have more control over my self than that..." Her indignation shifted to incertitude as she let forth a beleaguered sigh. "But if these last few days have been any indication, I obviously don't." the young meister's scowl deepened as a brooding expression formed upon her visage. "At this point I might be worse than Spirit in that area."

"Heh" Soul chuckled, rolling his eyes "At least you've got your priorities straight."

This comment was met with a glare from Maka before the young meister returned her eyes to Ichigo. "So, what do we do Mr. Kurosaki?"

Ichigo let out a belabored breath. "The only thing keeping your hollow in check right now is the soul energy from the resuscitation machine. Once that runs out, the hunger will come back, and the hollow will try and take you again." His expression darkened, "You'll be taken back to your soulscape, and it will be there to meet you. When that happens, you'll need to face it down. Suppress it."

Once again, Maka's discomfort with Ichigo's statements registered briefly in the young meister's eyes. "So no matter what I have to lose myself again?" Her lips formed a grim line. "Let it control me again?"

"Not exactly." Ichigo replied, "You'll have to reach the same soul starved state that you had before, which won't be pleasant. Once you're there, you'll need to go into a meditative trance and seek out your other self in the soulscape." Ichigo crossed his arms. "Preferably before it finds you."

Maka closed her eyes for a brief moment, tilting her head forward in a pensive manner as she considered Ichigo's last statement. "What should I do when I find it?"

The old swordsman sat silently for a moment, knowing the answer to Maka's question but searching for the proper words to phrase it. "You've got to show it that you can't be easily controlled." He started, "Show it that it's a waste of time to try." He uncrossed his arms. "That might sound like a tall order when you consider the weakened state you'll be in, but it can't use any more of your soul to fight you than you can to fight it. With that in mind, the fight won't end until one of you gives in to the other." the old swordsman paused for a moment, his expression solidifying into a portrait of grim severity. "Whatever you do, make sure you're not the one who does."

At some point during Ichigo's reply, Soul's aloof smirk had dissolved, leaving a slightly annoyed downturn in the left edge of his lips. "Sounds pretty rough." Soul half-murmured, looking to his partner expectantly. "You think you're up to this?"

"Doesn't matter if I am." Maka answered resolutely, "I have to do this now. I'm not about to let myself become one of the monsters we fight." The young meister's eyes narrowed darkly. "I don't want you to have to hunt me Soul."

"Don't worry I won't have to." Soul returned, reprising his self-assured smirk as he dropped a reassuring hand on his partner's shoulder. "I know you can do it."

"Actually, Soul" Ichigo started, "I'm gonna need your help on this as well."

"Yeah?" The demon weapon asked, trying to mute his eagerness to do so under his usual bravado. He didn't do quite so good a job of it this time.

"Yeah." Ichigo answered, "I'm gonna assume you've done team meditation sessions before, right?"

"Sure." Soul said with a knowing nod, "I was just about to ask if that would help actually."

"Oh, it will." Ichigo replied with a nostalgic smile, remembering a time when Rukia had done the same for him. "At the very least it'll keep the other from taking control before she has a chance to face it directly."

Soul frowned. "Isn't there something else I can do? Something more direct?"

"Not really." Ichigo answered with a shake of the head. "This is her fight. The best thing you can do is keep the faith and wait."

Soul rolled his eyes "Seems like that's all I've been doing."

"Yeah I know." Ichigo replied humorlessly. "But that's the nature of it. The soul has to save itself where hollowification is concerned." He turned his gaze to Maka. "Any other method will only have temporary results."

Maka nodded, "I'll do my best Mr. Kurosaki."

At this Ichigo let forth a great sigh. "Please, just call me Ichigo." he brought a beleaguered hand to his brow, "You're making me feel old."

"R-right" the young meister replied sheepishly, somewhat caught off guard by the request. Her voice regained its composure with a precursory clearing of the throat "Of course Mr. Ichigo"

Another more guarded sigh came forth from Ichigo as Soul chuckled at his partner's polite insistence. The old swordsman shook his head in amused exasperation muttering under his breath. "Sure, that'll do for now."

[-]

As Ichigo and Soul made their final preparations for Maka's return to her soulscape, Blair, who had been watching from a dark corner of the room, left to make her own personal preparations. Specifically grabbing a few moments of rest under the sun's gaze on a rather large pumpkin she had summoned. She lay there in human form, with most of her skin visible due to her preferred threadbare form of attire. Only her amethyst eyes were hidden from the sun's rays, a classic witch's hat providing shade for her still vaguely cattish face. Absorbing the late morning desert heat, her mind began to wander, lilting from subject to subject until she came to focus on the matter of a certain orange-haired swordsman.

To be honest, she didn't really know why she was choosing to stay in cat form whenever Ichigo was around. It just seemed like the thing to do, and she wasn't one to question her own instincts. It didn't hurt that it allowed her to rest in the man's poofy orange mane.

In truth the hair was the first thing about the old swordsman to grab her attention. So perky and full. Like a small multifilament pumpkin constructed from strands of human hair. It looked so tantalizing. So bright and lush. The cat witch had wanted very much to cuddle up to it when she'd first laid eyes upon it.

However, it couldn't be said that she hadn't found the man to which it was attached to be somewhat intriguing as well. His sad, serious demeanor reminded her of Spirit—another man she enjoyed observing and toying with—in some ways. Both seemed rather tired of life although Ichigo didn't appear to be quite as broken a man as Spirit was. For Spirit the only thing he had was hope and faith in those that he felt were better than himself in one way or another. He clung to that hope like a child to his mother's leg, taking it as his only comfort in a world that he felt was slowly drifting away from him. Without that the true state of his soul, a beautifully hopeless and vacant yet directed existence, would be unveiled. Were it not for the presence of his daughter Maka, he more than likely would've become a weapon and nothing more. It was for her sake that he continued to hold on to his hope. If only Maka could've let herself realize that.

It was the fact that Ichigo seemed like he was holding on to something that made the orange haired swordsman similar to Spirit, although she wasn't sure what it was Ichigo was holding on to, or for whom he held to it for. She was certain it wasn't any form of hope as the beleaguered acceptance that he emanated eschewed away from any form of wishful thinking.

Like Spirit it seemed Ichigo had lost his way at some point. However, Ichigo seemed content with not being able to find that road again. Perhaps he was even avoiding that road at all costs. Certainly not the happiest of ways to live one's life.

That kind of self imposed negativity was generally unattractive. But there was something else. Something beyond Ichigo's somber exterior that intrigued her. Something fervent, determined, and passionate, perhaps even angry.

It was there in his eyes. Burbling stalwartly behind them, hidden from the rest of the world. It pulled at her when she looked at them. It sent chills through her every time she gazed upon them. Anxious, lust driven shivers akin to those that accompanied the touch of any who particularly peaked the cat-witch's interest. An extra spice of fear was woven within these shudders, though she wasn't quite sure why. That mystery only heightened the orange haired swordsman's allure...

Rolling over to expose her back to the sun's grinning rays, she found her gaze resting upon a familiar face, wreathed in errant unkempt locks of red hair, a guilty smile apparent on his visage as his eyes swept across Blair's lounging form.

"Hello, Spirit" she said with a suggestive smirk "Do you like what you see?"

Spirit tried his best to remove his eyes from the luscious body that lay before him. His guilty pleasure lost its edge of enjoyment leaving only guilt as he found that he could not. "You already know the answer to that." Spirit said with a dejected sigh.

"True" Blair replied with a mischievous tilt of the head, her tail frisking idly about. "But I like hearing it from you."

Spirit let forth another sigh, bringing a beleaguered hand to his head. "I really shouldn't. But I do."

Blair's smile gained a contented air to it as she propped her head up on her forearms. "That's what I like about you Spirit. You're honest about your instincts. About your desires."

"I have a hard time restraining them." Spirit replied darkly. "It's why I lost... her." The red haired scythe went silent after saying this, his eyes closing tightly as his frown further deepened.

Blair shook her head. For all his power as a death scythe, the man was rather vulnerable emotionally. It was debatable whether he would ever get over the loss of his ex-wife. That sensitivity was at once his most endearing and annoying trait. And though there were times when she enjoyed his displays of misery, Blair was not in a consoling mood today. Perhaps if she changed the subject.

"Well, I know you didn't come all the way out here just to see me." Blair started as she rose to a sitting position "What brings you to this side of the desert?"

Spirit, realizing sheepishly that he'd distracted himself cleared his throat "I've been assigned to the facility that's on the side of this cliff." Spirit said simply, taking on a more cool and collected expression. "With Sid running counter-intelligence against Arachne, Shinigami-sama wanted me to take his place here." the death scythe scratched his head idly. "He said I'd know why as soon as I arrived."

Now here was something of interest.

"Is that how he put it?" Blair said tilting her head curiously "Awfully coy of him."

"Well you know Shinigami." Spirit replied donning a devil may care smile. "He likes his surprises."

"Well then," Blair replied with a knowing smile as she reverted to cat form and started on her way to the facility. "Let's see what you think of his 'surprise'."

[-]

Meanwhile in Maka's holding cell, the young meister waited motionlessly in deep meditation, her partner, Soul, beside her, also in a meditative state, synchronized with his meister. Ichigo was looking on from just in front of the only door out of the room. If this didn't work, and Maka did lose control, he was going to make sure she didn't get the chance to escape. With any luck, he'd be able to do that without resorting to lethal methods.

Maka swallowed as she maintained her cross-legged position across from Soul, regulating the frequency of her soul. She could feel the hunger inching its way back into the forefront of her consciousness with each passing second. Prickling pangs of energy and blood deprivation steadily encroached in time with the growth of this hunger, slowly but surely marching towards her center. With each passing second the needle-like pangs increased in intensity, leeching away the young meister's lucidity with each growth.

A familiar haze began creeping into her mind, her defacto grasp on where she was and what she was doing becoming difficult to discern. This increasing incertitude ground heavily on her already wavering concentration, a development that Soul caught on to quickly. The demon weapon grasped his partner's hand in his own redoubling his efforts to match his frequency to hers. "I've gotcha Maka." he murmured. "I've gotcha."

It was a gesture Maka was glad for, as she used her partner's soul as an anchoring point, focusing on his wavelength to stabilize her own and maintain the meditative state.

In time the pangs had engulfed the entirety of her body, everything aching for sustenance. Was this how Soul had felt when he was deep in the throes of a thirst for souls? If so, it was no wonder he'd been addicted to them in the past. It was a wonder she'd managed to curb his desire for them at all if this was what it was like.

Suddenly, the pain was gone. So too were all of the tacit forms of feeling that denoted the reality she was certain she had just left. Indeed, she was no longer sitting, but standing, Soul's hand no longer in hers, his presence no longer even palpable. Tenuously, she opened her eyes to a world she was all too familiar with.

Sundry fronds lay upon soil of ochre, whose countenance was adorned with the black rivers of shadow that projected from the weary forest's naked branches. The light of the moon was as before, lifeless and haunting, casting its emotionless light upon this domain of mahogany and night. A cool sharp breeze bit at her skin as the leaves began their familiar whirling dance, lilting about on the currents of the wind as Maka struck forth into the withering forest's confines.

In truth she had no idea where she was going. Neither the faceless Moon or the wind quivered shadows of the trees held any answers for her. But for the wind that shook those shadows and brought life to the autumn hued foliage around her she would not have had even an inkling of where to go. It was these currents of air that guided her though the rivers of shadow that ruled these woods.

She did not, however, give herself entirely to the will of the wind as she had once before, controlling her gait so as to walk with the gentle gale, though its playful gusts implored that she dance in within the flow of its wavering breaths.

In seconds that may have been minutes or perhaps hours that may have been moments, the young meister found herself in a familiar clearing, the limpid gaze of the moon imparting its empty luster upon what appeared to be the only patch of living grass in the entirety of the soulscape. The guiding breeze fell silent as she entered the luminescent clearing, the sundry leaves that were once held aloft by the whims of that coltish gale ceasing their marshaling dance.

There in the center of that verdant space sat a familiar white specter, perched casually upon a modestly sized stone, Amethyst eyes watching the young meister with great interest. The white other smiled a smug little grin as it greeted its pig-tailed counterpart.

"Welcome back, Maka" the other said with a grand gesture.

Maka didn't bother to return the greeting. "You've been waiting here for me."

The specter hopped down from the stone, dusting off the mint-ivory patterns of its plaid skirt in the process. "Well, I didn't have much choice, now did I?"

Maka entered cautiously into the clearing, warily watching her white-haired counterpart all the while. "As a figment of my mind?"

The other shook its head chidingly. "As a figment of you Maka."

This statement garnered a puzzled look from the young meister. "Isn't that the same thing?"

"I don't think so." the other replied, shaking its head once more. "Considering that one is real and the other is not" It cocked its head in a bemused manner "The real question here is, which one?" The specter asked as it locked its querying gaze with Maka's. "The mind or the figment?"

"What?" Maka frowned confusedly "Wait what-"

"About you?" The other finished as it turned away from the young meister with a brief chuckle, . "Oh no, you're not real."

Maka balked at this, bold faced incredulity written all over her visage as she replied "What do you mean I'm not real!?" She made an indicative gesture towards herself as she continued "This is my soul!"

"Really?" The other returned with a knowing smile. "If that's the case, why is it so unfamiliar to you?"

Maka opened her mouth to make a reply to the other's leading question, but found that she could not form an effective answer. Silently, she stood, clenching her fists tightly as she rifled through the annals of her thoughts for one.

The white haired apparition's smile did not waver as it returned its gaze to the young meister before it. "You had to be guided to even get here. If this really were your soul, you'd have had no trouble finding this place." It snorted derisively "or me."

Maka frowned in irritation. "Then how did you find this place?"

The apparition's smile broadened as it began to walk in a casual gate, circling it's counterpart as it replied matter of factly. "This is my soul Maka. How could I not know where this place was?"

"This is not your soul." Maka returned darkly.

The apparition's expression gained a smug air to it. "Then who's soul is it then?" The apparition said with scoffing laughter "It certainly isn't yours." It jeered. "Not when you aren't even real."

As it said this the amber eyed other ceased its cyclical motion locking its gaze with Maka's. Maka, whose emerald eyes burned with indignation at the white other's statements, opened her mouth to make a spirited reply, only to find that she could not command it to do so. Neither her lips nor her tongue deigned to adhere to her request to make them function, as it appeared that she had forgotten how to even flex the muscles that comprised them.

Suddenly, the world around her became hazy and indistinct, the blades of grass in the clearing becoming one great mass of veridian, as the surrounding forest's trees became indistinguishable from the very shadows that they cast.

The young meister staggered backwards in surprise at these developments, finding that even her sense of balance had become unreliable, as she barely managed to catch herself before falling to the ground on her rump. Even without the ability to truly see it's body posture or expression, Maka knew that the white other was grinning its cocky grin, no doubt relishing in its counterpart's current state of helplessness.

And though she wanted greatly to give a sharp rebuttal to the other's silent jeering, she found that it took almost all of her focus just to rediscover how to use her mouth again. Her words were slurred and strangely unfamiliar to her tongue as she found the breath to voice her confusion.

"U g h" She managed, clutching her chest as she realized that in remembering how to speak she was forgetting how to breathe. "W h at ? " she managed through increasingly strangled breaths "W h at i s. . .? "

"Your soul's suffocating." the white haired other chuckled "It's too bad, really. If we hadn't spent all that time talking you might have had enough energy to be able to put up a fight." It shrugged "Didn't even get a chance to guess at my name this time."

Maka's tongue was beginning to grow numb as she fought to muster up enough oxygen to even form one word. ". .. Y o u" she hissed, the word coming out as barely even a whisper as the young meister began to choke on the very air she so desperately needed. She could only glare angrily at the white other's amusement as it watched her continued struggle to exist.

It smirked. "Looks like your time's just about up." the other noted as it knelt down to Maka's level and lifted her head up by the chin. "But don't worry. I'll take good care of us when I wake up." It chuckled derisively as it released its grip upon Maka's head, allowing her to fall to the ground with a dull thud. And as the young meister's consciousness faded to the ether, her sight blurring more with each passing second, she could just perceive her counterpart as it made to leave the forest clearing as it tossed a casual "Ciao" over it's shoulder.

Anger was all she had left as darkness took her once again.

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Notes from days long past

Vaizard Treatment Orders

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As of today we will be beginning the Vaizard treatment programs in earnest. With the recent acceptance of one Rojuro Otoribashi of the terms of a vaizard's return to soul society I, Kurosotchi Mayuri, have been given the duty of developing a proper treatment program to make him and his cohorts fit for duty once more. I would have much preferred if they hadn't readily agreed to it. At least then I wouldn't have any silly rules of humane treatment to adhere to with regards to the nature of the methods I use to divine exactly what needs to be done to return them to their original state. Not to mention the various essential quantitative explorations that have yet to be visited upon souls of the vaizard type. Alas they must live to tell the tale.

This comes at a rather inopportune time, as I believe the study of these new closed souls that have begun to appear should take precedent. There is much that can be learned about and from them. With the proper eyes and methods of course. The rest of soul society has no knowledge of their existence, and will not know of them until my analysis and purposing of them is complete. Unfortunately, I do not know how long even I can keep their existence a secret. The work will have to be quick, precise, and unmerciful if all there is to be divined from them is to be discovered before that time. It is a task that I believe only a researcher of my temperament could manage.

For this reason, my personal attention will not be afforded to the research of the conditions of Otoribashi and the constituents that will invariably follow his example. Under normal circumstances this would be an assignment for Nemu, however it is still indisposed after Szayel had his way with it during the Aizen debacle. So, you will have to suffice. You will report to me their progress and enact the measures that I tell you. You will not interact with them in any way that I do not tell you to. Nor will you report directly to any member of Soul Society. I will prepare responses for you should such a time arise that you must interface with them. Above all else, do not remove the implements that I have created for you. You will surely die if you do. If not by their hands, certainly by mine. And no, you are not removed from the duties you had previous. This is simply another task you must undertake.

Do not fail. Your life depends on it. As always.

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More to Come...

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