Wow, it's been a while. Three and a half months. I'm so sorry for the delay, but I do most of my writing at work, and work has been keeping me INSANELY busy lately. I counted myself lucky if I could manage to get a few paragraphs on any given day.

As always, review replies are first:

Krazyfanfiction1 - I've had a few people ask about Inoue's ability, wondering if she can reject the lack of existence of something. I rather doubt it, but it wouldn't surprise me if someone had written a fanfiction with that power.

Nixie the Bloody Pixie - Soifon can't really stand Ichigo because they have completely different priorities, different perspectives. Soifon's loyalty to Soul Society is absolute. If something needs to be done to ensure Soul Society's continued existence, she will go and do it. If it's genocide, no problem. If it's suicide, fine. Assassination? It makes no difference. But Ichigo isn't loyal to Soul Society. Ichigo is loyal to his family and friends, to his idea of right and wrong. If Soul Society does something that Ichigo believes is wrong, then Ichigo will fight them. And Soifon simply doesn't have the power to stop him. That sense of powerlessness is infuriating, and Soifon hates Ichigo for that.

Anyway, let's get on with the story, shall we?

Chapter 73: Men and Gods

Ichigo's expression was calm as he stepped foot into Hell for the third and hopefully final time. He'd prepared himself as best he could, and he was working side by side with Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni, the most powerful pure Shinigami born in thousands of years. It was time to bring this conflict to an end.

Behind him, the Senkaimon closed as Kotetsu Isane stepped through, the last person to arrive. "Your orders, sōtaicho?" Soifon asked deferentially.

Yamamoto cast his gaze upon Hell. They'd entered the uppermost level, judging from Soifon's descriptions. Yet he could not see even a single Kushanāda. While that would make traversing Hell easier for the moment, it was troubling… had Hell made the effort to reabsorb the rest of his soul fragments? Had he regained his full strength?

It made no difference – they had no choice but to move forward. "We move. Soifon-taicho, lead us to the next level."

"Hai, sōtaicho." She leapt onto one of the blue roads and began to run, mindful to keep her speed low enough that everyone could keep up easily. Yamamoto decided to stay in the back, near to the fukutaicho and Kurosaki. If he was lucky, perhaps he'd overhear their conversations.

"So, what's with the new look?" Madarame asked curiously.

"I'm more than just a Shinigami," Kurosaki answered calmly. "More than that, I'm not a member of the Gotei 13, so I have no right to wear that uniform. This is what I came up with instead. Black for the part of me that is Shinigami, white for the part of me that is Hollow. I am Vizard, and that is not going to change." He shrugged. "It seemed to help with getting Hollows to listen to me, anyway, being able to tell with just a glance that I'm not part of the Gotei 13."

Yamamoto frowned slightly to himself. Kurosaki's reticence in joining the Gotei 13 had been explained to him by Kyōraku Shunsui. While frustrating, his reasons were understandable. Perhaps in time, when tensions relaxed and relations were smoother, they could revisit the issue.

"I thought this place would have more people," Madarame commented as they ran. Indeed, the people they saw were few and far between, hiding the instant they saw movement.

"It did, last time I was here," Kurosaki replied quietly. Yamamoto listened, but took care not to appear so. "But I think most of them are in Hell's army now."

"What makes you say that?" Iba questioned.

"One of the Togabito at Las Noches, Tsuki, told me that Hell's lieutenants came recruiting. Given the choice between being eternally hunted by Kushanāda, without food, without rest… or joining the local army and being guaranteed the necessities to make life a little more bearable…"

Yamamoto gave the slightest of nods to himself. It was as he'd expected. Desperation was a powerful motivator. Still though, he wondered… had Kurosaki really developed the stomach for interrogation? Or had this Tsuki volunteered the information?

"Kurosaki-san, I find myself curious… do you know what sin she had committed?" Komamura queried.

Kurosaki shook his head negatively. "Never really came up. She just wanted to be purified and sent on to her next life. Failing that, she was ready to send herself to the desert Soifon mentioned."

"The one made from the bones of Togabito?" Madarame asked incredulously.

"Yeah. Purification or oblivion. I convinced her to wait, to see if we had a method of determining if a person had repented their sin in the afterlife."

Yamamoto repressed a sigh. Sadly, no such technique currently existed to his knowledge. It had never been needed, really. Konsō worked for Plus souls, and Hollows found purification through being slain by Kidō or Zanpakutō. On the other hand… perhaps Konsō could work, potentially. All souls had the power to purify themselves. It was the reason why many humans could make their way to Soul Society immediately upon their demise without requiring assistance from Shinigami. It might just be possible for Togabito to purify themselves of their sins in life, perhaps through genuine repentance. If that were the case, then a Konsō would be all the push that was needed to send the Togabito onwards to Soul Society. Once the chains were removed, of course.

Perhaps when the current crisis was over, he could set up a semi-permanent outpost in Hell? A highly trained squad of Shinigami, rotating out periodically, performing Konsō on any Togabito that requested it. Kurotsuchi would likely have a solution to the chain problem once the Togabito Capture team succeeded in acquiring an appropriate subject.

This bore thinking about more, but now was not the time. Yamamoto made a mental note, promising himself to come back to it later, before returning his attention to his present surroundings.

"Down here," Soifon said curtly, having reached the end of the path. She dove without another word, and the others followed a few moments after.

Piercing through to the second level of Hell, Yamamoto blinked in surprise, coming to a stop in midair along with everyone else. Completely opposed to how Kurosaki and Soifon had described, there were Togabito everywhere.

Kurosaki grunted. "What's going on? Did they decide to use this place for training…?"

"Use your eyes, Kurosaki," Soifon rebuked. "Surely you can see that circle of Togabito? They're doing something."

Indeed, there was a ring of Togabito, perhaps seven of them. Seconds later, a red portal appeared, and perhaps a dozen other Togabito leapt through before it collapsed on itself.

"It's a departure point," Komamura observed. "Hell is attacking… the question is, the living world or Hueco Mundo? Or even Soul Society?"

"My instruments detect no Togabito in Soul Society at this time, sōtaicho," Kurotsuchi's voice reported instantly. "They appear to be entirely focused on the living world at this time."

"Yare, yare…" another familiar voice interjected. "Mind if I use this line? You were so kind setting it up, Mayuri."

"Urahara Kisuke…!" the 12th Division taicho hissed. "Get off!"

It was clear the exile wasn't listening at all. "Oh, you don't mind? Thanks! Anyway, just letting you know, the living world seems to be doing well for the moment, but I might suggest hurrying along? Or perhaps hindering them somehow? I don't know how long everyone can last against such a continued assault."

"Got it, Urahara," Kurosaki replied. "Keep me posted."

"Of course."

Kurosaki turned to face Yamamoto, and the latter knew exactly what he was about to ask. Holding up a hand to forestall the request, the wizened sōtaicho merely nodded at him. "Kurosaki, you and I will continue alone to face Hell. Everyone else, do your duty! Protect the living world!"

"Hai!" With that, they all leapt into action, Zaraki and Madarame laughing the whole way.

Kurosaki nodded at Yamamoto with appreciation in his eyes, and Yamamoto felt a brief surge of satisfaction. Kurosaki was beginning to see the Gotei 13 in a more positive light – good. That would ease communications and relations between their forces. "Kurosaki. Lead the way."

"Alright. Let's go!" Kurosaki flashed away with Shunpo, flying at high speed directly towards the ocean below. Yamamoto followed, making a mental note of Kurosaki's skill in Shunpo – it was faster than many of his taicho. Perhaps some remedial training was in order… then again, Kurosaki had been trained by Shihoin Yoruichi, the Goddess of Flash. It was only to be expected, Yamamoto supposed.

Several seconds after diving into the water, Kurosaki and Yamamoto emerged into the third level of Hell, an area littered with yellow lava pools. "Just a moment," Kurosaki requested.

"What is it?"

"I'm just checking something. I'll only be a few seconds." Kurosaki closed his eyes and took a breath, focusing before reaching out and touching… thin air?

No. If he focused, Yamamoto could make out ribbons. Reiraku. Kurosaki was using reiraku to track his mother. Smart. If Hell wasn't immediately nearby, he could simply grab her and go. "Is she on this level, Kurosaki?"

"No." Ichigo's scowl intensified. "She's in the desert somewhere…" He shook his head. "Her reiatsu is too weak to get an exact location. Not from here. I'll try again when we get to that level." He nodded to himself. "Alright. Let's keep moving."

Yamamoto nodded, reevaluating his opinion of Kurosaki yet again. How many times had he had to do that in the last year? In the last month, even? He'd lost count.

When he had first seen Kurosaki Ichigo face to face, as the boy had dramatically saved Rukia from her execution, that was all Yamamoto had seen: a boy, one with more power than Yamamoto would have liked, but a mere child nonetheless. A boy who adhered to simple ideals, a boy who was only beginning to learn wisdom, a boy who needed time to grow into his potential, a boy who needed to be guided carefully to ensure that everything that Yamamoto held dear would not be destroyed.

When Yamamoto had interacted with him in the false Karakura, during the confrontation with Aizen's forces, he had seen something similar but distinctly different. The sōtaicho had seen a rebellious teenager, one who had formed his own opinions, made his own decisions and resented being treated as a child while being forced to carry the responsibilities of a man.

Not long later, when Kurosaki Masaki had been kidnapped, Kurosaki Ichigo had appeared before him with such barely-controlled rage that Yamamoto had seen what he had suspected might lay there since the beginning: a side that promised death and destruction to any and all who dared to strike at his heart. A side that had seemingly confirmed the inevitability of war with Kurosaki. The brief communication with Zangetsu's manifested spirit – and that had been quite a shock, considering whom Zangetsu resembled so closely – had only lent more credit to that idea.

But then Kurosaki had prostrated himself, begging for help in saving his mother from Hell. And in that moment, Yamamoto had seen a desperate man. The amount of growth that Kurosaki had displayed… in mere days, he'd matured so much. And despite their ensuing confrontation outside the Berean home, that impression had remained. Yamamoto had understood, much as he had not wanted to. Kurosaki had been desperate, and so he took the only choice he could see.

Yet now, when Yamamoto cast his gaze upon Kurosaki Ichigo… Yamamoto saw neither an idealistic boy nor a desperate man, nor anything in between. Kurosaki was keeping his reiatsu within the realm of his perception, at least for the moment, and Yamamoto had had millennia to hone his ability to read and translate reiatsu. He no longer needed to meet his opponent's Zanpakutō with his own to feel and understand the emotions that echoed in their reiatsu.

And as Yamamoto examined Kurosaki's reiatsu… there was no rage. No joy. No sorrow, no hate, no love, no fear, nothing at all beyond a calm certainty. Kurosaki Ichigo was absolutely certain that he would succeed in what he set out to do. No hindrance would hold him long. Any setback was only temporary. He did not feel this way out of arrogance, or pride; Yamamoto would have been able to detect hints of those. And so what Yamamoto saw right then… was an exceedingly dangerous man.

Anyone who could enter that unfettered state of mind, that mindset of perfectly calm willingness to achieve absolute victory at all cost, was someone to watch carefully. If that person was someone of Kurosaki's power… well, perhaps he did have the potential to seal away Hell after all. And if Yamamoto was lucky, and played his cards with care, perhaps he would have an ally who could fight at his side when Yhwach finally made his move.

Underneath the sands of the desert, in Hell's hideaway, Zen'i raised his head. He could feel it – Kurosaki Ichigo was in Hell. Like it or not, it was time for the final confrontation.

"He's here." It was not a question. Either Masaki had unknown-till-then sensing abilities, or Zen'i was just that easy to read. The Togabito wasn't sure which he preferred.

Even so, he turned towards Masaki, who met his gaze evenly. "Yes, he is."

"So what are you going to do, Zen'i? Whose side are you on? Hell's? Or my son's?"

Zen'i chuckled as he stood up. "'Whose side am I on'? I'm on the same side I've always been on. As for what I'm going to do…" He flashed a cocky smile in her direction before vanishing from her sight and reappearing directly behind her, Zangetsu drawn and ready.

"What are you…?!" Masaki yelped in surprise as Zen'i effortlessly cut off the chains that held her to the wall, leaving the currently intangible chains of Hell, and hefted her over his shoulder in a smooth movement.

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Zen'i asked with a tone that practically oozed amusement. "I'm kidnapping you."

As Zen'i took off running towards the stairs, Masaki breathed a silent sigh of mingled relief and exasperation. "Did you have to throw me over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes?" she demanded.

"You can't run as fast as I can," Zen'i replied easily as he leapt out into the desert air, flickering into Shunpo.

"I could if I had my powers," Masaki grumbled under her breath. If she hadn't lost her powers, then this whole mess would never have happened. She could've taken down those kidnappers, so she never would have been trapped and sent to Hell. Then again, if she hadn't lost her powers, she wouldn't have died in the first place, and Ichigo would have grown up very differently.

"Eh? You say something?"


"Good, because we're here." Masaki didn't even have time to blink before Zen'i had set her down on her feet, just in time to see two people emerge onto this level of Hell. "Looks like Ichigo's brought along the old man."

And so he had, but Masaki's eyes were drawn only to the younger of the two. "Ichigo?"

"… Mom." The single word was filled with so much relief that Masaki could only smile. "You alright?"

"I'm fine, thanks to Zen'i."

Ichigo's gaze left his mother's, and he locked eyes with the man who shared his face. He stepped towards him and nodded. "Thanks, Zen'i."

Zen'i's eyes narrowed. "Wait…" There had been something in the way Ichigo had said that, the way that he had thanked him. It had been genuinely appreciative. No reservation at all. Ichigo should still have been reserved, confused about his nature, unless… His expression lightened somewhat, appearing half-hopeful, half-disbelieving. "You get it, don't you? You know what I am?"

"I do," Ichigo agreed calmly. "Let's get Mom out of here, and then we can figure out how to fix this."

Zen'i smiled. "Shall we break the chains together, then?" His voice was eager, but his body language reflected his true feelings – he was unsure if Ichigo was telling the truth.

"Yes," Ichigo answered quietly. "Let's protect her together."

Masaki was stunned to see Zen'i's face practically shine with relief and hope. Just what part of Ichigo was Zen'i? Obviously Ichigo had figured it out, and the curiosity was killing her. But that was a question for another time.

Apparently Yamamoto agreed, as the old man cleared his throat. "Kurosaki, Zen'i…"

"Right, right," Ichigo interrupted. "Come on, Zen'i. Let's get out of Hell and break her chains."

"Chains first," Zen'i corrected. "They should be weaker right now, if Hell's not focusing directly on them. If we get her out of Hell, he'll sense it and strengthen them."

"Fair enough," Ichigo acceded.

"And don't bother powering up just yet," the Togabito told him sternly. "Hell gave me some of his power – the chains should recognize it and break without you announcing your presence."

Nodding grimly, Ichigo took a step back, allowing the manifestation of his desire to protect to do as he wished.

Zen'i took a breath, and focused hard. Masaki gave a startled gasp as she felt Hell's chains shift on her, materializing several feet of them. Zen'i drew Hell's Zanpakutō. "Reveal the truth, Asahi no Kagami." And then he swung downwards with all his strength.

To everyone's surprise, the chains glowed brightly just before impact, and a bolt of what looked like red lightning jumped out of the chain and into Zen'i's chest. Zen'i crumpled to the ground.

Ichigo's eyes went wide even as he dashed over to Zen'i. "What the…? What just happened?"

"I assume that's not a normal occurrence when attempting to cut the chains?" Yamamoto asked quietly.

"No! The chains are static – they don't fight back like that!" Ichigo answered disbelievingly, holding out a hand for Zen'i to take.

The Togabito grasped it readily. "It was… Hell…" Zen'I grunted as he slowly got to his feet. He rubbed his chest and took a steadying breath. "It was a trap. Or maybe a warning. Hell knew from the beginning that the only one I would attempt to free was her. I should've guessed. But it was worth a shot."

Ichigo frowned. "Was it the chains, you, or the combination?"

"I have no idea." Zen'i shook his head. "New plan. Let's get her out of Hell, and then you can try."

"I have a different plan," a new voice stated dryly from directly behind them. "I kill you all, and I win."

Ichigo and Zen'i leapt away in mirrored actions, now standing on either side of Masaki, blades drawn and ready. "I think I like Zen'i's plan better," Ichigo replied contemptuously.

"Kurosaki!" Yamamoto barked out. "Take her and go!"

Ichigo nodded at him, and in a flicker of Shunpo, he and his mother were gone.

Hell quirked an eyebrow at Yamamoto and Zen'i. He was smiling, a small but supremely confident smile, as if nothing had changed, as if he was still in complete control of the situation. "Do you really think I'll let them escape?"

"I should ask the same to you," Yamamoto replied, raising his reiatsu to the point where flames were beginning to lick at the sands around his feet. His cane lit aflame, and a moment later, the strongest fire-type Zanpakutō in Soul Society was released in the sōtaicho's hands. "Do you truly believe that I'll let you past?"

Hell chuckled even as fire engulfed their surroundings, encircling them. "You still don't understand. Even if you did somehow manage to restrain me in this very spot – and you do not have that power – I don't need to pass you to keep them here." He spread his arms wide, gesturing towards their surroundings. "This world is mine, Yamamoto!"

Yamamoto's expression was unchanged. "I understand more than you think, Hell. I don't understand the mechanics of how it came to be, but this world is certainly yours. It's tied to your will. Which means that if you are distracted, if your will slips, then Kurosaki will succeed." His eyes opened minutely. "And that, Hell, is certainly within my power."

Hell's smile cracked, and then fell completely from his face. "I see. I underestimated your perception. That won't happen again. Allow me to honor you by allowing you to see the truth of yourself, the folly of your own existence. Reveal the truth, Asahi no Kagami."

Yamamoto readied his blade. "You fool… You truly believe that I hold no chance against you. You believe that you know me, that you know the strength of my soul."

"Don't I?" Hell responded. "You are the sōtaicho of the Gotei 13, an incredibly strong Shinigami, strong enough to give Aizen Sōsuke pause, but no more than that."

"Hmph. You must be acquiring your information from one of the traitor's Arrancar. Allow me to tell you exactly whom you are dealing with." Yamamoto swung Ryūjin Jakka at his opponent, letting loose a wave of fire. Hell promptly disappeared and reappeared a short distance away. "My name is Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni. I have lived for millennia, in times of war and in times of peace. I have made damning mistakes. I have won impossible victories. I have committed terrible atrocities, ordered and led utter genocide, not once, not twice, but thrice, in the name of world balance, in the name of sanity, in the name of the human soul." Yamamoto's eyes opened the slightest crack as he allowed his reiatsu to flare out even further, and fire seemed to engulf him, yet never burning him. "I am he who conquered Soul Society and united the strongest under my rule! I am he who fought and survived the first Quincy, Yhwach, one thousand years ago, destroying his powers!"

Yamamoto took vicious pleasure in seeing Hell begin to pale, and finally let his full reiatsu loose for complete intimidation factor. Fire was everywhere, flame touched everything, and the very sand that Yamamoto stood upon burned to ash. Gods, how long had it been since he had really been able to let loose, to bring every bit of his power to bear against a worthy opponent? "I have had one thousand years since then to increase my power, Hell! Now taste the ever-burning flame of my soul! Bankai!"

All of the fire that Yamamoto had generated swirled towards his blade, as if sucked in by some invisible vortex. A mere second later, Yamamoto was holding an ancient and worn katana, blackened and burnt. "Zanka no Tachi. Now…" Yamamoto bared his teeth in utter defiance. "…can the fires of Hell compare to me?"

Completely forgotten by the two opponents, Zen'i had taken the opportunity to chase after Ichigo and Masaki. He wanted to be reunited with Ichigo as soon as possible, after all. And Ichigo had completely forgotten that Zen'i, as a Togabito, should be capable of opening a portal back to the living world. "Idiot," Zen'i muttered.

The Togabito barely blinked as he felt Asahi's presence disappear, as he felt the loaned blade return to her true master. He'd known it was coming, after all – Hell or not, it was suicide to take on the sōtaicho without a weapon. It was too bad, though… he'd been curious if Ichigo would be able to wield Asahi no Kagami after they reunited.

Zen'i finally managed to catch up to Ichigo on the second level of this damned dimension, the one where Hell's forces had been mobilizing to invade the living world. Emerging from the water swiftly, he came to a stop in midair, a few feet away from Ichigo, who appeared completely stunned. Turning to see what Ichigo was staring at, Zen'i's jaw dropped. Even he hadn't expected the kind of carnage that he was seeing now.

The islands were virtually covered in blood and bodies. Madarame Ikkaku was laughing madly as he attacked with his Bankai. Crimson life was splashed across Ikkaku's bare chest, face and arms. The dragon emblem on his Bankai was completely filled and shining a bright, bloody red. Every swing was shattering chains, every hit was slicing a Togabito to ribbons, every miss was flinging Togabito dozens of meters away simply from the pressure of the attack.

Not one to be left behind, Zaraki was dashing through the Togabito, leaving piles of bodies behind. At some point, his eye patch had come off, and his enormous, oppressive reiatsu could be clearly felt even where Ichigo was. The bells in his hair jingled sweetly, continuously, in stark contrast to the destruction that Zaraki was committing with every step.

Not too far away, Komamura had activated his Bankai and was outright crushing dozens of Togabito with every swing of his sword. Iba was nearby, using his Shikai to kill any Togabito that got too close or tried to sneak behind the wolf taicho. Between the two of them, neither seemed to have acquired any injuries.

Soifon and Kotetsu hung back, not engaging in the fighting but keeping a close eye on everyone.

"…Well, I have a newfound respect for those guys. I'm just glad that Zaraki and Madarame held back against us when we invaded Soul Society," Zen'i finally said.

"No kidding," Ichigo agreed.

"You fought those guys?!" Masaki screeched. "And lived?!"

Neither Ichigo nor Zen'i really heard her. "The portal's unstable," Ichigo commented. "We probably shouldn't take that way out."

"I'll try to open a portal myself," Zen'i volunteered. He took a moment, concentrated his power… only to have it fizzle out as he attempted to form the portal. "Damn. Should've known – Hell's restricted the ability to generate portals again – I bet you anything that only his most trusted have that power now."

Ichigo narrowed his eyes as he tapped his ear bud. "Kurotsuchi. Send me a Jigokuchō." There was no response. "Oi! Anyone there?" Still nothing. "Damn it. Nemu did say that they wouldn't last long."

"Wait, you got here through Soul Society?" Zen'i asked.

"Yeah. Dimension shifting, that sort of thing. The Dangai is now between Hell, Soul Society and the living world. Now shut up, I'm trying to get us out of here." Ichigo focused his intent, and tried to open a Senkaimon himself, to no avail. Then he tried opening a Garganta. That didn't work either. Ichigo let out a growl of frustration. "Hell's really got the place locked up tight, and I don't want to risk taking Mom through that unstable portal."

It was then that Ichigo felt it – an immense wave of fiery power coming from where he'd left Yamamoto. He turned around in surprise. "This… this is way stronger than when he used Shikai. Did he go Bankai?"

"Doesn't matter. We've got to get her out of here," Zen'i reminded Ichigo.

"None of our planned exit strategies have panned out. Do you have any ideas?" Ichigo asked pointedly.

"As a matter of fact, I do. We blow open the Gates of Hell."

Ichigo paused for a moment to consider, then shrugged. "Works for me. That way I can get back inside to help seal Hell. Let's go."

Masaki just stared at her son and Zen'i disbelievingly. "Did you just say… that you were going to blow up the Gates of Hell?"

"Blow open," Zen'i corrected, "but yep. Now up you get." The Togabito swept Masaki over his shoulder and began flying upwards towards the topmost level of Hell, Ichigo right on his heels.

Masaki just stared into nothing. Her son had just nonchalantly agreed to blow up the Gates of Hell. Her son had put together an army, defied the ruler of Hell, and just agreed to blow up the Gates of Hell. For her.

A small part of her brain reminded her that Ichigo had always been obsessed with protecting her, even when he was young. Ichigo had always put on that smile whenever he could do anything for her, even if it had only been walking between her and the road on rainy days so she wouldn't get splashed by cars. Ichigo had started attending a dojo because he wanted to protect her, Yuzu and Karin.

At the time, it'd been adorable. Later, it had become much more serious. Even so, Masaki had understood his motivations for becoming a Shinigami, for saving Rukia, for fighting Aizen. They had made sense. Ichigo had wanted to protect his family, so he became a Shinigami. Ichigo had wanted to repay a debt, and so he saved Rukia. Ichigo had found himself in a position to help protect Karakura, so he'd fought Aizen.

In all of those fights, he'd fought people. People with supernatural powers, sure, but people nonetheless. Shinigami and Hollows they may be, but gods they were not. They were not immortal, merely long-lived. They were not invincible, merely durable. They were not all-powerful, merely strong. They had limits within the realm of conceivability. Even Ichigo, who had defeated, Aizen, had such limits. He could still be injured, or even die. He still required food and water for life. He still felt the needs of human companionship. Ichigo was still mortal.

But Hell… Hell defied comprehension. Zen'i had told Masaki what he knew, at her request. When he was killed, he did not die. He created from nothing. He subsisted on nothing. Togabito could draw on his power at will to protect themselves and attack their foes. It had literally taken a god, the Reiō, the ultimate ruler of the afterlife, to shattering Hell's soul to eliminate the threat, and even then, Hell's soul had persisted in the form of Kushanāda. There was no other word that Masaki could use to describe Hell. Hell was a god.

So the question that burned in Masaki's mind right then was simply this: how could a mortal defeat a god?

They reached the Gates of Hell within a few minutes. "You ready?" Zen'i asked.

Ichigo grunted an affirmative, and Masaki watched curiously as his face took on an expression of concentration. He drew Zangetsu, but even before it was fully drawn, black flame washed over him. A few seconds later, Ichigo had entered Bankai and Resurrección. He took a deep breath, gathering his power. "Zen'i. Shield her, because I'm not going to hold back."

Obediently, Zen'i moved to protect Masaki with his body. The former Quincy poked her head around him to watch, though. Masaki's eyes went wide as she watched red light spiral into existence between his horns, growing larger and larger. And then she saw him purposely cut his hand with Tensa Zangetsu. She was about to question him, but her voice died as she saw the blood float upwards, integrating with Cero, turning it black as pitch.

"Gran Rey Cero."

Despite bracing herself, Masaki was unprepared for the raw power of the attack. It hadn't exploded against the Gates, or pushed them open. It had ripped through them. There was now a gigantic circular hole directly in the center of the Gates, easily tall enough for a being twice Ichigo's size.

And then all three of them froze when they heard an ominous chuckle not far behind them.

"Oh bravo. Well done."

Ichigo turned around. Sure enough, there was Hell, standing there and chuckling as though they had just told a merry joke. "So, you got past Yamamoto?" he demanded, stepping between his mother and Hell.

"Oh, not yet," Hell admitted. "I'm still down there. And at the same time, I'm here. I must say, I should thank you, Kurosaki Ichigo."

"What for?"

Hell merely smiled knowingly at him. "Why do you think all my Togabito use portals? Why did I not just have them leave out the front door?"

"Because if you managed to materialize the Gates in the living world, it would provide a singular location to defend," Ichigo retorted. "I'm not stupid."

"Of course not. But let me ask you something, Kurosaki Ichigo. Why would I put the Gates in this dimension, when I want all souls to come under my sway? Why would I place a barrier that could hinder me?"

"Obviously so that your enemies couldn't get in," Ichigo replied simply. "You were at war with the Reiō and the King of Hueco Mundo after all."

"No, Ichigo," Zen'i corrected, narrowing his eyes. "Remember, all of Hell's forces will revive shortly in this dimension upon death. And any who die here become Togabito. There's no reason for Hell to stop anyone from coming in or going out."

"Absolutely right. So, naturally, I am not the one who made the Gates. Can you guess who did?"

Behind the mask of his Resurrección, Ichigo's eyes widened. "The Reiō…" he breathed. "It was to protect the living world, the humans who weren't part of the war! He must have wanted to ensure that no one would accidentally make their way into Hell, that no one tried to fight you alone! And to keep you here, where you could do the least damage!"

"Oh, you're good." Hell's grin turned positively predatory. "The Gates have never responded to my will. I could unleash my full power against it, and the Gates wouldn't budge an inch. The Reiō designed the Gates to open only for newly damned souls to be claimed… or if someone sufficiently powerful, someone whose powers contained no trace of my own, struck them."

"Wait, but weren't the Gates opened earlier?" Zen'i asked.

"They were, by a group of three Shinigami," Hell agreed amenably. "However, I was not prepared to take advantage of that opportunity, having just been reborn. But I knew that as long as I held your mother, Kurosaki Ichigo, you would come back for her. All I had to do then was remove every other option besides opening the Gates. Which you have just done for me. So, I thank you, Kurosaki Ichigo. For you have just given me the last thing I needed."

And with that, Hell walked right through the hole in the Gates, and into the living world.

Well, holy shit. Things are heating up. Not much more to say about the chapter.

I don't really feel like putting in my usual spoiler rant - suffice to say it's good to see people supporting Ichigo. And nice to see Chad getting Ichigo to actually get up and do something instead of moping.