Zero

Chapter 7

El Lado Oscuro Demonios

No wind stirred around the concrete towers. No cars screeched along the asphalt avenues below. And not a hint of blue peered down through the oppressive sea of grey, the rumbling of the approaching storm as foreboding as the deep. The only sign of life was the stagnant ponds, the twisted and stunted trunks that lined the parade. That, and two lonely figures, painted against the cold backdrop.

Ichigo frowned, not daring to take his eyes from the hunched figure before him. The Hollow's maddened grin widened at his reticence. The Shinigami's frown became a snarl. Keeping his enemy in sight, he glanced around quickly. Despite his tension at being back here, someone was missing from their little gathering.

"The hell you looking for?"

Ichigo gritted his teeth, turning his focus back to his hated opponent. The Hollow smirked down at him from the heights, slowly rising from its crouch, "It's been damn quiet since you stopped coming round. Long time no see, Ichigo."

Ichigo bit back his own scathing comment, his voice coming out thick as he forced the question, "Where is old man Zangetsu?"

The Hollow bit off a harsh bark of icy laughter; Ichigo's flexed his fingers tensely. Eyes gleaming with cunning and malice sneered at him, "The hell are you talking about? That old guy hasn't been around here for a long time." A black gaze stared down, "But I guess you wouldn't know much about that, right? You seem to think those guys upstairs have got your whole situation under control."

It took him a moment to realise the Hollow was talking about the Vizard; it had his attention. It seemed to realise this, as it grinned, drawing a familiar cleaver over its shoulder, "Well I've got some shit news for ya. This ain't the real world; no cavalry's gonna hold me down for you in here." It paused, taking a sardonic step toward him, "Nothing the boys and girls up there can do will help you anymore; here on in, you're on your own."

Ichigo scowled, pulling his own cleaver from his shoulder, "Guess all I've got to do is take you down."

A heavy clang rang out through the thick air of the shared soul as the two blades met. The Hollow grinned, "That ain't gonna happen."

Twirling the other's sword away, Ichigo ran his own toward the inside of the Hollow's arm. It swerved out of the way with insulting ease, a derisive snort falling from its cold, white lips, "Why don't ya actually put in some effort? I know you can do better than this." It bounced backwards several steps, before propelling itself off the hard concrete, "We are, after all, pretty damn alike."

"Shut the hell up!" Ichigo snarled, deflecting the blow, "The hell have you done with Zangetsu?"

The Hollow flipped back again, this time perching itself precariously on the tower's edge, eyeing him incredulously, "So what, you really don't get it?" The predatory chuckle that escaped it at the Kurosaki's poorly-masked confusion would have shamed a hyena. A chill breeze whistled across the peaks of the concrete and iron constructs as Ichigo's fervour was stoppered by the monster's scornful voice.

"I am Zangetsu."

XXXX

Shinji frowned as Risa fell to the ground beside him, tiredly sealing up the long sceptre of Haguro Tonbo. On the other side of the immense barrier, Kensei was already wreaking havoc on the monstrous suit of armour that was Kurosaki Ichigo. Blasts of flaming, black reiatsu met the tearing, blue power of the Muguruma's Tachikaze. Shinji wasn't too worried. Well, not about Kensei anyway.

He peered across at the hulking Hollow. Nothing was left of the young Kurosaki; gleaming white bone covered the jet shade of his Shihakushō, while the familiar lined skull mask barely sufficed to hide the raw, malevolent instinct of the Hollow that consumed the boy. Zangetsu too, had been consumed, a long violent claw taking its place. Gleaming golden eyes shone with vile fierceness, though Shinji noted with relief the hint of caution gleaming in the black depths.

"Rationale; a good sign."

Shinji glanced at Love; the tall Vizard had obviously seen the same.

Hiyori scowled up at the Aikawa, "What are you on about?"

Shinji was the one to reply, his eyes never once leaving the Hollow inside the barrier, "Reason and rationality is at the heart of the Shinigami's stability and modus operandi; the Shinigami's power is ordered, refined. The Hollow, by contrast, is nothing but a bundle of pent-up instinct. The mask is the only thing which keeps all of that raw emotion locked up. The only thing which keeps a Hollow stable."

Hiyori grumbled, shaking her head. Love smiled, looking down at her, "He means that as long as that Hollow shows some sign of caution, then there's still some small amount of reason within him; Ichigo's Shinigami power is still fighting back. Look." Even as he spoke, the Hollow deflected a brutal blow from Kensei, a hint of calculated cunning flashing viciously through its eyes, "That tells us that Ichigo's still locked in there somewhere. Nothing to worry about."

"Who's worryin'?" Hiyori muttered, the flicker of her eyes toward the battlefield giving her away.

"As long as Ichigo can subjugate his Hollow before that reason disappears, then he'll be able to sort himself out," Shinji dropped, "It might be a bad joke, but it'll be when he draws on his own instinct to take out the Hollow's that he's gonna win." He paused, watching tiredly as Kensei delivered yet another bone-shattering blow, "It's also where the big struggle is, though; instinct is, traditionally, a lot more powerful than reason. While a Shinigami will usually operate on reason alone, it's their instinct that'll end up saving their coats from getting singed if they're ever caught in a hot spot. But a Hollow's instinct is a thousand times as powerful as a Shinigami's."

"It's the instinct of the stronger consciousness which takes over in the transformation process," Love said, watching impassively as Kensei blew the monster's arm off, "It's pretty obvious, but the stronger consciousness right now is the Hollow."

Rose broke in, "A Hollow has no rhyme or reason. They blindly follow their instincts. Normally, this would put a regular Hollow at a distinct disadvantage, simply for the fact that their thought processes are clouded by their base emotions, and their powers are limited to those of a Hollow, which are generally of a lower echelon than those of the Shinigami. However, Ichigo starts off with a huge disadvantage before he's even begun for the simple reason that, like an Arrancar, the Hollow within him is able to draw on Ichigo's Shinigami powers; its raw instinct is reinforced by reason."

"Bottom line. If he can beat down that raw instinct of his inner Hollow, and can come out on top, he'll be just like us," Love murmured, "A firm grip on cold, hard reason, while also allowing the most important streaks of instinct to peek through."

Hiyori clutched her head, abandoning all pretences of indifference, "And if he doesn't come out on top …"

"If he doesn't come out on top," Shinji said quietly, "We're gonna be forced to put him down." Ignoring the troubled looks the others gave him, he turned to Hachi, "Yo, I'm heading in next."

XXXX

"Bankai!"

Ichigo glared at the long, snowy coat of his opponent. Snarled at the thin, white blade in his hand. The Hollow grinned at him, "What, you wanted me to take you with a bat?" It hefted Zangetsu, or the shell that resembled Zangetsu, over its shoulder with a snide grin, "Sorry, but I'm a little more comfortable with this thing."

The Kurosaki took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm. The Hollow's casual stance reeked of its overconfidence. Its assault would be hard and fast, but if Ichigo was careful, he could make sure that that would be its downfall. Ichigo knew from experience that his enemy would always abandon defence in favour of a ridiculously powerful offence. Hell, it was what Ichigo himself would do if given the chance. But that was just it. He couldn't take chances. Not with this enemy.

A cruel sneer crossed the Hollow's cold visage; Ichigo tensed. The concrete buckled under the monster's feet as it leapt forward Zangetsu slicing forward at lightning speeds. Ichigo swerved, swinging his own black Tensa Zangetsu across into his opponent's face. The Hollow deflected with a look of boredom, twirling his own white daitō expertly before plunging it forward again. Ichigo bit his already bleeding lip as the icy blade stung him, batting it away as he beat a rapid retreat.

"Don't bother with all that combat efficiency bullshit," the Hollow snorted, "You're gonna have to push yourself a lot harder than that if you're even thinking about taking me down."

"Fine," Ichigo grunted, angling the thin sword above his head, condensing as much of the reiatsu he could gather along the length of the blade. The dark energy swirled around him ominously, a thundercloud awaiting its explosion. With a roar, he swung down, "Getsuga Tenshō!"

The crow's wing of dark energy burnt through the concrete as if it were dust, tearing toward the snowy clone. The power in it would have shorn through Kuchiki Byakuya's Hakutaiken; there was no way the Hollow could take this head on and not feel it. But, to Ichigo's shock, the serpent merely shook his head in a schoolmaster's tut-tut, before dispelling the blast with an open palm-strike. The Kurosaki stared, his mouth agape.

"You still don't get it, do you?" It said, twirling its weapon with practiced ease, "You might have been the first guy to play the Queen, but I was the one to name her. I was the one who gave her power." His grin stretched wide; a Hatter's grin, "Let me show you how it's done."

Sliding its daitō beneath its arm, the Hollow made a big show of focusing all of its energy into its weapon. A look of intense concentration broke out across its deathly pale face, red and white reiatsu streaming from the Zangetsu tucked under its arm. With a little flourish, and a conspirator's wink at a suddenly terrified Ichigo, it sliced outwards, a witch's cackle fleeing across the cityscape, before a horrendous roaring filled the air.

"Getsuga Tenshō!"

In that moment, as the blinding streak of white-crimson reiatsu was hurtling toward him, Ichigo saw it. The Hollow's opening. It was the exact same opening that Ichigo himself had every time he used Zangetsu's signature move. And, just like when he used it, the immense power of Getsuga Tenshō blotted out any hope he had of taking advantage of that opening. Hurling up his own daitō, he gathered as much of his power as he could and forced it into his block.

Then he was engulfed by white.

XXXX

Shinji was circling the battleground casually, watching the monster spin listlessly in the centre of the barrier, hopelessly enchanted by Sakanade's power, when it fell to one knee. The Hirako stopped, the spinning sword coming to a halt as he peered curiously at the armoured monstrosity. It was a little early for someone of Ichigo's reiatsu levels to be coming out of the Hollowification process. His grip on his zanpakutō tightened as the bulky frame turned toward him. And then a glinting, hate-filled gaze locked onto the skinny onetime Captain. This was bad.

Only a Hollow with immense power would be able to hope to see through Sakanade's illusion. There was only one way, after all. Instinct.

He dodged nimbly, the beast's attack falling slightly to the side of where he had been standing. That, at least, was a good sign. It was in line with what they'd been talking about earlier; if it continued to miss him in its assault, then, logically, Ichigo was still fighting back. But if its instinctual strikes got any closer, the Hollow would be in near total control. Frowning, he decided to test its limits. Spinning Sakanade into a firmer grip, he dived around behind the monster, darting in for a strike at its tail. The lumbering beast made no move to avoid it. He frowned as he sheared through the dense substance, the Hollow screaming in pain.

Dancing backwards, he spun his blade cautiously, eyeing the Hollow as it stared directly back at him. Troublesome.

It leapt forward. He leapt to the side. It clawed at him wildly, the flailing stump of its tail rapidly regenerating. He dodged again. On and on it went, until at last, Shinji saw his chance; moved to make the ultimate test. The other Vizard gawked as he swept in under the Hollow's defence, its raw power crashing against him like waves in a storm, and plunged Sakanade forward in a lethal stab.

And, in that briefest of moments before the sword struck, the raw rage of the Hollow subsided, a hint of caution entering its step as it dived clumsily out of the way. The tensed audience sighed with relief. Shinji grinned, knowing that somewhere in there, a Shinigami was fighting back.

"Keep it up, Ichigo."

XXXX

"Interesting."

The Hollow tested the shallow gash below its rib, gleaming eyes never leaving the weary figure of the Shinigami. Ichigo was panting, a long bloody slash running from his shoulder to his hip, the ragged memento of his hated enemy's attack. The shattered stump that was his own black blade hung limply in his clutch. Barring his hopeless fight against Aizen in the Seireitei, he'd never been as hopelessly outclassed as he was by this dark facet of his own soul. It was a cruel irony; the wielder of the dark Zangetsu was being overcome by his decidedly evil half.

"Very interesting," the Hollow murmured, its grin, for once, nowhere in sight, "Didn't think you'd be stupid enough to try and get me by coming straight through the friggin' shit storm, did I? But I guess I should know better. You'd think I'd be expecting something like that from you; 'specially after all the time we've spent together."

"Shut-up," Ichigo panted, tightly drawing his ragged cloak around his bloody wound, "Just shut the hell up."

"You'd think you'd be a little more polite to the one who's been carrying you all this time," the Hollow muttered, it's insane smirk slowly drifting back into place, "I am, after all, the one who's always had your back. Always been there to give you the power you need."

"Zangetsu is my partner." The stubborn reply, "Not you."

"Are ya deaf, or just plain stupid?" A humourless chortle, "I've told you before. I am Zangetsu. He is me. That old guy that used to hang around these parts," he waved a hand around absently, gesturing to the ruins that lay in the wake of their battle, "He and I were part of the same whole. We were the ones who gave you your power. And at first, that was all fine and dandy. But time changes everything, Ichigo, and as the old man's power weakened, mine grew stronger."

It grinned, running a hand over the gash at its side, the pale fingers that passed over leaving no trace of the wound that Ichigo had just inflicted, "Ya know the difference between a King and his Horse, Ichigo?"

Ichigo stared, completely thrown by the change of subject, and more than a little perturbed by the Hollow's instantaneous regeneration. The damn fight just wasn't balanced.

"And I don't mean any kindergarten bullshit," the Hollow was saying, "Like that one has four legs and the other has two. Assuming that they're two different beings, and their form, strength and abilities are exactly the same; when one becomes King and dominates the battle, the other becomes the Horse and lends him his power. But what I'm asking is," Here it raised the blade, as if in judgment, "What makes that difference?"

A reluctant, exhausted panting escaped the Kurosaki as he glared back stubbornly, uncomprehending. The Hollow smacked its hand against the edge of the blade, slinging its answer down into his face.

"Instinct!"

"The one thing that all powerful people need to acquire power; the one thing that raises Kings, and places in their hands the capacity to destroy worlds," Its grin was a snarling rictus, "It's an eternal lust for the misery and violence of the battle. For the destruction of all those that stand in your way, to crush them all without mercy, to render all trace of them into nothing but a bloody memory." It paused, flaring its nostrils, "To desire strength above all else. You rip off our skin, carve away our flesh, grind our bones into dust; there in our very nerves lies a refined killer instinct, burned into us by the primal hierarchy!"

It stared at him, disgustedly now, their battle the ultimate drama and it the triumphant antagonist, "It's what you lack; that pure, raw instinct. You want to fight rationally and with reason. But who're you going to kill with a sheathed sword? That's why you're weaker than me, Ichigo. That is why I will always be better than you."

The blade was cold as ice as it slid into his belly. Ichigo stared at it, dumbfounded. The Hollow screeched his victory to the skies.

"It's why you will never beat me."

XXXX

Shinji bit his lip. The other Vizard were solemn, silent. Love had just deflected a monstrously high-powered Cero. Hachi was waiting for the signal to open the barrier. The timer stood at seventy minutes and eleven seconds.

Ichigo's time was up.

The Hollow's power was already reaching dangerous levels. Blackened lood was leaking from the holes in its mask, the hatred and malice that composed its entire being flooding the dusty plan below Karakura. For any of them to try and take it on now would be akin to their opposing one of the upper-class Espada in its released form; near suicide, no matter what additional abilities fate was unkind enough to grant them.

Love staggered out of the barrier, looking a more than a little winded. Trapped alone inside the barrier, the Hollow screeched its rage to the heavens. The Vizard looked on, disappointment and frustration the flavour of the hour. Rose was the first to break the silence.

"I suppose, we'd best end it then."

One by one, the others gave reluctant nods. The hulking construct had shown nothing but raw emotion and instinct for nearly twenty minutes now. There had been no sign of the reason that drove him, no sign of cool. The Hollow's attacks had all been of the most insane violence, uncaring of the damage that came upon itself. If Ichigo had any chance to seize on his instincts, odds were that opportunity was already long gone.

"Hachi," Shinji grunted, slipping Sakanade from her sheath once more, "Open the barrier."

The portly Kidō master hesitated, then nodded slowly, his fingers slowly shaping the forms that would tear down what was, ironically, the only thing protecting the rampant beast that was Ichigo's remains.

"Wait!"

Shinji glanced at Hiyori, surprised and not surprised. The diminutive Vizard glared back at him, "Give me one more round."

The other six shared brief looks. While it was never spoken for fear of invoking the short girl's wrath, it was well-known that Hiyori was the weakest of the eight exiles. She'd been sent inside the barrier early in the line-up for precisely that reason; it was unlikely she'd be able to handle the Hollow this far into its transformation.

"If anyone wants to stop me," she growled warningly, as if reading their minds, "Then they're gonna have to hold me down themselves. 'Cause I ain't gonna give up on the new guy just yet."

Shinji glanced at the others, then into the determined brown orbs staring up at him, daring him to deny her. He sighed, then gave her a hard look, "Fine. You've got ten minutes. He hits you once; we're moving in."

That, at least, the stubborn Sarugaki seemed willing to understand. With a brisk nod, she dashed off to take Love's place.

XXXX

Ichigo's eyes blinked open.

The familiar curve of Zangetsu's Shikai lay at his side; he gave it a hard look. After a long moment, he hesitantly picked it up, staring out at the new world beyond. The burnt sands of a desert surrounded him, arid sands racing away from him in every direction. He looked down slowly, frowning at the yawning, dark hole before him. He crept forward on hand and knee, peering cautiously down into the dank shadows. He started; he knew this place. The Shattered Shaft.

What the hell was going on?

"You ready, Ichigo?" he jumped at the sound of the familiar voice, a rough relief grinding through him as he caught sight of Renji.

"Yo, Renji," he muttered, climbing slowly to his feet, "Wha-"

Shing.

The thin line of grey that was Zabimaru slammed against the heavy steel of Zangetsu, Ichigo's reflexes swooping down to rescue him from the rage and power flooding out of the Sixth Division Fukutaichō. The shape of the Abarai grinned, "I don't know any Renji." With a bestial roar, the Lieutenant's blade dissolved into its Shikai, Zabimaru whipping around the Kurosaki before raking its way across his back. He gasped in pain, staring in abject bewilderment at his friend.

"What the hell are you doing?" he roared, "We've got no reason to fight."

Renji raised an eyebrow, "Do you need a reason?"

Another voice interjected. "We fight because we can."

The shark that was Zaraki Kenpachi chuckled as he dropped from the sky, the jagged edge of his zanpakutō tearing into the earth by Ichigo's sandals. The Kurosaki swore as he sidestepped, shunpo carrying him to the peak of the stone cliffs nearby.

"It's 'cause we're born to fight, Ichigo," the Eleventh Division Captain said, wrenching the sword from the ground, "No matter what you might think, a fight ain't over 'til one guy's dead. Admit it, kid." The imposing figure stared up at him. "You want power. You want to fight."

The Deputy Shinigami stared down at them, their words having a frighteningly familiar echo.

"Those that seek strength," Renji echoed, "Whether it's for themselves or for others, are forced to seek battle. Do you fight in order to get stronger? Or do you want strength in order to fight? Whatever your answer is doesn't matter, 'cause far as we're concerned, it seems that we're destined to carve the same path."

Kenpachi smiled, the expression reeking of danger, "The path of endlessly seeking battle."

"You keep instinctively looking for battle, for the violence and intensity of the bloodshed, for the simple fact that you want to get stronger."

A cold voice pierced the heavens, cracking and shattering the arid landscape, casting it to the four winds.

"So fight."

XXXX

The storm swirled above the cityscape, lightning dancing atop the concrete peaks. A cold, white cackle echoed out through the downpour, the Hollow capering madly about its dark world. Freedom. It was a thing craved by all sentient beings. Ichigo had taken it for granted. The Hollow would be sure it didn't waste something so precious. His grin was immovable, a little jig capturing its feet.

It was so distracted, it didn't see the streak of black racing out of the crumbled ruins until it was too late. Ichigo, blood pouring from his wounds, plunged the white daitō into its belly, the familiar jet of Zangetsu shooting up from the hilt. He stared up into his enemy's eyes, all traces of his earlier fear vanishing as a bolt of sunlight pierced the maelstrom of the skies, a hard determination glinting where before there had been terror. And there was something else. The Hollow peered closer. And then it laughed.

"So you still had some of that will to fight in you?" It choked, coughing as the spreading darkness reached its navel, then reached down and grabbed hold of the blade, a manic grin leaping into its golden eyes. Ichigo stared as a bone white pallor crept out from its fingertips, eating away at the black that signified his return. Golden eyes gleamed with malice as they stared into his own.

"Sorry, Ichigo. I ain't letting up that easy."

XXXX

Shinji stared as the Hollow suddenly stopped mid-strike, its raw ferocity vanishing as a howl of agony was torn from its throat. Despite the huge distance that lay between him and the monster, he still saw the flash of dark brown in the Hollow's eye. Elation filled him; he quickly gestured to Hachi. The large man hurriedly complied, opening up the barrier just wide enough for Hiyori to beat a hasty escape, a triumphant Told-Ya-So plastered across her face. Shinji gave her the slightest of nods, before glancing at the timer. The process had taken one hour, fourteen minutes, and three seconds. A mere five minutes longer than Hiyori's own, but a close call, nonetheless.

The monster screamed as it began to implode, an arm of bony armour shattering, revealing the stringy, bare flesh beneath. And then, to Shinji's horror, the deconstruction of the Hollow, just as suddenly as it began, ceased. But the shrieking didn't. The body heaved on the floor, thrashing violently on the ground. It seemed to claw at its face for a moment, an echo of Ichigo trying to tear away the Hollow's power over him, before it drove both claws into the hard earth.

A ghostly keening wailed out through the training grounds of the Vizard.

Shinji stared in horrified fascination as the bulk seemed to reach toward the odd group of exiles, before hurling its remaining clawed arm around in a wide arc. Realisation dawned, Shinji's eyes widened to the breadth of a full moon.

"Shit!"

He spun to Hachi, "Drop the damn barrier." He glanced at the others, a hard look coming into his eyes, "We've got to destroy that guy. There's no time to argue this time; just do it."

Unsurprisingly, it was Hiyori who grunted, "You're friggin' kidding. All this, all the trouble I went to, and you're just going to wipe him out."

"I told you, this ain't like the last time," Shinji shouted, shocking the Vizard, "You guys don't get shit. He's trying to-"

A terrifying ripping sound filled the air as the Hollow-Ichigo tore the open the yawning gateway that was Garganta. The Vizard turned as one, too late realising their dilemma. Eight zanpakutō spun into hands, but it was already too late. With a bone-rattling howl, the ragged remains of the Shinigami-Hollow leapt through the portal, the dimensional tear closing up behind him.

There was a moment of dead silence.

In the next, all of the Vizard, and the shattered creature that was Ichigo, were gone.

XXXX

Ichigo pushed.

The Hollow pushed back.

Black and White.

An eternal fight on the dark side of the universe.

Instinct grappled with instinct.

The Defender fought the Invader.

"This one's my win."

"Go to hell."

XXXX

The monster leapt from the portal.

It was destruction.

XXXX

All across the city of Karakura, the battlers screeched to a halt. A blinding power was flaring on the western fringes of the town, waves of red and black rocketing into the sky above the glinting water that was the river. An aura of evil and malice crushed the warriors, their war halted. The sheer weight of the reiatsu was a dozen times as oppressive as the terrifying technique which had torn through the dawn sky only an hour before. But this was more than terrifying. This was paralysing.

Hitsugaya Tōshirō stared across the city. He had never felt anything as powerful as this, in all his days as a Captain. No Hollow was this powerful, no Arrancar that he'd yet faced had this much reiatsu at their disposal. Far below him, the remains of the Sexta Espada were smothered within a sarcophagus of crystalline ice, Daiguren Hyōrinmaru's frosty legacy the only reminder that he had ever been. A slight tingle ran up the Captain's spine, a shiver running him through at the immensity of the power radiating off the river to the west. That was a new feeling.

Several miles to the east, Matsumoto and Yumichika were helping the rent form of Madarame Ikkaku up off the pavement, ripping the Third Seat's ointment from the butt of Hōzukimaru, the zanpakutō's indignity at being used by another almost tangible. The two stared up at the horizon, the third squinting through a red, fractured gaze. The power drowned them, pushed them down. The two able Shinigami shared a look. In a moment, Matsumoto was gone, Yumichika standing guard over the prostrate, protesting figure of his partner.

On the edge of the industrial district, Inoue Orihime heaved herself over the squat wire fence, dashing ever closer to the heart of the rundown area. Reiatsu brimming with hatred and grief flooded over her, through her. It was almost unrecognisable. Almost. She liked to think she knew Ichigo well enough to identify the boy through the thick haze. She raced on.

All across Karakura, the battlers and the racers watched with a mixture of abject fear and apprehension as the fierce reiatsu in the city's edge district ebbed and flowed. At times it seemed as raging and hating as the basest of the rake's moods, the monster of the dark and dingy world that ruled misrule; at others it fell, becoming nearly tranquil, stable, before flaring back into its fury. Up and down it went. Chaos fought order. And when at last, it seemed that it would stretch out and engulf the city, it was sucked away in the barest of instants.

Silence fell.

Far away, in his shop on the outskirts of the old town, the shadowy figure of Urahara Kisuke scratched his chin thoughtfully, a small smile kidnapping his curious frown.

XXXX

The Vizard stared at the scene of destruction before them. Hachi's doubly layered barrier had done enough to at least weaken the power of the Hollow's Garganta. Rather than carry it all the way to Hueco Mundo, as it had no doubt intended, the monster's portal had instead abandoned it on the shores of the river that speared the heart of Karakura town. And it seemed the monster had taken out its fury on the old industrial district.

Flotsam and rusted iron barrels floated dejectedly on the surface of the old water, the scattered remnants of the wharves and the ancient boatsheds bobbing dismally downstream. Entire factories were nothing more than smoking holes, the burning stench of the Hollow's reiatsu shrieking at them in the wake of its Cero. Vehicles were overturned, trucks scorched. The scene was like something out of a film.

And at the centre of it all, lay the cracked hull of the Hollow. Swords slid from sheathes in a discordant harmony.

They descended.

XXXX

He peeked out of bloody eyes, his vision more than a little blurred. A cracked skull-mask, lined in black, grinned at him from several feet away. The Karakura docks ran away from him along the river, the mangled and rusted iron towers of industry leaning over him. Craters lined the shore, an abandoned wharf blown to pieces by the water. Did he do it? He didn't know. He didn't even know how he got to be there. Then again, right now, he didn't really care.

He rolled slightly, tired gaze drifting skyward. Eight figures huddled around him, faces cast in shadow, an uncounted number of emotions running their features. He thought he might have recognised relief. Words, new to his previously deaf ears, drifted down to him, lifting him from the broken corpse of his hated foe.

"Close call, kid," Shinji said, a grin Ichigo thought he might actually grow to like stretched across his face, "How're you feeling?"

He didn't smile; he didn't think he was capable. Not yet. But it might have shown in his eyes.

"Not too bad."

He swayed unsteadily as he made his feet. Someone put a hand out. He grasped it like a lifeline. It was then that he noticed the slight weight in his hand. He glanced down, and this time, the barest hint of an exhausted smile tweaked at the corners of his mouth. Tensa Zangetsu hung from his hand, blade of polished black shining loyally in the light of the early morning sun.

The softest of whispers. Of echoes.

"Don't forget. Don't you ever friggin' forget. You may be King for now, sure. But if you waver, if you ever weaken, just remember. I'll always be waiting to buck you off, and crush your skull."

He tightened his grip on Zangetsu, a steel throttle.

"Sorry," he rasped, "But that ain't gonna happen."

In the distant corners of his soul, he imagined he heard a peal of high, cold laughter.

And then it was gone.