Hyourinmaru soared across the turbulent skies, every wing beat a sonic boom that flung them faster forwards, a dragon's flash steps. Hitsugaya had constructed a kido shell around himself and Karin to keep from being blown off by the slipstream.
"How far away is this place?" he shouted above the roaring wind. "It's like we're on another continent!"
There are few kami who wish to live near that place, so it was banished to the very edge of our realm.
The kami no longer chased the hell butterfly, instead making its own way, and the insect now nestled in Karin's hair, whispering to her of dark things Toushiro wished he couldn't overhear. She was still in a trance, unresponsive whether he shouted or pinched or dangled her off the dragon's back. He'd even attempted to tickle her, something he recalled being Momo and Rangiku's cruellest weapon against him in the past, but her eyes only followed the white moth.
"And you know the path to…" he couldn't quite bring himself to say it; still praying he was wrong, that all the glaring evidence was just a lie.
I am the Guardian of Heaven. Of course I know where the dangerous places are.
Grey ash raced beneath, a completely empty land. On the horizon a colourless ocean was rolling towards them, broken only by a thin spire of stone that trailed from the shore all the way to a distant island, defying the heaving waves. Hitsugaya said nothing, his mouth pressed into a thin, unhappy line.
Ukitake witnessed the moth being born from the very flesh of a Kushanada. Her final destination was inevitable from the moment it found her.
"Kushanada..." said Toushiro slowly, trying to catch the moth and crush it. It danced out of reach and settled on her other shoulder, continuing to instruct her. "Your fellow guardians."
Do not associate me with them!
the kushanada feast upon the sinners but they are never sated
"We should turn back," decided Hitsugaya. The butterfly raised its scratching monotone voice, taunting him.
mesmers will not be released just because you flee
He swore, and wrapped his arms tighter round Karin's waist, forcing her to stay still. The moth was darting in and out of his barrier, prompting her to chase after it and plummet to her death. Proving its point. "Why is this necessary?" he asked angrily.
We give much and demand much in return. There must be a bond, an understanding, to tie the souls together. You must know what it is to be frozen, Tousen must know what it is to be blind, Ichigo must know what it is to be fearless, Jyuushiro must know what it is to breathe liquid, Yamamoto must know what it is to be unyielding. Should the weight of bankai be given to those carefree fools who know no suffering or empathy? Should kami be enslaved to mere humans who do not respect them?
"Should a child be made a soldier!" yelled back Hitsugaya, feeling all the more desperate because Karin couldn't; had no idea where they were taking her. He felt responsible for everything about to happen to her.
Humans forget that the childhood is just a fleeting moment that will return in another life. Humans forget that they are all ancient, hissed Hyourinmaru, saying more than he had intended in his ire. How does it change what is right and wrong if she has been a child only three years less than her brother, and you have worn the shape of one for decades longer?
"Hey, you found it," said Karin uncertainly, blinking awake. Toushiro let go of her with great speed. "But why is the island empty? Where's the big caterpillar?" She leaned sideways, staring down at the barren rocks that had haunted her sleep. She frowned. "Why don't I remember how we got here?"
"Y…you've been here before?" he asked, disbelieving. "How could you possibly have been to the King's Realm?"
"Well, it's in Shirojos's memories," demurred Karin with the usual non-committal attitude she showed towards her alter-ego. "Didn't you tell me shinigami have inner worlds? There was a big two-headed… - never mind. It was ugly, anyway." Her mind raced, trying to analyse hazy memories with the things she'd been grudgingly taught by the reapers.
"We can leave," Toushiro blurted out, grabbing her shoulders. "There's no proof that your zanpakuto will make any difference in the war!"
She swivelled to face him as Hyourinmaru started to decelerate and angle into his descent. Her grey eyes were hard as flint. "You said that thing only killed Ichi-nii because it was protecting me."
You must know what it is to be frozen, thought Toushiro. What would a kushanada demand? "What the hell do I know?" he responded, a very succinct argument.
"Guess what I know," shot back Karin, recalling a moment when the Zero's master and creator had preferred to lock Naraku in a Caja Negacion rather than face her head on. It was a hope she'd been clinging to. "I know what Aizen-sama looks like when he's scared!"
Hyourinmaru alighted gently on the black outcrop, but Toushiro was still staring at her in horror. "So do I!" he said with a hopeless laugh. "I've seen him scared, dead, repentant, victimised, and looking very caring whilst teaching calligraphy! Karin, you might die."
"Toushiro, we're all already dead," she replied sarcastically. "The worst that can happen is reincarnation into a nice human life without him in it. Heck, you might even reach puberty next time…"
His jaw dropped.
A minute later, his lightning wit struck and he exploded.
"Go to hell! I'm sure Naraku has nothing left to teach you!"
"I'll be warmer," huffed Karin, unpeeling her numb legs from Hyourinmaru's spine and sliding gracelessly off the dragon's frozen back. She looked from side to side, teeth chattering. There was an effect where if next to Hitsugaya, you were enveloped in whatever protected him from the cold, but take two steps away and the cold hit like it was making up for lost time. "This place is as depressing as your face."
"Do you know what you're meant to find here?"
She flicked the albino insect off her shoulder and forced a grin. "Something that'll make me even higher spec than Ichi-nii."
A blade wider than she was tall bit the granite beside her, white robes and black hair blasted by the backdraft of its movement. All the bravado drained away. She did not move, eyes bulging in terror.
Hyourinmaru breathed frost onto the razor sharp metal, millimetres away from his blue scales. Do not threaten me, Kushanada; he snarled. Zanpakuto cannot interfere in each other's bonds. I will not defy Naraku.
The Gates of Hell framed her, a skeleton leaning out of each door and grinning down at her through their bloodied bandages and cracked teeth. Roiling red light glowed, turning her into a tiny silhouette soon swallowed within the gatekeeper's hand.
"No!" screamed Karin, shielding her head with her arms. She searched frantically for her zanpakuto's emissary, the conduit between them since her powerless Plus soul could not perceive the sword's voice. The moth was nowhere to be seen. The demon's fist hovered above, judging.
Hitsugaya scrambled to his feet, dashing along the dragon's back and leaping to her defence. A crystal claw swatted him out of the air and pinned him to the ground in a cage of ice. Do not make me a liar, Toushiro.
Shadow-light flickered all along the Kushanada's skin, so vast only its arm could stretch through the looming gates; it roared and vanished. Karin sat up, breathing raggedly. Those shadows were familiar, the recognition made her feel nauseous. That monstrous guardian of Hell had been sent elsewhere, and probably shredded along the way. It had met same end as Ichigo once did.
A much smaller figure leaned against one of the towering red doors. It took care not to cross the boundary into the King's Realm. She had never seen it before, but in the same breath knew it better than she knew her twin. Gritting her teeth, Karin straightened her back and strode boldly across the threshold between spirit realm and underworld.
"Come to beg for my power at last?" heckled the skeleton, and Karin looked away, because the bone rictus reminded her of Barragan and his arrogant murders, was the face of the stranger that had killed her brother with her own hands. Much like the skeletons adorning the Gates, it was wrapped in blood-stained bandages held in place by holy pins and sealing ofuda. Ragged robes draped off malformed and spiked bones; beneath lank strands of cerise hair, the violent pink of butterfly wings. Its face was inhuman, the skull almost insectoid. A single touch teleported them both deeper into the searing heat of Hell.
She stumbled, arms pinwheeling. They had reappeared in a mockery of a royal court. A cavern with jail cell decorations and a crumbling throne.
"Didn't you drag me here?" retorted the former Espada, trying to hide her disorientation. Convinced that all zanpakutos desired to protect their partners, that she had leverage here. She turned and began to stride back towards the morbid doorway. A bluff. "If you don't want to fight, I can't make you," said the girl with perfect simplicity. "Bye."
The hell butterfly leaned back on its throne, clicking white finger bones against a grimy armrest. "That is all there is to it," agreed the lich, with something like admiration. "Since you have no regrets."
The gates slammed shut almost on Karin's nose, the clang echoing through her head. Her heart almost stopped.
"Regret would have served you better. But you blindly follow your brother's lead," hushed the dry voice, the permanent smile. "Listen to yourself;" it stood, and speckled moth wings spread around it, a dying halo. "Hear the truth falling from your own mouth. You cannot make me protect you."
"I thought you wanted to kill Aizen," whispered Karin, low, still staring at the locked door filling her vision and not daring to look behind at her doom. The false belief that she was in control of the situation, that she had any bargaining power at all, crawled into its tomb and pulled shut the coffin lid.
"I couldn't stand watching Yammy trash my home - knowing I could have stopped him before. I thought you'd want to…" trembled the girl, so small, so young, who'd seen so little of life and more sides of death than most. "At least have revenge…"
Naraku spat a grave-worm at the ground, and it sizzled on the scorched rock briefly before curling up still. "That doesn't make you judge and executioner."
"You shouldn't have picked me then," hissed the not-Zero through gritted teeth. "Let me go!"
"I didn't pick you," scoffed Naraku, stalking closer, step by clacking step, and dozens of hell chains chingled and jangled against the black stone, scattering out from her ash-white-char-black kimono, binding the demon to this dimension. "Hell butterflies tumble through dimensions whether they mean to or not, they are only bugs, they don't choose their paths. And you were made a wasteland, a no-man's-land. You were no one and nowhere and nothing, treading the thin line between existence and non-existence, so I fell into the only nowhere I am permitted to go. The contract between our souls is the one bond tighter than the chains of Hell. My sole reprieve from torment."
Her cold claws tightened on Karin's head, dragging her backwards.
"I only want to kill Aizen because it's his fault that was you, you little shit."
Hitsugaya saw the gates of Hell slam shut, the bang reverberating across the endless grey sea. He threw himself against Hyourinmaru's imprisoning talons.
"Wait!" he yelled. "Wait! …Why? !"
I am more concerned with protecting you than her. Where she has the barest chance of survival, you have none.
"No one survives Hell! We have to save her!"
On the contrary, everyone survives in Hell. They simply wish they didn't.
The captain flared with thunderous reiatsu. "You swore to make her your hoard of gold! You said you were a guardian, but I've never seen you protect anyone! Not Karin, not Matsumoto, not Momo, not Kusaka!"
This again? I cannot defend them from the fate they bring upon themselves. Ask yourself why none of them chose to cower behind us rather than face their challenges.
"Because I'm weak?" asked Toushiro plaintively, green eyes wet with unshed tears.
Because they are strong. You choose brave friends. It is something of a flaw. The dragon's laughter sounded like shattering icicles. I too am charged with guarding the sky, the invincible sky that cannot be touched nor torn.
Hitsugaya's mind whirled. There had to be something he could do. Something among all his trials was hinting at a solution, crazy as it seemed. At length he froze, barely daring to breathe lest he lose the fragile idea.
"I've held the King's Seal before. Kusaka stole it," whispered Toushiro. "It reversed his Hollowification; he could undo anything with it. Its power is immense. It's solid gold and feels heavier, carved with the strangest designs. The energy inside it almost sings."
He knew a great deal about Seireitei even though their leaders murdered him when still just a student. It took a genius to realise a way out of Hueco Mundo and the method to enact it, and a powerful warrior to steal the King's Seal from the procession and its guards.
"You still hold a grudge against Central 46…"
It is not for them to assume that linking with two shinigami will tear me apart. Perhaps it has happened to weaker kami in the past, but did they not proclaim to know who I was? I am not so easily forgotten. So... The dragon folded and unfolded its wings in guilty conscience. I may have told him of the King's Seal as he lay dying and falling into Hollowification. I may have taught him how to call out to me again.
"Of course the dragon couldn't be trusted with the treasure," scoffed Hitsugaya.
I am your guardian! hissed the kami fiercely. When you fall I cannot reach the other worlds, I will not let you go into Hueco Mundo so easily.
"Nor will I leave my charge in Hell without a fight! My friends may insist on shouldering their destinies, but I no longer feel like putting up with it. Do you still know where it's kept?"
Whether or not your Spirit King forgives me a second time. The snow-drake's neck arched like a disgruntled swan. When Hell freezes over, it will be me that does it.
This was no Hyourinmaru, no majestic beast deigning to grant her magical powers and crush her enemies. This thing despised her, its voice dripped loathing, fangs snapping at her neck as it detailed just how monumentally stupid she had been to trust it. She'd pushed away her memories of Tenebra Shirojos, but she should have embraced the lesson they contained - that her zanpakuto was unforgiving and sadistic.
"You thought that little icicle had cut me out? He hasn't the might! All he did was tip the scales. A drop of reaper essence to negate the Hollow. You were so close to zero between them, it wasn't hard to paint you back a human colour. Freedom is nought but a veneer, a lie. The blight in you runs too deep to escape."
"Look," Naraku plunged a claw into Karin's chest, dug around, dragged out a crumpled white creature. The inhuman skull grinned maliciously. "Here she is, safe and sound. Sleeping."
The Hollow twitched awake and stared around, making silent gasps. It was as mindless as ever, a black hole tunnelling straight through its brain. The hair was white, mask remnants a black thorny crown. Its reversed Espada uniform made it look perversely similar to a reaper.
"It was very unpleasant to be fused with you," Naraku snarled at it, flinging the inner hollow at the ceiling. "Worse than being here." It was punctured by a stalactite and groaned quietly, body bubbling as it tried to regenerate. "Don't squirm," hissed the hive queen of the butterflies; "or you'll hit the stalagmites too."
"Are you really a zanpakuto?" asked Karin, backing away. Not that anywhere else here was safer. The ground was beginning to burn through her sandals.
"Didn't you listen to my lessons? I sent the moth to teach you," crooned the monster. "The masters of Hell, the Kushanada devour the sinners over and over and over, they are reborn in burning lava, take three steps forward and are ground by the teeth of the sentries again. Do I look like a sinner, a weak little togabito to you?"
"I thought you were that gatekeeper, or the caterpillar with two faces," confessed the child helplessly. "They said zanpakuto exist to protect us! I thought you were the thing that stabbed Barragan, and they said - Toushiro said - maybe Ichi-nii was just self-defence!"
"Oh, it was," snickered Naraku. "Your sibling is a vile thing. He could terrorise the world and the Kushanada would never notice. Hell cannot perceive Hollows. They never once found me whilst I was shielded by yours. I killed him gladly whilst I still could. I'll do it again."
"D-d-don't you touch him!"
"Which is scarier: the vast dormant tumour, or the tiny cancer that never stops growing? Your brother is a voracious weed. He needs to be stopped."
Ivory teeth clacked behind her and she flinched.
"You think I am a kushanada whose evils are justified? A sentinel to watch over your safety? A guardian of the damned to strike down your foes? And you think you deserve that after failing me? I waited centuries for a bond to appear - only to be crippled by the mindless pawn of a fool with a god complex! Make no mistake, maggot. The only reason I have not already flayed you alive is that my revenge will last eternity once you are chained." The lich shuddered, insane. "I can be patient. We'll see the colour of your marrow soon enough."
Karin stared across the plains of fire, where hulking demons knuckled across the lava pits like rotten King Kongs, their bulky arms dragging bare spines and stunted legs. Their skulls were flat, elongated, jawless. They mashed the sinners against their upper fangs and had no throats to swallow them.
She saw that and more, shrank back from her fate, frantically seeking the door as if her bare hands could scratch a way back out to safety.
"Stalagmites," leered Naraku, not glancing behind to the fallen, impaled Hollow.
Ignoring her keening Inner Hollow as its white blood slid down the spikes, pooling like spilt milk and regrets; Karin had never felt such a fool. She had been too busy envying the strength of the reapers and cursing her own weakness to consider how steep the price would be. "You're chained here. You had no way to escape and find me unless I came," croaked Karin under her breath, chilled.
"It was difficult to plant your pet in the kushanada's palm...yes… And a long, long wait for a sinner to be caught near you." Its head twitched from side to side with every sentence, a vulture sizing up a corpse. Looming over her, far too close, stinking of rot and sulphur. "But there are always ways."
"I was going to drive you mad with the moth's whispers until the karma of your sins dragged you here. Teach you to torture the nameless babes in Rukongai's filthiest districts. Sing you lullabies of murder and arson. Let you poison your guardians in their sleep. Strip back the skin, break every bone, burn out their eyes, pierce the organs till all the fluids curdle, leave them so thirsty they drink acid without a second thought.
"Imagine my surprise and disappointment when you sought me out yourself? Flown to the Gates of Hell by the Guardian of Heaven himself, swaggering into damnation in great style!"
Scratching voice, pricking talons spinning the child round, lifting her arms and chin in cursory, desultory examination. Blood welled from dozens of tiny gashes. Her palm was pierced through by a claw, she shrieked and was dragged to another cavern.
"Even your sire the ancient, exalted King of Hueco Mundo wasn't stupid enough to walk into Hell!"
Dangling from the ceiling in a nest of chains was the figure of her nightmares.
Hell had done something to Barragan Luisenbarn that no other could. It had stripped him of his mask, his crown, the untold armies of lives he had eaten during his reign. It had stolen his power to corrode all things and speed time to a moment long after death. His face had returned to something like his sealed arrancar form. A little different, but recognisable as the leper king.
Karin cowered in his presence. It was a reaction she would never unlearn. He had chosen her. Everything was his fault.
"Your Majesty is looking forward to spending forever in my tender care, aren't you?" crooned Naraku, driving her claws into his ribs. To his credit he barely flinched.
"The word forever was born out of fear of death. It is worthless." His words were a low, condescending rumble.
"Such a tiny perception. The word death was born from fear of eternity, and even after ten thousand years in Hueco Mundo you cannot fully comprehend the millions yet to come, and now that you are in my reach you truly have reason to fear them. Tell me." The butterfly sliced through his cheek. "How did it feel to see your face for the first time, to discover you were human after all?"
His eyes were heavy with hate, laconic with boredom. He was an indomitable Vasto Lorde, eras spent as a Hollow had not been forgotten the way they should. "Sickening. The humans spend so little time wearing their skin, that changes and fades from moment to moment, yet they set far too much store by it."
"Do you want a little reminder of your heyday?" She breathed over him, and leprosy blackened his fingertips.
Barragan gritted his teeth, reliving a fear and disgust he'd forgotten centuries ago.
"There are legions of togabito here that remember your kind rule, your Majesty," announced his captor. "When I decide to share, they'll crowd around in their hundreds to pay their respects."
"There's nothing new they can do to me," scoffed the dethroned king.
"Oh, no, there are endless delights. You are a togabito now. For whom the bell never tolls."
"I was tired of my kingdom. This is nothing but fresh entertainment."
"I like the very old ones," confided Naraku to her subdued mistress. "Watching them realise they knew nothing of true suffering is exquisite. They can go extremely far before they break."
"I don't care what happens to you," Karin told him bluntly, nursing her punctured hand. "This is the best place for you."
He directed her a slow smile that promised the feeling was mutual. "This punishment isn't for your justice, maggot, only for the sins I committed in my real life. Atrocities from a civilisation that was utterly erased before China was even settled. No one cares what was done to nothings like you."
"Watch," smirked the hell butterfly, and began to go to work on her prize victim. Torturing him with brutal efficiency, sick imagination. "We are partners now, aren't we? Like it or not, I suppose I have an oath to avenge you, Tenebra Shirojos. Perhaps in eternity we can learn to get along and I'll let you help me…"
Karin closed her eyes, covered her ears and turned away; shaking with terror.
"Later I'll slice off your eyelids," mused the hellion; "so there'll be no hiding away..."
The white claws plunged into her again, digging through her soul, deep into the core of her. Karin screamed like a newborn Hollow. Naraku was dragging her insides out, extracting old memories and past lives and slinging them up on meat hooks around the cave. Ghostly strangers wrapped in rusted Chains of Fate, whimpering as she disturbed their shallow slumber.
"Hush," scolded the demon. "Huuushhh. I'm not causing you pain. I'm only showing you yourself. I'm only judging you. Is that…evil?"
The skeletal arms counted round the morbid ornaments, eeny meeny miny mo. "Some of these did despicable things in your past. The old ones had the most chances. The young ones died early in troubling times. Did you come here assuming you were innocent and safe?"
The jaw chattered.
"Did you think Hell cared either way? That torment was only for the wretched rapists and murderers?"
Karin sobbed and fell to the ground, the sensation was of having her bones removed; she was left flat out on the floor like an abandoned ragdoll. Corroded chains unravelled around her in all directions.
"It was easy to kill your brother with an army like this. They've gone back to sleep, but you had to lose every ounce of spiritual energy, make your waking self almost comatose to do it."
"With?" whimpered the former Espada. "They didn't - I didn't!"
"Didn't? Didn't?" She winced at the scrape of its jeers as it muttered away to itself heedless of her sobs. "The only thing you 'didn't' was protest. Didn't fight me. Didn't try to protect him. Didn't even notice his visceral liquids splashing across our face! Didn't complain. Didn't even care."
The devil flicked at the past lives, deeply scratching their faces.
"Wake up. Confess your sins. No one is innocent."
One shrieked and thrashed against its chains. A middle-aged woman with deep worry-lines, a petulant voice, someone Karin couldn't imagine ever being.
"Will they recognise you?" A companionable nudge with a stabbing sharp elbow, a guessing game. "You think they'll just let you be? Just because they died, you had the right to live? Tell me all the bad things, sleeper."
The stranger took one look at the eldritch abomination and fainted, but her memories were already rushing into Karin's mind. Me, but never me, when did I become someone so different? Who is Karin? I am…
She picked her squalling child up and gave the terrible two-year-old a tickle, turning wails into confused hiccups. There was ten seconds of quiet - and then the tantrum really kicked off. She groaned and tried to block it out. That was her peaceful afternoon gone.
"Wake up and smell the burning skin," cackled Naraku, rattling all the chains in discord that proved fit to raise the dead. "Your descendant brought you somewhere most dangerous."
She leaned against the wall of split logs, the short knife spinning and spinning in her restless grip. If they wanted to make it out of here they couldn't afford a mistake. But the real danger was the master's dogs. She'd been on feeding duty for a couple of weeks now. Would they trust her without the bribe of meat, or would they sound the alarm and get them all flogged or executed?
I do. She practised. I do. I Do. She wanted to say it perfectly, clear for the hall to hear.
"Speak now or forever hold your peace…" droned the vicar.
"I OBJECT!" shouted a heavily pregnant woman staggering out of the cloisters.
I do, I do, I do…wait what?
Screw it, I don't.
She hauled her tired old bones along the ridge of soft earth behind the plough. Bending made her knees ache. She rescued another large rock from the furrow, to make the next pass easier on the cow. It went into a sack over her shoulder. Could be worse, she muttered as she did every day. I could be the cow.
He swallowed with nerves and looked past the girl offering to buy him a few puffs at the trendy oxygen bar. "Actually I'm a girl," he confessed, shifting the peak of his cap to show the feminine eyes not much could disguise. "So you're wasting your time." She ogled for a minute or two then downed her drink in one. "Knew it," she grinned. "We had a bet going. Thanks for the cash. So how about that bar?"
She soaked in the view from the top of the mountain. It was breath-taking. She only wished she knew the way back down, because the sun was setting and there were a lot of loose -
So Mum…I burnt dinner again. Wanna get takeout?
Are you paying?
Aww come oooon -
Then I hope you like the taste of burnt.
She ran and ran and ran until it felt like her lungs would burst. She ran until her legs wanted to drop off. And then she ran further, because the wolves were hungry and the village was nowhere in sight.
She was eating mechanically, devouring the Hollows as fast as they could be herded towards her, ripping off their masks and crunching down the bone visors with steely teeth. The discarded bodies dissolved into sparks of reishi that seeped in through her skin, much quicker than devouring the entire corpse. Every time her focus faded the pale smiling man, the stabbing slender man, would fill the desert with swords again. Every time she turned on him in annoyance the dark strict man would trap her in a Caja Negacion. In the end she quit resisting, only gorged upon the sour feast. Nursing her strength to yet greater heights. Speeding the day when she would eradicate them all. And their ringleader, so smug as if he owned her, so proud because he didn't know she was only toying with him, he would die the slowest.
The day was blazing hot. Someone had given her a papyrus, claiming it would solve all her troubles. She turned it round and round, studying the tiny pictures, wishing she could read.
She swiped the flexitronic chip in her palm over the scanner. The gate clicked open. She stepped out onto the maglev hover-board racetrack. The horizon lit up with fire and the whistle of plummeting bombs. If she was quick she might get to die mid-somersault, as if going out with a bang would make death more palatable. Was it the fault of the bankers or the politicians, or the hedonistic youth drinking all their parents' money before the inevitable end of the nuclear stalemate between the haves and have-nots? If they'd all joined the Roots movement, would she have lived a little longer in this polluted air?
As each spirit cracked their bleary eyes open, Karin drowned in schizophrenia. She blacked out and was haunted by familiar dreams and nightmares she'd never known. Time ran away from her for hours weeks years, and when it returned Naraku was crouched over her, leering through empty eye sockets, fanning the heat of Hell across her with brittle white wings.
"No one can pretend they don't deserve this," crowed the demon. "Do you know your sins yet?"
Karin gradually remembered who she was meant to be, only because the other minds couldn't guess the monster's name. She stared dumbly up at the zanpakuto spirit she had sought out. Eyes bloodshot, tongue heavy, hungover and sickly drunk on the memories of strangers.
"You murdered my Ichi-nii," she said slowly; "didn't you? Or was he someone else's brother…"
"Yes, yes," sighed Naraku. "You're surprisingly resilient." Latching grubby claws onto an ankle, the moth began to drag her across the sharp gravel. A ferocious itch spread from the touch. If she'd had an ounce of strength left she would have willingly scraped her own skin off to stop it. "How was it? See anyone you miss?"
She almost cried out to be given her baby back. She almost asked where she was, where the bombs had gone. Somewhere in her subconscious she was still falling down that mountain. Before she could speak she had to choke back a hundred other voices raised in panic, but the strangeness of Naraku acted as an anchor. The danger was sobering.
Karin rallied, shocked to the core by the words that jumped unbidden from her mouth. "I didn't see a single memory worse than here."
"I'd be impressed if you did," said Naraku sourly, drawing back, dropping her leg.
"I'm just grateful," continued the Kurosaki, dredging up her hereditary bloody-mindedness. "I almost forgot I could be free of you, and then you show me a thousand lives where you never even existed! I'd take Las Noches any day!"
"A thousand lives," gloated the devil. "It's really unfortunate that you have Soul Awakening, isn't it? All the other togabito can only suffer for one eternity. Suddenly," Naraku spread her bony arms like a dancer; "suddenly they'll all feel blessed compared to you. You'll bring such hope and peace into purgatory. Such an angel. Such martyrdom."
Karin stuttered. "N-No…that's not what I meant -"
Gathering all the chains into a clanking bundle, Naraku dragged every shadow of Karin over to a towering set of iron scales. "Ready to be judged?"
"How will you drag Aizen to Hell if you can't leave?!" yelled Karin, thrashing wildly, a desperate last attempt to make the zanpakuto spirit see sense. It drained the final drop of her energy.
"He'll wind up here eventually," soothed Naraku, scooping up the limp girl and tipping her onto the heap of half-corpses. "There is no escape."
The rippling, transparent hell chains fused to every bone of the butterfly's skeleton had proved this long, long ago. The fallen kami could no longer see beyond that one immutable fact.
"I'll measure the worth of all your lives. A sinner does not deserve my sword, and an innocent would be wasted on it. I weigh you on the scales of pain and penance, and all you need to do is be lighter than the butterfly on the other side to deserve rescue." It was matter-of-fact, inevitable. "You should have said better farewells before you consigned yourself to Hell."
"And if I pass?"
It needed no answer.
She crouching, moving, side to side. We circling, trapping, all around.
The mammoth trumpeted and swayed, building up to charge its way out of the ambush. She felt the thud of its stamps through the soles of her feet. Hunter after hunter moved in and out, catching its attention, slipping out of reach, confusing it.
She darting, jumping, running, skidding, stabbing. She hurting, red down her side, tusk rushing by.
She living, throwing spear, scrabbling away. Another taking her place.
She waiting, aching, mammoth tiring, falling, lowing in fear.
They splitting the skin, sharing the spoils.
She eating the fresh hot liver, bright with success. All the hunters shouting, happiness.
She blinked back to the present, gasping.
Karin watched her Inner Hollow limp away from the spiked ground, regenerating punctured organs with a soft hiss and a vacant stare.
"Help me," she croaked.
Naraku swivelled to watch the Hollow wander aimlessly across the cave, the barest instinct to rejoin the rest of itself driving it. "Why, O why are Hollows born when humans are scared and lash out at the world?"
Hell chains, loose and unlinked, were starting to creep closer. They skidded over the Hollow, aiming instead for the heap of unclaimed souls. Karin writhed feebly away, trying to hide behind her other selves. They were all trying the same, shoving and fighting each other in panic, too weak and disoriented to run.
"Because they would rather be damned by themselves than be damned by me," grinned the Hell Butterfly, the almost-kushanada, and snatched the white moth out of the air. It flickered in and out of sight, dancing effortlessly between worlds, always returning to the skeleton's hand.
Karin envied its freedom. Naraku crushed it, waited a moment, and watched as it was reborn in a spatter of flame; clearly feeling the same jealousy.
The Hollow was beside the scales, stretching up in confusion.
"You're useless," groaned the girl. "Make a Garganta to save yourself. At least one of us should get out of here."
She watched the albino butterfly descend, and couldn't breathe. How many eternities? All the memories congealed together and she felt very old, felt like she'd lived and died a thousand times already and Hell would be little different.
In the silence she could hear the moth's spindly legs scrape the iron plate.
Naraku hid inside my Hollow? she thought almost silently.
Karin saw the King's Burial hole through her own head as the scales screeched sideways, the moth's side shooting up, and the Hollow met her eyes. Hell chains thronged around it like snakes, striking with lightning speed.
"Eat me!" she screamed; catching hold of the Zero's wrist. "You can have my heart! Just save me!"
Even as the hell chains struck at her like vipers, the Hollow burst into white liquid and enveloped her, the chalk clay that would usually crawl up the throat and burst out the mouth. Even mindless it could not deny its sole instinct. It consumed her from the outside, sheathing her in blank hierro that sent the hell chains skittering and skidding over the surface of her skin, as if she was slippery ice they could not solder onto.
Naraku wrapped a claw round Tenebra's throat. She still hadn't escaped; Naraku was not a blind Kushanada but rather the very predator that preyed upon Hollows. Yet death came as a relief in the face of eternal damnation.
"So you really preferred to go mad again, just like every other Hollow that fears Hell."
"This isn't insanity," grinned Karin with the wide, sharp, mad smile of Shirojos. "This is armour. I'm still human. Just because Tenebra is hiding my heart doesn't mean it was thrown away. Trust me," she pointed at all strange hers huddled behind; "I've died enough times to know the difference."
She'd never been able to walk, but one day her uncle carried her out of the hut and she marvelled at the sunlight, the forest, the birds. He left her far away with a single loaf of bread, and it took a full day and night before she realised he wouldn't be coming back, just like her parents wouldn't recover from the plague.
"A proxy that dies is no use to me," sneered Naraku, slowly tightening her talons. The black and white eyes refocused as the air supply dwindled. There seemed to be no way out. It was true, Karin remembered every life she'd ever lived, death she'd ever died. Soul Awakening made it feel as second nature as breathing.
The Hollow bared her piranha teeth at the hell butterfly. "Are you jealous? Do me the favour and kill me so I can get out of here!"
"You talk as if anyone could leave Hell. Your fate was over the second you walked towards me!"
"Yours could have changed," realised Karin with a burst of malice; the kami snapped her neck in convulsive rage, and the child dropped out of Hell in a flash of sapphire Soul Burial light.
Naraku cursed and threw the scales over, past lives spilling onto the hot ground in a screaming heap. "This is why we chain them! Follow the little shit!" spat the Hell Butterfly at the moth. "Don't let her get lost!"
Naraku felt utterly shattered, enraged, as if the walls of purgatory were collapsing all around her.
Are you jealous?
She tumbled in the dark, spinning aimlessly and screaming her lungs out until a hand grabbed her wrist and halted the endless fall. Karin screamed harder, the sound not even carrying to her ears. It was like drifting in outer space. Except she was meant to be alone.
Hollow Karin, Tenebra Shirojos, the Espada that had been a mental stillbirth.
This is Konsou. I'm dead. You're dead. Why are you here? She mouthed at it, bewildered. It did not let go, only stared, not knowing questions or answers.
You're not allowed here! She insisted silently, but already the Soutaicho was echoing in her head, his gruff and unforgiving roar.
Those who fall so far into darkness are stained forever.
She hit it as hard as she could, experimentally. The hollow Hollow took no offence. Not the faintest reaction. It had held her heart for an instant, and seemed satisfied.
Aizen really…really…really screwed me up, wept Karin in the starless night, and her third twin vanished, re-entering her soul. She began to fall again in complete sensory deprivation. She did not see the hell moth flicker into the path of konsou and pursue her, altering the route, twisting the road to a new life into a way back home to the old. It whispered warnings she couldn't hear.
not let go so easily
All kami were addicted to their proxies, unable to release their glimpses into the real world and other dimensions through the eyes of shinigami. The ashen butterfly followed her doggedly, shadowing her in the blind dark. More were drawn to the vibrations of her passage, fluttering swarms called by the faint resemblance to their monarch. Many dipped in close, brushing against her skin, tasting her aura with the tips of their legs. To Karin they had ceased to be beautiful and she now cringed from their approach like venomous spiders.
The silence seemed overpowering.
It finally dawned on her, just when a sliver of light and a different world became visible.
And on her torture table, Barragan mocked her. "You broke and threw away your only ally. You lost your chance to leave because you were scared a taste of freedom would make the return to Hell all the more unbearable. If you had simpered and slaved for her like a proper zanpakuto, perhaps the sly maggot would have taken you with her!"
Naraku threw a shadow at him that slit the ancient king in half down the centre. The monarch butterfly raged, stamping around its lair and wrecking all the torture implements and fetching displays she had constructed from the living bones of her immortal victims. The skeletal kami clawed the air, leaving interdimensional rips seething in the scratch marks.
Forming a shadow-sword from nothingness, the lich tried in vain to sever the chains soldered to its bones, only for them to reform every time.
Sanity was painful in Hell, and Naraku hated to face the fact that its self-styled dominion over Hell was as pitiful a pretence as Luisenbarn claiming he owned Hueco Mundo rather than was trapped within it.
Naraku advanced upon the panicking mob of Karin's past lives.
"There is no escaping me, girl, even if there is an escape from Hell itself."
Fingerbones stroked the cheek of one of the incarnations, who was near fainting in horror.
"Let me in," hissed the skull. "Or I'll drag you all down to the ninth circle of Hell. Let me in, and let me out."
Toushiro had watched the sunset, admiring the opalescent colours reflected in Hyourinmaru's faceted wings, and now the faded grey twilight had sunk into a black and star-studded night. There had been no word, no hint of a distress signal from either Karin or his distant comrades. He meditated on the grey sand, relaxing without sleeping; prepared for instant action yet not worn down by its anticipation.
To seek the King's Seal before the confrontation with Aizen could very well prove a disastrous diversion, splitting the guards' forces and causing any number of complications and havoc. To be absent in the unlikely event of Karin's miraculous return would leave her marooned in the middle of an ocean with no landmarks leading towards the mainland. Of course it would help to be closer to the palace when the call came, but the thought of telling Ichigo that he'd misplaced his sister in the underworld and casually walked away left Hitsugaya pale green with dread.
There was still time. It seemed their foe wished to bask in the daylight of his victory rather than the starlight. What was keeping that snake from striking? He couldn't imagine Aizen asleep now that he was a tyrant, despite having seen him nod off during meetings in the past. Were those carefully calculated vulnerabilities or signs of fatigue after busy nights of kidnap, human experimentation, parlay with Hueco Mundo and murder?
Hyourinmaru shifted uneasily and spoke. We should go to the Spirit King's palace. She will be chained by now, even if Naraku has not devoured her.
"The threat from Aizen, severe as it is, does not justify abandoning a child in Hell," said the albino in warning tones.
Naraku is already under her skin. The confrontation had to be allowed to happen, and to fail, or she would never escape the lures Naraku kept sending. You've already come up with a solution, and going to the palace now may speed our recovery of the King's Seal. There is no other way for you to help her. You have no authority here. We must leave.
"Kushanada never seek out non-sinners. There must have been a reason Naraku called to her."
The huge beast snorted, unconvinced. Misery loves company.
The captain cringed, and took one more glance up at the stars.
They had vanished.
The moon and stars had been blocked out by shadows drifting overhead, a black thunderhead. There were no other clouds in the sky, the unnatural movement more akin to a vast flock of birds.
A cold hand clamped down on his shoulder and he yelped, spinning to bring an elbow crashing into the opponent's ribs. His arm was caught and stopped dead. Who could possibly sneak up on him on an island? Why hadn't he felt their approach?
His assailant gave a choked sob. "Why did you bring me here? Why didn't you stop me? What were we thinking?"
"…Karin?" His jaw dropped, he tried to crane his neck round to see her. "How did you escape?"
Wrestling free of her vice grip, he managed to face her. There were spatters of blood and tattered rips in her filthy, scorched Espada uniform; dark shadows under her eyes that spoke of exhaustion. Her whole body trembled uncontrollably. Her skin was porcelain, hair spider silk, irises glowing tangerine. A twisted black wreath crowned her head, and the zero tattooed on her stomach was cruelly conspicuous against the white.
Singing on stage. Singing so loud it shook the dust out of the rafters. Singing so pure it melted the hearts of all who heard it.
"I'm trying to lock up and go home! If you wanted to sing, why did you apply for the bar job?"
"Aha, sorry. SOOORRRYYY~~!"
"You know what I'll just lock you in and do the world a favour."
"Hey boss! Boss don't!"
"I'LL DRINK ALL YOUR LIQUOR, ASSHOLE!"
"Hey snap out of it! Wake up! Karin, you're…but your Hollow hole isn't…how? What are you?"
She swayed, disoriented by the island, utterly lost until she saw the dragon growling at the albino's back. There was only one life where that was possible.
"There's more than one way to be heartless, shinigami." A wide, bitter smile. "I left the rest of my soul behind. I didn't know. I couldn't have known. There was no other way out. When she starts to - It'll…" Her hands drifted up to clutch at her head. "I'll probably feel it all. She woke them all up, and no matter how many times I'm reincarnated, I'll never escape her vengeance for not being good enough…" Karin stared into the distance, a vision of Naraku approaching her other selves was layered over her sight, a compound after-image from many eyes. Her throat closed, heart racing.
The child choked, breathless. Baring shark teeth in a grimace of pain she jolted forwards, trembling on hands and knees in the sharp grey sands. A savage red wound was opening along her spine, carved by an invisible knife. Her scream was long and high and pure, wavering between notes as she summoned the Hollow again to hide her from the hurt.
Hitsugaya tried to grab onto her but a ripple of silver reiatsu drifted out of her shaking body, slow and unstoppable. It pushed him aside and stretched out in an unbroken ring that flattened the sand dunes and the waves of the ocean all around. These were her arrancar powers. He couldn't understand why she wasn't dissolving in the Spirit Realm's air, toxic to heartless beings.
Karin clung closer to her bleached shadow, the hole through her head opening again as they both succumbed to agony. Black and pink hell butterflies were swarming, come in their droves from some other nowhere; the hateful white moth settling on her bone crown like a cursed hair ornament.
She coughed for air, clenching her fists and grinding her face into the dust as her back arched. In Shirojos form her blood dripped white down her ribs, but the gash shone red. Not a wound but a portal. Not a child but a chrysalis.
Something was emerging from the seam into Perdition, brittle scaled wings flecked in black and white and old blood and the vivid pink of the hell butterflies. They beat the air frantically, tossing up sandstorms as Naraku fought for escape from Hell. Shedding Tenebra like a second skin, an exoskeleton.
The zanpakuto spirit dragged itself free in a rattling of many black chains, they spilled out of Karin's spinal cord and burned where they touched her hierro skin, melting. Rather than attack the kami keeled sideways hissing and creeling. It tore the heavy shackles from itself, cracking bones just to be rid of them faster, and dense shadows wove around the lich, the half-there form of its reiatsu.
Finally the eldritch abomination began to laugh, a dry sound, the snapping of twigs and crunch of leaves its tongueless voice.
The last manacle rusted away, falling out of its skull with a quiet jangle.
Karin collapsed onto her stomach; hyperventilating. Her zanpakuto spirit continued to laugh at her, shaking just as hard with the rattle of dusty bones, also too spent to stand.
Naraku stretched out a claw to draw its prey closer by the shoulder.
Emitting steam as it healed by instant regeneration, the gouge down Karin's back gradually sealed shut. She retched, but there was nothing to come up; the girl hadn't needed food since entering Soul Society.
Now you have the fight you wanted.
The voice travelled directly into her mind. She was dropped to the damp sands, colourless waves washing over her, leaving salt to sting in the scratch down her spine.
Shrieking inhumanly, she struck out at her counterpart, biting down with serrated teeth. Naraku allowed it as if amused by the harmless chewing of a puppy.
"Don't be ungrateful, you tiny shit;" chided the hell moth. Its straggling dirty-pink hair swayed as it stared down at her. "I left no part of you in Hell. I wove a bridge from their rusted anchors to your soul. I cheated the kushanada. I slipped into the slivers between dimensions, as butterflies should. I freed myself!" hissed Naraku triumphantly.
Karin struggled to catch her breath, head spinning and the tunnel through it reforming back into a more human face. As the hole healed so too did all the lost lives rush back into it, swamping her.
"Are you one of the help?" she quavered to the nice young man who visited sometimes. Her grandson winced. "No, I'm…I'm…never mind."
Rubbing her forehead furiously with a sleeve of her Espada uniform, the Kurosaki groaned in wordless frustration. And finally she found the words.
"Naraku,"she commanded with loathing for the first time, chest heaving with exertion. Only one life knew that name, only one life dared deal with that reality. The rest huddled back, willing to be passive, fearing judgement.
The monster stopped short, quivering with hatred and excitement. Again its words echoed in her head. You! Dare use my name against me!
Hitsugaya pulled her back from Hell's exile, just as the kami lost patience and lashed out. "You can't fight it!"
"What the hell do you know?" fumed the little girl, batting him aside with ease. He hit the ground several yards away, and shook his head to clear it, yelling out: "We need to run!"
Yet they were no longer in Hell, and she no longer felt helpless. The utter disability of before had left a burning rage to strike back. Karin reached behind her back and her hand met the handle of a tanto dagger, sheathed horizontally behind her waist. She had already drawn and brandished it in tacit threat before it gradually registered what was in her hand. Everything else ground to a halt.
"…Wha?" Now she looked at her nightmare questioningly, derailed by the sudden generosity.
The true name of a kami is all you have to defend yourself with, Hyourinmaru hissed to Karin. It reminds us of our nature and our oaths. Our bonds are mutual, not master and slave. Call to her true self; if she is not kushanada nor togabito, she must answer.
Hordes of butterflies were still pinwheeling around them, a mass migration in exodus from Hell, following their monarch. The demon lashed out at the child, who shouted the name again like a magic charm.
Again the monster shuddered, clawing senkai rips and garganta into the air in frustration. "Zero, you know you are worthless! Do not test me!"
"I'm not Aizen's pet anymore!" shouted the former Espada, who couldn't muster any smarter argument. "My name is Kurosaki Karin, get it right!" I think, I hope my name is Kurosaki Karin…
The skeletal fallen angel clacked her fangs and snapped her wings open, a vast tapestry with uncertain portents inked across the faded white canvas. "Tenebra, your name means Shadow," snarled Naraku. "Like my shadow, never act without my permission. Otherwise I shall abandon you again to that fate you so narrowly escaped."
Exhausted, Karin clung to her goal with dogged determination. She had sunk too much into it to give up now. Adversity only made a Kurosaki kick harder. "…Naraku…please… I know you swore to kill Aizen. You swore it with my mouth, you tried to kill him with my hands! I'm not asking for anything you don't want? I'm begging you to help me!"
"See what favours he has done me now," sneered the she devil. "Who am I to condemn such kindness?"
And the great moth danced into the air, flickering in and out of sight with every whistling wing beat, a twisted skittering corkscrew in more directions than existed in just one dimension.
The entire swarm followed, blocking out the grey light as they chased their empress.
Silence rang out across the monochrome beach, broken only by the lapping of wavelets at the shore. Hitsugaya stared at her, eyes almost bulging out their sockets. He'd never seen a Hollow with such a flawless sense of self. He'd never dreamed of a zanpakuto spirit so savage, so selfish. He'd never conceived of anyone being able to escape Hell without the interference of a higher power. What was she? What on earth was the Hougyoku that had created such a mutation of nature?
They would have to keep this a secret from everybody. There was no possible way the Spirit King would turn a blind eye to a breach in Hell's defences. And if the kushanada or togabito learned of it…there would be hell to pay. Yet he knew such secrets would rely on Karin being sane and stable and worth lying for.
She slid the tanto back into its sheath with a quiet scrape and a click as it hit home. As her hand lifted away he saw the hilt continued the intricately carved white bone of the sheath seamlessly with no crossguard. He idly wondered if the bone was one of Naraku's.
"Karin…?" murmured the captain, drifting towards her. He felt like he was floating on disbelief.
She kicked them while they were down, stole the coinpurse while he was coughing up blood. Fucking nobles never knew they were born. She only wished she'd mugged him before he'd lost half his gold gambling.
"Che? Karin? Sono Lucia, porco cane! Eh? Matte yo, Toushiro desu ka? Shimatta!"
"What's wrong with you?" demanded Hitsugaya, shaking her out of a trance. "What happened to you in there? Do you need healing kido, I know some…?"
"God damn, Toushiro, I've never been gladder you have white hair and freaky eyes. It's like a wake-up call of where I am." She waved it off, falsely carefree. "It's not that, it's Okaa-chan's thing… Soul Awakening? God it sucks."
He remembered glimpses of Masaki suffering from the days of Isshin-taicho, having frequently tried to curb his captain's stalking habits and been dragged along for the ride. He said nothing, hands tightening on her shoulders in silent worry.
The little girl pushed him away, falling to her back in the sand and closing her eyes in search of peaceful blindness. Relaxing, because there was no more value in fighting fate. She wouldn't win. She was only endlessly relieved to be out of Hell.
"Before you pull an Ichi-nii and blame yourself for this…" she mumbled apathetically; "Naraku's other method of getting me here would have been much, much worse. You actually did me a favour."
Toushiro bit his lip in sympathy and slumped down beside her, wrapping the shaking child in a protective embrace. "The lesser of two evils still hurts."
"I don't know what to do…" she keened, eyes screwed tight shut, tiny fingers digging into his shoulder blades.
"The moment the war is over, I'll make it so none of this ever happened to you," promised the guardian of heaven, stroking her hair as the white veneer and the twisted mask remnant flaked away at his touch. He looked down, mystified. She had taken a normal colour again, donning humanity like a coat to be shrugged off at whim.
However, this time he could sense the fearsome energy sleeping in the short zanpakuto sheathed behind her hips. Sealed like the Resurrección of an arrancar, but never lost.
Shinigami Cup: Golden!
"Toushiro, let E.T. phone home? She nearly got trapped in eternal torture and all…"
"I don't even know if our phones work here and there's no time to-"
"Give it to me before I take it from you, short-ass."
There came a dialling tone.
"Yuzu?" asked Karin, voice hitching, clinging to the phone.
"K-Karin-chan?" returned a crackly, distant voice. "Karin-chan I was having a nightmare! I dreamt you were in...in..."
"I was. I'm sorry Yuzu. Please forgive me? I didn't mean to give you bad dreams."
There was silence on the other end. Then Yuzu exploded.
"KARIN-CHAN! YOU REALLY WENT TO HELL? ! HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID? WHY ON EARTH DID YOU TRY TO COPY ICHI-NII? IF I DECIDED TO GO OFF AND BE A SUPERHERO, THEN OUR WHOLE FAMILY WOULD BE DEAD! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?"
Kurosaki, possibly Shiba genetics always ranked 'arguments' above 'heartbreaking state of reality'. "Yuzu don't be thick, it's completely different if I was already dead."
"NO! IT'S NOT! AND WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT BOY? I THOUGHT HE WAS PROTECTING YOU!"
"Ho boy, Yuzu, Toushiro's really not as good at that as he claims to be-" mocked Karin at the same time as Hitsugaya yelled back at the phone;
"I AM protecting her!"
"I was going to let him date you and everything Karin-chan!"
"Seriously, both of you?" asked Karin, sweatdropping.
Hitsugaya went red. "I am going to guard you from Hell," he insisted. "I have a plan."
"A plan for the date?" piped up Yuzu.
"Shush, Yuzu, you don't even know the guy. What plan?" demanded Karin.
"We can either steal or legitimately borrow a powerful artifact called the King's Seal and use it to reverse time on you so you were never in Hell. Maybe never an Espada at all," declared Toushiro, smugly folding his arms. "I've used it before. Sort of. So there."
She was struck dumb. The thought of not spending the rest of her life bound to Naraku was like the sun coming up in her heart.
"He seems nice, Karin-chan. What does he look like?" chirped the phone hanging loosely from her hand.
Karin looked the captain up and down as if for the first time. "Oh he's pretty cute," she teased her sister with a catlike grin. "Got that anime thing going on."
"Anime?" echoed Toushiro, not knowing the word.
"You know, Yuzu, like an angry genius midget with anti-gravity white hair? And big green eyes and a sword that turns into a giant popsicle dragon. Hey Toush, you're running out of time to deny the dating thing."
"I didn't think I needed to deny something so patently untrue," he replied wide-eyed, a bit too wrong-footed to snap at the midget comment. But he certainly was going to stop hugging people if they leapt to such ridiculous conclusions all the time.
Karin brought the phone back up to her ear, swiping the tears off her face with a hiccuping laugh. "Yeah Yuzu-chan, think we both died before we got hormones, it might not work."
"But he sounds gorgeous and he's going to save you from Hell! You have to keep him Nee-chan!"
"You really need to figure out what's highly disturbing about that sentence, Yuzu;" came the wry advice.
"So will you be okay until we get the King's Seal?" asked Toushiro, throwing her a suspicious glance after she hung up and tossed the phone back to him.
The Kurosaki struck a superheroic pose, flames billowing behind her zealous stance. "Ossu! I am going to call upon the sacred power our father granted all his children, and REPRESS THAT CRAP TO HELL AND BACK!"
Jigoku-Chou is the Japanese for Hell Butterfly. Naraku is another word for Hell, specifically one of the Buddhist hells 'Naraka' where people are born and must stay until they rebalance their bad karma. Also, Inuyasha was my first anime. Haha.
This version of hell is based off the movie Bleach: The Hell Verse; so the kushanada (wardens), togabito (sinners), chains, different levels of hell, and the regeneration of anything that dies there are all canon. In the film Ichigo's Hollow is powerful enough to break Hell chains and also the Gates of Hell. HB is a little different, where the quality of being Hollow is what is dangerous to Hell and not just Ichigo's crazy raw power.
And the big theory is: humans began turning into Hollows to avoid Hell (no moral awareness = no sin). Over the aeons the original purpose of Hollowification was lost and it became a curse upon mankind rather than an escape route. Lesser of two evils is still pretty evil.
Now we know why Karin never dies properly – Naraku has been sending hell butterflies to guide and retrieve her throughout HB. This is because if Karin reincarnates she'll likely never again have the combination of shinigami/hollow powers Naraku needed for her jailbreak. Now she's out, maybe Karin's streak of luck is over. As for her friendly neighbourhood Hollow, now she has her mind back it doesn't really have the capacity to fight her. It would be like asking Wonderwice to do advanced calculus.
One of Karin's past lives is Italian, it says: Who? I'm Lucia! Pigdog!
And then: Wait up, it's Toushiro? Damn / so THAT happened!
The importance of zanpakuto names is pretty established – you can't summon them without the name, and the power of their attacks is increased when you use the correct title. This extends it a little so that the name is like a compulsion upon the sword spirit to cooperate.
Toushiro (briefly) having the King's Seal is from the Diamond Dust Rebellion movie. It has some kind of time/dimensional control power.
Finally, Barragan as a leper king. I like this theory because of the bell on top of his old throne, and his power to rot things. In some cultures lepers used to carry bells, either to warn people away or to beg for alms. There have been one or two kings with leprosy in real history, but Barragan is pre-history.
All hail Sage of Wind Dragons for being an awesome beta-reader! And for the last line above – repressing Isshin's annoying behaviour is definitely a holy power to the Kurosaki kids.
I have been working on this chapter for an extremely long time, I hope it was awesome.