She stood on the balcony of a red tower that grew out of the desert like a desolate tree. Or perhaps it was a bloodied giant's finger, stripped of skin by wind and sand. Featureless dunes rolled like waves on the sea. Could that just be the giant's flesh rippling? Alone atop this sole spire, she wore a pure white gown of superlative make. Uryū's design.

I'm dreaming, Orihime realized.

She also understood her previous assumption was false. She was not alone in this barren place.

Someone was out there.

They were standing a long ways off, on a dune so far that it was impossible to distinguish anything about them. Not even what sex they might be. But as she looked closer, Orihime saw that person raise their arms out towards her. And she knew what they were saying.

Come down.

She made no move to comply. Her nightgown blew in a breeze. But she felt nothing.

He beckoned her. In his voice and his words was a smile. Come down with me, Orihime.

It dawned on her who that was. The realization should have caused her heart to soar. And still she made no move from the balcony.

Jump.

Tears came to her eyes.

Jump down. I'll catch you.

She shook her head wildly, sending long orange locks flying. At no time in her life had Orihime ever been so afraid.

That's not him.

It's me.

No, it isn't.

It's me. Come down with me. Come down where I am. Jump and I'll catch you.

He made no move towards her. But his words were like a palm pressed flat against her back, pushing the barefooted girl against the balcony edge. Hard.

Jump.

Tears fell as she tried to resist a terrible impulse to throw herself to certain death.

Jump down!

A firm grip seized hold of her shoulders.

JUMP!

"ORIHIME!"

Hands pulled her away. Orihime spun about to find Tatsuki's panicked features right before her.

"Wake up, Orihime!"

She did. Inoue Orihime disappeared instantly.

Alone on the tower now, Tatsuki looked out across the desert to where the killer watched her still. Black blood streamed like ink down his white chin. She could see that much so horribly clear. He… no, it smacked its lips and ran its tongue tauntingly over them.

"Who are you?" she croaked against the fear rising in her throat.

In response, it leered up at her.

You don't know my name, Tatsuki?

She flinched to hear her own fall from those horrible lips. This revulsion only seemed to make it more excited. The white ghoul raised its arms out towards her now.

Jump…

"Eat shit," she rasped back.

Eyes ablaze, the nightmare out on the dunes howled.

Tatsuki Arisawa came awake screaming and thrashing in her bed. One flailing arm collided against something that popped like a balloon. There was a tiny noise, almost a wail, gone before her ears could even register it. She flung the blanket away, rolling off a bed that felt defiled. Landing on the cool floor only seemed to accentuate the feeling of alien violation coursing over her. Wildly the girl clawed at her skin, raking fingernails leaving long red marks across arms, legs and belly. Tatsuki tore her t-shirt and boxers apart in a frenzied effort to remove whatever stain that thing had left on her flesh.

She was wheezing and sweat-soaked, thoroughly revolted. When blood began to seep out and even that didn't seem like enough, the naked teen scrambled across the floor to her bathroom and threw herself into the shower, wrenching on the water. Without even waiting for it to warm up she sat shivering and hugging herself beneath the icy flow.

It was Ichigo. But it wasn't really him. Not the boy she knew. That bleached-white monster with the eyes of a Hollow only bore a terrifying resemblance to the moody youth she had known since childhood. And this freak had been in their dreams. Orihime and hers both. Or maybe I was just in hers? It wouldn't be the first such instance. If I hadn't been there this time, though…

The water was starting to heat up. It made the self-inflicted welts on her body sting. Still she made no move to tend to herself.

That bastard meant to kill her. Kill us both.

Tatsuki's head came up slowly. Her eyes were dangerous slits now, and her pulse throbbed the way it did right before a match. Any tears were the result of indescribable rage.

It's time I did something about this. I've avoided the problem long enough. But it would be stupid to try and talk to Ichigo directly. He'll just clam up like he always does about bad topics. His only strategy is to beat up the things responsible, so that you didn't have to worry about them anymore. More like he doesn't have to think about it. Arrogant ass. No, talking to the source of the problem was useless. Better to ask someone who actually understood this stuff.

And she knew just who that someone might be.


Nanao Ise sat atop a giant mushroom seemingly without a care in the world, sipping tea.

She placed her cup back on the saucer floating nearby and resumed leafing idly through the pages of a well-worn book. An enormous black sword was buried point-first in the lush red sward beside her. Daffodils and dandelions the size of elm trees rose on all sides, eclipsing the glowing blue sun in the yellow sky high overhead. A ladybug of proportions equivalent to a Volkswagen beetle alighted on a blade of grass. It bore a curiously cute skull mask whose jaws opened, allowing it to munch on its perch contentedly.

The sorceress paid none of these unusual happenings any mind. Thin, nimble fingers pushed a stray hank of hair back over one ear before moving to turn the page. She seemed absorbed in the contents of her reading material.

Behind her, Ichigo Kurosaki rose with a bloody rock clenched in his fist.

This event apparently was not worthy of Nanao's attention either. She just flipped a page without looking up.

Meanwhile her assailant seemed hesitant. When no cataclysmic incidents occurred, he seemingly reconsidered dashing her brains out with the rock. Hungry eyes flickered over to fasten upon the giant butcher knife sitting close by. He gazed imploringly at his purloined weapon, fingers itching to seize hold and regain what was taken from him. Brown eyes darted rapidly between Zangetsu and the shinigami engaged in her leisure activities. It was so temptingly close. He need only stretch out a hand to touch it…

To his surprise, Ichigo found himself doing just that. No, he remonstrated himself. Don't do it! Be strong, Ichigo. Be strong! But despite these admonishments he could only stare in morbid fascination as his rebellious digits inched ever closer to the zanpakutō's handle.

A crackling noose wrapped around his throat, causing his head to snap upright. At the same time, a slight weight settled on his back. He froze in an outstretched position.

"Nugh?" Ichigo managed to grunt.

The giant ladybug left off munching for a few seconds to observe the scene of a black-clad librarian lying on the back of the teenage boy as though he were a lawn chair. She looked very comfortable, though her face bore a severe frown. A rope of lightning was clenched in one fist, the other end serving to collar her disobedient student.

"What did I say about using weapons?" Nanao demanded crossly.

Her noose loosened a bit, allowing him to gasp back, "No using weapons."

"So what is that I spy clutched in your sweaty grip?"

"Uhh…" The bloodied rock dropped to the ground with a thunk. Too late.

"Is this a test of demon magic, or pugilistic savagery?"

The electric rope squeezed his windpipe again before he could speak, and Ichigo cursed to himself. His fingers were scarcely an inch away from retrieving Zangetsu. After that he could blow through this wacky wonderland with ease. Put himself on an equal footing with this demanding mistress of pain for a change. Instead of blundering along behind her, having to listen to her endlessly repeat…

"Failed."

Her weight disappeared from his spine along with the constrictive cord. Ichigo came about just in time to see his teacher settle adroitly on the ground before pivoting to regard him.

"Disorobu," Nanao incanted. The environment wavered before finally melting away altogether, leaving them standing in a psychedelic mass of colors. Kurosaki could have sworn the big ladybug waved goodbye at him before blinking out, as if to say, 'See you next time, loser!' No way to tell if that was just his imagination or another example of the lady's bizarre training methods. It was all a head game with Nanao. She wasn't trying to pump his spirit power or increase his speed like most of the training he had experienced in his tenure as a substitute shinigami. This was more like the internal conflict when first overcoming his inner Hollow. It required reserves of fortitude and self-realization far more draining than simply locking swords with an opponent.

Which was precisely what he needed. Unfortunately, rather like his Vaizard training, Ichigo had no idea what he was doing and found himself getting absolutely nowhere.

Demon magic is hard.

"Time for your punishment."

Ichigo flinched as he registered her declaration. A second later her finger reached out and flicked him on the forehead hard enough to sting for a bit and little more. That was it. Though it shamed him to admit, this was seriously the part that rankled him the most. Because it wasn't just himself getting the worst of it. He swore Nanao's own disappointment was palpable every time she hit him. Like his failure to get this stuff to work properly reflected poorly on her as well.

And he didn't like that. Nanao was cold and no-nonsense most of the time, but he had come to depend on her to an extent. No way to tell if she might feel the same. Maybe the fact that she hadn't given up on him in over five months of trying could serve as an indication. She was loyal to anything or anyone she set her mind to. That sort of determination inspired him, especially since it was clear he represented the most challenging teaching assignment Nanao had ever come across. She never belittled him, or even expressed exasperation with his minimal progress. Instead she recognized this was not something that was mastered in a day, a month, or even a year. It was rather nice to have that kind of teacher for a change.

Realizing this, he found himself saying something obvious. "Thank you."

Nanao paused in her dismantling of the environment. She turned back to him with fingers still glowing eerily. The light shone off her glasses in a distinctly unnerving fashion. She gave him an appraising glance, then tilted up her eyeware in a knowing fashion. "I'm glad to be of help."

Ichigo sat down and withdrew an energy bar from his pocket. There was nothing beneath him that he could see. Prior experience let him know the ground still existed even if he couldn't perceive it. He watched Nanao continue the reclamation process for a while. This underground training facility bore no resemblance to the place he remembered. Having achieved some of the most profound and useful accomplishments of his brief death god tenure in exactly similar environments, it had felt rather comforting to find himself in that bleak landscape once more. Like coming home to an old friend, even. Lots of pain, lots of memories. Still, it had worked out in the end.

His teacher did not share an appreciation for 'Death Valley', as she called it. Nanao took one look at the Vaizard's underground training hall and declared, "This won't do."

From then on, the barren rock and looming mesas he had come to associate with training were never seen again. Instead the former shinigami lieutenant instigated a series of 'renovations' designed to create a locale more suited for the development of demon magic. According to Nanao, monotony and sterility were death to those of magical temperament. Kidō required imagination, seeking out different responses to a wealth of conflicting choices.

Of course she used a literative analogy. According to Ise, physical combat was like a children's book. Few characters, simple plot, little need for creativity. You try to chop them. They try to chop you. One person left standing. Or bleeding. Apparently Tiger division had a game suspiciously along those lines. But that was beside the point. Now, demon magic was a twelve-book novel set: multiple storylines encompassing a host of primary and supporting characters who achieve a variety of setbacks and triumphs while experiencing a broad array of emotions that resolve in ways which can inflame or infuriate the reader. According to Rukia, their old friend Renji often wound up 'enflamed' from his efforts to make spells work. He had laughed when she told him that.

Ichigo was not laughing now. No. In fact, he had bribed Rukia outrageously with rabbit-themed gear to ensure she never breathed a word about his progress to Renji. A man had his pride, after all.

The point of all this was that the underground training room had experienced a facelift. Apparently the complex wasn't simply beneath the earth as he had always assumed, but axially misaligned to this dimensional strata to a minute degree. Nanao's words, not his. What that meant was this place had never truly existed as a part of the human realm, and had been crafted thanks to the efforts of the Vaizard under the guidance of Yoruichi and Urahara. It was actually a separate pocket dimension. Apparently that sort of thing was possible, but required a tremendous amount of power. And even then the results were pretty crude, unless you were dipping into reserves so vast you could afford to be creative. Which was probably why his old comrades hadn't felt the need to doll this place up after fashioning it in the first place. Why expend the energy if you were just going to blow it away in training?

Nanao saw a need. And she had whipped out some pretty esoteric shinigami lore regarding the structuring of unearthly realms. Probably ransacked from their Spirit Library before she vacated Soul Society. Apparently once the environment was started off, you didn't have to be a captain-level to influence control over its arrangement. Nanao referred to it as a cosmetic alteration, not affecting the underpinnings which settled this place. Basically she could manipulate their little schoolhouse like Play-Doh to take on whatever appearance was needed.

Never had Ichigo walked in here to find the environment looking the same way twice. The magical architect dipped into her own labyrinthine reading resources to present him with settings derived from history texts, medical journals, science fiction, and mythology. Once he had found himself reduced to gnat-size within the magnified intestines of an Indian elephant. Then there was the time Nanao dropped him into the Seige of Antioch. And who could forget his magical exploration of the underwater Ryūgū Kingdom? Wherever he went, there were puzzles requiring solving and Hollow enemies decked out in thematically appropriate illusions. Being attacked by a giant intestinal fluke was somehow even more unnerving than the Hollow he knew lurked under its skin. But according to his teacher, this was all part of the development process. It was kind of like a video game, really. He had to figure out the layout of his environment, what to rely on and how to best use his skills to his advantage.

For Nanao, the 'characters' in these stories she prepared were not Ichigo and his opponents, but more the spells he was expected to employ. After the necessary teaching preamble (which always involved slideshows for some reason), his hands-on practice would begin. He had been taught the basic applications that underlay each new spell. The incantations were memorized. It was like schoolwork. Homework. He could use any of the spells taught to him so far during the lessons. Provided he could remember them, or think of them in time. Shunpō remained an option, but the zanpakutō was off-limits. Which severely limited his power. But as had been drilled into his head of late, power was not the objective. Control and recognition of the options available; those were what he desired.

I need control. I need resources he can't manage. Because of what he is. Intellect and learning don't fly with him. He's just the sword, in the end. I need a set of skills he doesn't understand how to control. Because that's the first step towards breaking free. Separating myself from him.

I think.

"Why are you doing this, Ichigo-san?"

Broken out of his introspections, Ichigo looked up to find Nanao had ceased her efforts. She stood with her back turned to him, gazing at the flowing mass of colors that surrounded them like a surrealist painting. He almost began to doubt she had even spoken when the willowy shinigami shifted slightly. It was apparent by her stance that she was awaiting an answer.

A sense of real discomfort left him clasping and unclasping his hands unconsciously while struggling to find his voice. Asking what she meant might be considered yet another failure. Her motivations were difficult to fathom at the best of times. To be perfectly honest, Ichigo didn't know the first thing about Nanao Ise. Not really. Most of his information came from secondhand sources despite their living and working together in close proximity for several months. She was a kidō master, obviously. Before the Autumn War she had been Kyōraku Shunsui's lieutenant until the Eighth squad captain was stripped of his powers.

A short while after the craziness ended Nanao simply showed up out of the blue in the human realm. She and his father left the house for a while, and when they came back Isshin declared that the shinigami lady would be his kidō instructor from that point on. It was almost a relief. Their own training together hadn't been going swimmingly. Despite having admitted that he was once the captain for the reclusive Kidō Corps in Soul Society, Kurosaki Isshin did not come to teaching naturally. The two of them wound up shouting at each other more often than not.

One did not shout at Nanao Ise. It would not have been wise. And Ichigo had been raised to treat women better than that. Why she was really here had never been brought up. It didn't seem like Nanao was spying on him on behalf of Soul Society, which was his first inclination. He certainly didn't feel comfortable enough to come straight out and ask. People had their own reasons for doing things.

While he was struggling to come to grips with all this, Nanao turned her head to fix him with a glance. "Forgive me. Perhaps what I should have asked was… what do you hope to gain from demon magic?"

Oh, okay. That actually helps. What I want is…

Uhhh… wait. Did Nanao know about his inner Hollow problem? It had never come up before. Had Soul Society ever been briefed on that? Sure, the captains knew about it, which didn't necessarily mean they shared that particular bit of info with anybody else. And Dad never really made it clear what he told her.

Well, maybe the ol' tried and true response is needed here. "I… want to get stronger," Ichigo declared as confidently as he could.

Nanao still didn't move.

Ichigo took a nibble of his granola bar. He chewed and swallowed, waiting nervously for a response. Couldn't they get back to memorizing embarrassing cantrips now? It would almost be a relief to…

"That's not it."

He paused mid-bite, not liking the way this was going.

Nanao looked back then. Her face was stern in an almost accusing manner. Like she knew he was holding back on her. "It might have been more credible had you told me this was to achieve a more equal relationship with Rukia. So that she wouldn't tease you anymore. Or that you wanted to show up Captain Abarai. And I certainly wouldn't have doubted if you were looking to make yourself a more suitable candidate in the eyes of Lord-Commander Kuchiki. All of these are reasonable explanations."

All of these were uncomfortably personal insights, actually. Enough to leave him wondering just how much of his life she was aware of. That last one even saw Ichigo's face going pale as he tried to decipher just what such a comment was supposed to mean. And to make matters worse, Nanao wasn't done.

"But get stronger? This is real life, boy, not some once-a-week meet-a-deadline manga. Real people have real goals which tend to focus around other people in their lives. At least the ones who are actually making an effort, that is. They want to please a parent. They want to catch someone's attention. They want to denigrate a rival. Even rescue someone. And nobody tries as hard as you do in a vacuum. Which is why I also wouldn't have believed you had your response been that you wanted to defeat Aizen. Because he is no longer around to serve as an immediate threat. You're strong enough already to handle anything else. So what is it that you don't think you can beat in your current state?"

He fidgeted restlessly. "Look, is this really important? I mean, I'm here, I'm doing this. Isn't that enough?"

Nanao turned to face him head-on. "Clearly not, otherwise you would be making some progress. Instead all I see before me is a miserable failure."

There was a level of scorn in her voice he had never heard before, and that made Ichigo sit up straight. He felt his face surge hot with anger. "Hey, that's not…!"

Ichigo never got to complete that sentence.

From out of nowhere a huge white rabbit reared up behind Nanao and dove down towards her with bloodstained buck-toothed mouth wide.

She didn't run. Nor did she cast a spell, or even raise Zangetsu to defend herself. Instead Nanao simply looked at him while she was about to be decapitated, and her eyes seemed to say…

You just going to sit there, hero?

His zanpakutō was not at hand. For just an instant the memory of Fishbone-D charging at him while he stood weaponless so long ago returned, along with an image of Rukia flinging herself between them. Her instinct had been to defend. And his was to…

Weeks of training saw his arm whipping out, middle and index fingers extending. Ichigo heard his own voice almost unrecognizable with anger roaring, "BYAKURAI!"

The bolt of white energy that shot forth was a ragged, jagged serpent; nothing like the straight and clean beam he remembered emerging from Byakuya Kuchiki's manicured fingertips to effortlessly penetrate his shoulder. It arced near Nanao so close he felt certain it must have struck her. Instead the crackling energy curved over her shoulder and took the attacking Hollow right in its big buck teeth as though drawn by a lightning rod.

For just an instant its skull was surrounded by a nimbus of glowing particles. Then the whole thing burst, dissolving even as it did. Ichigo stared fixedly at the spot his enemy had previously occupied.

"Excellent."

Nanao stepped past him, brushing nimble fingers through the lank fall of hair that draped her brow. A pen was back in hand as she diligently wrote down on her pad. "A simple attack spell that could be utilized without full incantation. Small range so any chance of hitting the target was lessened, but also unlikely of damaging your ally. Very well done, Ichigo-san."

He still couldn't look away. Had all that really been a part of his decision-making? It felt as easy to him as swinging a shinai in kendō club. Might there actually be some progress showing through after six long months?

When he turned around it was to find her regarding him expectantly. Dazed, the bewildered youth found himself blurting out without his control, "I… have an inner Hollow."

Nanao threw him a penetrating look before giving a slow, deliberate nod. She did not speak.

This actually helped Ichigo to get out the rest. "Kisuke Urahara had my soul chain severed to try and reactivate my spiritual powers. But it took too long, and I nearly didn't make it. That's when the Hollow was born. It got stronger over time until finally it managed to take over for a while during my fight with Byakuya. I was so scared afterwards, and that's when the Vaizard got wind of me. They offered to train me. Things went pretty bad at first, just like here. But I managed to beat the Hollow. I thought I had it licked until Ulquiorra killed me in Hueco Mundo. The Hollow stepped up to keep us both alive. It's been laying low since then, but now it's trying something new. And I don't know what's left for me to do except… try to get my hands on skills it doesn't know, so that the next time it comes to take over I'll have a bigger back of tricks."

It was easier to talk than he had ever believed. Before he knew it the whole story was out. In truncated form, at least. He hadn't mentioned how the Hollow reacted to Rukia, or the way it had shown him an image of killing Nanao herself. Maybe those bits could just come out later.

Assuming there was a later. Assuming she didn't up and leave as a result of learning all this.

Nanao didn't respond at first. She looked pensive, with a fist pressed to her chin and brow furrowed in deep thought. "This might be precisely what you need in that case," she spoke in low tones. "The core of demon magic is controlling one's spirit; it's about mastering oneself to as fine a degree as possible. That sort of focus contradicts the mania of Hollows. They lack restraint. Calm, controlled choice from a library of spells goes against their very nature."

He listened while moving to collect Zangetsu. The blade did not speak to him when he took hold. Still, it made him feel good to have his soul cutter back. He hefted the great weapon up before him, examining its outlines and thinking about what she had said. "So what would you estimate my odds of winning are?"

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nanao look away. That told him everything he needed before she even spoke. "Inner Hollows have occurred in the past. As you can imagine, the result was never pretty. There are no recorded cases of anyone succeeding in… removing the infestation. I don't know how to advise you."

The delicate-seeming woman then swiveled back to him. "But I do know how to train you. And if anyone could manage to find a viable solution for winning, it's you, Ichigo-san. You have a knack for coming out against impossible odds. So I will continue to aid you until a solution can be found. And I hope to see you standing as proud as you do right now."

His reflection in the blade glared back reproachfully. "That would be something."

She drew closer to assure him. "You have every reason to be proud of yourself."

"Yeah?"

He spun and grabbed her wrist, bringing a startled Nanao back around to face him.

They stared at one another. Like this, he could clearly perceive the streaks of blood on her cheek she had tried to wipe away.

"Dammit," Ichigo growled. "I hit you. My spell hit you and you healed it so I wouldn't see."

Nanao pulled away from him. "It could have been worse," she declared. Her tone made it seem as if she dared him to dispute this claim. Their gazes remained locked together in a duel. "You still have a lot to learn."

"Like not hitting the instructor?" he groused half-jokingly.

One eyebrow rose in mild reproof. "That would be preferable." She beckoned off to the side. With Nanao in the lead they started to walk together towards the exit. "Captain Abarai blew off one of his teacher's ears during his training."

Ichigo looked at her askance. "Seriously?"

"Oh, yes. And that's not the worst of it. You should have seen the mess that resulted from trying to teach Lieutenant Kusajishi kidō. The beds of the Fourth Division were crammed to capacity for nearly a week."

His footsteps slowed as an image popped into his head: a panicked mob fleeing from the little pink-haired cherub as she skipped joyously down a street while shooting lightning and fire in all directions. A snort of laughter blew from his nose. "That bad, huh?"

"No, she was phenomenal," Nanao threw over her shoulder. "She just enjoyed it too much."

His magic tutor sauntered off, leaving Ichigo puzzling over whether the Dragon Lady had just told a joke or not.


Ganju Shiba rolled off his pallet with a groan. In the dark he rose and shambled across the tiny room that had been his home for the past month. A digital clock sent a magnified red image of the current time across his ceiling. It was now 5:45 in the morning. Most residents of this city would still be slumbering peacefully abed. Some people might consider being required to rise at such an ungodly hour as unfit work conditions.

Clearly those people were unused to being woken at half past 3 by a foot colliding with your ribs.

Ganju envied those people. Lucky stiffs.

Speaking of lucky, this new gig of his was a sweet deal. When his older sister had called Ganju into her chamber to inform him of his unplanned expedition to the human world, at first he suspected a trap. Since when did Nee-san assign him vacations? Because clearly that was what this sounded like. His suspicions leaned toward yet another horrific omiai, an arranged date with a 'suitable candidate' for the first son of the Shiba clan. The last such disaster had left him wishing he had been born a commoner. Such treasonous thoughts might have earned him a cruel reprimand simply for thinking them. Kukaku sometimes seemed capable of reading his mind.

His new boss was a saint by comparison. Kuchiki Rukia actually accorded him respect as her employee. Why couldn't he have had a sister like her? Outside of the hours spent as an employee of the Usagi Shoten, he had virtually no supervision. Considering his existence as a spiritual being residing undercover in an alien environment, one might believe there would be little in the way of recreation. Not like he had a lot of friends here willing to pal around and kick back.

But really, what did that matter now? Here he could expect a minimum of privacy in his own quarters. Here a man could pick his nose to his heart's content without worrying about getting a beating and a lecture about decorum. Here a man could ogle as many of the nudie magazines that seemed to abound in this plane as he could afford and not be slapped silly. Here a man could leave his dirty clothes lying around without worrying about coming home to find them burning in a pile on the front lawn. Here a man could live. Without the ever-present fear of an unpredictable and violent sister delivering merciless thrashings under the guise of training.

Here, on Earth, Ganju had finally found heaven.

As he opened the door to stumble down the hallway, Ganju passed a bleary-eyed Kon on his way out of the bathroom. The two of them exchanged identical grunts of greeting, it still being far too early to engage in anything resembling civilized conversation. The last son of the Shiba then proceeded to occupy the wash closet until he was fit for duty. A quick change of clothes, some last-minute trimming of nose hairs (in case any suitable ladies stopped by, you never know), and ten minutes later saw him downstairs helping the mod soul open up shop.

Ganju flung open the front door. He inhaled deeply of the fresh morning air.

What felt like an elbow took him right in the gut. The next thing he knew, he was on his knees wheezing and gasping painfully.

"'Bout damn time you opened up!" Tatsuki groused as she strode by her crumpled victim. "I've been waiting out there for almost half an hour!"

Yup. Feels like home to me.

Arisawa spared him not a glance, passing the shelves stocked with all manner of trinkets and foodstuffs, pausing only long enough to remove her running shoes before stepping up onto the area behind the shop proper. Now where to start?

"Hey, Tatsuki-chan!"

Kon came hopping down the hall toward her tugging on a t-shirt. He seemed to be having a hard time finding the hole for his head, and this allowed her to get a good look at the almost painfully perfect physique some shortsighted god had seen fit to bestow on him. Tatsuki inspected those washboard abs with a grudging admiration. It actually made his perversions a little more bearable for some reason. Did that make her shallow?

The show ended when he finally pulled his head through and came to a stop before her. "What brings you by? Out for a run?" He indicated the jogging suit she had on.

"No." The girl stood stock-still regarding him. Something in her face must have told him a bit about what was going on. Feeling uncomfortably naked for some reason, Tatsuki added, "I've been up for a while. Jogging seemed a good way to kill time. I was waiting for you guys to wake up." She shifted restlessly, not liking the way he was looking at her now. "I need to talk to Rukia."

"Oh. Uh, well… sure." He seemed about to turn away, then hesitated. "Are you okay?"

I'm angry enough to kill somebody, actually.

To her relief right at that moment a tiny dark-haired head peeked around Kon's long legs. Ururu Tsumugiya regarded her with half-closed eyes, rubbing the back of one hand against them. The child did not speak, only glanced up at Kon questioningly.

"S'okay, Tatsuki's just paying us a visit. No reason to get uptight." The mod soul patted his tiny coworker's head a little warily, like she was a cat that might claw him without warning.

Ururu turned back to watching Tatsuki. Her sad little eyes blinked and ducked towards the floor. "You shouldn't hurt anyone while you're here," she whispered suddenly.

Her statement sent a chill up Tatsuki's spine. It seemed this child had picked up on her mood a lot more clearly than Kon. The realization served to dampen that nervous animosity she had been experiencing. Actually, being threatened like this was almost a relief. It left her feeling somewhat grateful.

"Thanks, Ururu-chan," she smiled tiredly. "I needed that."

Kon didn't seem to know what to make of this. It was Ururu who dropped a little curtsy, almost doll-like in her pajamas. "The mistress is giving lessons now. I'll let her know you're here."

"Lead the way." Tatsuki made it a declaration in spite of there having been no such invitation given. Ururu threw another glance at Kon, who hesitated before slowly nodding his head in permission. Without further ado the somber golem padded back down the hall with Arisawa following close behind.

After a minute spent traversing the darkened corridors they came to a door. No lights burned within. All the same, her guide rapped on the frame.

"Tenchou, you have a visitor. Miss Arisawa."

There was no response. At least, nothing audible. For a moment only a faint glow infused the paper screen before subsiding. This sort of thing might have raised a few eyebrows only a year ago. Now Tatsuki was finding herself grown more accustomed to the occult intruding upon her daily life. This, at least, could be categorized as friendly.

Ururu slid the portal open. "You can go inside," she murmured without meeting her eyes, looking very timid and small. The impression couldn't be farther from the truth. Karin had told her a few stories about what this seeming child could accomplish. It was nothing short of freaky. With a grunt of thanks, Tatsuki entered the chamber, which now glowed with a cheerful orange light coming from a single paper lamp on the floor. The door closed behind her.

As it did, Rukia Kuchiki looked up from the Go board across from her and smiled. "Welcome, Tatsuki-san."

"Hey. Sorry to pop in on you so early. I need to…"

"If you're gonna talk, make your move first, ba-san."

Tatsuki glanced up in surprise even as her hostess demurely lowered her own gaze to the board. Overhead, a brown-skinned boy merely chewed his thumbnail while swinging by his heels from a beam. Messy black hair waved back and forth, while gray eyes flicked restlessly from his relative back to the game.

"Rudeness won't improve your position, Noboru," Rukia chided without raising her head. "And come down from there. Greet our guest properly."

"Hmph." Moments later the kid dropped down to join them. He paced back and forth, arms crossed over his chest. It reminded her of a monkey at the zoo. "Morning," the kid threw offhandedly in her general direction.

His rudeness made her previous wrath experience a resurgence. Tatsuki hadn't known what to make of this obstreperous child since day one. Clearly he belonged to the same supernatural lifestyle that his guardian herself came from. The revelation that he was her cousin came as little surprise despite there being no family resemblance to speak of. She knew Rukia was adopted, as well as being royalty. Tatsuki had never met any of Rukia's family. Supposedly she had a brother, but beyond that the Kuchiki were unknown to her. They could all be brown-skinned Bohemians with no manners and bad attitudes. But she kind of doubted that. Nothing made any sense, but that hardly had anything to do with her purpose in being here.

She had apparently intruded upon a hard-fought game of Go. Judging by an amateur perspective, it appeared the brat had backed himself into a corner. But this game supposedly hinged upon long-term strategy. For all she knew the whole arrangement of black and white tiles hid a clever trap that would only become clear at the proper application of a single play. The whole thing was entirely too convoluted for her tastes. Give me a straightforward match and the feel of fists smacking any day.

"The game can wait." Rukia turned away while still on her knees to regard their guest. "Please have a seat, my friend. It's much too early for this to be a social visit. How can I help you?"

"You can tell me what's happening with Ichigo."

Maybe she was being rude just coming to the point like this. But dancing around the issue didn't suit her nature. And this was a matter of life and death unless she was seriously mistaken. Besides, Rukia hardly seemed offended. More like… pensive. Disturbed. Maybe frightened?

"Noboru," the young shopkeeper spoke. "Will you leave us for a moment?"

Her restless ward looked absurdly disappointed, so maybe his position in the game was more favorable than she had estimated. Like he was on the cusp of victory which her intrusion had abruptly delayed. Still he voiced no disapproval; merely moved in to give Rukia a quick hug before racing from the room.

There were times Tatsuki almost forgot that Rukia was a great deal older than her, much less not a mortal of flesh and blood. But even spirits obviously had their share of earthly virtues. Her relationship with Noboru served to make this abundantly clear. She was like an aunt to him in a way, a favorite aunt who had clearly been entrusted with the child's care. The fact that he looked only a few years her junior did nothing to make the relationship awkward. In fact, considering Rukia's tendency to keep distant from forming permanent relationships in this world, it was almost a relief to see her harboring uninhibited affection for someone. It made her seem more… human.

Of course, her relationship with a certain not-so-ordinary mortal was precisely the reason behind their meeting.

Once Noboru had left, Rukia wasted no time. "Before we begin, will you confide in me what brought this on?"

Tatsuki sat down across from her, feeling a little ridiculous in her jogging togs in front of the dignified young woman clad in her kimono. Yet even this was not enough to prevent her from continuing. She was nothing if not determined. "For the past few months, I've been having dreams. Really awful ones. And not just me. Orihime too, though she claims to not remember them. Maybe it's true, maybe she just doesn't want to remember. What counts is that in all of them there's this… creature that looks exactly like Ichigo. It never really does anything. Just follows us, always getting closer every time. And I don't think this is just a case of nerves or dreams. It's real. And getting stronger. So can you tell me what it is?"

"A Hollow."

Tatsuki blinked, surprised. She hadn't expected Rukia to be just as direct as her. But seeing the calm, almost fierce look on her hostess' face with hands clasped in her lap, it served to accentuate the difference between their ages again. And this reminded her about one more of Rukia's roles: that of a shinigami. A warrior, a fighter who faced monsters on a regular basis. It made karate matches seem absurdly immature by comparison.

Rukia's gaze was sharp now, seeming to spear her with its intensity. "There is a Hollow growing within Ichigo. It has been for nearly two years now. What I didn't know was that it had begun to influence the people around him. I am involved in these matters on a personal and professional level. So I take what you are telling me very seriously. As should you. Please tell me everything unusual that you can lay claim to knowing, no matter how small."

The words came spilling out with an intensity that bordered on obsession. Lately she had been thinking of little else, such that her schoolwork and matches had suffered. Only now would it become clear if that had all been to some good end. In no time at all Tatsuki had unburdened herself of a fear that had been slowly taking root in her mind for several months.

"You're taking this pretty well," she finally concluded. "Are you telling me that one of those things that feed on us is… growing inside of Ichigo?"

"Yes," Rukia nodded. She looked so infuriatingly calm. Like this was no big deal. Shouldn't she act at least a bit worried? I mean, Rukia and Ichigo were… well, they were dating, weren't they?

Weren't they?

"So… what are you going to do?"

Maybe she shouldn't have said it that way. It sounded accusing. Like Rukia had been slacking on the job. But Tatsuki's nerves were worn thin. Most people her age weren't required to deal with something of this nature. You should be able to go to someone when you were feeling threatened. Like law enforcement. And death gods were the spiritual police. Why shouldn't she turn to the local shinigami?

For a time Rukia stared at her. Or maybe through her. Like she wasn't even there. When she spoke next her voice sounded distant. "I would like to free him. But this is not any sort of regular Hollow. It's his Hollow, a reflection of his soul. It can't be purified in the regular fashion. Research is being done on this. But until a solution can be devised, we can only try to restrain the beast. And for a time I have been content to keep it with that. Only now, something new is happening." Her eyes flicked over to the door through which Noboru had left. "And I wonder if it is not connected to other matters."

"I mean what are we supposed to do?" Tatsuki demanded, not caring how she sounded. "Ghosts were bad enough, now it's dream ghosts. What should I tell Orihime the next time Freddy Krueger comes around snickering and trying to kill her? I mean have you been seeing this thing too when you sleep, or is it just us? Can we fight it, can we kill it? Would that hurt Ichigo? What… how are we supposed… to…?"

I'm trembling, Tatsuki realized. And I feel like I might start crying at any second. Crap! I shouldn't have to worry about being murdered in my sleep at my age… or any age for that matter! A year ago I thought I could protect myself if someone came after me, but that was just humans! Ichigo asked me to look after his sister, but who's going to look after me? And Orihime, too…

Seeing her so visibly distraught, Rukia reached over and squeezed the teen's hand. "I will protect you, Tatsuki-san. As will Ichigo, and Ishida, and…"

Of a sudden Rukia stopped. She glanced down, frowning. Tatsuki flinched as her grip closed more firmly.

"What?"

Rukia's callused fingers roamed across her skin. "There is something here," she murmured. "On your arm. I can feel it now. Like a fragment of a spell, or something unnatural. I can't get a good sense of it. The whole thing is so very faint."

She brought her other hand up and passed it over Tatsuki's forearm. Her fingers glowed a soft blue light. They left a trail in their wake, and something rose off the teen's skin into this turquoise plasma, like dust particles floating in a beam of sunlight. They coagulated together to form a sphere shape that reminded Tatsuki of a colony of microscopic organisms she had seen in science lab once. Rukia then crooked her wrist and an orange rectangle made of light emerged from the palm of her hand. She slipped her catch into it. The box sank back down into her, taking the spell fragments with it. Tatsuki remained entranced by this procedure. Even after all this time, magic was still pretty cool to watch.

Rukia stood up, and she followed suit. "You're welcome to stay while I confer with my colleagues. Can I offer you some breakfast while you wait? Ganju is quite adept at cooking, as it turns out."

"Nah, I think I'd better get home before anybody notices. Thanks, though, Rukia-san." She paused, feeling like more should be said. "Seriously… thank you. For listening, if nothing else. I feel better."

"You're welcome." Now it was Rukia who seemed to hesitate before speaking. "Tatsuki-san… about Ichigo…"

"Yeah, I know. We shouldn't tell him about this or he might start stressing out and brooding over it like usual." She stopped and stretched her arms overhead as high as she could, standing on tiptoe as she did. It felt good. Like a wealth of tension had dissipated sometime in the last five minutes.

"Actually, I believe he should know what is happening."

The young black-belt brought her arms down in surprise. "Really?"

"Forewarned is forearmed." Rukia led her from the room back towards the shop proper. "It wouldn't do for him to be caught unawares at a crucial moment. Now we can try to formulate a strategy to deal with this new menace."

Tatsuki snorted. "He'll just go tearing off to beat it up, watch and see. It's his fallback. The guy has the mindset of a juvenile delinquent to match his face."

"I happen to like that about him." Rukia cocked a grin back over her shoulder. "If nothing else, I feel mature by comparison."

That earned her a laugh, even if there was a sort of frantic edge to it. Tatsuki had to remind herself that her existence did not truly revolve around deadly peril and bloodthirsty monsters. Even Rukia had more than just that, and she was already dead, for pity's sake. I can certainly say as much while I'm still living. There was still plenty to enjoy in each day, and even look forward to. They had all their lives ahead of them. As long as they didn't lose sight of that, things might just turn out okay.

The two girls proceeded down the hall, chatting about normal everyday things now. When he was sure they were gone, Noboru Kouki dropped from his hiding place in the ceiling.

That conversation had been very enlightening. He knew something was up. And no matter what Aunt Rukia thought, he was not about to simply languish in this earthly shell while matters involving him were decided by Yoruichi or whoever was in charge. She had trained him to deal with any problems himself. It was his nature. True, his encounter with the Wild Hunt had not been what one might call a smashing success. Still, whoever had been behind that attack was still out there. They hadn't resurfaced since that opening move against him, but this might be their latest gambit. If so, he wasn't about to let them just disappear again.

He would follow this evil to its source and confirm for himself if it had anything to do with the attempt on his life. And judging by what he had just learned, he might have an ally unbeknownst even to themselves. Which meant he had better start keeping a close eye on the Arisawa girl in case things turned nasty.

At the very least, she had great legs, so his time wouldn't be completely wasted. Always look on the bright side, he thought with satisfaction. Best advice Mom ever gave him.


"… take the time to retract… sorry, reflect on how our country is changing. You, the next generation, have a very… um, rare op-p-portunity. So… make sure you don't waste your potential! Take pride in yourself, and let your actions reflect that ride… pride. A valorous spirit can overcome any obstacle. Like the changing seasons, as surely as the falling sakura blossoms do… herald… who wrote this, anyway? What? Council on Education? Pfft! Bunch of old fuddy-duddies. Are these really my glasses?"

As two teachers proceeded to argue in hushed voices with their distracted principal, a red head slumped against Michiru Ogawa's shoulder, snoring softly. Her back stiffened in suspense.

"Chizuru-chan!" she whispered anxiously. "You're dozing off again!"

No answer. Her attempts to covertly dislodge this burden met with as little success as usual. The small bob-haired girl turned a pleading look on the teenager sitting to the other side of Chizuru Honshō, but to no avail. Mahana Natsui's attention was riveted to the head of the gymnasium, although it seemed there might be the faintest trace of smugness to the smile on her lips. Like she was glad not to have to deal with the matter of Chizuru herself. Maybe it was just Michiru's imagination.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. Taking a slow, deep breath, she elbowed Chizuru firmly in the ribs.

"Mmph!" her sleepy schoolmate grumbled irritably and shook her head as she righted herself. "Sorry," the girl adjusted her glasses with a yawn. "I can't help it. His voice is putting me to sleep. This is the most boring… assembly… they've ever… he-ssnnnrrrxxx…"

The last sentence dissolved into a gentle burbling snore. The next thing she knew her clingy admirer had collapsed headfirst in Michiru's lap.

Embarrassment, thy name is Honshō.

It was bad enough when the outspoken lesbian casually offered to massage her breasts to help them grow, or suggested the two of them share a session in a photo kiosk together. There was no malice behind it. Unlike a lot of the girls at school, Chizuru was a pretty decent sort. She championed Michiru whenever her less savory classmates tried to target her for their cruel sport. Actually, Chizuru might have been one of her favorite people, were she not horny as hell and queer as toenails on a snake. Not bad, not really. Just… weird. Very, very weird.

"I just think the students should be enjoying themselves a little more than this! Are you sure these are my glasses? My grandson once switched mine out with his, and I thought I was going blind for three days! Let me tell you, it was a relief to find out I was wrong. Of course that was only after I ran over the neighbor's dog. Stupid thing finally stopped barking. Who just mentioned retirement?"

A few snickers sounded through the hall. She knew exactly what they were thinking, but the old man's blunder did nothing to improve her own position. Attempting to dislodge that sleeping deadweight met with no success. Michiru glanced down in exasperation. Well, if I can't get her off, at least don't let anybody notice anything.

As she was thinking this, something flew out of Chizuru's head.

Were she not so utterly embarrassed at this moment, Michiru might have screamed. Or jumped out of her skin. Even fainting dead away would have been a perfectly reasonable response to an occurrence like this. As it was she felt so red-faced humiliated at her current situation that she did none of these things. Only stared as the thing fluttered before her face.

It's a moth, she thought at first. There were wings. Like smoke or ash bound together. And a round body within which burned a small blue glow. The moth, or whatever it was, seemed to notice that it had become the target of someone's attention. With a certain jerky desperation it bobbed towards a window.

Michiru wasn't what one might call brave by any stretch of the imagination. It therefore came as quite a surprise when she found herself reaching up towards the winged entity as it tried to escape. Should I really be…? Before she could even complete that thought her small fingers cupped around the gray floater, trapping it in her palms like she used to do when catching fireflies.

Mahana was looking at her strangely now. For a moment it felt like a dream. Did I fall asleep? Am I imagining this?

Then a gentle tickling started in her palms, and the anxious teen let out a startled yelp.

Chizuru awoke and snapped upright, nearly colliding with Michiru's hands. Fortunately her arms swept high overhead on instinct. Unfortunately this position only served to draw even more attention to her. The normally unassuming girl found herself to be the focus of attention for practically everyone in the hall, from their senile principal on down.

"Young lady, are you trying to do the Wave? That reminds me, I haven't been to a Tigers game in ages! Anyone want to join me?"

The principal peered owlishly at her over his spectacles, and once more Michiru feared fainting on the spot. Chizuru and Mahana were staring at her as well. Eyes wide, almost ready to lapse into tears, with a supreme effort she managed to gasp out, "K… Kanonji!"

All confusion left her friends' faces. They glanced at one another, exchanging brief nods. Without warning Chizuru leapt to stand beside her. "Michiru-san, what's wrong? Oh, you poor thing! Are your stomach cramps coming back?" she proclaimed loudly.

What? Stomach cramps? Bewildered, Michiru stared at her.

"What's going on here?" a hostile voice demanded. Looking over she felt a fresh surge of dread when she saw the musculature phys-ed teacher Kagine striding towards them. His lips were pressed together in a grim frown and veins pulsed in his overdeveloped physique.

Mahana placed an arm around her shoulders comfortingly as the teacher came to confront them. "Sorry, sir. She's been feeling ill lately. I think we should take her home."

"That's not for you to decide," the bulky jock declared authoritatively. "If she's not feeling well, I'll escort her to the nurse's office. There's no need for you two to leave the auditorium as well." His meaty hand flicked out in dismissal of the pair while hostile beady eyes fixated on Michiru, causing actual stomach pains to blossom in her midsection. Everyone trying to help her out was only making things more awful.

"OH! Let me, I'll take her!"

As if on cue, Misato Ochi came bounding forth. Michiru fervently prayed for some passing deity to turn her into a caterpillar without avail as their own homeroom teacher drew up beside them. The woman looked positively puny compared to the bulky Kagine, but she interposed herself between him and her students with indefatigable confidence all the same.

"Me, I'll take care of it! Outside of gym class they're my responsibility anyway, Kagi-chin. So don't worry about anything!" The skinny woman then thrust a thumbs-up in the big man's face while flashing a joyous smile. There might as well have been a banner over her head reading, 'Leave it to Ochi!'

It would seem his fellow educator's determination did not impress Kagine, however. He crossed his arms over pecs like seat cushions and glowered down his nose at her. "Ochi-sensei, you shouldn't let three students skip out on assembly over one girl's stomachache! Not to overstep my bounds, but I cannot condone such a serious breach of protocol as…!"

"I'll go with them."

Everyone now turned their heads as a tall, willowy girl stood up a few rows down. Kunieda Ryō snapped shut the small book she held and surveyed the proceedings with a bland sort of condemnation, as if their tomfoolery had interrupted some very important reading.

"Would that be all right?"

The deadpan track star asked the question like she didn't care one way or another what the answer might be. For a few moments everything in the gymnasium was silent.

Then Kagine gave a short harrumph through his nostrils. "Well… if Ryō tags along, I suppose there shouldn't be any cause for concern." He glanced at the other three girls. "You can go."

Without a moment of hesitation Mahana and Chizuru hoisted Michiru between them and proceeded to carry the tiny waif down the aisle with both hands still clasped before her. Almost like they were police officers and she a collared criminal in cuffs. Good thing too, because she had been about to demand if Kagine was out of his flipping mind! Three students leaving was a 'serious breach of protocol', but make Kunieda the fourth and suddenly everything's hunky-dory? The teachers always did that. Deferring to their star pupil. It was like a rule.

"All right everyone, the matter's been resolved," the principal bellowed unnecessarily loud into his microphone. "Nothing to worry about, Ryō is taking care of it. Everyone back to your seats and we'll perform attendance… what? When? Was I here for that?"

Seriously, did Ryō secretly run this school or something?

The girl in question fell into step behind them, while Ochi-sensei quickly slid into the lead. "Where are Tatsuki and Inoue?" the chipper educator demanded. "And the boys. They should come too. Never mind, they couldn't all fit in my car anyway. I'll shoot them a text to come by later. And mustn't forget Karin-chan or her guardian."

She was muttering to herself while tapping furiously with her thumbs on a smart phone. Sensei certainly didn't seem concerned by all the odd looks they were getting. Not to mention completely uninterested in what had prompted this episode to begin with. Not so the person responsible for their abrupt dismissal. Michiru felt every eye on her, such that she wanted to just crawl into bed and forget this day ever happened. Wasn't anybody even going to ask her what this was about?

While she thought this, the source of her troubles jumped and twitched between her palms, exactly like a captured moth. It made a tiny crying noise, however, which confirmed what she had initially suspected. This was something supernatural. Maybe even dangerous. And in situations like this, you turned to the people who knew that area best. I just hope they're taking me to Rukia's place and not…

"There, that's taken care of." Misato Ochi finished typing and pocketed the device as the doors to the auditorium closed behind them. She cast a look back at her followers and beamed like they were a merry troupe off to engage in good wholesome fun. "Now then, everyone out to the parking lot. We're having a meeting at my place!"

The teacher then swept out an arm to point triumphantly ahead and proclaim, "Meeting at my place, boys and girls!" before resuming her unscheduled jaunt.

No one questioned her decision. Maybe this is what being in a gang feels like, Michiru pondered glumly. Arguing wouldn't work when Sensei got this way. She was like a cruise missile. No deterring her. All you could do was hang on and hope the devastation wasn't too bad.

Now reduced to little more than a living insect jar, the girl allowed herself to be carried away.


Gin?

Yo!

I think we've got a problem.

Like what?

One of my spells just became active.

That's three in two days. They must be getting braver. Or more desperate. Good news for us either way.

No, not good news! Something's wrong about this one! It hasn't joined the rest of the collective yet. It's been almost half an hour already, and it's still not showing up on my display.

It wasn't destroyed, like the one last night?

Give me a little credit… Gin… I think somebody caught the Harvester. And if they know who it came out of, they might start to look at the others too. That could ruin everything.

Maybe not. Three guesses as to who got a hold of the critter. And if our slaphappy friends poke their big noses in, then the mess blows up in their faces, not ours. We're not to blame.

But we still don't know who's behind the Harvesters. There hasn't been enough of the aggregated spells to give us a fix! At the rate we're going, it would take at least another week! I told you we should have made the tracking stronger.

Any stronger and they might have noticed.

Whatever. I'm getting to the bottom of this.

Don't stick your neck out, Rangiku. I mean it. If one of those bastards takes a shot at you like Nanao did, I'm going to kill them this time. I don't care who it is.

But I might. So keep a low profile, lover. If Soul Society does get wind of me, I'll just find a way to lead them right to the real enemy's door. Watch and see.

Will I need to put a leash on you from now on?

Hey… that's not a bad idea! Thanks, Moonbeam! Bye now!

RANGI-!


'We are all trapped down here. Starving. Like rats.'

In the small cave she had reserved for her private use, Lagrima dipped the polished sliver of bone she used for a pen into the inkwell on her stone table. A tiny blue flame hovering over her shoulder shed the faintest of light, enough to see the yellowed pages of skin in the tome. The letters danced as the lamp flickered. Like insects working over the paper. She would have eaten them if that were true.

Devotion, duty, conviction. I must be strong.

'Reading used to fill something in me. His Holiness permitted it, since it gave me more stories to tell Him. I changed things that would have met with His displeasure, of course. I know much of human history as a result.

Once, half a century past, fighters from the nation of Japan were ordered to defend an island. To the death, as it were. With no food or water, they hid in caves much like the ones we inhabit now. For months they remained trapped there. Slowly perishing from hunger.

I remember. Their souls were rich with despair when we ate them. It taught me much. I never imagined I would find myself in the same predicament, though. Yet here I am. This world, which had been our home, our refuge, has now become our cage. In more ways than one.'

She began to write again. Her private thoughts. 'Stories guided me to my master. Ancient myths that whispered to me of His existence. I was adjuchas, and strong, so I let myself be drawn by the legends. To the dead zone of Hueco Mundo. When after years of searching I finally came before Him, the legends brought to life, I knew at last I had found God. His Holiness raised me up into His army, and I served in whatever capacity and whatever submission He required of me. There was no need to question my existence from then on. He made us more than the beasts we had been. We were soldiers. Generals. Executioners. Pillars of His order. We were His angelic host.

Until the Jackal came.

That is how His Holiness referred to the infernal shinigami, when He spoke to us beyond the hearing of the sycophants who draped themselves around that pretender. He told us we would eventually rise up, and He would tear the Jackal's throat out with His own fingers. Late at night He used to tell me about His plans. How He would whip the fallen Jackal naked across the dunes, listening to him whimper and beg. When He tired of his sport, He would cut off his ears and gouge out his eyes with His thumbs, then leave his corpse there in the desert to be eaten by the Hunt.

I believed Him when He told us that. And I did not permit myself to doubt that glorious day would happen. Perhaps I would not be alive to see it. When the Jackal's damnable Hyena made me break and betray my king, I realized that my strength would not be worthy of helping our God regain His throne. Yet still I resolved to be of whatever good I might be as a result. I was never able to admit it to Him. Too ashamed of my failure. There was no need anyway. He knew. I could see in the way He looked at me. At all of us, really. We were once his most valued servants, but no longer. I only resolved to obey Him should He ever call upon me. He knows my failings. How could He not? He is our God.

So why, then, am I afraid?'

She dipped the sharpened pick into the cup of blood and continued.

'Perhaps it is because I have been asked to shepherd this humbled army when I know that I am unworthy. They mean nothing to me. If the matter were left to my decision, I would abandon them. And if they could, they would waylay me in some dark tunnel and rip me to pieces. I can feel it when I pass by. The threat of Berrinholtz keeps the more dangerous ones from rebelling, but that sort of thing only goes so far. And he is not to be trusted more than any other Hollow. The Sombras allow us to remain hidden, but how long can this last? How long until something goes wrong?

Mighty Barragan, why do You ask this of me, when I have already transgressed against You? Is this a sign of Your favor? Do You grant me an opportunity to atone for my sin against You? If I could only hear You speak my name like You used to, even once more, or feel Your hand upon me, I would…'

"Lagrima."

A shadow fell across her door, and she looked up. From the darkness a face peered out from its broken mask. "We got another one," the Hollow informed her.

Duty called. Rising, Lagrima snuffed out the light and took her leave of that place. Outside, she passed Berrinholtz standing guard. As she slipped down the corridor he fell into step behind her, his massive body like a wall filling this corridor.

The unmasked Hollow, whose name she did not deign to recall, trailed in their wake. Unlike Lagrima, this one had been touched by the mark of the Jackal. In His Holiness' day, a Hollow who dared to become arrancar was considered pariah and dealt with accordingly. Now Hueco Mundo was fairly infested with their lot. During the Jackal's reign, even their God had been defiled in such a way, forced to wear a face and form reserved for their natural prey.

Lagrima was one of those who retained her purity, at least outwardly. As an adjuchas she was uncommonly tall and thin but still formed along the lines of a human. The Hollow hole proudly displayed in her midsection served to set her apart from such vermin. Her hair was white silk that grew from beneath the unadorned mask she still sported with a trace of pride. This bone helm possessed no facial features save for a pair of eye holes. A line of beauty marks trailed up its middle. A small harp made of bone was slung across her back. She wore a simple gray slip that left her arms bare, with a silver chain wound around. That had been the sign of her servitude. As a female, His Holiness did not wish her flesh to be marred by a brand as with His other warriors. She was more pleasing to Him that way.

Bare feet ghosted over stone that had been polished by the tread of her brethren. As she passed, two Hollows charged with sweeping the corridors made way for her. Lagrima noted with distaste the small pile of sand they had collected. The granules seemed to make their way in here no matter how far from the entrance they might be. Only a short distance over their heads, separated by a roof of stone, the great desert of Hueco Mundo shifted sluggishly in eternal dreaming. Sand slipped from the ceiling in thin streams that could not be allowed to collect. Where His Holiness walked now there must be no trace of the dry stuff, for His benefit. She was nothing if not considerate of His needs.

The wide corridor ended at a great cavern gouged from the bedrock. Though darkness accompanied them practically everywhere underground, here a faint light was permitted to be kindled. Small groups of Hollows huddled together, discussing among themselves. They eyed her intently when she emerged from the shaft. Lagrima could feel the hate in their stares. The blame for their being entombed down here was hers to bear when the master was not present. She made an easy target to their hunger-maddened minds.

When Berrinholtz lumbered out of the corridor, though, the packs hastily dispersed to the nearest exits. Though the boreholes were wide and high in deference to His Holiness, it sometimes seemed as if even this was not to accommodate Berrinholtz. A Huge Hollow before becoming adjuchas, hehad not lost much size from the transformation. His snout was a bear's skull missing its lower jaw, with high pointed ears and black sockets that gaped threateningly at everything within vision. Aquamarine stripes painted his frame as well as his claws. The midsection of his body resembled a black sphere which held that colossal form together. Otherwise he was armored like a crab. Small spikes protruded in rows all around the outer shell, and his paws were more like oversized pistons tipped with long curved claws. The same was true for his feet. Berrinholtz projected an aura of brutal power that was only emphasized by a marked silence. He communicated in brief grunts and snarls, a fitting testimony to his bestial nature. Rumors to the effect of him having been one of the potential Espada were not taken lightly.

Their path took them out of the meeting chamber and wound through this underground ant colony for several minutes. The layout of the terrain was something Lagrima had memorized long before. She needed no light to guide her. A faint clacking grew louder with every step. When they finally came to their destination, the source of that noise was obvious. At this intersection of several tunnels countless dream catchers hung from the ceiling, their frames made from the dead wood of Hueco Mundo. The latticework comprising their inner webs was actually Lagrima's hair wound into webs. Her assured steps took her to the place where the only glow in this dismal underworld could be found.

As she approached a plaintive whimpering reached her ears. Snared in one of the dream catchers was a tiny winged creature that looked to be comprised of smoke. A blue light sparkled at its center. These sendings were the only things permitted to enter or leave the catacombs. Reaching up, the Hollow leader retrieved her catch. She knelt before a porcelain chalice placed on the floor before proceeding to crush the imp overhead. It popped with a muffled whimper, allowing its bounty to flow out between her fingers in a thin blue liquid. There was precious little of this substance, and so Lagrima exercised great care that none of it should go to waste. She used the bone pen from before to scrape every last drop off her fingers. When this was complete, the ghostly maiden picked up the cup and rose to proceed unerringly down another mineshaft.

Several minutes later their journey ended in a long room that looked like a crypt. She knew what would be found here without having to see it. Twice as wide as the regular tunnels, this one was lined with sarcophagi in which were displayed the lingering remnants of Mighty Barragan's conquests. A shattered mask here, a broken sword spirit there, a reliquary of bones carved with the mark of the archers; the room was a trophy house of the dead and fallen. In the wall at the very back of this ossuary stood a pair of tall black candle stands. The tallow candles within them were black as pitch, in contrast to the tiny white cinders which throbbed atop their wicks. These paltry specks served to generate just enough light to make out the sepulcher housed between them.

On that polished recess there lay what appeared to be a corpse covered in a funeral shroud. It did not stir at their approach. This meant nothing. Having repeated this procedure dozens of times now, Lagrima knelt and held aloft the cup. She murmured a brief prayer, then brought it to the dead lips covered by cloth and poured the ichor down.

When the dish was empty, a faint sigh echoed through that chamber, whispering all around them like a restless breeze seeking release. It stirred the dusty remains with the force of a dying man's last breath.

From that dry throat, a single word croaked out with painful effort.

More, it whispered, so faint as to be naught but an echo.

Lagrima rose. "Soon," she promised it. "Do not strain yourself. I must speak with His Holiness."

The viceroy of the Hollow nation turned her back on that pitiful figure. She refused to admit how the sight of it filled her with dread. It showed just how far their species had fallen. Lagrima hated coming here, but no one else could be trusted with this duty. One that held a strange sort of hope even as it taunted her with the reality of their situation. As she stole away, the adjuchas cursed herself. That blasted form stretched out on its deathbed should by all rights be allowed to die. But their king commanded otherwise. Now she must report on her progress to Him.

When they came to a stone door with a great skull emblazoned upon it Lagrima slipped inside without bothering to look at her companions. Berrinholtz had already taken up his position before the portal as she swung it shut, becoming an impassable obstacle in the process.

Lagrima now picked her way across the largest cavern in this underground colony. The entire sum of her forces could have fit into this room with ease. Sometimes they did, to pay their respects. There was nothing to be seen here save for several sconces of blue flame that glowed along the walls.

At the center of this chamber lay their only means of holy communion with God.

Any uninitiated would see nothing special at all; merely a pit dug into the floor and lined with bone. The depths of this crater could not be guessed, filled as it was with a dark red opaque substance that could only be blood. The pool of crimson fluid lay in perfect stillness. Not even a ripple disturbed its tranquility. As she approached, Lagrima unslung her harp. Upon reaching the basin's edge she knelt and proceeded to pluck a single string. The note echoed sweetly in the confines of this room.

In response, the tide of blood frothed and churned, until from its center there arose a sight of unspeakable majesty. A gigantic human skull the size of a boulder emerged, sporting a crown and held aloft by one titanic bony arm. This ghastly apparition was composed entirely of blood made solid by the dread power of the being who now turned his living eyes upon her.

Blood poured down his effigy as Barragan Luisenbarn, King of Hueco Mundo, addressed his servant. "Speak, then."

Only an image, then. Apparently he would not be joining them today. Striving to hide her regret Lagrima hastened to obey. "My Lord, our outpost remains undisturbed. Several new additions to our ranks have been welcomed, and Your army continues to grow. The enemy remains based in the remains of Las Noches, where we have them under surveillance. As per Your wish, we have accelerated our retrieval of effluvia, and his condition continues to improve with every passing day. There is no indication that we have been discovered. Our endeavors have drawn no attention at this time. They are too busy searching for whatever pockets of rebels have managed to remain loose."

"You continue to please Us, little one," the vasto lorde rasped, blood sliding through his teeth. "We are aware of the perilous situation you find yourself in. It is a testament to your valor that you have contrived to succeed in your mission up to this point."

She bowed humbly in acknowledgement of this praise. "It is nothing, Lord. I live or die at Your behest. Ask of me anything and it shall be done."

Inwardly Lagrima hoped for some kernel of information as to how long she might be expected to labor under this responsibility. Or even a hint as to when their master would rejoin them fully as he had promised so often before. More could not be hoped for. But to request such reassurances would be a sign that her faith was weakening. He must not be given proof of how truly fragile she felt.

"And what of the renegade?"

A moment's hesitation only before proceeding. "There has been no contact with Grimmjow Jeaguerjaques. He continues to elude our efforts at capture. We lost communication with one of our hunting parties two days past, after my previous report. I instructed the remainder to converge upon their last known location, but they have reported nothing back."

The looming skull rose a little higher on its perch. "In this you have failed Us? To have one who was openly loyal to Our enemy roaming with impunity about Our lands is an affront to Our order! The errant former Sexta must be brought to bay, his strength yoked and added to your ranks. In this We will tolerate no failure! Unleash the Hunt if you must, but see to his retrieval!"

This touched upon another point of contention, one Lagrima was far more willing to broach. "Mighty Barragan," she spoke softly, raising herself just a bit off the ground. "I am loath to rely upon the half-breed. Whatever its state now, it was still once a shinigami. Our natural enemy! How can we trust such a one to shepherd the Wild Hunt? Surely a more worthy hand could be found to oversee your greatest weapon."

The giant head stared at her in silence for a while. In this deathly stillness she recognized could very well be her last few moments of existence. His Holiness had killed for far less serious affront than questioning his commands.

Then the bloody dullahan slowly began to sink back into the scarlet froth from which it sprang. When those unblinking eyes reached the surface of the pool, his voice emerged, seemingly without need to speak.

"Do not come before Us again without word of success. It will not go well for you."

"It shall be done, sire," she gasped back, feeling like a fist was squeezing the words from her throat. Lagrima watched her lord and master disappear back into his fount. Both hands were shaking as she draped the harp over her shoulder. Death seemed to loom overhead no matter where she went. The only question was whose hand would be the one to deal it.

When she stepped out of the sanctum, her eye fell upon the lowly arrancar from before still lurking outside. Might as well put this little lurker to good use. "You, Tezima," she crooked a finger, remembering the name at last. "Come here."

The maimed Hollow stole over to crouch in readiness before her. "Yes?"

"Contact all hunting parties at once," she declared in a coldly imperious manner. "Tell them they are to abandon any and all cover. Their top priority is the apprehension of Jeaguerjaques. No matter the cost, he is to be brought before me. Is that understood?"

"It shall be done."

It nettled her to hear the very words she had recently spoken being parroted back. Before she could think to question Tezima, the little sneak sped swiftly down the darkened halls.

Feeling more troubled than ever, Lagrima took her leave of that place. Berrinholtz trailed behind like a shadow of pain still to come. Would he be the one to execute her should His Holiness order it?

Devotion, duty, conviction.

They would be the death of her.


"C'mon, Michiru, spread 'em, gimme a peak!"

"I can't let you see it, Chizuru-chan! Please stop asking me!"

Sounds like business as usual, Tatsuki thought darkly as she slipped off her shoes in the foyer. Now given a valid excuse to dish out some pain, she rolled her neck to ease any kinks before declaring, "I'm gonna break something permanent this time if she doesn't lay off."

"Oh, don't worry, Tatsuki-chan," Orihime smiled while removing her own footwear. "Now that we're here I'm sure Chizuru will be all over me, so Michiru can finally get a break!"

"Imagine my relief," the spiky-haired fighter offered with all the cynicism of her years. Both friends then made their way down the hall until they came upon the living room, site of today's meeting.

"Hello, girls!" Ochi Misato called out upon catching sight of them. "Welcome to our little shindig! Feel free to help yourselves to the snacks, there's plenty more where that came from." She indicated the spread on a coffee table, consisting of several types of crackers, a variety of cheeses, olives, Italian prosciutto, and cucumber slices.

Orihime clapped her hands in delight and wasted no time in whipping up a concoction on her plate that looked largely inedible. While she joined the other girls in chatting merrily, Tatsuki moved to stand by their nominal hostess. "You're pretty free with the fare, considering this isn't your house."

Misato just grinned from ear-to-ear like a civil service Cheshire Cat. "Oh, it's adorable how you kids think you're all grown up. Don't worry about Darling, that man is putty in my hands! He can't say no when it comes to me!" And she sashayed off towards the kitchen.

"I'm pretty sure that's all he ever says to you," Tatsuki called after her. As usual, their twenty-something teacher was immune to anything that did not correlate with her definition of common sense.

Tatsuki envied that blissful ease with which the older woman ghosted through life. It didn't concern her at all that they were trespassing unlawfully in the home of a very unfriendly pillar of the community. This happened to be the house that their classmate Uryū called home. But while the Quincy youth might grudgingly grant them entry, his father Ryūken Ishida, who actually owned the place, had expressly banned them from meeting here like this. In fact, he installed a security system for the sole purpose of keeping his ardent admirer Misato Ochi from getting in. Not that this proved to be any deterrent. Owing to some bizarre stalker-mind powers, she always guessed what the code to disable the alarm might be, no matter how many times he changed it. Thus the Ishida household was the de facto headquarters of what they unofficially referred to as 'The Karakura Otherworldly Paranormal Society', or KOPS.

It wasn't a bad deal, really. Whenever something mysterious happened to them (which thankfully wasn't often), Ochi-sensei would notify the members of their group, which consisted of everyone who had hunkered out together during the war between Soul Society and the Hollows. Although Orihime technically arrived after all the fireworks were over, she was welcomed into their ranks nonetheless. It was kind of like a non-academic club. Chad never attended the meetings for reasons which she found perfectly understandable. The band was just a convenient excuse. And while she sometimes questioned why, in the end Arisawa usually found herself tagging along. Just to find out what was going on.

Which reminds me. "So," she called out after snagging a handful of dried fruit. The elder Ishida could always be counted on to have healthful snacks in accordance with his medical profession. "What's up with this meeting, anyway?"

"We don't know," Mahana Natsui smiled where she reclined on the couch. "All we do know is that Michiru caught something coming out of Chizuru's head." She held out her cup as if that last statement was perfectly natural. "Hey! Can I get a refill over here?"

"Coming right up!" Into the room came Keigo Asano, still wearing his school uniform and contriving not to look miserable. As usual he had been wrangled into serving all the girls in what came close to the definition of a slave. His amoral friend Mizuiro Kojima was close behind bearing a platter of finger sandwiches he no doubt had one of his girlfriends whip up. If anyone ever pointed out to him that he was toeing the line between gigolo and victim of child abuse, the delicate-seeming kid would probably just grin in that unconcerned way of his and make up a quite convincing lie on the spot. Blame slid off him as easily as it was drawn to Keigo. Kind of a Yin/Yang thing going there. Or maybe just Abbot & Costello. They were all technically cutting class. Mizuiro probably tendered a convincing lie to get him and Asano out.

Whatever the case, while they were busily attending to the demands of their female cohorts, Tatsuki took the time to examine Michiru. The most timid member of their group, Ohgawa hardly ever initiated conversations, though she resented being left out. It was her nature to tag along despite clearly having little idea what was going on. Her spiritual perceptions were the lowest among them, far below any of the rest. She could hardly make out ghosts at all. Only strong ones showed up on her radar. So how was it that she, out of all of them, had seemingly gotten hold of something truly beyond the pale?

While still flushed from having Chizuru continue to try and latch onto her like an octopus, Orihime Inoue turned in her seat to regard Michiru with surprise. "Michiru-chan caught something? Where is it, I want to see! Is it bigger than a breadbox? Does it have a name yet? I can think of a few! Let's see, how about…"

"Hold on." Tatsuki stood up and crossed over to join them. "Did I hear right in that nobody else has seen this thing yet?" She then noticed something about the way Michiru was sitting, even more tucked in on herself than usual. Realization hit hard. "Are you still holding onto this thing, whatever it is?"

Ohgawa gazed at her miserably. "I can't open my hands, or it'll fly away. I'm getting really tired." Her face was just as distraught as her voice.

Kunieda Ryō looked over from where she was inspecting the doctor's bookshelf. "Shouldn't Dr. Quincy, Medicine Man, have something lying around to contain things like this? That is his job, after all."

"I just finished getting Darling up to speed," Misato announced as she came strolling back into the room. "He said we can stay as long as we want, and to ask Uryū-kun to help out when he gets free from handicrafts club. Oh, but don't worry, he's not our only avenue of expertise in this area."

"Oh, no." Kunieda groaned.

This allowed Tatsuki to pick up on the meaning as well. Her heart sank at the prospect. "Ochi-sensei, please… tell me you didn't invite…!"

"CHILDREN, BE OF GOOD CHEER! YOUR CHAMPION HAS ARRIVED!"

Flamboyant. Loud. Overwhelming. Whacky. Words that could easily describe carnival season in Brazil. Or one loudmouthed, out-of-touch, deluded Japanese television personality.

Don Kanonji was in the house.

"I come bearing gifts!" their unwitting club mascot and sponsor proclaimed as though it were some great feat. Black-garbed men and women sporting shades and earpieces followed him into the den, carrying take-out food from some pretty expensive-looking restaurants judging by their bags. In no time the hired goons had set out a mouth-watering repast that made their previous fare look like dog food. They departed like shadows soon after, leaving their employer in the center of the room gazing proudly upon his self-appointed friends and comrades.

Kanonji was dressed in a purple cloak with a puffy orange collar that virtually swallowed his neck. His belt was made of crystal balls linked together, and his open-collared sequin shirt displayed a number of gold and wooden talismans clattering against his chest. The pant cuffs flared over black and white platform shoes that made him even taller than usual. On his head there perched a beanie that had leather tassels hanging from its rim to mix with his already prominent dreadlocks. His moustache was freshly waxed, his spirit stick was twirling triumphantly in one hand, and he was already reduced to tears. It was the most ludicrous thing you could ever imagine.

"Whatever the danger, no matter the odds, the Visionary Vizier of the New Age shall not forsake his followers!" The goofy adult fell into a pose that was supposedly designed to lift their spirits. It looked like something from a bodybuilding competition, and served more to strike terror into their hearts. "My occult senses warned me that trouble might be brewing today, and my horoscope proved it! 'Watch out for blondes!' That's what it said! And now we see…"

He hopped up on one leg with an arm arched overhead. "…the source…" his upraised fingers started to wiggle, "of that…" Without warning Don Kanonji thrust his stick out, pointing straight at Michiru. "… PRIMO-NI-SHAN!"

Orihime clapped excitedly at his performance. Meanwhile the target of this pronouncement flinched back. "What? I'm not… I'm not blonde, I'm brunette!" Michiru exclaimed indignantly, looking around at her classmates for support.

"Don't you have a television show to be filming?" Tatsuki accused in the hopes of piercing the armor of his self-conceit.

"Please relax, Kanonji-san," Misato came up to him with a plate of food. "Have some of the eel, it's superb!"

"Ah, Lady Ishida!" the goofball went down on one knee as if he was proposing to her. "Thank you for informing me of this development! Tell me, is your husband well?"

"He's dynamite," she supplied without missing a beat. Somehow Kanonji had gotten it into his head that Misato and Ryūken were married. The idea hadn't been dislodged by any evidence to the contrary.

"I see we're not all here yet!" The television star popped some fried eel into his mouth and looked around at them. "Where is my #1 Pupil's sister? She shouldn't be left out of such momentous proceedings."

"You don't even know why we're here." Tatsuki was starting to feel like she had just completed a particularly grueling death match with a school of kickboxers. If her life kept on its current course she was going to be sporting gray hairs by the time she was twenty. "And Karin-chan will be here after school lets out, which was …" she checked her smart phone, "ten minutes ago. I don't think she'd complain if we started without her."

"Okay then," their teacher declared. "Let's begin."

Ten seconds later found them all standing around Michiru, who had never looked more harmless, harried, and helpless. Maybe that was her defense mechanism. It made people want to protect the trembling teen.

"So how do we go about this?" Kunieda asked as they all inspected Michiru's clasped hands. "Is it still in there, Michiru?"

"I can feel it tickling," the girl mumbled as a blush worked up her cheeks from being the center of attention. After that they were all off.

"Can we stick it in a bottle?"

"Kanonji-san, what if we put it inside one of those crystal balls on your belt? Isn't that what they're for?"

"The saleslady told me it brought out the color of my eyes! Which was impressive since I was wearing shades at the time. Her powers were beyond my ken…"

"If it's a bug, we should stick it on a pin. Like a butterfly collection! My cousin has one of those. It's creepy… forget I mentioned it."

"Can those of us with powers actually do something here?"

"Oh, hold on! I have an idea!" That was Orihime now. So saying she reached up to touch the hairpins at her temples. "Santen Kesshun, I reject." As she spoke her ornaments glowed, only to split into three distinct streaks of light. A brief glimpse of the cheerful trio of faeries at their cores was replaced as they metamorphosed further into boomerang-shaped objects which then took up position around Michiru's clasped fists. Moments later an orange dome of energy sprang up to envelop that spot.

"There," Orihime pronounced with satisfaction. "You can take your hands away now, Michiru-chan."

Hesitantly the girl moved her cupped fingers apart. She flinched as if they had gone stiff before finally pulling them loose with a grateful sigh to collapse back onto the couch.

Hanging before them now, within the spell dome, there was revealed something that resembled a black bat. It fluttered back and forth against its prison in futile attempts to break free. Orihime's familiars kept it confined within that small space.

"Amazing, Orihime!" Misato complimented her. She then peered a little closer. "What is it, anyway? Some kind of bug? Does that mean Chizuru-chan has lice?"

"Hmmm! There is more to this than meets the eye!" Don Kanonji lifted up his glasses and frowned at their captive prey. He raised his other hand to pass it over and around the dome as though he were a gypsy fortuneteller and this his crystal ball. "I can sense the supernatural element in it more strongly now than before! It reeks of… BAD MAGI-CU!"

Kunieda adjusted her own spectacles like she was examining very fine typeprint. "Well, at least now we can get a good look at this thing."

"Good job, my love!" Chizuru stated affectionately. So saying she casually reached over and groped Orihime's butt.

The beautiful redhead's eyes flew wide and she let out a squeak. As her concentration broke the dome simply vanished. Without hesitation the smoke bat took to flight. Everyone started yelling and dove for it all at once, the end result being that they slammed into one another and fell in a heap on the couch.

"LEGGO, IT'S ESCAPING!"

"WHO'S STILL TOUCHING MY BUTT?!"

"MAGIC-U HAMMER-GAAH! MY EYE!"

"Get off me, Mizuiro."

"Heh. Sorry. But isn't this fun?"

Overhead the ash bat was capitalizing on their impromptu mosh pit to make its bid for freedom. A distortion appeared in the air overhead with a hazy darkness at its center. It was towards this which the flier aimed.

"I got it!"

Atop the pile of flailing arms and curses Keigo Asano struggled awkwardly to rise, planting his foot on Chizuru's rump and using both Tatsuki and Mahana's heads to leverage himself. Ignoring their outraged screams, with a burst of strength he launched upright and flung out a hand to grab hold of the bat.

As his fingers closed around the thing it squealed and burst. A blue vapor like smoke hung in the air for a moment before seeming to evaporate in the sunlight streaming through a window.

Asano stood stunned as the rest of their party finally managed to disentangle themselves. He turned to look down at them, a sickly smile on his face. "Ummm… heh-heh! It, uh… popped. See?" The fumbling youth showed them his empty hand, which still held a faint grayish residue and nothing more.

"You are so beyond dead," Tatsuki hissed as she found her feet.

"Well, this was a bust," Mahana drawled as she regained her seat, seemingly uninterested in how one of her classmates was stalking the shrieking Keigo around the room with the intention of mutilating him. Her face brightened. "But at least we got a free meal out of it!"

Ochi sighed while Don Kanonji helped her upright. "I was hoping for a little more. This supernatural element really sparks my interest. If only we could have learned something about it!"

"We may have indeed," Kanonji declared in an uncharacteristically subdued voice. They all looked at him with surprise, except for Tatsuki who was sitting atop the prostrate Keigo's back and using his legs to bend him into a submission position reminiscent of a pretzel. Their fancifully dressed comrade, however, only had eyes for Misato's hand he was holding.

"Kanonji-sama?" Orihime asked.

His face was troubled, but when he noticed them all looking at him he seemed to recover and drew himself upright, lifting the tails of his coat like a bat's wings.

"Be not alarmed, my friends! There is evil afoot, it is true, but remember you fight for justice! And your acclaimed champion will not allow you all to be besmirched by evil! For I have seen…" he whipped off his glasses and used them to point at them all, "a malign presence that hovers undetected in this room! The touchy-feely girl was not the only one among you who harbors a hidden terror. You are all infected by the same hideous infestation without your knowledge!"

"What, all of us?" Michiro asked blankly.

"YES! Well, actually, no. Not you." She scowled a little as he then turned to Mahana. "And not you. But the rest of you, YES! My otherworldly senses are screaming at me! Now that I have felt one of these things uninterrupted, I perceive that the same dark parasite lurks within each of you! A malingering malaise of the spirit has you in its grip! I can scent its noxious odor even now!"

The kids glanced at one another, uncertain how to take this. None of them looked very confident of his pronouncement. Misato sniffed under her arm experimentally, then made a face. "Well, I was in a rush to get to work today and might have forgotten my deodorant. But are you sure that's not just it? I certainly don't feel any different than usual."

"It is true." Kanonji rested his brow in one hand, seeming to slump where he stood. "Oh, where have I gone wrong? To think that my closest colleagues and defenders of the world order could have fallen under a villainous influence without my knowledge! Please accept my heartfelt apologies, my young friends." Tears fell to soak into the carpet, and his teeth were gritted against the apparent injustice of it all. "But KNOW THIS!" The psychic showman snapped erect, gaze locked on a point in the ceiling as though beseeching heaven while his emotional outpouring continued unabated. He looked much more determined than before. "I shall not allow this travesty to continue unopposed! I, Don Kanonji, your chosen guardian and sorcerer without peer, shall waste no time in expunging this dark fetor from your fair young forms! HOH!"

He snatched up his spirit stick where it had fallen and rounded on the group. Tatsuki did not like where this was going one bit. "Hey, stupid! Didn't Ishida-san warn you about using your dopey magic in his home? This has gone far enough, I'm calling Rukia! She, at least, might actually know something about what's going on by now. So just sit tight and…"

He didn't seem to have heard her, too engrossed in his preparations. "Oh-h-h-h-h-h!" Kanonji droned, sweeping his instrument slowly back and forth before their faces. "Oh-h-h-h-h-buddha-shinra-a-a-a." As the chanting continued a tiny pea of green light became to glow at the staff's tip. "Oh-h-h-h-h-h-sephi-rooooth-constantinopllllllle."

"EVIL, BEGONE!" he roared. With that Kanonji slammed the butt of his staff on the floor. The green orb expanded out to encompass them all.

A host of screams sounded. And then the room was filled with bats.

Hundreds of them. All flapping and mewling, all burning with a tiny blue glow. They flew out of the startled teens and Ochi in a rush until the air was thick with them. Everyone was yelling and flailing their arms. Don Kanonji lost hold of his weapon, staggered backward and tripped on the hem of his long coat to fall over a chair.

Something happened at this point. The same distortion in the environment they had seen when the previous bat attempted to flee was now occurring again, only far more this time. It was like the individual vortices opening all at once were causing some kind of chain reaction. For just an instant everything in the room seemed to quiver to their eyes like a disturbed reflection in a pool of water.

With a gasp of indrawn air, the ceiling above them split in a long jagged tear, revealing a swirling morass of darkness. The ash bats streaked as one for this egress.

To their horror, the girls found themselves being lifted up off the floor, as though they were connected to these things by tethers of some kind. Tatsuki looked around her, too amazed to speak or cry out. She saw Kunieda and Chizuru floating close by. Keigo was clutching to Mizuiro and crying as they were drawn along. Misato simply wore a puzzled look, like she couldn't quite decide how to react to this.

"Tatsuki-chan!"

Whipping around she saw Orihime floating as well. Her arm was outstretched towards her, and instinctively she lunged forth. Their fingers twined around each other even as they were pulled towards the rent in space.

"DON'T LET GO!" she demanded, almost in tears.

Orihime nodded fiercely, face set in fixed resolve, and they were pulled into the dimensional distortion. It closed behind them with the sound of cloth tearing.

There was a rushing noise like water falling into a cataract. Even as they sped along there was no wind, only a terrible feeling of cold. Almost as if the surging mottled gray darkness which flowed past them was a river through which they were flowing. It seemed to go on forever to either side. Without warning a crazy laugh sounded, louder than anything they had heard yet and continuing without stop.

WHERE ARE YOU ALL GOINGOINGOING?!

The laughter suddenly grew distant, as though they had passed it by. A bright spot was blooming ahead in the black tunnel down which they fell. All six of them covered their eyes as this speck grew until it had filled the distortion completely. It felt like they were pressing against something, a yielding surface that tried to throw them back even as they sank deeper still. The experience brought with it explosions of pain in Tatsuki's skull, comparable to white-hot needles being driven into her sinuses. She shut her eyes and screamed as loud as she could in pain-wracked fury.

Then they were wrenched through with a disorienting jolt to collapse upon the ground.

For a while Tatsuki just lay there, feeling cold and shamed. She tried to take a deep breath, only to choke when it felt like there was nothing but dry sandpaper in her throat. Staggering up her lungs threatened to burst. Suddenly, like air being drained out of a balloon, the pressure eased. She could breathe again, but not cleanly. It took concentrated effort to gasp in and out, as though her body did not naturally know how to do something she had been born understanding. Or maybe it was the environment she found herself in. Her eyesight cleared, a condition she had not even noticed, and the girl looked up, dazed and confused, to survey their surroundings.

The first thing she noticed was Inoue. Her childhood friend stood a few paces off seemingly without any of the strain Tatsuki herself was experiencing. Long red hair whipped in an icy breeze, and her feet sank into the pale dunes.

Wait. Dunes?

Disbelieving, Tatsuki looked down to where her own hands were buried to the wrists in sand. White sand. It dawned on her that they were atop a hillock in the middle of a desert. When she gaped blearily around the sight of rolling dunes stretching off in every direction confirmed this. Formations of rock broke the monotony in some areas, as well as a few withered leafless trees. On the horizon there glowed an enormous gibbous moon which dominated the night sky spread out overhead. Stars twinkled down as if curious as to what they might be doing here.

"I'm back."

Orihime's voice recollected her as to their situation. Arisawa strove to stand up. Her legs were rubbery in the manner of having just run a marathon. Through sheer force of will she managed to stay upright, stumbling forward though it felt as if she might collapse at any moment. At last she reached the other girl's side. "Ori…hime?"

Sad eyes turned to regard her, filled with a bitter pain that numbed her more than this whole alien environment.

"I'm sorry, Tatsuki-chan," Orihime whispered. "This is Hueco Mundo."


Slumped on the floor of its redoubt, the restless Hollow watched disinterestedly as the Wild Hunt fed.

From atop the edge of this low ravine it could see the entire slaughterhouse film. A herd of Huge Hollows had wandered into their current territory, almost instantly becoming food for the grisly mob. Watching the cannibal pack pull down their fleeing prey, listening to the screams of the dying, it could almost forget its current situation. Aizen's flunky had left it shackled here to go and make nice with the other Vaizard. At times like this the Hollow almost regretted its newfound freedom. What good was being able to act independently of Ichigo if it couldn't even go more than a few steps in any direction?

The gleaming line wound about its ankle had been treated to prevent it from moving. Shit-Brains was a little peeved the last time it went off on its own, and now the cord was magicked so that the Hollow couldn't touch it. Damn thing just slipped through its grasp every time it tried to get a hold while still remaining firmly attached to its leg. One day that cowardly little turd was going to pay dearly for treating it this way.

The Hunt continued to devour its latest meal. Mad Menos Grande jockeyed for position at the trough, tearing at one another in an attempt to reach a mess of spilled innards which comprised all that was left of formerly mighty Hollows. Mighty to some, at any rate. Those packmates not invited to this brunch roamed ceaselessly across the plains in search of anything that moved, their mindless shrieks almost seeming to take on a conversational tone. The Hollow wondered idly if they really could communicate with each other before losing all interest in the topic. Curiosity did not make up a part of its personality to any great extent.

I wonder how the Vaizard would react upon coming back to find the Wild Hunt all dead? Might be good for a laugh. It chuckled to itself.

A breeze blew over them.

The Hollow's head snapped up. It remained stone still for a moment, senses warily roaming about in search of whatever had disturbed it. Hardly daring to believe what the wind was telling it. Praying that it wasn't wrong.

When realization dawned, it scrambled upright, an unholy grin baring its black teeth to suck in the dry air of Hueco Mundo with a laugh.

"Sunnavubitch! They're here! They're all HERE!"

About to start forward in pursuit, it halted, pondering. Black eyes traveled down to the thin golden cord chaining it. A low growl escaped its lips. Without this, it could move freely to find them. But it would only have about half an hour. Maybe less. That much was clear from experience. After that the magic would wear off and it would be forced to return to Ichigo.

Well, who couldn't it kill in half an hour? So what if the King wasn't here to see it. Could just take the corpses along. To show him. He could watch for a change, while it fed off their remains.

Now how to get this thing off…?

As it pondered, a shadow fell over it. The Hollow looked up to find a member of the Wild Hunt gazing down, eyes glowing against the shadowy backdrop of its body.

"Got something you want to say, head cheese?"

Not a sound. Those tremendous jaws opened wide, however, and the Hollow readied for an imminent attack. Maybe this one was close to dying. That would explain its willingness to attack the Hollow.

With a grunt the Menos dove down, mouth opened to swallow it whole. Bracing itself, the Hollow was mildly surprised when the stupid thing slammed its face into the rock right beside it.

When the Hunt member rose from the rubble of its attack, a faint glimmer of gold sparkled between its teeth. It gave a snort, head twisting violently to one side, muscles standing out in its jaw as it bit down. A second later the golden thread snapped and fell to trail off into the distance, fading even as it did.

The Hollow looked down at its unencumbered leg, then back up at the Menos regarding it dully.

"Thanks."

It then leapt straight up into the air and delivered a kick to the masked chin. The giant Hollow's head came clean off to go sailing through the air and land a hundred yards away. Its headless body flopped lifelessly to the ground. Several other members of the Hunt seemed to take notice of this. They came stampeding over and without further ado fell upon the corpse of their former comrade. Its blood soon stained their jaws.

Only moments later Ichigo's Hollow was loping at top speed across the white dunes to find its prey.

Down in the ravine, Cernunnos lifted his head. He munched on a strip of bloodied flesh, slowly grinding the slippery mass back and forth across his heavy molars. Blood dripped from his antlers and ran down his mask. The sight of the Hollow escaping was not lost upon him. Its flight reflected briefly in his great yellow eyes.

Blowing a bloody grunt he then dipped his head back into the grisly morass of guts to get another mouthful.

To be continued...