Prologue: Heavenly Hell, hellish heaven.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
'Inner hollow/Zanpakuto speech'
EDITED ON 09-JULY-2018: Correction of grammar, improved readability and revision of some awkward phrasing.
Everywhere he looked, he saw nothing but red and helplessness overcame him. He wasn't able to do it. He couldn't save them. His hands trembled, and he heard something dripping on the cold ground beneath him.
It was blood.
His blood. The blood of his younger sister that loved to cook for him and always called him 'Ichi-nii'. The blood of his other younger sister who always acted as a tomboy who loved to play the football with her friends. The blood of his father that always woke him up with his crazy antics.
He glanced at his hands covered in that gruesome red stuff and felt tears swelling in his eyes. It was the same as 6 years ago when his mother had died and blood had covered his hands.
He couldn't do anything.
Not even registering his own body, lying across the road, torn up beyond recognition, he arched backwards and shouted in despair. His voice echoed in the dark night that surrounded him.
He let his emotions go wild until his insides dried up and his vocal cords failed.
Not knowing what to do, he felt weak like never before.
A weak voice, that only a few minutes before had explained to him the way the world he could have always seen worked, called to him.
With his hands in his hair, he turned around to see the small figure clad in black lying near the hedge, crawling, trying to get up, but failing to do so.
"Shinigami... you are alive?" His rough voice was devoid of emotions, yet his surprise was clear.
The raven-haired female got to a sitting position and nodded with a minimal amount of movement.
"Yes... we, Shinigami, are more durable than humans... injuries of this level can't kill me..." Despite her claim, it was obvious she was having problems breathing. Her hand, clenching her shoulder, was covering a gaping hole, courtesy of a dead monster lying nearby.
"Boy... I'm not a nice person... so I won't try to comfort you... but I need to know if you understand the situation." The shinigami asked, jerking when she tried to take a deep breath.
The person in front of her glanced at his surroundings with blank eyes and swallowed hard.
"... they are dead... that thing... ate them." He murmured but then felt the contents of his stomach enter his mouth and the sound of vomit splattering on the asphalt filled the air.
Hesitating, she looked at his face and realized he was in a pitiful state.
Who could blame him?
Seeing his two little sisters get eaten by a hollow must have broken his spirit.
"I... " She trailed off and looked away, ashamed of her own pitiful self.
It was her job, to protect the humans from the hollows and she failed to do so. In a morbid sense of the word, her failure was spectacular.
"... yes. However, I can feel that your father is still alive...,"
Her words shook him up a little, and she saw first hints of emotions on his face. Clenching his fists, he stood up and dash towards the still body of his parent.
His father was lying on his stomach, his face hidden from his view, but he didn't care. Hastily, he put his two fingers on his father's neck, checking for a pulse, feeling it after a moment.
"At least you survived, Dad." She barely heard his words that held all of his emotions he could produce at the moment.
She saw his legs buckling under him as he sat next to his father.
"Maybe it's your aloofness that saved you, ha-ha." The boy laughed, tears freely flowing from his eyes.
He sat there for a few minutes, checking for any injury. Finding none, he slowly got up and walked towards the shinigami.
"You're right, he looks fine, he's just unconscious. He only hit his head and has a few cuts and bruises, but nothing serious. After a good sleep, he should be just fine." He stared at the shinigami, trying his best not to glance at his right, at the huge pool of blood.
Her eyes caught the glimpse of it but she held her tongue.
She knew nothing she would or even could say, would lessen his pain.
"What happened to... what happened to them?" He asked quietly, his fists clenched again.
The shinigami sighed and held her side when a pain shot through her.
"Since we were able to purify the hollow, the souls of your sisters are now free and they joined the Reincarnation cycle, waiting to be reborn in the World of the Living as different people. They are not suffering or anything like that." She said and noticed the tiniest smile form on his face.
"Good... that's good." He whispered and turned his head towards the heavens, quietly praying for their souls.
She gave him a moment, then spoke again.
"But you are still here, which is something I can't allow. I'm sorry to be blunt but ..." His empty laugh made her cringe a little as he cut her off.
"I'm dead, I know. It was hard not to notice. Don't worry that's the least worrying thing right now for me. So... what do I do now, shinigami?"
The shinigami pointed at herself and repeated her words.
"Kuchiki Rukia. That is my name, not 'shinigami'." She offered him a hand.
After staring at her for a full minute, he grabbed it and nodded to her.
"I'm Kurosaki Ichigo. Nice to meet you, Kuchiki Rukia."
The shinigami called Rukia, faintly smiled at him and grabbed the sword, that was resting next to her.
"Ichigo then. What you have to do now, is simple. I need to perform a Konso on you, so you can move on to the Afterlife. I would let you stay here, but it would be pointless. You can't communicate with the living people and the longer you stay here, the greater the chance you'd turn into a hollow yourself."
Ichigo stiffened at the mentioning of the word hollow, but kept himself calm.
"I see... and what about you? Are you sure you can perform it? You say you're fine, but honestly, you look like shit."
She waved her hand dismissively, not bothering to even get angry at him.
"I'll be fine, don't worry about me. I'll stay here for a while and oversee your father so that nothing would happen to him. Don't worry though, using some of my tools, I can implant a memory in his mind, so he wouldn't have to live with the truth about the deaths of his children."
Closing his eyes for a moment, Ichigo sighed.
She quickly protested.
"Don't thank me. I... you should be angry at me. It was my job to protect you but I failed. You should take that sword and kill me... I don't know why you still haven't done it ..." Rukia tried to raise her voice, but her broken ribs were too painful and she had to stop talking.
"It doesn't matter who's guilty, so ... don't. Just do the Konso."
She gulped when his voice hardened but it didn't look like he was angry at her.
Motioning him to kneel, she grabbed her sword and readied it.
"Just one more thing before I'll let you pass to the Afterlife."
Ichigo raised his head a little and looked at her expectantly.
"What is it?"
She stared at him for a while.
"I told you before but, as a human, you possessed quite the unusual amount of a spiritual energy. Therefore, it is possible that, once you find yourself in the Soul Society, that energy will awaken and you may become a shinigami, just like me."
He raised his eyebrows and glanced at his hands, covered in a dried blood.
"Is it that rare?"
She shook her head.
"No, it happens from time to time. Once the souls are in Soul Society, they sometimes awaken their hidden potential and become a full-fledged shinigami. If that happens, try to make your way to the center of Soul Society, the Seireitei and look for me. I have a feeling that you could become quite the shinigami." Ichigo lightly snorted and grabbed her hands that held the sword.
"We'll just have to see."
Feeling the hilt of her sword tapping him on the forehead, a bright light surrounded him and he knew nothing more.
Certain Shop in Karakura Town
"That... can't be right." A tall, lean-built man with light skin and gray eyes furiously typed on his computer, looking at the screen with wide eyes.
His hair was messy, light-blond, with few strands framing the sides of his face and hanging between his eyes.
Next to him, on the table was resting a stripped dark green and white bucket hat, which he wore most of the time.
The man cursed and grabbing the hat, he ran to the entrance of his shop and resolutely opened it.
"I need to change the plans if it's true." He muttered and in the next instance, he vanished from the sight.
Five minutes later, he stood above a resting female shinigami and looked around himself in alarm. When he spotted the body he was looking for, he flashed next to it and tried to feel a pulse, only to find out that the body was already lifeless and cold.
In his line of vision he noticed another body he knew.
Trying to feel pulse again, he sighed in relief. This body was still alive and so he could talk to that person later.
He returned to the shinigami and shook her up lightly, so she would wake up.
She stirred but after continuous poking from the shopkeeper, she finally opened her eyes and glanced above her.
Seeing the man grinning at her, she recoiled in shock.
The man nodded and pointed behind him.
"I think it's clear I'm not here to harm you. On the contrary, I'd like to offer you help, seeing as you are in no condition to travel back to the Soul Society."
She squinted her eyes suspiciously.
"Why would you do that? How can I trust you? You realize what they teach us about you in the Academy, don't you?"
Shopkeeper just laughed.
"I do and yes, you shouldn't trust me. However, do you have any other option? You'll eventually die if you'll leave those injuries unattended, you know. Wouldn't that bring shame to your clan, Kuchiki Rukia?"
Her jaw almost fell on the floor and in a panic she tried to grab her sword, but her broken ribs prevented her from doing so and she yelped from the pain.
"H-how do you know my name?"
With a dazzling smile, the man pointed to himself.
"It would be weirder if I didn't, don't you think, Kuchiki-san?"
Since it was obvious she wasn't sure what to do, he crouched next to her.
"Why don't you tell me what happened here? It looks kind of... messy."
He sighed, when he noticed how she cringed at those words and prepared for the worst.
'This is bad.' The shopkeeper thought for himself, looking over his shop-assistant's shoulder as he tended to shinigami's wounds.
'I only hope his nature will keep him alive for the moment and that with some good luck, he can awaken.'
"What do we do now, boss?" His assistant asked as his hands were glowing green, providing the shinigami with a healing energy.
He glanced behind him when he heard no response.
The shopkeeper stood there, his face hidden with a fan.
"For now, we'll let things go freely and see what happens."
Assistant visibly frowned.
"Isn't that dangerous? Shouldn't we send help, or a guidance?"
The man in a hat shook his head.
"No. I think our young friend can take care of himself well enough. This way, 'that' man will have to delay his plans too. Don't worry though. I'll call her and ask her if she can contact her old acquaintances. He'll be fine, Tessai."
His assistant, Tessai just nodded. They both knew each other from when they were little so there was no need for any doubt.
'He'll be fine.' The man repeated for himself in his mind, as if trying to ease his nervous mind.
Kurosaki Ichigo, not so long ago a not-so-normal teenager, woke up in the middle of nothing, with a numb throbbing in his head.
He rolled on his back and with opened eyes looked at the sky above him.
It was possibly the sunniest day he has seen in the last few months and if he focused, he was sure he could hear the quiet rustle of the wind passing through the trees surrounding him. He was lying on a rather warm grass that slightly tickled his skin.
His mind was hazy, as if something tried to mess with his memories and for a moment, he felt lost, as he couldn't remember where the hell he was.
As he tried to get up, he grabbed his head and tried to suppress a fairly painful headache.
When he did that, he noticed that his hands were dirty.
Upon closer inspection he realized they were covered in a large amount of dried up blood. The sight made him sick.
Glancing on his right, he saw a small lake nearby. His stomach still upset, he begrudgingly got up and slowly walked towards it, intent on washing his hands.
While he took the short stroll, he tried to look around and gather as much information as he could on where he was.
'I'm... sure that this isn't a place where I live.' He thought and raised his head when he spotted an old looking building in afar.
After he arrived to the lake, he noticed that the water inside it was crystal clear, so he drank first and washed his hands afterwards. It would be such a waste to contaminate the water with blood.
Water poured into his stomach in large amounts and realized just how thirsty he was. When the cold fluid passed his throat and entered his stomach, he burped and massaged his neck. Even though he wasn't sure why, he knew he must have yelled a lot, because his throat was as dry as a desert.
Next thing he did was to wash his hands and watching the blood flow through the water, he felt as if something lifted a heavy burden from his being.
Shaking his head, he lifted himself and turned towards the old buildings.
'Maybe somebody who could explain the situation lives there.'
However, with each step he took to get closer, the worse feeling settled in his gut.
Something was wrong and his instincts were screaming at him.
Trying to suppress them, as he needed to learn where he was, he slowed down his pace and walked with more caution towards the small hut nearest to him. The doors moved in the wind, opened, but he heard no noise coming out of the tiny house, and felt his instincts almost trying to stop him.
Ignoring them for the moment he grabbed the doorknob, taking extra care not to create any sound, and in small nudges pushed the doors open, so he could enter the house.
Inside, he found nothing.
Nothing but the bad and familiar stench of a dried-up blood.
On the flip side, he saw no bodies that the blood originated from, yet he shuddered as if he walked in on a bizarre scene straight out of a horror movie.
Slowly, he backed away, all the way outside, until he bumped into something.
With a sense of dread, he heard a voice.
"Oh, what do we have here? Somebody was curious, huh?" He spun around to come face to face with a group of violently looking thugs, grinning at him widely.
"Who are you?" Ichigo instantly asked, in his mind counting the number of people in front of him.
The person nearest to him licked his teeth.
"None of your business, brat. But if you insist, you can call me your Master." He laughed roughly along with his comrades, who slowly took small knives out of their pockets.
'Where the hell am I?' Ichigo cursed and tried to find a way out of this dangerous-looking situation.
"Wait! I don't know what you want, but I have nothing on me. I just woke up and I don't even know where I am." He tried to stall the moment, acting as a clueless guy.
However, his face morphed into a frown when the crowd just loudly laughed.
"Heh, that's rich. Well, consider this a wakeup call, brat and welcome to the Afterlife." The man stated with a malicious grin and swung down his fist at Ichigo, who only thanks to his many encounters in the World of the Living could dodge and roll away.
'Afterlife? What? I'm dead?!' A myriad of questions flew right through Ichigo's mind but he filed them for later. He knew he had to give the man his full concentration, or he would end up as dead meat in no time.
Ichigo was no pushover and could hold his own against few of the wanna-be delinquents of his own age, but this was a group of adults armed with knives.
'Shit.' Despite his hazy memories he understood he had close to no chance, so he tried to stall again.
"You didn't answer. What do you want from me?" Ichigo added a hint of desperation to his voice, which wasn't that hard, considering the situation he found himself in.
The man raised his eyebrow and looked at his fist.
"Well, I'll be damned. It's been a long time since anyone avoided my surprise Iron Fist. As a gift, I'll answer your question, brat. Nothing."
Ichigo stared at him, confused by the man's words.
"Nothing? What do you mean nothing?"
He backed away when the man approached him.
"We want nothing from you. However, you are an above average looking guy, so our boss would like your body... I guess it's your bad luck, huh?" Ichigo froze at those words and gulped. He didn't like what he heard. Those thugs looked normal if only deranged so he considered himself lucky that they weren't gay.
Their boss was however another thing. Ichigo didn't know a thing about him but he already felt ill. If what the man said was true, their boss sounded like a child molester.
He hated child molesters.
Clenching his fists, he concluded that he didn't want to end up as the victims in reports he somehow knew he read while he was alive. Why he read something like that was a mystery to him, but he couldn't dwell on it for long as the man came at him for the second time, swinging his fist again.
In a retaliation, Ichigo steeled himself and side-stepped the man in the last second and kicked his legs from under him, sending the man rolling and crashing into the hut behind them.
He took a calming breath and looked around.
Seeing the rest of the thugs shaking their heads immediately told him one thing.
He should not have done that.
He definitely should not have done that.
An hour later
Bloodied body of the orange-haired boy was limply lying on the ground. The boy was unconscious, which was most likely a gift.
If he wasn't, he would be in a hell of a pain; his recent battle had been brutal.
They had beaten him up with so much force that bruises already formed on his skin. Various cuts all over his body created gaps in his clothing. They were no longer bleeding, but the blood was still present on him and the clothes.
"Heh, kid gave put up quite a fight, don't you think, Tetsu?" A buff looking man asked the one that was standing above the beaten boy. There was a bruise in form of a monocle on his face, his lip bled and his shirt was no longer in one piece.
The most surprising fact was that the man called Tetsu didn't look angry. Instead, a bit out of breath, he grinned and put his short knife back into his pocket.
"Yeah. It's almost a shame we have to give him to the Boss. He would make a good training dummy." He wiped the sweat from his brow and crouched down to pick up the limp body.
"Oi, Tetsu, we should get going. I can feel a Shinigami closing on us." Somebody called out to him.
Testu clicked his tongue in dissatisfaction.
"Those damn patrols are messing with our business. I should mention it to the Boss." Sighing, he tied Ichigo in a way which made it impossible to escape and slung him on his shoulder.
Mindful of a potential Shinigami patrol, the group covered a long distance until they arrived to a huge house.
It looked simple from the architectural side. No unnecessary decoration, no expensive looking accessories, no nothing. Aside from being huge, the building wasn't that much different from other houses in the area they were in.
This part of the Afterlife wasn't as populated as others, so until not so long ago, the group had free access to all kinds of potential 'toys' for the Boss. It was only recently that the Shinigami stationed patrols around this area.
'They probably caught up with the fact that too many souls were getting missing too often. This wouldn't happen if boss kept his toys for a bit longer and not just a day or two. But from what I heard, they can barely endure his 'plays' so it's not that surprising... ah, this job is sometimes hard.' He sighed and walked past the gate and inside the building.
Ichigo awoke for the second time that day with a throbbing headache. This time, however, he could not see the sky, nor he could listen to the breeze passing through the trees.
Instead, he was in some dark place.
He tried to move, but his body protested and a sharp pain shot through him.
"Don't move. They did quite a job on you. You must have fought back as I spotted some injuries on that ... monster." He heard a soft, yet angry voice coming from across the room he was in.
"I did my best and tried to take care of your wounds with the stuff they gave me but it's only so-so. I'm not a medic..." The voice seemed displeased and Ichigo sighed.
The myriad of questions that had been swirling in his head the whole day multiplied, and he his headache worsened.
"Thanks, I guess." Ichigo thanked the voice.
"Don't thank me. If they took you here with the same purpose as those I saw before, you'll wish you died in your fight."
Ignoring the pain, Ichigo shifted into sitting position and as his eyes became little accustomed to the darkness, he noticed he was in some kind of cell, with two old looking beds, one which he occupied and the second across the room and presumably where the second voice lived.
"Still, thanks." Ichigo repeated and caught the voice sigh.
"Sure, no problem."
Ichigo massaged his left wrist, jerking when he felt the dull pain in it and frowned.
"So... where are we? I'm guessing you've been here for a while."
For a moment, he heard and saw nothing, but after waiting a while longer, he sensed a rustling of clothes.
"I've been here for about a week, but I still have barely any idea what this place is. But I'm certain this is a residence of some 'Boss' person those thugs that delivered you here hold in a high regard. The second thing I know is that this 'Boss' likes young boys, and he uses them for God knows what. Scratch that, there is no God in this place..." The voice trailed off and Ichigo could almost picture the clenching of his fists.
"I'm not sure what that 'Boss' does to them, but when they carry their lifeless bodies, all I can see are countless injuries and a devastated look in their eyes. As if something crushed their very essence, their souls. If I'm right, something similar awaits you too in a few days' time." The person probably didn't want to sound cruel, but despite that, Ichigo felt sick again.
"Can... can't we escape from this place?"
He heard a sad chuckle.
"Impossible. Remember the group of thugs? This 'Boss' person has twice the amount of guards and servants. Not to mention that the rumor is, he possesses spiritual power, so the only way you could escape from this place is if you were a Shinigami."
Aside from the words, Ichigo caught the tone of somebody who had already submitted to his fate and he clenched his own fists and slammed them on the wall he was leaning on.
After a moment of silence, he heard the other voice again.
"What is your name, anyway?"
Ichigo raised his head and stared at the place where he could somewhat spot the silhouette of a person.
"Isn't it polite to say your name first before asking for mine?" A chuckle followed his words.
"In this hole there is no place for politeness."
"That we can create it."
After another moment of silence, the other voice called out to him again.
Despite the situation, Ichigo formed a small smile.
"Nice to meet you, Kazumi. I'm Ichigo."
The person across the room, Kazumi, opened his mouth to say something, when they both heard a creaking noise, alerting them that someone was coming.
Not wanting to abandon his somewhat comfortable bed, Ichigo shifted himself, so he could see the hallway as the light from the opened doors lit the dungeon their cell was in.
He heard steps, and he glanced at Kazumi, who was sighing.
"They are most likely carrying another one that broke." Kazumi said and Ichigo steeled himself.
It couldn't be that bad, could it?
In the next few moments, he learned just how broken a person could look.
When his eyes caught the sight of the body a duo of men was carrying across the hallway, he widened his eyes and strength abandoned his limbs and only with luck he didn't slide down on his bed.
That thing those men had in their hands didn't look like a human being anymore.
The body wasn't smashed beyond recognition.
It wasn't bloody.
It barely had any injuries at all.
What it lacked was his expression or any sign of being alive. The two eyes that were staring at the ground looked so distant that the person was most likely so deep in his mind, nothing could ever bring him back.
His face was expressionless, yet despite that one could see the frozen horror on it, the humiliation embedded deep within after surviving something he would tell no one about.
It looked so bizarre, so unreal that Ichigo almost wanted to look away, but he couldn't.
He felt like he was looking at the empty shell that housed nobody within.
Truly, it was a broken being with crushed soul.
It shook Ichigo with great force and he could almost sense the sympathetic look on Kazumi's face.
"This... this is Afterlife? Isn't it supposed to be great?" Ichigo asked the silence.
"But it is great, don't you see? A heavenly hell."
End of Prologue.