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Rebirth

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 4

 

Dead End was this sprawling warren of rattrap shanties and dilapidated buildings. Deceivingly huge once you were trapped within it. From the outside, upon first approach it hadn't seemed nearly so huge. The longer he found himself inside its boundaries, the more overwhelming it became.

During the day, it was dull and miserable, just like the people, victims and casual bullies skulking the streets. He hadn't seen it during the night.

It was the nighttime, Grimmjow promised with a thrum of excitement in his voice, when the real predators came out.

Ichigo's 'The hell I'm going anywhere with you' refusal was met with his head slammed against the wall, and Grimmjow's hand on his neck as he staggered, forcibly marched out of the inn. The innkeeper glared from behind the box she'd dragged in to replace the shattered desk, but kept her mouth shut. Grimmjow had his sword and his maniacal grin and no sane person would consider trying their luck with him with the two combined.

And people on the street were of a different breed. The dead eyed, grey peasants had retreated into whatever holes they hid in for the night. The casual bully boys hung back, lurking like starving animals in the shadows while more dangerous things claimed the darkness for their own. Men that from the look of them were no simple thugs. Hard-eyed, confident men that gauged the caliber of the competition as they passed each other on the streets. Men with the luxury of sandals or boots, and clothing that didn't look as if it had been dragged out of the garbage or stolen off a corpse.

They eyed Grimmjow and Ichigo as they passed, but none of them tried them. Grimmjow almost seemed disappointed. But he had a destination. An alleyway with a line of paper lanterns strung across it overhead. People mulled at the edges, smelling of alcohol and sweet smoke. Women and a few boys, that were haggard and painted and clearly for sale. Men peddling brown paper packets filled with what Ichigo could only assume was some sort of drug. More paper lanterns swayed overhead further in, casting lurid orange light on the shifting crowd below. Doors opened off to the sides, and people gathered about this shanty shack or that. Gambling in some, from what he glimpsed in passing, or whores conducting business in others, with men lined up waiting their turns. Other things that he couldn't see that garnered crowds. Cries of people. Squeals of animals. Sometimes a combination of both.

"Pretty. So pretty." Someone pressed their body against him as Grimmjow hauled him through the crowd, hands sliding under his shirt. A woman, tall as he was, naked breasts sweaty and hot against his chest. He blinked, wide-eyed, shocked and at a loss where to touch her to pry her off.

Grimmjow shoved her away, a hand on her forehead and she staggered into the crowd, cursing. Grimmjow kept going, unshakable grip on Ichigo's arm.

There was a larger space at the center of the warren, a larger crowd gathered around a central area. Leaning over a rail surrounding a pit, jeering and yelling, shoving each other for better positions to see what transpired below.

Something made the hair on the back of his arms stand up, a faint sense of gathering pressure like a storm in the air just before a thunder strike. And then, a low, booming crash that he felt the faint ripples of, the crowd around the pit roaring in approval.

People screamed for wagers to be taken. Money changed hands, bookmakers roaming the crowd.

"Stay put," Grimmjow told him, stabbing a finger at his face. "If you make me come after you, I'll hunt your ass down and rent it out to the first ten guys who make me a decent offer. Understand?"

Ichigo lifted his chin sullenly, not doubting the validity of that threat. Grimmjow didn't make idle promises. "Whatever, asshole."

Grimmjow grinned, then melted into the crowd. Ichigo glowered at his back. He was sore. It hurt a little to walk. But not as bad as it had that morning. There were rope burns on his wrists, around his neck. Bite marks and bruises scattered other places. Finger shaped bruises on his thighs and hips. Those had made him shake with numb shock as he'd been pulling on his pants after Grimmjow had finally finished with him. He tried not to think about it now - - just as he'd tried not to think about it while it was happening. He had reached a point, during Grimmjow's games, when he'd just blanked out. Just stopped fighting altogether, stopping reacting altogether. It really didn't matter whether he fought it not, Grimmjow would do what he liked to him. It had been a good strategy, because Grimmjow was all about the fight. Grimmjow liked the struggle. Even pointless struggle. So maybe he'd scored a little victory after all.

The crowd roared at the edge of the pit again. He shifted his way through the crowd, squeezing in to find a vantage.

There were two guys down there, in a pit maybe fifteen feet deep and lined with stone. Blood stained stone. A gate with a metal grate was the only way in or out short of going over the edge, and the railing there was lined with rusty spikes on the inside.

They had weapons of a sort down there. One had a club with jagged shards of metal driven into the business end of it. The other a wooden handled pike with a rough blade attached to the end. They were both bloody. Both panting as they circled. The one with the pike cried out and Ichigo felt the very faint prickling of gathering energy again, as the guy swung the pike. Almost he could see a ripple of something trailing through the air behind it as he lunged. The point of the pike itself didn't hit the other guy, who jumped back to avoid it, but something else did. Crashing into his body like an invisible fist and making him stagger backwards. It was enough to shake his guard and the metal tip of the pike dug into his gut.

The crowd went wild. He got jostled hard against the rail as they surged, screaming for the finishing blow. Sick bastards, crying for blood, so long as it wasn't theirs. He turned his eyes away as the pike jabbed down again, piercing the club wielder's chest. When he looked back, the guy with the pike was raising his arms in victory, while the guy on the ground breathed his last bubbling breath.

He didn't want to see anymore. He felt dirty and that was some feat considering the afternoon he'd endured.

"Hey." He half heard the call, but didn't pay it heed until the hand clamped down on his shoulder.

"Hey, boy, I'm talking to you." He got pulled around, roughly. Jostled against somebody else trying to get closer to the fighting pit, who snarled an obscenity at him. He didn't have a lot of choice taking abuse from Grimmjow, but damned if he would endure it from some random dickhead in a crowd.

"Get your fucking hand off me," he slammed his palm against the sternum of the guy who'd laid a hand on him. Big, shaggy headed guy who had a dull steel ring in his flat nose. Not all that tall, just broad. Half again wide as he was. But he'd put a lot of bottled frustration behind that hit and it had made an impact. The guy doubled over, gasping for breath, big hand rubbing at the spot of impact, before he looked up, red faced and furious.

"You fucking little shit, that how you treat paying customers?"

"Oh my God, do I look like a prostitute? What the fuck?"

"You're young and fresh," A woman that clearly was an expert in the profession, oozed up next to him, brushing a hand across his arm. "And the young and fresh here get swallowed up by the old and the jaded."

"I'm gonna kill you and fuck your corpse," the guy he hit snarled.

"Yeah, I've heard that one before." He stepped back as the guy lunged at him, avoiding the big fist that aimed at his head. The woman melted backwards. The crowd around them scattered as the guy overshot, staggering past Ichigo. They reformed, a human barricade preventing escape, drawn to the scent of violence and as happy to observe it in the midst of the crowd as down in the fighting pit.

The guy swung at him again, a damned lot of power behind the blow. He was just slow. And Ichigo found, when he wasn't faced with somebody like Grimmjow, who was just inhumanly fast, his reflexes were pretty damned good. His instincts were spot on. He ducked, and drove a fist into the man's kidney. Spun as he was floundering past and kicked the back of one knee in. An elbow to the back of the head as the guy went down and he had him on the ground, big hands planted in the dirt, shaking his head dazedly. But not out.

The raucous cries of the crowd gathered around them drowned out the growl, but Ichigo felt the odd pressure of something gathering. A faint heaviness that seemed to gather about the man's clenched fist. The guy surged up, driving his fist, straight on towards Ichigo's chest. He danced back, avoiding contact with the flesh and bone fist - - he was damned sure he'd avoided that blow by a good foot - - but something hit him. A thud of impact like a kick to the center of his body - - a damned hard kick by a damned big animal - - with hooves - - steel shod hooves - - that flung him backwards, crashing into the ring of people behind him and over the rail into the pit.

His back hit stone. Hard. He didn't know if the initial blow had stolen his breath, or the impact with the ground. Either way, he lay there, gasping after air, pain in his chest and his ribs making his vision watery and dark.

People were screaming, an undulating ring of blood shrouded color around the edges of the pit. The strings of lanterns with their flickering orange flame made everything lurid and unreal. A big, dark shape launched itself from the edge of the rail above, plummeting down towards him.

Survival instinct made him roll, dizzy as he was, avoiding the feet that slammed into the stone where he'd landed.

He crouched, shaking his head in attempts to shake the cobwebs free, and stared at the man who'd come down after him.

Blood. Blood. Spill his blood. The crowd demanded.

Ichigo climbed to his feet, gingerly rotating his shoulders. His ribs felt whole.

Somebody threw down a thick, wooden club. It hit the ground in front of the big man and he snatched it up, grinning. "I'm gonna beat you to death."

He didn't bother to respond to that bravado, eyes flicking around the perimeter of the pit instead, taking stock of the place he found himself. Just blood stained stone and the iron grate. They'd removed the corpse of the last loser already. He might be able to make the jump and grab onto the rail some fifteen feet above, but between the spikes and the avidly malicious people leaning over it, he wouldn't get very far.

"At least even the odds," somebody else called down, and a wooden stick the length of his arm sailed down towards him. He reached up, caught it mid-air, an arms length from his face, glaring up past it at Grimmjow, who stood at the rail, grinning down with as much blood thirsty amusement as the people around him. Bastard.

"Don't look at him. Look at me!" The guy in the pit with him charged, club crashing down towards his skull. He wove to the side, swinging what might have been a crudely carved wooden sword one handed against the man's thick stomach.

If it had been a real sword instead of a blunt wooden imitation, the blade might have sliced him clear though. Ichigo wasn't quite sure where that surety had come from.

Ichigo avoided him again, making another solid strike. Brute strength and staying power seemed to be this guys main strategy. He could take hits and shrug them off, one after the other. Until he got angry and stood there blood trailing down his nose from getting smacked across the face with the wooden sword, club in one hand, other one clenched in a fist. Ichigo felt that sense of gathering pressure again. The man's eyes were practically bulging with some effort. Whatever it was, it had followed the trajectory of the man's fist with a follow through that had knocked him twenty feet the first time. If he got hit again, in this confined pit, chances were he'd never get up again.

Whatever power the man was summoning to back the power of his mundane blow hadn't been a broad wash of destruction. It hadn't bowled over the people around Ichigo. Only those directly behind him. Which meant it could be avoided.

He damn well hoped it could be avoided. He stopped moving. Just stood there, making an easy target. The guy grinned, blood staining his teeth, and swung.

Ichigo moved, not running away, but towards the big man, sliding under the arc of the blow on rain and blood slickened stone. He heard the booming impact of unseen force against stone behind him, even as he skidded under the man's reach. He jammed the end of the wooden sword up with all the strength he could muster, under the broad jaw.

The man's head snapped back with the sickening sound of breaking bone. Jaw maybe, or teeth cracking. Then the guy was toppling backwards, hitting the stone like a huge sack of meat. He lay there groaning, while the crowd around the pit went mad, screaming for blood.

Finish him. Kill him. Smash his skull. Blood. Blood. Blood.

He stood there, wooden sword loose in his hand, heart pounding in his chest, while they screamed at him. Demanding.

"I'm not a killer," he said softly, more to himself than any of them. Then it sank in, the very clear understanding that he wasn't. That whatever he had been before he'd been reborn here, it was better by far than these blood-thirsty bastards screaming for the death of a man who could no longer defend himself.

"I'm not a killer," he screamed it up at them, glaring defiantly at the faces lining the rail around the pit.

Grimmjow jumped down, barely even crouching as he landed. He drew his sword and before Ichigo could even open his mouth to protest, drove it with casual efficiency through the forehead of the man on the ground.

"I am."

The crowd roared. Ichigo stood there, aghast. Sickened.

"Why did you do that?" he whispered it.

Grimmjow left the blade impaled through the man's head. Blood seeping out , pooling on the stone beneath the dead eyed face. Turning pink as it mixed with rainwater.

Grimmjow cocked a brow at him. "I don't like people fucking with my things."

Ichigo tightened his grip on the wooden sword, knuckles cracking. "I'm not one of your things."

Grimmjow's eyes flicked down to the wooden sword, grin slowly spreading. "You wanna have a go at me? Seeing as you're armed and all? You wanna smash my skull in with that stick? You do don't you? I can see it in your eyes. And here you claimed you were a killer."

"For you," Ichigo growled. "I'd make an exception."

Grimmjow laughed and held out his empty hands. "Well come on. I won't even arm myself."

Red crowded around the edges of Ichigo's vision. Anger and frustration boiling over until he couldn't think coherently.

Say my name, the whisper clawed at the inside of his head. Say my name.

Shut up. He lashed out at it. Tired of the clamoring, when he didn't understand. Bits and pieces of the shell of that insidious thing at the center of his - - everything - - flaked away, battered by force of his rage.

"Well, well - -" Grimmjow's tongue flicked out, licking the sharp points of his canines, nostrils flaring as if he scented something.

Then the sky opened up. A rippling tear in the very air above their heads and blackness poured down upon them.

Like an ocean of liquid ink crashing down, taking shape as it hit the atmosphere, huge and long and lithe, claws that gleamed dull black, jagged maws that could have swallowed a large man whole, tails that lashed, long and serpentine and serrated. And no eyes. Not a hint of them, which was somehow more unnerving than the rest.

They came down aimed at him, shrieking like steel tipped nails against a chalkboard, drowning out the screams of the crowd. He stood there, shocked, something at the back of his mind shrieking in animal fear - - Something at the back of his memory recoiling from these things out of faint recognition.

Then Grimmjow was between them and him, swinging his blade with a battle howl and a surge of bone shaking invisible force.

Ichigo was blown backwards, off his feet and into the wall behind him. Grimmjow was staggered, down on one knee, shaking his head in something akin to surprise as the thing he'd barely stopped, crouched, twice as tall as he was at the shoulder and three times as long not including the whipping length of the tail. The others, smaller by far than the first scattered, launching into the crowd like wraiths made solid, ripping into flesh and bone with black maws and lashing tails.

And those people who had so desired blood and death, suddenly got it. Bodies disintegrated, the faint curl of what was left seemingly absorbed by the things hunting among them.

"What the hell are you?" Grimmjow got to his feet, shaking out his sword arm.

The thing wasn't inclined to answer. It leapt in attack, and Grimmjow launched himself to meet it. The rippling shockwave of the impact shattered stone, deafening, blinding, incapacitating.

Ichigo found himself covered in debris. Stone and dirt shaken loose from the walls of the pit. He blinked dirt from his eyes, spat it from his mouth. Flung himself to the side as an arc of pure destructive power cut into the wall above his head, showering more rock down upon him. That one had come from Grimmjow, he was pretty sure. Grimmjow who was immersed in a twisting, coiling battle with that black as void beast that had slunk out of nothingness to attack them.

The whip of a sinewy black tail almost decapitated him. With the power they were throwing around in the confines of the pit, Ichigo would probably be the first casualty. The twisted metal grate, half off its hinges, offered a route of escape. He grabbed the wooden sword and ran. Dove through as the void beast got past Grimmjow's defense and lunged not at Grimmjow but at Ichigo. The tunnel he pelted down was too small by far for the thing to fit though, but the impact as it hit the wall sent dirt and stone and the wood shoring up the passageway down upon Ichigo's head.

He cursed and ran faster. There were rickety wooden stairs at the end. He took them three at a time, bursting out into a shack and that out onto the lantern lined street and the chaos that had erupted upon it.

People were trampling each other in their frenzy to escape. Even the fighters, the big men who strutted about like they were the true predators, stumbling over themselves in efforts to get away. And those who did turn to fight found themselves overwhelmed. Torn apart like so much tissue paper, the essence of their souls devoured as an afterthought. As if these things, these void beasts were starving and trying to gorge themselves to satisfy the pangs of hunger.

One of them saw him over the heads of the crowd. He felt it as the attention turned his way. It held a man in its tail, the sinewy length of it coiled around his neck and head. With a flick, it constricted and the body almost imploded, disintegrating as it folded inwards. Then it plowed through the scattering crowd, heading towards Ichigo.

He ran. Cut into the narrow back door of a building, pelting through rooms littered with the garbage of people who just didn't have the energy to care. Figures stirred as he passed, then stirred more as the walls crashed behind him. The flimsy wood of a building barely standing on its own, collapsing under the impact of the thing trying to claw its way through after him.

After him in particular. The big one had zeroed in on him and only been distracted by Grimmjow who was not easy to ignore. This one had given up closer prey to pursue him and that was baffling and terrifying, because he hadn't a clue why. Other than the wispy remnants of what might have been a nightmare.

He hit the front door with his shoulder and burst out onto the main street. Not far down people were spilling out from the warren of alleyway entertainments.

Where to go. Where to find a shelter these things couldn't demolish. He didn't know. While he stood there momentarily stymied, the front of the building he'd exited, exploded outwards. Ichigo spun, instinctively bringing up the wooden sword to block the rake of claws coming towards his head. Wood shattered in his hands, numbing his arm, flinging him backwards into people running down the street. Bodies softened the impact of his fall, and he found himself tangled amidst several groaning, cursing people.

The void beast shrieked and leapt at him. And was intercepted by a blur of black and a slash of gleaming steel.

A soul reaper. One of the two from earlier. The young one, who lunged at the monster raining blows down upon it. The beast swiped at him, the blades skidding off the dull black of its skin with little impact. The soul reaper danced back, barely avoiding the reach of its claws and barked without turning.

"Run. All of you. Run."

The people Ichigo had collided with hesitated not at all in following that directive. Ichigo was slower to retreat. Not quite understanding why this guy, who hadn't heisted to cut down a kid without even trying to help him regain what he'd been, was so determined to put himself between these people and that beast.

The void beast got in a hit, a glancing rake of its claws that sent the young soul reaper crashing into the wall of the building to the right. It swung its eyeless gaze towards Ichigo.

Damn.

Then the other soul reaper was there, slashing at the thing from behind. His intervention gave the younger one the moment he needed to gather his breath. Then he was back as well, hitting it from the front.

An explosion back the way he'd come, and shockwaves rent the air, sent wooden shingles hurtling and crumbled the flimsy walls of buildings. Ichigo ducked out of reflex, shielding his face as propelled debris buffeted him.

Grimmjow.

It had to be Grimmjow dealing with the biggest of the void beasts. It had his scent, even though Ichigo wasn't entirely even sure how he knew it. The scent of the void beasts was weirdly lacking. No sense of power radiating from them - - more the opposite. Like they sucked it up, just like the souls of the people they'd killed.

No - - not the souls - - but the spark of energy those souls possessed.

The two soul reapers had hesitated in their attack, both of them staring along with everyone else that wasn't running, towards the direction of the eruption of power, clearly surprised. Clearly off their guard. The void beast they faced was not so distracted. This time when it hit the young one at its fore, it wasn't a glancing blow. It was a full on rake of its claws that caught him across the chest, ripping cloth, tearing flesh, trailing blood in its wake.

"Nobuo!" The other one screamed as his comrade was flung backwards. He roared in fury, redoubling his efforts.

Ichigo scrambled to the still body of the wounded one. The cloth of his kimono was shredded from shoulder to hip. The flesh underneath was torn down to the bone. Down past bone. He could see blood bubbling with the struggling remnants of breath. He could see the pink, glistening throb of organs beneath. God.

Blood seeped from between pale lips. He looked maybe twenty, if that. A round face with a spattering of freckles, that might have been pleasant if it hadn't been blood spattered and dying.

Ichigo pressed his hands across the worst of the wound, where the blood was leaking with the most gusto, trying to staunch the flow.

"Hold on. Just hold on."

One hand reached up, weakly grasping his arm. "Run- - run."

Unbelievable.

"You. Get him out of here," the other one screamed at him, even as he blocked a swipe of the tail with his sword. The impact drove him back ten feet.

It was reasonable advice. There was little Ichigo could do here, and getting a wounded man to safety was at least something. The soul reaper wasn't that big under the folds of his clothing. Not that hard to haul up and half carry, half drag into the shelter of a building. Ichigo tore off his own tattered shirt, balled it up and pressed it against the terrible wound. The soul reaper looked up at him dazedly.

Something shrieked in the distance. Ichigo hunched his shoulders, eardrums thrumming in protest. Something clattered through the doorway and he half spun, one hand still pressing the wadded cloth against the soul reaper's wound. But it was only the other soul reaper, blood on his face from a long gash, sword bare and trembling in his hand.

"Damnit," he swore, striding in and shoving Ichigo to the side. "Nobuo? Nobuo, let me see." He edged the bloody cloth aside, then swore again. He pressed his hands over the wound, eyes closed, teeth bared, a faint warm sense of power radiating from his palm.

"Not so bad," the young one whispered.

"Shut up. Shut up." Mikio growled, concentration wrinkling his brow. Then he let out a frustrated breath. "This is beyond me. I can't - - I can't heal it - -"

"It's - - okay. What - - what was that, Mikio?"

"I don't know. I don't know." Mikio fumbled in his kosode, pulled out a fragile looking black thing. It fluttered in his palm, unfolding, stretching out velvety black wings. A huge moth or butterfly perched on his hand.

"This is Mikio Daisai of 6. We need help. Send backup, now." He flung his hand and the butterfly flittered up, a few graceful beats of its wings, and then it seemed to phase entirely out of existence. Mikio turned a glower to Ichigo.

"You. This is your fault."

"What?"

A big finger stabbed towards his face. "It was after you. Why was it after you?"

He stared, wide-eyed, not having an answer to that. Afraid that it was all too true, though. And if it was - - was he to blame for this? For all this death and pain?

"Stay with him, you hear?" Mikio growled at him, starting to rise.

"You - - can't - -" The wounded one whispered, reaching for his arm. " - - that thing - - we don't know what - - it's too powerful - -"

Mikio looked out the door, brows wrinkled. "And something more powerful still, over there - - you felt it, too?"

Nobuo nodded, shuddering in a spasm of pain.

"What the hell is going on out here?"

Something made the building creak. A thud against the roof, claws scraping against wood.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Ichigo knelt there, staring at the roof along with the other two. Mikio shot up, fist clenched about the hilt of his sword.

Nobuo didn't try and stop his comrade this time, when he ran outside. Maybe he couldn't gather the breath. He was struggling for air now, blood bubbling at his mouth. Dying right there in front of Ichigo, because he'd gotten in between him and the thing that was hunting him. He ground his teeth in helpless frustration.

Wake up, the whisper scratched at the walls inside his mind. Wake up and say my name, Ichigo.

"Then tell it to me," he screamed at it, fisting a blood-covered hand in his hair. And that shut it up. The young soul reaper was blinking at him, not quite so out of it that he wasn't concerned for the sanity of the person he was likely at the mercy of. The building shuddered, boards showering down from the ceiling.

Ichigo sheltered Nobuo's body with his own, wood hitting his back. The building was coming apart and this was no safe place to be.

"We're going," he said, and pulled the young reaper up, shouldering all his weight as he hauled him towards the back of the building. He kicked the flimsy door open to the alley beyond. God, but this place was nothing but alleys and narrow streets and dilapidated buildings. There was no one out here though. The screams were distant. Fewer now than there had been.

The guy at his side was listing, nothing but dead weight. But alive. He still felt that spark of - - something fluttering at the center of the young soul reaper. He traveled another street over and found a likely spot. Kicked open the door of what might have been a shop. Shelves lined with a mish mash of items, a dark counter. Empty. He laid Nobuo down on the floor behind the counter and through a narrow doorway behind it, saw a handful of frightened faces peering out. An old man and a pair of young seeming children. Dirty faced and scared.

There was a rag behind the counter. He grabbed it and pressed it against Nobuo's wound.

"Come here," he beckoned. The trio stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. "Damnit, come here and help me."

Finally the old man crept out, crawling on hands and knees.

"Keep this pressed on the wound." Ichigo guided the wrinkled hand, looked the old man in the eyes. "Do you have anything here - - a weapon?"

A mute shake of the head. Ichigo hissed through his teeth, eyes scanning the shelves, the walls for anything. He crept to the door, peering out.

There was a flare of light in the dark sky. Something sparking up there above the town. The ground shook with it, now and then. If that was Grimmjow battling the big void beast - - then damn. He'd been containing himself a lot in his dealings with Ichigo.

The building across the narrow street exploded outwards, the small dark figure of a soul reaper crashing through, slamming through the wall of the shop Ichigo had taken shelter in. Shelves collapsed, bottles and containers raining down. The larger, ink dark form of a void beast followed, lunging through the debris across the street in pursuit.

The kids were shrieking, scrambling backwards. Mikio wasn't moving, but Nobuo was, pushing himself up, one hand holding the cloth across his wound, the other extended before him. He took anther step and Ichigo could feel a gathering of that spiritual energy around him.

"Hido number four," Nobuo's bloody lips whispered. "Byakurai."

Light erupted from his palm, searing through the darkness and striking the void beast dead on as it sat foot through the shattered hole in the front of the shop. Nobou dropped to his knees, coughing up blood, and the thing stood there, a trail of smoke hazing off of its broad head, the faintest glowing gouge across one twisted ear. But that was all. Just that.

"No," Ichigo whispered, and did the only thing he could do. He stepped in front of Nobou and the old man and the kids, figuring if the thing wanted him so badly, then maybe when it got him in its jaws, it might be satisfied and ignore the others.

"Fool," Nobou whispered, sliding sideways against the counter, to the floor, a trail of blood in his wake.

The void beast lunged at Ichigo. He tried to avoid it, but it was fast. It caught him in the black pit of its maw, shaking him once, twice like a dog with a rat, then it flung him. He went through the wall between shops, pain exploding behind his eyes, across the entirety of his body as he hit and then hit again, coming to rest against the far wall in a pile of shattered debris. Blackness crowded in, but it couldn't extinguish the hurt. And God, it felt like things were broken. Ribs most likely, his left arm was throbbing, but he could almost shift his fingers.

It came through the ragged hole he'd made in the wall, dislodging more wood as it forced its way through. It had no eyes, but he felt its focus upon him. Its utter awareness of him.

Say my name. The whisper throbbed with the pounding of his blood. And half in half out of consciousness he could see that floating sphere, could feel it heavy and pulsating with pressure at the core of him.

What do you want from me? he sobbed, drifting in darkness and pain.

Say my name.

I don't know it!

You do. Say my name. It wasn't a whisper this time, but a desperate cry.

A coil of red-tinged energy peeled away from that compressed thing at the center of him, dissipating into the darkness. Another band of it came loose, a chink in the armor where there hadn't been before. A surge of black pressure rushed out, widening the gap. Red around the edges like the energy that had bound the orb. That had protected the orb. It hit him, a flood of it rushing in to fill voids he hadn't even known were there. An overwhelming gale of power that scattered his senses, too much, too fast. Merciless in its invasion.

Say my name. It roared at him.

And he knew it. He knew with more of a certainty that he held for anything else in this world he found himself in. His own name, he didn't know, but this name - - this name was branded into the core of his being.

Zangetsu.

He screamed it.

And it exploded out of him. A whirlwind of screaming spiritual energy bursting free of its confinement. The whole of his body electrified. A million volts of screaming power rushing to the surface. Solidifying, forming into something concrete. The solid, familiar feel of a blade in his hand.

He stared at it in shock, a sword almost as long as he was tall, no traditional hilt, no guard, just cloth wound around the long base where the hilt should have been, a wide deadly blade, silver on one edge, black as soot on the other. Solid and heavy - - he knew it was heavy, and yet he held before him as if it were nothing. He didn't know if the power flowed from it to him, or from him to it, only that there was power. He felt it in his bones. Felt it in the hair standing on end on his arms. And like the sword, it was familiar. And not just a sword, but clothing as well. Folds of black cloth draped his body. Black hakama, black kosode, just like the uniforms the two soul reapers wore. A blood red strap from shoulder to hip. Light like silk, black like death.

The void beast crouched in the shattered space between buildings, tail thrashing, long, black body thrumming as it prepared itself to leap. When it did, he acted on instinct. Simple, blind instinct and hurled himself through the rice paper doors of the room he was in and out onto the street. There were wounded in that building, and children cowering in fear. So he led it away from them.

And god, he was fast now. The speed just came up out of nowhere. That power flooding out from the core of him, seeping into his bone and muscle and flesh.

When it came at him, he let it, met the charge with the blade and a roar, the energy surging through him backed by all the rage and helpless frustration that had coiled inside him for the last few days of misery.

The impact of his strike shook the ground. It blew in doors and shattered windows. The ground was rent, a chasm of torn earth forty feet long. The void beast floundered at the end of that muddy tear. Or part of it did. Part of it lay not far from where he stood. A shoulder and one twitching front leg. And nothing but black on the inside. Jet black that writhed and shifted, as if a thousand globulous things were trying to escape to the light.

He jerked his eyes away from that and looked towards the rest of the thing. He lifted the sword, aiming the tip at the beast. Its focus was still on him. This ravenous focus that was unshaken by the amputation of a pretty damned big part of its body.

"You want me. You got me." He wanted to be there, and he was, his body moving of its own accord, almost faster than his mind could follow. Almost. He was swinging Zangetsu before he covered half the distance. By the time the arc followed through he was there, the blade cutting into the neck of the beast. Slicing clean through. Blackness poured out, funneling up like a whirlwind. Not blood though, more like the essence of the thing.

The thing was crumpling, spider web cracks splintering across its sleek skin, breaking apart like everything on the inside had dried up and the outer shell had lost its ability to hold shape. He caught a flash of dark rushing up from behind a fraction of a breath before it hit him. He almost dodged it, those instinctual reflexes and the phenomenal speed he'd discovered to back them, making his body move without actual thought backing the action. The claws might have torn his back apart, severed his spine, ripped him in half, instead of simply raking a gash across his shoulder.

It hurt like a bitch, but he'd discovered of late that there were worse things than pain. And a little pain when he had the strength to get up and give back some of his own instead of lying there and taking it, was an acceptable thing. He spun, and scored a blow along the flank of the second void beast. Twisted out of the way as it snapped at him, back maw closing in on nothing but the hem of his hakama.

Launched himself backwards, striking down as he back flipped up and over. Sliced again as he came down, cutting into the back legs of the thing. Not making that much of a dent. It took those power backed blows to have much of an effect. And he was tiring. The blood was trailing down his back, and his footing, when he danced backwards, avoiding the rush of the thing, was a little less stable. He'd had that flood of power, but it was finite and he was operating on instinct and luck alone here. He had to finish it fast, or he might not be able to at all.

If he could gather up one more adrenalin backed surge of power and put it all into a final blow he might be able to level the thing. He wasn't entirely sure how he'd done it the first time other than he'd been pissed and scared and frustrated. If he didn't manage it he was dead and those two soul reapers and the people inside the shop would probably follow pretty quickly.

The void beast wasn't allowing him the time to ponder the mechanics of the thing. It was doing its best to shred him, and he was doing his to dance out of the way, parrying with the blade when he couldn't, slicing back when he had the opening.

He ground his teeth and willed it. Wanted it. Needed it. Demanded it. And it swelled up in answer. Crested like a black tidal wave inside him, that he released with an in articulate cry and a swing of the sword directly in the face of the beast lunging towards him.

It was frighteningly beautiful in a way, that sheet of red tinged black power that ripped out of Zangetsu, that ripped out of him, and tore into the void beast. It was no clean amputation this time, but a more thorough destruction. A complete shattering of the body, and the black essence inside it. It gouged the street, tore open the string of buildings directly behind where the beast had been.

He hadn't expected it to be that powerful. It had taken everything he had, and he stood there, sword suddenly heavy in his hand. His knees felt weak. His hand was shaking so bad he couldn't hold Zangetsu up any longer. The tip of it hit the soft earth with thud. If another one came at him, he was fucked, pure and simple.

"Who are you?"

Ichigo jerked his eyes from the crater in the road, to the gaping hole in the small shop. The soul reaper Mikio stood there, one arm around his ribs, the other clutching his sword. He was staring at Ichigo much the same as Ichigo had been staring at the destruction he'd wrought.

And Ichigo didn't know how to answer that question. He knew less now than he had. Before, he'd just been another reborn soul with the bad luck to find himself in the worst place the afterlife had to offer, caught in the clutches of an enemy he didn't remember making. Now - - now he was something altogether. This blade - - that felt like a living thing - - that coiled presence inside him. The power that filled him like a wellspring that had been unplugged in his soul. What was he supposed to make of that?

"I have no idea."

The soul reaper clenched his fist, face tightening in pain. He staggered out onto the street and spat. "That's a zanpakuto, but if you're a soul reaper, I've never seen you. What squad are you with? Why the hell didn't you say anything? Why did you wait to help us, you bastard?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't - - I couldn't - -"

"You had nothing of spiritual pressure before - - but now - - where did it come from. Were you hiding it? What kind of sick game are you playing?"

"No. No games - - I didn't know - - I don't know how - -"

"He's dead. Because he thought he was protecting a powerless soul. Because you waited to act. I should cut you down, myself." The man screamed at him.

Ichigo started past him in shock. The children and the old man were creeping past the counter, but of Nobou wasn't moving. Just a black, tattered figure on the floor by the counter. No slightest flutter of spiritual energy emanating from it. Dead. And he didn't know what happened to the dead here, in the afterlife. But three days in and he'd seen more than his fair share of lives ended before his eyes. This last one made him feel sick. This young soul reaper had run into danger, instead of away from it and that made it all the worse.

"I'm sorry - -" he didn't know what else to say. The apology felt like ash in his mouth.

Mikio lunged at him, fisted his hands in Ichigo's collar and growled in his face. "Sorry? You're sorry you, little prick? He was a good man. A better man than me. He had a future ahead if him. He was going to be a seated officer and him only out of the academy a few years - - and he's dead!!"

Ichigo let the man shake him. The sting of the accusation was more painful than that of the gash on his shoulder, slowly leaking blood down his back. The man shoved him and his legs didn't have the strength to prevent the fall. He staggered and hit the ground, sitting there, Zangetsu in the mud between his knees.

"So we having a little party here?"

Ichigo snapped his eyes up at the familiar drawl. Twisted around to see Grimmjow in the street behind him. He shut his eyes, shuddering. Half an hour ago, he might have had the strength to make a dent against the smug bastard. He wasn't sure if he could stand up now. But he'd try. He'd damn well try, because he'd die before he let the bastard have free reign with him again.

He wrapped his fingers around Zangetsu's hilt and used it as a crutch to haul himself up. The soul reaper was behind him, staring with narrowed eyes as Grimmjow strolled towards them. The lower right half of his jaw was covered in that bone. There were a few rips in his clothing, a few bloodstains, but little in the way of slashed flesh to account for them. His jacket was open, clearly revealing the hollow hole in his abdomen.

"You're a - - hollow?" Mikio leveled his sword. His arm was trembling.

"Don't insult me. I might kill you. I might kill you anyway."

Ichigo put himself between the soul reaper and Grimmjow, gathering strength and lifting the sword. He wouldn't have another death on his head.

A grin spread across Grimmjow's face.

"Well look at you. Playing with big boy toys, huh. Got some of your power back. Hummm, but you're still weak."

Weak? He'd just taken down two of those damned black beasts and Grimmjow called him weak. Bastard. Rapist. Murderer.

"I'm strong enough."

"Yeah? I like the sound of that. Like I said before - - fight you or fuck you - -I'm happy either way. But I don't think you're up to taking me on, right now. Looks like you're swaying on your feet."

"Go to hell." He was shaking.

"What the hell is going on? What are - -" Mikio demanded.

"An arrancar, idiot. I'm an arrancar. What are they teaching you newbies?" Grimmjow sneered.

Ichigo couldn't stop the tremors, the very sight of Grimmjow making him see red around the edges. Humiliation. Shame. Violation. Something yammered in a frothing, feral rage at the remnants of that cage at the center of his soul. Tearing at the remaining bands and thorns and jagged cords of energy that still trapped things inside.

Grimmjow looked past him, past the soul reaper standing at his back. "Well - - shit. Perfect fucking timing," he groused.

And Ichigo felt it. A sudden vacuum of energy. A twisting ripple in the air itself as something opened behind him. He couldn't take his eyes off Grimmjow, who was frowning in annoyance. If he launched himself now, he might get in a solid hit, while Grimmjow was distracted. And that feral thing clawing at the center of him couldn't have cared less about playing dirty when the odds were stacked against him.

But voices got through the haze of rage, and the sense of spiritual presences that were not inconsequential. Voices that barked with authority. Grimmjow looked at him, long and hard, gauging, before he shrugged and strolled over to the side of the street, leaning against a still standing post, eyes half veiled.

Ichigo half looked over his shoulder, not wanting to turn his back on Grimmjow. He saw a doorway where no doorway should have been. A circular portal with a set of fine, latticed doors, floating a foot above the ravaged road. Light spilled from within it, silhouetting the figures who moved through it.

Soul reapers. A good many soul reapers, stepping from that brilliant light into the grey mud of this dead end town. Mikio moved to meet them, gesturing, trying to explain, while the newcomers prowled the area, some blinking away, almost faster than Ichigo could follow them, heading into the town.

"I don't know what they were, sir," Mikio was giving his report, trying to make sense of to the reinforcements that had come just a little too late. "They weren't hollows. They weren't anything I'd seen before. We couldn't stop them - - and Nobou - - Nobou took grievous injury - - And that one's at the center of it. They were after him - - before he killed them."

Mikio stabbed a finger towards Ichigo and the eyes of the men listening to his tale turned his way. Soul reapers in black, and one with a robe of pristine white over the dark of his kimono.

Ichigo took a breath, trying to calm the furor inside, trying to figure out how to explain the unexplainable. But they weren't glaring at him in accusation. In fact no few of them were staring with faint, wide-eyed confusion. The one in the sleeveless white robe, to whom Mikio seemed to be addressing his report was staring past the battered soul reaper at Ichigo with a narrow eyed intensity that gradually turned to a brief flicker of shock.

Ichigo heard his name whispered from one of the gathered men. And it spread among them, these men he didn't know.

Captain?" Mikio asked uncertainly, but was ignored as the white robed man brushed past him, moving towards Ichigo.

"Ichigo Kurosaki," he stated softly, eyes fixed with cool intensity on his face, then flicking to the sword in his hand, down the length of the blade to the tip resting in the mud. Back up to fix Ichigo with eyes the color of forged steel, black rimmed, long and cool. Any surprise he'd momentarily betrayed long gone. A silver filigree something glinted against the dark of long, black as night hair. His face was a work of art, like some sculptor had decided he needed to one up normal human perfection. The sword at his hip exuded this quiet, immense sense of power.

Honestly, the guy was a bit intimidating.

"Umm - - yeah? Kurosaki, huh? I didn't know that. Thanks for telling me."

The grey eyes didn't flicker, but there was the slightest tightening of fine lips. The barest inclination of his head, the shift of his eyes and the men starting to converge from behind him, stopped.

"Where have you been?" A soft inquiry, but there seemed the fine edge of a blade beneath the question. As if whatever answer Ichigo might give would be the difference between life and death. His.

"Here. For a couple of days, I guess."

"Before?"

He swallowed, looking past this soul reaper captain to the faces of the men behind him. Their eyes were glued to him, like he was some ghost.

"I don't know. I was just - - here. There's no before. At least that I can remember." He had to swallow, his voice coming out hoarse. He met Mikio's accusing stare from amidst the other soul reapers.

"I didn't know," he said that more to that condemning glare than the stone faced captain standing before him. "I didn't know I could - - do what I did - - or I would have - -"

He trailed off, because all the excuses in the world wouldn't bring back the dead - - even here.

"You know me?" he whispered.

"Yes." That simple answer and nothing more, as if this man were in the habit of rationing out words like they were in short supply.

The captain stared at him a moment longer, then his eyes shifted, moving beyond Ichigo, fixing on Grimmjow where he was casually observing them all.

"You." If disdain could drip from a perfectly modulated tone, from a perfectly modulated expression, this soul reaper captain managed it.

"Byakuya." Grimmjow drawled.

A flicker of annoyance passed through grey eyes.

There was a shifting among the gathered soul reapers. A tension, as Grimmjow pushed off from the post he was leaning against and sauntered towards Ichigo and the captain.

Ichigo's hand tightened on the sword, everything tensing. Vision tunneling, focusing on Grimmjow and that faint mocking grin he wore.

"Why are you here?" The captain, Byakuya asked.

"Here? Because it's a lot less stuffy out here than it is deeper into Rukongai. A lot less assholes sticking their noses into people's business, you know what I mean, Byakuya?"

"Show some respect," one of the soul reapers behind the captain, snapped, offended on behalf of his superior.

Grimmjow stopped next to Ichigo, close enough that his shoulder brushed him. He flinched. He couldn't stop recoiling, couldn't stop the way his hands began to shake. Part of it was anger, was incoherent rage - - but not all. There was fear mixed in. It didn't matter he had a sword in his hand and a power awakened within him that he didn't understand - - his body remembered what this bastard had done to it - - and it quaked.

"I was given leave - - you know for what." Grimmjow grinned, casual and insolent.

"There are those that extend tolerance towards you in gratitude for service done. I'm not one of them. And that you are here with him I find entirely suspect." The captain's expression didn't falter at all. Like a marble statue, perfect and implacable.

"More suspect than those things that chewed up your men and spat them out? I took care of the ones he didn't, you know. Which was most of them. And the big one was a bitch. Doubt you soul reapers could have dealt with it"

"Do you?" There was a stillness to Byakuya that was beginning to feel dangerous.

"He barely took out a few of the little ones, but then he's not all there, if you know what I mean." Grimmjow laid an arm across Ichigo's shoulders, as if he had some right. As if Ichigo had no choice but to tolerate it.

He'd damned sure gained a choice the moment he'd called on that power and the dam holding it back had burst at the center of him. The weight of Grimmjow's arm - - the feel of his hand upon the back of his neck - - and all he could see was red-tinged black.

He swung the sword, a blind arc of steel and power that might have cleaved a body in half, if any of the bodies within its range had stayed still enough to be sliced by it. Grimmjow jumped back, grinning. Byakuya who'd been close enough to be collateral damage, simply disappeared, flickering from where he'd been standing to just out of range, faster than even Ichigo's newly enhanced senses could follow.

But Ichigo's attention was all for Grimmjow. Ichigo's burning desire to slice that infuriating grin off his face.

"See, he's not in his right mind." Grimmjow said. "Why don't you guys head back to greener places and let me and him hash it out?"

Ichigo growled, tensing to attack again. Byakuya stepped in front of him, blocking his view of Grimmjow's grinning visage.

"Leave. Now. I will not ask you again." The fingers of Byakuya's hand rested lightly upon the hilt of his sword. The folds of the fine white robe he wore over the black of his kimono fluttered in a breeze that had come out of nowhere. It smelled faintly of cherry blossoms, fragrant and sweet. An anomaly here, in this barren, miserable place, where not a flower, much less a cherry tree lived.

Grimmjow canted his head. There was interest in his eyes, aroused at the prospect of a fight. His eyes flicked past Ichigo and Byakuya to the other soul reapers. His grin turned calculating.

"I'd hate to loose my privileges here. Huecho Mundo isn't the place it used to be and the human world is so damned boring without a good gigai to wear around."

Byakuya had no opinion whatsoever about those complaints. Still water couldn't have been so placid. And yet, Ichigo felt the stirring of power below the cool surface and there was nothing placid about it.

Grimmjow waved a hand, a casual gesture of dismissal. "Yeah. Sure. I was tired of this town anyway. I'll be seeing you, Ichigo. Count on it."

And he was gone. Blinking away so fast all Ichigo saw was the after image. Byakuya stood there a moment longer, before he turned.

"You. Wait here." The command was issued with barely a glance at Ichigo, as Byakuya moved past, towards his scattered men.

He didn't even have to bark a command, they just moved into motion.

"I'll see to securing the area, sir," One of them promised.

Ichigo stood there, clutching his sword, still trembling from reaction. Numb now. Curiously numb, even down to the slice in his shoulder. He let the sword tip drop to the ground, the weight of it suddenly more than he could handle.

They were coming and going behind him, all those new soul reapers. Conferring with their captain, their voices this low blurring buzz that meant nothing to him. He felt their eyes on him though and the weight of their curiosity. They'd stopped whispering his name, but he thought Byakuya had more to do with that than any dwindling of interest on their part. They knew him. Byakuya knew him. Grimmjow had known him. And yet to him, they were strangers one and all. His memory eaten away by death, which was the way of things, according to the two old women. And yet - - he knew the sword in his hand. He knew how the world should have been - - the real world - - where real live humans dwelled. A pair of sneakers would have been a luxury beyond belief. And he'd fight a man for a cold can of soda his throat was so parched. It was disconcerting, the broken shreds of memory - - when the important things were beyond his reach.

"Ichigo Kurosaki." He flinched at his name - - his full name apparently. Byakuya seemed incapable of calling him anything but. He turned to see that glowing gate still hovering and Byakuya standing before it in the company of two of his men and the wounded Mikio.

He stared at them, not understanding.

"Ichigo Kurosaki," Byakuya turned, not giving him a second glance as he stepped into the gateway. "Come with me."

 

 

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