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What would you do if you could rewrite Bleach?

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@ MarchLocnessMarch

Hueco Mundo is much more than a desert world. Tite Kubo showed this in a story that was not incuded in the manga because he couldn't find the time. But there are drawings and it was included in the anime.


The Bleach game universe looks interesting. I am not a gamer and have only followed the images and descriptions here as well as some video clips. I can only say that I like the design and it is one of the main reasons why I would love a parallel universe story dealing with them. I would include the missing parts as well, like what happened on the dome after Ichigo left. Did Yammy seek revenge, attacking Uryuu as he threatened to do? It would give Orihime a chance to redeem herself after what happened before. How was Yammy defeated? Why was everybody except Orihime bandaged when they returned? If I ever see this, it would make me a very happy fan!

Random points:

I found your Hueco Mundo essay very entertaining and a lot of it would look good in canon. I especially enjoyed the revelation of Isshin's Shinigami identity including the reunion with his former subordinates. Curious Rangiku being pushy. This is so much in character. And Karin - I was smiling. I really wish she was more involved in Bleach. Hm, and during that conversation, Isshin is keeping his personal history with his Quincy wife to himself. Good. This is a decision I definitely agree with.

Ah, ok. I started writing before reading all of it. Nevertheless, maybe it is a good idea to leave the link to the Menos Forest page for people who want to look at more information. But I like your version as well.

I most definitely would have kept Renji and Uryuu together. I loved their team work and the chemistry between them. Renji is one of the characters who really should have known better at the end of Bleach. It still bothers me that only Orihime was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I haven't got that many comments this time also because this part of Bleach is dealing with a lot of characters I am not that interested in. But it certainly was an entertaining read! :)
 
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Below are the first two sections of the Karakura Town invasion, with the remaining Acts 3-5 still pending. I also went back to the Soul Society arc and added some context for how the Rukongai differs from its canonical version. Enjoy!

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- ACT ONE: TENKAI KETCHU -
• Las Noches - The Seventh Tower
Orihime Inoue blinks in terror as Coyote Starrk sets her down before Sōsuke Aizen’s throne. The Lord of Hollows is standing at the foot of a grand staircase, beckoning her to come join him. Observing her distraught expression, Aizen clasps her hand and draws her in close, advising that she “smile” as he caresses her face. He assures her that she is going home now, guiding her by the arm up the staircase. He brings her before a yawning Garganta, Karakura Town peering at them from the other end.

Orihime’s mind races — what about Ichigo, Rukia, and the others? — but Aizen gives her a caress on the shoulder. Just step forward and you will be home, he tells her. He adds that she need not worry: he and the others will be joining her shortly. Orihime’s eyes widen in horror as Aizen gives her a thin smile. She dashes forward into the portal, passes through, and plummets from the sky towards the buildings of Karakura Town.

Suddenly, she is stabilized — standing in mid-air. She looks down and sees her feet balancing on small platforms composed of light. Her fairies communicate that they will shield her from falling; they were strengthened by Hachi’s training and have independently devised techniques that she hadn’t even imagined before. Orihime warmly thanks them and gazes out at Karakura Town, moved to see her hometown again. But it is quiet — deadly quiet, with nary a person in sight. Orihime is confused — and suddenly snatched from the sky by an unseen figure.

• Las Noches - The Seventh Tower (Continued)
Gin remarks to Aizen that it’s not ideal that they had already lost half the Espada in one fell swoop. The Hollow Lord retorts that he is none too worried: just one of their four Vasto Lordes is worth all of the Adjuchas Espada who had fallen. Aizen turns back to Tōsen and orders him to cast Tentei Kura. The defector-captain juts out his arm, activating the spell.

We cut to the various Nakama dispersed across Hueco Mundo: Ishida and the Shinigami captains in Aaroniero’s palace; Chad and Isane trudging through unspecified dunes; Renji and Yumichika trudging through some other unspecified dunes; Mayuri rifling through Szayel’s laboratory; Ichigo and Nelliel standing over Grimmjow’s body. All of them perk up as they hear Aizen’s voice echo across the realm.

Aizen begins by congratulating the intruders on slaying so many members of the Espada. He would like to engage them himself, but he and his army are now off to convert Karakura Town into the Ōken.

This is news to everyone on the ground. Ichigo, Chad, and Ishida are all horrified to hear that Karakura Town is the target.

Aizen boasts that this could not have worked out more to his advantage: His kidnapping of Orihime Inoue prompted Soul Society to adopt a defensive posture, leaving Karakura Town completely undefended. Furthermore, the Gotei 13 has been reduced to just seven active captains. He will now seal the intruders inside of Hueco Mundo with no means of escape. Not to worry, he says: he will leave some forces to clean up the wounded trespassers.

An Arrancar emerges from beneath the sand at the base of Aizen’s tower: Rudbornn Chelute. Meanwhile, Yammy Riyalgo stirs awake, fury in his eyes as he hoists himself up and nurses his chest.

Aizen adds that there is one more matter: he has left Orihime Inoue in the seventh tower of Las Noches. Singling out the “so-called Substitute Shinigami” Ichigo Kurosaki, Aizen invites him to come and collect her.

Concluding his broadcast, the Hollow Lord grins as he turns his attention back to the Garganta. He beckons Gin and Kaname to follow him as he steps through.

• The Hueco Mundo Dunes
Ichigo struggles to his feet, his broken bones creaking. Grimacing through the pain, he tells Nel that they need to head for the Seventh Tower and find Orihime. He turns to the Arrancar, only to see her kneeling down in the sands, head bowed. He asks her if something is wrong.

Nelliel raises her eyes to meet Ichigo’s — the most exquisite sadness in her expression. She asks Ichigo if he can do something for her: strike her down. Ichigo nearly chokes on his breath, horrified by the request. He asks Nel why she would ever ask him to do such a thing. Nel bows her head once again as her Resurrección disintegrates, armor flaking away as he legs recede back into humanoid limbs. She reminds Ichigo that she had once served Aizen — he had evolved her himself with his imperfect Hōgyoku — and that hearing his voice again had confirmed to her that she cannot fight for him any longer. Without a master to serve, all she has left is her existence as a Hollow.

She admits that she had always felt a more sensitive connection to her past life as a human compared to her fellow Arrancars. Her existence was defined by feeling the deepest sadness over losing her heart. She wanted to make sense of her cursed life by adhering to honor and rationality, but she knows now that she will always feel deep sorrow above all else. She lost her heart long ago, but perhaps she can find peace after being purified by a Shinigami’s blade. She asks if Ichigo could grant her the mercy of renewal.

Ichigo is stunned. He absorbs Nel’s words for a beat, then tightens his grip on his sword. What he feels is conviction: he tells Nel that she is wrong. The former Espada gazes up as Ichigo kneels before her, getting level with her face. He asserts that she does have a heart; more than someone like Aizen. She may always be doomed to feel sorrow, but she also brings joy to her friends — that is worth living for. Nel is taken aback by Ichigo’s argument, eyes wide as she contemplates the sentiment.

Suddenly, Dondochakka and Pesche burst over the dunes, dashing towards Nel with tears in their eyes. They crash into her and Ichigo in one giant group hug — Ichigo yelping with pain as his broken bones are squeezed. The two Arrancar cry out how relieved they are to find Nelliel alright. She is at a loss for words, her eyes watering. She recalls when Rukia extended her fist to her. “Our hearts exist here.” Her face brightening with a warm smile, she thinks to herself that she finally may be understanding what the Shinigami meant. Rebounding in spirit, she enthusiastically doubles up the group hug, Ichigo squirming and begging to be let go as his bones crackle.

The Arrancar remembers that Ichigo is injured and gingerly sets him down with a sheepish apology. Ichigo winces, only to hear a voice tell him to suck it up. He opens his eyes to see Renji grinning down at him, Yumichika standing beside him. The two Shinigami, both looking refreshed, tell Ichigo that they had been busy fighting an Espada, but that Captain Mayuri rescued them. Ichigo is surprised to hear that they made contact with one of the captains, wondering if the others had rendezvoused with Kenpachi or Suí-Fēng. Renji tells Dondochakka and Pesche to heal Ichigo.

Kurosaki is surprised as the two Arrancar begin mending his wounds with their combined power. Nel happily explains how they had served as her healers back in the day. Yumichika cracks that the two knuckleheads had proven surprisingly helpful. After his bones are mended, Ichigo rises up, exclaiming that he is going to go retrieve Orihime. Nelliel offers to help him, but first she wants to bury her fellow Espada.

• Fake Karakura Town
Aizen, Gin, and Tōsen step out into the sky overlooking Karakura Town. The Hollow Lord orders his Espada to come out as well. Several Gargantas tear open; from them steps forth Aizen’s army:

- Coyote Starrk and Lilynette Gingerbuck.
- Barragan Louisebarn and his Fracción: Shawlong Koufe, Choe Neng Poww, Findorr Calius, Ggio Vega, and Luders Friegen.
- Tier Harribel and her Fracción: Emilou Apacci, Franceska Mila Rose, and Cyan Sung-Sun.
- Wonderweiss.

The Arrancar horde assemble behind Aizen. Barragan casts a condescending glare down at the town, remarking to Shawlong that it looks empty. Gin notices this as well, cheekily asking Aizen if all the townspeople are out on vacation.

Aizen scans the vacant buildings. His eyes turn to the perimeter surrounding the town and clocks four pillars. With a smile, he remarks that it seems they’ve all stepped into a trap.

Suddenly, columns of blazing fire erupt from around the city and into the sky, surrounding the Arrancar army. Starrk’s eyes widen as Lilynette draws closer to him. Harribel is horrified: what is this Reiatsu? Aizen looks back at his warriors with a withering look, telling them that what they are witnessing is Ennetsu Jigoku. He adds that their fear is merited, because none of them are a match for it.

Genryūsai Shigekuni Yamamoto flash-steps before the Arrancar army, his Zanpakuto drawn. The flames of Ryūjin Jakka dance from the blade. Aizen greets the captain-commander, asking where he has stowed the real Karakura Town.

With a grin, Yamamoto boasts that Soul Society had unraveled Aizen’s plot and taken measures to stop him: building a replica of Karakura and swapping it for the real town using the Senkaimon ritual of Tenkai Ketchu.

We cut to Orihime looking nonplussed as she finds herself at the center of the real Karakura Town, the municipality having been relocated to the Rukongai in the spirit realm. Rangiku Matsumoto sets her down, assuring her that she’s safe, now. Tōshirō Hitsugaya looks out at the confused townspeople, remarking that he hopes they won’t ask too many questions.

Karakura Town has been put on lockdown, with “authorities” announcing that there’s been a chemical spill around the outskirts of the city. Several cars are turned away from the border by police who look suspiciously like the Shinigami: they are their Gigais piloted by mod souls. “Please return home until the spill has been cleaned up — Hop!” an officer who looks very much like Rukia Kuchiki tells curious onlookers.

Tatsuki Arisawa gazes up at the sky as she walks to school with Mizuiro Kojima, remarking that the horizon looks different today.

Tōshirō opens up a Senkaimon. He and Rangiku turn back to Orihime, telling her to wait here until the war is won.

We cut back to the Fake Karakura Town. Aizen scoffs at Yamamoto’s boast, remarking that this was likely Kisuke Urahara’s doing rather than Soul Society.

The flames of Ennetsu Jigoku begin to gradually close in; genuine fear animating the Arrancars’ faces as they feel the heat grow more radiant. Yamamoto tells Aizen that the war is over: he will incinerate the traitor and his entire army in one fell swoop. Aizen responds with a thin smile, chiding the captain-commander for underestimating him.

Yamamoto is stunned as his flames evaporate. He suddenly feels a source of immense heat behind him, turning to see Wonderweiss in his Resurrección form: Extinguir. Aizen proclaims that Wonderweiss had traded everything — intelligence, personality, speech — to evolve an ability that could seal Ryūjin Jakka.

This encounter proceeds as it did in the Canon: Yamamoto destroys Wonderweiss with Hakuda, only for the slain Arrancar to swell with the flames of Ryūjin Jakka. Yamamoto throws himself on top of the explosion and is left a charred heap.

Aizen casually touches down on the enormous crater created by the blast. He strolls up to Yamamoto, congratulating him for being only a momentary nuisance. Aizen is within yards of the immobile Yamamoto when Retsu Unohana flash-steps between them.

There is a prolonged silence between the 4th Division Captain and the defector. Unohana reminds Aizen that he had once doubted they would ever meet again. Aizen, amused, acknowledges this and asks if the proud pacifist of the Gotei was ready to break her vow and draw her blade. Unohana dismisses the question, asserting that she is here only to heal the wounded.

Aizen looks up to see an army of Shinigami gazing down at him:

- 5th Division Captain Byakuya Kuchiki
- 7th Division Captain Sajin Komamura
- 8th Division Captain Shunsui Kyōraku
- 10th Division Captain Tōshirō Hitsugaya
- 13th Division Captain Jūshirō Ukitake

The Hollow Lord is deeply amused. He flash-steps back before his army, remarking that the day has gotten all the more interesting. Lilynette asks Starrk how Lord Aizen could be so confident after they had already been caught unawares by a friggin’ city switcheroo. Tōsen calls on Lilynette to observe that Lord Aizen’s foresight had already defeated Captain-Commander Yamamoto, the mightiest Shinigami. He advises all of the Arrancar to trust in Aizen’s strength and vision — as he does.

• Las Noches - Aaroniero’s Palace
Rukia Kuchiki slowly awakens as she feels her wounds recede. She sees Isane Kotetsu looking down at her with a smile, telling her to take it easy as she reorients herself. Rukia slowly rises and sees Kenpachi Zaraki, Yachiru, Suí-Fēng, Ōmaeda, Yasutoro Sado and Uryu Ishida before her. Her first reaction is relief to see Chad and Uryu again. The next is to ask if they’ve found Orihime yet.

Ishida recounts Aizen’s announcement, noting that Orihime is now in the Seventh Tower of Las Noches. The Quincy becomes tense as he admits that the situation looks dire: it is very possible that Karakura Town has already been raised to the ground. He suddenly yelps and dodges a sword swing from Kenpachi, the captain warning him not to underestimate the Gotei 13. Suí-Fēng concurs — they must trust that Soul Society’s forces can still stop Aizen.

Isane finishes healing Rukia. She investigates Uryū’s wound and gravely assesses that the neurological damage he did to his body — severing his own spinal cord from the top column — is beyond her ability to mend. He will be fully paralyzed once his Reiryoku is exhausted. Ūryu accepts the diagnosis soberly, remarking that only Orihime will be able to heal him — all the more reason to fetch her from the Seventh Tower as soon as possible.

• The Hueco Mundo Dunes
Nelliel and Ichigo have laid out Nnoitra and Grimmjow’s corpses side by side in shallow graves. Nel, head bowed, swipes her hand through the air, the force generating a rush of wind that carries waves of sand over the fallen Espadas’ bodies until they are well and buried. After a moment of reflection, she merrily offers to take Ichigo to the seventh tower — telling him to hop on her back. Ichigo awkwardly obliges and Nel dashes off with amazing speed — she has the fastest Sonído amongst the Arrancar, after all.

Renji and Yumichika watch slack-jacked as the Arrancar and Ichigo zip away from them in a flash. They advise Dondachakka and Pesche to sit the rest of the battle out before running after Nel.

Ichigo’s face is flapping in the wind as he struggles to hold onto a prancing Nelliel. In what feels like mere seconds, they’ve reached their destination and are standing before the Seventh Tower. Awaiting them is Rudbornn — the Arrancar flanked by dozens of his Exequias. Ichigo readies for a fight, but is surprised when the Arrancar declares that he may enter — but Miss Nelliel Tu Odelschwank may not follow in with him. Nel protests, but Ichigo tells her with a smile to standby: rescuing Orihime is his job. The Substitute Shinigami runs to the entrance of the tower while Rudbornn stares down Nelliel. Reaching the entrance, Ichigo launches off the ground, flying up towards Aizen’s throne room. Cue “Number One” and light up a cigarette while you’re at it.

The throne appears empty. Ichigo calls out for Orihime, but is answered with the dulcet whisper of a certain Espada: “Orihime Inoue is no longer in Las Noches.” Ulquiorra Cifer steps out from behind one of the pillars flanking Aizen’s throne, striding towards Ichigo with hands in his pockets. Ichigo draws out Zangetsu, demanding to know where Orihime is. Ulquiorra replies that he has already answered that question: she is not in Las Noches. She has been returned to the World of the Living, where she will fulfill her use to Lord Aizen.

Ulquiorra studies Ichigo’s unnerved expression and asks if he fears this was a trap. The Espada assures him that indeed it is. Ulquiorra draws his blade and beckons Ichigo to prepare himself. The Substitute Shinigami responds by releasing his Bankai.

• Fake Karakura Town
Aizen deduces that the four pillars erected around this mock Karakura Town are propping up the Tenkai Ketchu. Destroy the pillars and the real Karakura Town will return to its rightful place. He beckons Kaname to summon the Hooleer. Tōsen casts a Kido that functions as a flare, and a Garganta snaps open behind them, an enormous eye peering out from the darkness. The Hooleer lumbers forth and proceeds to spit out several enormous Hollows, Aizen ordering them to attack the spires. They trudge on to knock them over — only to be slain by the lieutenants posted at each point: Shūhei Hisagi, Izuru Kira, Rangiku Matsumoto, and Tetsuzaemon Iba.

Aizen casts the most withering of all gazes at Barragan, ordering him to see to this task. The former Hollow King begrudgingly dispatches Choe Neng Poww, Findorr Calius, Ggio Vega, and Luders Friegen to deal with the Shinigami.

As the Fracción disperse to do Barragan’s bidding, the remaining Arrancars and captains all simultaneously flash-step into position and instinctively sort each other into matchups:

Shunsui Kyōraku and Jūshirō Ukitake vs. Coyote Starrk and Lilynette Gingerbuck.

Byakuya Kuchiki vs. Barragan Louisebarn and Shawlong Koufe.

Tōshirō Hitsugaya vs. Tier Harribel, Emilou Apacci, Franceska Mila Rose, and Cyan Sung-Sun.

First Division Lieutenant Chōjirō Sasakibe joins Retsu Unohana at the base of the crater. He concernedly asks her how Yamamoto is fairing. Unohana responds that he will survive should he continue to be monitored, but that he will not be in a state to continue fighting for some time. The captain-commander casts his weary eyes up at the collection of captains hovering in the sky above, urging them to prevail.

• Las Noches - The Seventh Tower / Base Level
Renji and Yumichika arrive at the base of the Seventh Tower, joining Nelliel in staring down Rudbornn and his forces. Renji demands right of passage, to which the Arrancar and his soldiers draw their swords. Rudbornn lunges at Renji, forcing him to parry his strikes. The lieutenant releases Zabimaru and swings it at the Exequias commander, pushing him back. Nelliel darts between the foot soldiers, dispatching them one by one with discrete sword slashes while Yumichika defensively fends off attackers. The trio swiftly destroy the Exequias until only Rudbornn remains. The Arrancar releases his Resurrección, Árbol, and sprouts a whole new crop of Exequias. Renji mutters an obscenity under his breath as they ready for the next wave.

• Las Noches - The Seventh Tower / Top Level
Ichigo battles Ulquiorra in Aizen’s throne room, the two combatants fighting on par with each other — at least at face value. Ichigo is clearly exerting himself while Ulquiorra’s swings are comparatively casual. The Espada advises him not to let his guard down for an instant, lest he be trounced like last time. The maneuvers of their duel play out similarly to how they did in the Canon — minus having Orihime as a witness.

• Fake Karakura Town
Hitsugaya battles Harribel and her Fracción simultaneously. The Espada is minimally engaged, locking blades with the captain here and there while he spends most of his time fending off her subordinates. The Tres Bestias all bicker amongst themselves over who will get to deliver the killing blow against the Shinigami. Hitsugaya responds by throwing serpentine swings of Tensō Jūrin from the Shikai-activated Hyōrinmaru — which the three Arrancar dodge in a panic. Emilou Apacci is the least fortunate, caught and encased in an icy prison. An incensed Harribel conjures Ola Azul within her Zanpakuto and launches it at Hitsugaya — the blast sending him crashing into a vacant building.

Shunsui lackadaisically sword fights with Starrk while a bemused Ukitake parries strikes from an ineffectual Lilynette. The 8th Division Captain asks the Espada if he will get serious; Starrk answers that he’d be more interested if his opponent unveiled a Bankai. Shunsui, with a winsome grin, admits that his Bankai would be “counterproductive” for this battle. Starrk is irritated by the crypticness and manifests a Cero from his chest — the sheer power and velocity of the blast startling both captains. Shunsui asks Starrk if Barragan or Harribel are even more formidable than he is. The Arrancar, with a sigh, tugs the glove from his hand to reveal his number — 1. He is the Primera Espada.

Byakuya stares down Barragan and his closest subordinate, Shawlong Koufe. A loquacious type, Shawlong waxes philosophical on Kuchiki’s temerity to challenge the King of Hueco Mundo. The Fracción member activates his Resurrección, Tijereta. With a long and verbose monologue, he boasts how he is the mightiest amongst Barragan’s entourage and will “take great pleasure in eviscerating --”
Before the Arrancar can finish his introduction, Byakuya flash-steps past him, discretely sheathing his blade. Shawlong’s words trail off as he splits in half from the waist down, his torso and legs plummeting separately from the sky.

Barragan cocks an eyebrow, impressed by Byakuya’s expediency. Swinging his enormous axe over his shoulder, the Segunda Espada beckons the 6th Division Captain to come at him. Byakuya flash-steps to the King of Hueco Mundo’s right and draws his blade — only to feel his swing grow slower the closer it nears Barragan’s body. Spooked, Byakuya dashes several yards back. Barragan casts a condescending glare his way, asking why he hesitated. Byakuya does not answer, instead flash-stepping around Barragan’s proximity before lunging from behind. He swings, only to feel his movement slow — it’s as if he is trying to curve his blade while underwater. Barragan turns his gaze upon the Shinigami and reaches out to grasp him. Byakuya nimbly dashes back again, disturbed by this phenomena.

Barragan queries Byakuya as to who he is — what is his position in Soul Society? Byakuya answers that he is the Captain of Division Six, and a member of the Royal Kuchiki clan. Barragan studies Byakuya’s stolid expression for a beat, and then expresses pleasure at being faced with Shinigami royalty -- an arrogant royal, at that! Brandishing his axe, the Espada promises to shatter the Shinigami’s pride before he dies.

We check in with the lieutenants’ respective battles at each of the Tenkai Ketchu pillars. We do not spend much time with any of these battles — just enough to witness each of the respective members of Barragan’s Fracción introduce themselves. Hisagi is paired against Findorr, Kira against Vega, Rangiku against Friegen, and Tetsuzaemon against Poww.

• Las Noches - Seventh Tower / Base Level
Renji thrusts his sword into the last remaining member of Rudborrn’s latest wave of Exequias. Fatigued, the lieutenant warns Yumichika and Nel that they’ll have to figure out how to blunt the Arrancar’s replenishing army before they’re overwhelmed. Rudborrn hoists himself into the air with his branches, boasting that his troops are inexhaustible — he is the reigning law of Hueco Mundo, and he will eradicate the intruders with sheer numbers.

Yumichika sighs dramatically as he realizes what he must do. He demands that Renji never tell anyone of what he is about to witness. A flabbergasted Renji gives him his word. Running his hand over his Zanpakuto, Yumichika activates his ability — Ruri’iro Kujaku. The sickle-shaped blade radiates with a brilliant color and suddenly sprouts several vines — each of them latching onto one of Rudborrn’s branches. The Arrancar grows alarmed as he feels his own Reiryoku seeping out from him, his fresh crop of blooming Exequias overtaken by the multi-colored energy. Yumichika explains that his Shikai latches onto an opponent and drains their Reiatsu to create flowers. Rubdornn curses the Shinigami as he desperately hacks at the encroaching vines, his troops reduced to blooming flora. Yumichika snatches one of the petals and takes a bite, encouraging Renji and Nelliel to do the same.

Renji feels his energy surging after nibbling on one of the petals. He asks Yumichika why he had been hiding such a nifty power all this time. The third seat explains that his ability clashes with the confrontational philosophy of Division 11 — he does not want to disappoint his comrades.

Suddenly, Yachiru’s voice cuts through the chatter — why would Yumichika be so vain as to hide his potential? The third seat blushes scarlet as he looks back to see his Captain and Lieutenant staring him in the face. He apologizes profusely, assuring Kenpachi that he wouldn’t have unveiled his ability had he known his superior would see it. Yachiru frowns from Kenpachi’s shoulder, chiding Yumichika for concealing his strength from them. Kenpachi stares down at a horrified Yumichika for a long beat, then states “I didn’t see shit.” The third seat exhales a sigh of relief, telling his captain that the Arrancar had been neutralized by an inexplicable bit of providence.

The vines of Ruri’iro Kujaku have fully overtaken Rudborrn. The Shikai’s tendrils are pulsing and thick, drinking from the Arrancar’s corpse as they bloom with nourishing flowers. Rukia, Isane, Chad, Ōmaeda, and Ishida all stand behind Kenpachi, disgusted by the gruesome sight. Renji is overjoyed to see Rukia alive, rushing to her and asking if she’s alright. Rukia smiles that she is — now where are Orihime and Ichigo? Renji points up to the top level of the Seventh Tower, explaining how Ichigo had flown up to retrieve Inoue.

Nelliel is overjoyed to see Rukia and Ishida again — they are flabbergasted by her adult form. Renji tells them that it’s a long story, then realizes that Captain Suí-Fēng is not among the crew. He asks where she is. Ōmaeda responds by pointing up at the Seventh Tower, stating that she has already infiltrated the fortress.

• Las Noches - Seventh Tower / Interior
The Arrancar Menoly Mallia patrols the hallways near where Orihime had been kept captive. Turning a corner, she is grabbed and pinned against the wall by Suí-Fēng. Menoly is petrified as Suí-Fēng holds a Zanpakuto across her throat, the 2nd Division Captain demanding to know where Aizen’s Garganta is located. Suddenly, Loly Aivirrne appears and lunges at Suí-Fēng from behind, screaming that she will kill her for threatening Menoly. In one fluid motion, Suí-Fēng spins around, cuts Loly clean across the throat, and returns her blade to Menoly’s neck. Menoly watches in horror as her confidante writhes on the floor, dying. She answers that it’s no use — Lord Aizen ordered all of the Gargantas within Hueco Mundo to be sealed from within. There is no way out of the realm — Gargantas can only be reopened by Aizen’s forces from the World of the Living, now. Suí-Fēng grimaces at the bad news, but tells Menoly that she believes her. She knees the Arrancar deep in the solar plexus and leaves her crumpled on the floor, unconscious beside the freshly dead Loly.

• Las Noches - Seventh Tower / Top Level
Ichigo struggles to parry Ulquiorra’s strikes. The Espada asks him what he is still fighting for: Orihime Inoue has been returned to her home, has she not? Ichigo is incredulous, answering that he is still fighting to protect Orihime and everyone in Karakura Town.

Ulquiorra responds that Ichigo did not understand his question: what is he fighting for, given that there is no longer any escape from Hueco Mundo and Orihime Inoue is now completely unreachable? The Espada answers his own question: Ichigo is fighting for his own survival. He casually swings his blade, knocking Ichigo back several paces, and elaborates that the Substitute Shinigami has been more impressive during this rematch. He is unfettered by conviction or duty to the girl; he is only operating on self-preservation. Separated from all of his ideals, he has been stripped down to the truest of instincts — merely continuing to live.

Ichigo, provoked, screams that Ulquiorra is wrong and unleashes a Getsuga Tenshou. Ulquiorra fires back a Cero, the cumulative blast blowing out the balcony of Aizen’s throne room.

We cut back to the ground level of the tower, with the Nakama witnessing the explosion from below. Rukia exclaims that Ichigo must be in trouble. Nelliel draws her Zanpakuto, remarking that she senses Ulquiorra Cifer’s Reiatsu signature. There is agreement within the group that they all should provide Ichigo backup, but their discussion is curtailed when Yammy Riyalgo leaps out from the fortress, landing right on top of Rudborrn’s entombed vines with a crash. Emerging from the plumes of sand, the Décima Espada’s eyes are bloodshot with anger as he points to Chad, announcing that he has a score to settle with the little runt.

Kenpachi rests his sword over his shoulder, looking back at Sado and asking if he knows this Arrancar. Chad responds that he had beaten him earlier in a fight. Kenpachi, with a laugh, declares that Yammy must be fodder, then — no offense to Chad. Yammy, eye twitching from sheer indignation, declares that the Shinigami will soon eat his own words. Grasping the hilt of his Zanpakuto, he cries out “Be Enraged — Ira.” A torrent of Reiatsu erupts from him, waves of sand flowing over the startled Nakama. Renji asks Nelliel what the hell this is. She responds that Yammy was not recruited yet when she was an Espada, so his power remains unknown to her.

Yammy swells to a monstrous height, taking on Kaiju proportions as his form sprouts eight legs and a club-like tail. His number 10 tattoo DOES NOT flake into a 0. He towers over the Nakama, roaring that while he may be the Décima Espada, his Resurrección packs the most dramatic boost in power out of all the Arrancar — making him the strongest Adjuchas when in his released state. His aspect is Rage, and he has been storing up a huge amount of ire after being repeatedly humiliated by the Shinigami. Ishida quietly urges the others to scatter so that they can devise a strategy to deal with this humongous foe. Before the Quincy can even finish his sentence, Kenpachi launches himself into the air, swinging his sword at the Arrancar head-on. Yammy catches the captain with his fist, sending him flying over a mile’s distance and crashing into another tower. The Nakama all disperse in different directions as Yammy brings his other fist crashing down into the ground, sending a shockwave of sand into the sky.

• Fake Karakura Town
Byakuya is dashing through the alleyways of Karakura Town. He pivots on a corner and runs into Barragan, the Espada reaching out to grasp him. Byakuya launches up into the skyline, casting Hado #33: Sōkatsui. Flame erupts from his hands, striking down at Barragan like lightning. The Espada deflects the attack with an aggressive swing of his axe, exploding the encircling buildings. Byakuya surveys the damage from above, only to realize that Barragan has flash-stepped beside him, the Espada’s fingertips touching him on the left shoulder. The captain plummets down and crashes onto a rooftop, losing total control or feeling in his arm.

Barragan peers down imperiously at the Shinigami, boasting that his aspect is “Decrepitude” — the inexorable march towards frailty. His Reiatsu inflicts the cruelty of time, withering all living things into dust. Byakuya unsheathes his Zanpakuto, commenting that even if he can’t get physically close to Barragan, he can still reach him. He scatters his blade into the petals of Senbonzakura, the torrent swirling up and encircling the Espada. The blades lose their momentum in Barragan’s proximity, grinding to a near-halt as the King of Hueco Mundo raises his axe. In case it wasn’t clear, the Espada intones with condescension: his Reiatsu effects all. Barragan launches down from the sky, bringing his axe down at Byakuya. The captain hurriedly summons Senbonzakura to surge down and reconstitute itself into a single blade, blocking Barragan’s strike at the very last second before impact. He senses his strength slowly ebbing away as Barragan flexes his weight on the blade. Soon he will be overpowered.

Byakuya activates a Hado that erupts energy from his feet, the blast smashing the ground beneath him. He falls through the roof, lands on the floor below, and dashes out through the window. Barragan watches with bemusement as the Shinigami flash-steps out of sight, remarking that this particular ant is resourceful.

Hitsugaya parries strikes from Mila Rose and Sung-Sun before flash-stepping back, escaping into an alleyway. The two Fracción pursue, Mila Rose crying out that they have the captain on the run. They storm in only to realize that it’s a dead end. Hitsugaya calls down to them from above, swinging his blade and inflicting a slash of Tensō Jūrin. Both Arrancars’ eyes widen as they are engulfed in the freezing current. Hitsugaya casts repeated slashes, layering on the ice until the alleyway is frozen solid from ground to rooftop. He touches down on the enormous cube he’s forged, locking eyes with a disdainful Tier Harribel from afar. Acknowledging that the battle is now one-on-one, Tōshirō releases his Bankai: Daiguren Hyōrinmaru. He launches at Harribel, who responds by flinging another Ola Azul. Hitsugaya swings his blade, responding with Hyōryū Senbi. The two attacks crash into each other and erupt, Harribel zipping through the explosion to lock blades with the Shinigami.

Aizen watches the battles progress from above, Gin and Tōsen flanking him. He comments that the Espada seem to be enjoying themselves. Gin notices that Tōsen is being more pensive than usual and asks if something’s wrong. Kaname reveals that he is reflecting on the death of Wonderweiss. The Arrancar had an affection for him, and they shared a kinship of purity. Aizen responds that Wonderweiss was indeed pure — whittled down to a single purpose and endpoint. Once he had absorbed the flames of Ryūjin Jakka, there was no way he could contain or expel that energy without exploding. This was understood since his conception. Kaname could take satisfaction in knowing that the creature had accomplished what it was created for.

Gin offhandedly jokes that Captain Aizen has a funny way of comforting the bereaved. The comment earns icy side-eye from Aizen, who reminds his subordinates not to become distracted from how close they have come to reigning over all creation. He adds that they both should reflect on the paths they had lead before following him.
- ACT TWO: TURN BACK THE PENDULUM PART II -
The Rukongai / District 76 - 300 Years Before the White Invasion
Rainwater and blood slosh down a gutter in one of the most unruly and impoverished districts of the Rukongai. A small child sits huddled against a ruin, blood-stained knees to his chin as a patrol of Shinigami march past, having freshly squashed an uprising. The neighborhood has been desolated, rainfall mingling with flames around the looted hovels. The young boy is shellshocked, rocking back and forth as the soldiers pay him no mind. A figure approaches and kneels down to his level. “Come now, Sōsuke.”

The child gradually looks up to see an older boy, a homely street urchin who has the appearance of a 12-year-old with ragged black hair and a gaunt face. He offers the boy his hand. “Let me get you somewhere safe.”

The Urchin leads young Aizen to an outskirt that looks like nothing more than a patch of mud in a barren field. With a wave of the elder boy’s hand, a concealment charm dissolves to reveal a rickety door in the ground. He pries it open and tells Aizen to climb in. The young boy, who has poor eyesight, fumbles his way down the steps. The urchin claps a reassuring hand on his shoulder and guides him down, leading him to a subterranean cellar full of other Rukongai children. The band of young urchins have been collecting spare weaponry lost amid the carnage of the rebellion.

Ryusei, a teenaged scavenger with a distinctive scar on his right eye, reports to the Urchin that they had pulled in their greatest haul of loot in recent memory. He casts a quizzical look at Aizen, asking who the runt is. “Our guest,” the Urchin responds.

He brings the child to a small nook, asking him if he likes eating. Aizen is surprised by the question, answering that he’s never tried it before. The older boy offers a thin apple slice, stating that he had gone through a lot of trouble to scrap up that provision. Aizen chews it slowly, astonished by the sweet flavor. Leaning back, the Urchin observes aloud that Aizen doesn’t appear to be from this district. The small child nods, admitting that he had been accompanying his father, the Fourth Seat of the First Division. The Urchin notes aloud that he is sitting before a child of the Seiretei. If he has a biological father, then that must mean he is from a noble house? Aizen takes another nibble at the apple slice, nodding yes before adding that it’s not a very important one.

The Urchin studies Aizen with a smile, noting that he will be a handsome man some day. He asks if it is normal for a Shinigami to bring their children into a war zone. Aizen shakes his head no, eyes welling with tears as he admits that his father had brought him along because he thought he was too cowardly and soft to ever grow up to be a worthy member of the Gotei. He brought him to see what the world looked outside the comfort of home, where he could see what warfare looks like. Aizen adds that shortly after they entered the village, he was kidnapped by a gang. His abductors were subsequently killed fighting the Shinigami, leaving him alone and lost. He misses his mother.

The Urchin listens sympathetically, responding that he was born without a father or mother. Instead, he was born here, in the deepest recesses of the Rukongai. This district is so wild that its children aren’t even considered for recruitment into the Seiretei. They are merely left to fend for themselves. Aizen’s eyes widen, commenting that that’s terrible. The Urchin closes his eyes and nods, resolving that it is their lot in life for having the misfortune of being born here. Aizen asks the Urchin if the memories of his past life were happy at least. The older boy smiles at the naivety, answering that nobody born this far out in the Rukongai remembers who they were before.

Aizen looks over to the other children, asking if they are friends. The Urchin answers that they are his followers; he banded them together under the common cause of scrounging up whatever they could from this rotten existence. Aizen is impressed, telling the older boy that they really seem to admire him.

There is a protracted silence as the Urchin watches Aizen finish his first ever meal. He asks the young boy if he would like to see his mother again. Aizen’s eyes brighten up, nodding vigorously yes. The Urchin gives him a thin smile, revealing that he had overheard Shinigami asking around for him earlier that day. “Your name is Sōsuke Aizen, right?” The child nods. He is Sōsuke, son of Rusaboro and Rurichiyo Aizen.

The Urchin resolves that he will return Aizen to the Shinigami forces so that he can be reunited with his father. Aizen, overcome with relief, lunges forward and hugs the Urchin. The older boy is taken aback by the gesture, but slowly acquiesces and gives Sōsuke a reassuring pat on the back.

Later that evening, the scavenger children huddle together before the Urchin. He announces that some Shinigami from above ground seemed to suspect something was amiss about the entrance to their hideout earlier that day. He had drawn them away, but it had become clear that they must relocate somewhere else. He will stay behind and discretely draw the Shinigami to their location, where they will discover young Sōsuke and reunite him with his family. One of the children protests, asking why they would help a Shinigami brat. The Urchin casts the naysayer an icy stare, prompting them to go pale and silent. After the meeting, the Urchin asks Aizen if he would like to venture outside with him and admire the sky. The young boy happily accepts.

The two boys rest on the ruined surface above, staring up at the stars as the district burns around them. Aizen admits that he rarely ventured outside in his childhood home, his mother allowing him to stay indoors and read. The Urchin asks what reading books is like. Aizen considers this for a moment and answers that it makes the world seem bigger. The older boy silently reflects on this for a beat until Aizen asks where he finds the bravery to lead others. The Urchin sits up and answers that all people seek a master to rule over them. You either appoint yourself the master or someone else will reign over you. He looks over to young Aizen, telling him that he is capable of great bravery. The young child’s eyes sparkle as he takes these words to heart. We cut from his starry-eyed expression to…

… him being brought before his father, the icily composed Rusaboro. A Shinigami claps a hand on Aizen’s shoulder, recalling how the lad had come crying to him amidst the mayhem. Rusaboro stares down coldly at his son for a beat, then tells him to come — the Division is returning to Soul Society.

The Seiretei - East Gate
Aizen watches intently as the gates slowly open, revealing Soul Society within. He trudges closely behind his father as they follow a steady stream of Shinigami into the Seiretei. Suddenly, he halts, fists clenched as he hangs his head. Rusaboro stops and looks back at his son, telling him to come along. Aizen is silent for a long beat, then gazes up at his father with an expression that he hasn’t shown before: determination. “Father,” Aizen says, his voice emotional. “From now on, I want to be brave.” Rusaboro is taken aback, then gives a nod, commenting that their little misadventure seemed to have finally put some resolve into the boy.

• Soul Society / Great Spirits Library - 150 Years Before the White Invasion
Aizen is now a strapping Shinigami, apprenticing as a clerk at the Great Spirits Library. He is pushing a cart of manuscripts through a hallway and turns a corner, running into Shinji Hirako. The cart stubs the 5th Division captain right in the shin, eliciting obscenities from him. Aizen profusely apologizes, but is rebuffed as Shinji yells at him to watch where he’s going. Aizen hurriedly scurries down the hall with the cart, yelling back a final apology. Captain Jūshirō Ukitake, the supervisor of the Great Spirits Library, joins Shinji and good-naturedly points out that the captain should have been paying attention, too. He asks Shinji what brings him in today. Shinji nurses his shin, mumbling that he needed some reference material to write up a report. Looking back at Aizen, he asks Ukitake who the clumsy Shinigami is.

“Sōsuke Aizen,” Ukitake answers. A very promising young man, with a high aptitude for scholarly work. He is the son of the late Rusaboro Aizen. Shinji is taken aback, recognizing the name: “Rusaboro, the First Division officer who set his own house on fire?” he asks. Ukitake nods affirmatively, recalling that terrible day — Rusaboro had slain his own wife, Rurichiyo, and then killed himself by setting the house ablaze. It occurred on Sōsuke's first day clerking at the archives, in fact. He learned of the murder-suicide while on the job.

We cut to the silhouette of Aizen standing before his family home, watching as it burns to the ground.

Ukitake adds that Aizen had grappled with the tragedy stoically, burying himself in research to cope. Shinji doesn’t comment, watching suspiciously as Aizen reaches the other end of the hallway and turns out of view.

Later that evening, Aizen wheels his cart before the gated section of the library, gazing through it with curiosity. He is startled when Shinji Hirako appears behind him, asking why he is so interested in the vault. Aizen wheels around, feigning confusion as he asks what the captain means. Shinji leans forward, scrutinizing the clerk as he notes aloud that entering the restricted archives is strictly prohibited — Captain Ukitake and Captain-Commander Yamamoto are the only Shinigami in all of Soul Society allowed access. Aizen stammers that he is aware — and that he couldn’t gain entry into the restricted section even if he tried. Shinji bluntly tells Aizen that he senses something “off” about him and that he best tread lightly.

The captain turns and strides away, only for Aizen to call after him — asking if he had ever wanted to read what’s in the restricted archives. Shinji pivots back with an exasperated glare, answering that he knows better than to pry into what’s above his purview. Aizen asks if he ever wondered why the restricted manuscripts were kept from even a captain such as himself. Isn’t he curious at all? Shinji glares at Aizen before flatly answering “No.” The captain leaves without another word.

• Soul Society - 140 Years Before the White Invasion
Kaname Tōsen stands in the rain, proceeding over the burial of Kakyō — a dear friend. Beside him stands Gyokaku, the dearly departed’s former attendant. They and the gravedigger are the only attendees of the funeral. Kaname’s fist is clenched, his tears mingling with the rain. He grits that Kakyō deserved a proper funeral attended by the the Gotei and Royal Families. It was the least they could have given her. Gyokaku, a gray-haired man weary with resignation, reminds Kaname that her husband had chosen an anonymous burial. Kaname fires back that he had only done this to put her in the ground without any more attention drawn to how she died.

The gravedigger pats the moist soil with his shovel before trudging off. Kaname begins to openly weep, begging Gyokaku to formally ask Central 46 to investigate Kakyō’s murder. The bereaved attendant hangs his head, stating that as far as Central 46 is concerned, she was never murdered. Kaname punches the ground, bemoaning that the law of Soul Society is meaningless if it cannot bring justice for Kakyō. Gyokaku responds that Soul Society’s laws are indeed meaningless. He learned that much from what he witnessed as her attendant. With a heavy sigh, he tells Kaname to take care of himself and slinks off.

We cut to Tōsen standing before the gate of an enormous mansion — the household befitting one of the five great Royal Families. He is pounding at the gate, demanding an audience. Four Shinigami guards flash-step before him, one of them striking him in the head with the pommel of his Zanpakuto. Kaname crumples to the mud and is repeatedly kicked by the guards, one decrying that he will be flung into the Rukongai for his impudence.

The guards’ onslaught is interrupted when a figure strides up to them: it is Sōsuke Aizen. The Shinigami tells the guards that he will take charge of Kaname himself. The leader of the security team tells Aizen to fuck off, only to feel himself seized with a heavy weight. Aizen glares at him as he coolly asserts his Reiatsu, repeating that he will handle the troublemaker personally. Unnerved, the head guard tells the others to follow him back into the Royal grounds. Aizen helps Kaname up, offering to take him somewhere where they could chat.

We cut to a flashback of Tōsen and Kakyō laying back on a hill at night. Gazing up at the night sky, she muses aloud about her dream of a world without bloodshed and how she would like to be instrumental in bringing it about. Kaname responds that she may have a greater chance of realizing that dream after she is married. He doesn’t see the sad expression on her face as she responds that she just might.

We leave the flashback as Kaname finishes recounting the memory to Aizen, both of them sitting on the same hill. Aizen remarks that Kakyō sounded like a remarkable woman. Tōsen responds that she was, but now she will be forgotten. Her murder will be swept under the rug. Aizen listens intently before rising up, telling Kaname that he has some advice: enroll in the Shinigami Academy. The blind man is taken aback, asking why that would be helpful. Aizen responds that it’s because he senses great potential in Tōsen. If he were to rise to prominence in the Gotei, he would be a valuable ally. Aizen concludes that if Tōsen helps him achieve his goals when called upon, then he will help him avenge Kakyō in return.

Kaname is tempted, but notes that Kakyō’s murderer is too entrenched in power to be brought to justice. Aizen, with a smile, responds that if he realizes his vision, then he will be able to decide who holds power within Soul Society.

• The Rukongai / District 45 - 112 Years Before the White Invasion
Gin Ichimaru, very much still a child, dashes through the woods, calling out for Rangiku. She’s been missing all day, and he senses that something is very wrong. Deep within the forest, he sees a glow in the distance. He silently snakes closer and peers out through a subterfuge of foliage. He sees Rangiku lying on the ground, unconscious while four teenage boys crowd around her. A fully-grown man with a Zanpakuto at his hip kneels down, extracting something from her.

Gin grips a branch and squeezes as he witnesses the Shinigami drawing out a sliver of light from Rangiku’s chest — right where her heart is located. The shard glimmers brilliantly, radiating an odd energy. Ichimaru’s eyes widen as he watches Rangiku convulse after the procedure. His grip on the branch tightens until he snaps it off. The Shinigami looks over in Gin’s direction and coolly asks for the four youngsters to kill him. Gin dashes back and runs away, but not before getting a good look at the Shinigami’s blonde hair and pale eyes. He easily evades the pursuers with his speed.

Several hours later, Gin is waiting at the edge of the forest. His heart seizes in his chest when a disoriented Rangiku emerges from the wood, stumbling from tree to tree. He dashes forward and supports her on his weight, asking if she’s alright. Rangiku doesn’t answer.

The next day, Gin visits Rangiku in her room. She is curled up in her bed, unresponsive. He asks if she remembers the name of her attackers. She says that she doesn’t remember what happened, shivering. Gin turns to head out, but freezes as Rangiku mumbles that she feels empty, as though her soul had been emptied out. He turns back to her, unable to find the words, then leaves.

Two of the teenagers who had jumped Rangiku stride down an alleyway, bantering about how they plan to spend their reward. They halt when they feel a presence behind them, turning around to see Gin. He is stained in blood and carrying a sack, a demented grin on his face. One of the teenagers demands he state his business. The young snake empties out the sack — the heads of their two co-conspirators spilling onto the ground. One of the teenagers charges forward, roaring that he’s gonna make the little creep pay. Gin dashes forward at frightening speed and lunges right on top of him, hacking at his head with a jagged sword. The remaining punk is horrified, stumbling back before falling. Before he can scramble back up, Gin is upon him, brandishing his blade.

The young snake muses out loud that he doesn’t have a Zanpakuto, so he just makes do with this scrap of metal. The punk begs for mercy as the dull tip presses to his throat. Gin demands the name of the man who had violated Rangiku. The terrified teenager sputters that the Shinigami called himself Hikaru Midorikawa. He had offered them a reward if they could bring Rangiku to him somewhere discrete — that’s all he knows. He confesses that he had no idea what the Shinigami did to her. Gin thanks the punk for his honesty before thrusting his sword down, stabbing again and again with maniacal fury in his eyes.

• Soul Society - 110 Years Before the White Invasion
In the dead of night, Gin Ichimaru stands over the slain Hikaru Midorikawa — Third Seat of the Fifth Division. He grins with satisfaction, gazing down at the Shinigami’s lifeless pale eyes. His jubilation is interrupted when a voice calls out to him from behind — “What is your name?”

Gin looks back over his shoulder to see Aizen admiring his handiwork. The lieutenant praises his abilities, noting that the prodigy is even better than he had heard. Aizen asks again, already knowing the answer, for the blood-stained youngster to give his name.

“Gin,” he replies. “Gin Ichimaru.”

• Soul Society - 30 Years Before the White Invasion
Aizen stands before a graduating class of the Shin’ō Academy, performing his water-based Shikai. It is exceptionally beautiful, making for an entertaining demonstration. Tōshirō Hitsugaya and Momo Hinamori are among the attendees, the latter absolutely starstruck. She adoringly tells Hitsugaya that Captain Aizen wields his blade like an artist. Fifth Division Lieutenant Gin Ichimaru discretely interrupts the demonstration, informing Aizen that the Captain-Commander has called for his presence. Aizen asks the audience to pardon his abrupt exit and leaves with Gin.

Yamamoto convenes a meeting with the Gotei 13 to announce that there are reports of mayhem brewing in the Rukongai District 76. There has been chatter of renewed rebellion. Aizen perks up at this and offers to personally venture to the district and address the unrest. 10th Division Captain Isshin Shiba notes with curiosity that Aizen seems unusually eager to take on such a grueling assignment. Aizen gives a sheepish smile, recalling that he had had a formative experience there as a child.

We cut to the Rukongai District 76. Aizen sheathes his blade, commending his division for putting an end to the rebellion so swiftly and without excessive bloodshed. He begs their pardon and asks to be left alone so he can take a moment of reflection. Gin watches the captain wander off into the slum, noting to himself that Captain Aizen had never been the sentimental type until now.

Aizen strides to a barren field — the same one where the Urchin had led him down to safety 260 years earlier. It is quiet, almost tranquil. He gazes at the soil until he senses someone behind him. He turns to see an emaciated wretch with a distinctive scar on his right eye. The resemblance is unmistakable — it’s Ryusei, one of the scavengers from the urchin’s gang. Aizen’s eyes widen as Ryusei stares at him in disbelief. “It’s… it’s you,” the now fully-grown man gasps. He takes a step forward, emboldened by certainty. He remembers Aizen — that boy from Soul Society who was brought down into the hideout the night before their leader disappeared. It was never the same again, Ryusei cries out. We never recovered from losing him.

Aizen, for the first time in the entire Bleach saga, is speechless — his eyes filled with something akin to regret. Ryusei comes closer, his words swelling with desperation. “What happened to him?” he asks in a frenzy, reaching out and grasping at Aizen’s robes. “What happened to –“

Aizen unsheathes his blade and runs it across Ryusei’s chest in one fluid motion. The Rukongai wretch falls back, dying. He gazes up at Aizen, confused, until his eyes widen with recognition. “It's you…” he rasps, his final word trailing off. Aizen watches the light fade from his eyes, then looks back at the patch of dirt. We close in on his face, then cut to

a close-up of young Aizen’s cherubic face as he watches the scavengers file out of the cellar, leaving him and the Urchin behind. Ryusei turns to his leader and asks if all this is worth the trouble of helping out a Soul Society kid. The Urchin brushes off the question and orders Ryusei to lead the others to the next location. He will be joining them soon enough. Ryusei gives a reluctant nod and wishes him good luck. Sōsuke cheerfully waves goodbye.

An hour has passed, Aizen absentmindedly futzing with one of the broken swords left behind. He swings it around, the Urchin watching him. Aizen excitedly says that he will be a mighty Shinigami when he grows up. He will make both his mother and father proud. He loses his balance when the sword proves too heavy, falling over. Laughing at his own silliness, he slowly ambles back up, asking if it’s time to go yet.

Aizen turns around to see the Urchin standing before him, a strange light emitting from his palm. Two lashes of Kido erupt from the ground and sling around the young boy’s wrists, bringing him to his knees. The child immediately panics, tears in his eyes as he begs the Urchin to stop. The older boy gazes down at him with a mixture of contempt and pity. He tells Aizen that it is now time for him to be very brave, plunging his fist into the boy’s chest.

Sōsuke looks down in shock as light snakes out from his chest and up the Urchin’s arm, slowly coating him. The older boy emanates with a blinding light, his silhouette reforming. Aizen watches as the figure before him gradually morphs into his very likeness.

The Urchin withdraws his fist, studying it before giving a nod of satisfaction. “I am self-taught,” the Urchin says, explaining that he had honed his own innate talent for Kido without any mentors or noblemen fathers. He slowly built his power all by himself. First it began as little parlor tricks to avoid trouble. Then the tricks became more elaborate as he improvised Kidos to make stealing easier. With only his own creativity and skill at his disposal, he eventually developed a method for stealing the likeness of a target. He would always kill them once their visage outlived its use. For as long as the victim lived, he would irreversibly wear their face. With absolute coldness, the Urchin concludes “You will have to live for a very, very long time, Sōsuke Aizen.”

Sōsuke’s eyes widen with horror as he begins to understand what is happening. The Urchin kicks at the chains of Kido binding the child to the ground, concluding that they ought to hold up indefinitely. Aizen watches as his doppelgänger turns and heads for the staircase, explaining that he will leave him here for safekeeping. The wailing boy begs to be freed. The Urchin pauses as he reaches the base of the stairs, turning to look back at the pleading boy. He tells Aizen that his family name would be wasted on him. The Urchin adds that he himself is destined to reign, and he can only do so from within Soul Society.

With that, the Urchin turns and walks up the steps. He reaches the cellar entrance and, without looking back, flicks a small Kido up at the ceiling. The blast explodes the tunnel, rubble crashing down and plugging the only means of escape. Aizen’s screams can be heard until the last stone lands, the young boy completely sealed off underground.

The Urchin emerges out onto the field, closing the hatch after him. He pauses for a beat, then swipes his hand. A concealment charm blankets over the doorway, hiding it from sight. The Urchin stands in the seemingly empty field, gazing at the ground. We hone in on a close-up of his new face until we cut back to

... Captain "Sōsuke" Aizen’s face as he gazes down at the expanse of dead grass and dirt. He looks back at Ryusei’s body, then slowly roves his eyes up at the sky — staring at the heavens. After a moment of reflecting, he turns and strides away to rejoin his Division. We linger on the vacant field for a long, sickening beat.

As always, feedback and reactions are welcome. If you have any thoughts on the Turn Back the Pendulum Part II, I'd appreciate it if you placed them under a spoiler tag. Thank you!
 

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Now here are the next two installments of The White Invasion, with the fifth and climactic act (Deicide) still in progress. I'm posting it in installments because it goes past the word limit (yeah, it's pretty damn long). This is pretty much a wall-to-wall action extravaganza. Enjoy! As always, I'd love feedback.

- THE WHITE INVASION - (Continued)

- ACT THREE: THE HELL KNIGHT -


• A Nihilistic Force Meets an Immovable Optimist
Las Noches / The Seventh Tower - Top Level [Ichigo v. Ulquiorra - Part One]

Ichigo nimbly dodges a sword slash from Ulquiorra, only to be knocked back by a kick. He lands against a pillar and cracks it, his breathing heavy. Ulquiorra’s vacant eyes scrutinize him. The Espada asks: If Ichigo truly is fighting for the girl like he keeps insisting, then why is he so devoted to her?

Ichigo’s eyes narrow with rage as Ulquiorra queries whether he could possibly be fighting for love. The Espada derides this as an empty motivation, born out of base lust. He concludes that whatever connection Ichigo imagines between himself and Orihime Inoue does not actually exist. Yet he still sprinted here after her, delivering himself to his doom. If this were the case, then of what use was that devotion?

Ichigo tightens his grip on Tensa Zangetsu as Ulquiorra asserts that whatever feelings the boy holds for Orihime Inoue are a lie — a fabrication for him to justify his existence as a human, a Shinigami, and as a foolhardy child in over his head. His duty to Orihime is just as empty as the “heart” that she spoke of. The Cuarta Espada concludes that Ichigo has become stronger only because he has come to understand that those convictions are meaningless. He has become more like an Arrancar.

Ichigo cracks a smile, suddenly understanding. “You were in charge of her here in Las Noches, weren’t you?” he says, rising back to his full height. Ichigo suggests that maybe he hasn’t changed at all, but that Ulquiorra has instead become more burdened by self-doubt. He comments that Orihime has an effect on people and that maybe she has made more Ulquiorra more human.

Ulquiorra bristles at this, slamming his blade down into the tile with a crash. “More like a human?” he repeats. That is impossible. He lunges at Ichigo. The Substitute-Shinigami dons his mask and meets the Espada’s strike.

• Kenny’s Just Getting Excited
Las Noches - The Seventh Tower - Base Level [The Nakama vs. Yammy]

Yammy Riyalgo’s hulking form dashes across the dunes with seismic weight, the Espada launching a barrage of Balas from his fists. They carpet-bomb the ground, erupting with volcanic force. Uryū Ishida repeatedly flash-steps back, dodging the firepower while summoning his bow. He aims a Heilig Pfeil and fires, the arrow hitting its mark and striking Yammy square in the right eye. The Arrancar roars with pain and rage, swiveling his head around before widening his mouth to charge an enormous Cero. Ishida gazes up with alarm — how is he going to dodge this?

Nelliel dashes between Yammy’s trunk-like legs, hacking at them with her sword. The Arrancar stumbles, his head swerving and firing his Cero in a lopsided direction. The beam cuts across a wide swath of desert and sets the sand ablaze, but none of the Nakama were in its path.

Nel zips out from behind Yammy and begins scaling his back. Yammy swings his tail — the clubbed end strikes Nel and sends her flying. Yammy curses Nelliel out as an Espada washout, punching a Bala in her direction. It catches her midair, the energy ball carrying her away a considerable distance before crashing into a dune.

Rukia and Renji dash together around Yammy, trying to strategize a way to defeat him. The Espada clocks them and swings a fist. They both gasp as the Arrancar’s enormous knuckles bear down on them — only to be halted. Yammy’s brow furrows as he gazes down at the obstruction: it’s Chad, his Brazo Derecha de Gigante forming a shield, full thrusters firing flames from the ends like a rocket to help him repel the Espada’s fist. Yammy’s eyes grow bloodshot with indignation — a human can block his punch?! He exerts all of his weight and overpowers Sado, sending him and the two Shinigami flying back.

Yumichika watches the battle from a distance. Yachiru, Isane, and Ōmaeda stand beside him. The second seat observes with some understatement that they all seem outmatched by this Arrancar. With Captain Kenpachi out of commission, he can’t see how they can win. Yachiru gives her subordinate a rueful look, retorting that Kenny’s not down for the count: he’s just getting excited.

A mile back, Kenpachi rises up from the rubble of a destroyed tower. Gazing out at the mayhem unfolding in the distance, he lifts his sword, feels out the balance of the blade, and smiles. He pries off his eyepatch, concluding that Yammy will do just fine, and dashes forth.

Yammy cackles to himself as he beats at his own chest, ridiculing all of the intruders for thinking they could compete with him. His triumphant boast trails off when he sees a dot in the distance dashing towards him with alarming speed. It is Kenpachi; the captain is kicking up a wave of sand behind him as sprints forward. Yammy laughs uproariously, proclaiming that the Shinigami must be coming back for more punishment. He lunges his hand down at Kenpachi to snatch him up.

Kenpachi responds with a sword swing, slicing four of Yammy’s fingers clean off. The Arrancar roars in pain, eyes widening as the captain jumps up into the air. Kenpachi grasps the hilt of his blade with both hands and swings it down, the force of his Kendo strike cleaving up through Yammy’s arm — splitting it apart.

Yammy swings his tail at Kenpachi, only to have the club at the end of his appendage hacked clean off and crash into the sand below. Kenpachi lands atop the lump of flesh, grinning from ear to ear.

Reiatsu rising from his body like steam, Kenpachi excitedly announces that Yammy makes for a fat and easy target. Yammy bristles, bellowing that he will enjoy watching the Shinigami get torn apart.

The Espada sucks in air and then roars out a deafening sonic scream. Ishida intuits that this must be some sort of call to arms, only to feel the sand beneath him begin to shift. The Quincy leaps aside as an Adjuchas Arrancar shaped like an enormous centipede erupts from behind him.

Kenpachi gazes back and sees dozens of massive Arrancar sprouting across the horizon, trudging towards him. He grins.

• Those Who Do Not Fear Their Own Blade Are Not Fit To Wield It
Fake Karakura Town [The Lieutenants vs. the Fracción]

We focus on Shūhei Hisagi’s battle against Findorr. It plays out like it did in the Canon, ending with the lieutenant cleaving the fleeing Arrancar with Kazeshini.

Ggio struggles on the ground, his limbs weighted down. He feels Izuru’s Zanpakuto wrap around his neck, The Arrancar glares up at the Shinigami and curses him out for being underhanded. Izuru agrees that he is and urges the Ggio never to forgive him. With that, he beheads the Fracción member.

Luders Friegen slashes around in vain within the haze of Rangiku’s Neko Rinbu. The lieutenant flash-steps behind him and performs a Kido, piercing him through his midsection. The Arrancar plummets down from the sky and crashes into the ground. Rangiku reforms her Zanpakuto and boasts that the Shinigami aren’t fairing half bad. Her attention then turns as one of the Tenkai Ketchu pillars crumbles.

Poww has defeated the Tetsuzaemon and crushed his pillar. The Arrancar is promptly challenged and crushed by Sajin Komamura, just as it happened in the Canon. Iba apologizes to his captain for losing, only for the wolf to raise him back to his feet. Sajin urges his subordinate to never lose — you continue fighting until you can no longer move. You put everything on the line. Tetsuzaemon nods. “Yes, sir!”

• The Noble Shark
Karakura Town (Continued) [Hitsugaya vs. Harribel]

Tier Harribel notices the defeat of Barragan’s Fracción. Parrying back Hitsugaya, she calls up to Lord Aizen and points out that an unacceptable amount of Arrancar are dying. Aizen responds with a thin smile, telling Harribel that their survival is purely up to them — if they cannot fend off the Gotei 13, then what use will they be in the Royal Realm? Casting Harribel cold eyes, he concludes that it is up to her and her fellow Espada to put an end to this.

Harribel glares right back, then closes her eyes with resignation. Turning back to Hitsugaya, she points her blade down and intones “Destroy, Tiburōn!” The Espada is engulfed in a heart-shaped torrent of water, reemerging with scantily-placed armor and an enormous Pata blade engraved with gills. She juts her sword forward, drawing moisture from the ice Hitsguaya had layered throughout the battle. Emilou Apacci, Franceska Mila Rose, and Cyan Sung-Sun are all freed from their icy prisons as their leader formulates a concentration of water from the tip of her blade. The Fracción flash-step and flank Harribel as she gazes down imperiously at the Hitsugaya.

Tōshirō flings a Hyōryū Senbi, only for Harribel to fire La Gota. The Espada’s attack slices through the captain’s ice and strikes him square in the chest, cutting him deep. He is flung into the ground, indenting a crater into the concrete. He coughs up blood, clutching at his laceration.

• The Lonesome Wolf
Karakura Town (Continued) [Shunsui & Ukitake vs. Starrk]

Starrk watches Harribel’s battle from afar, commenting that she sure fights more determinedly than he does. Lilynette swirls beside him, pointing out that Harribel is fighting to ensure that no more Arrancar die today — he should do the same. Starrk sighs, countering that their opponents aren’t taking them seriously, so why should they? Lilynette asserts that they ought to show the Shinigami who they are dealing with. This elicits a nod from Starrk, who places his hand atop Lilynette’s helmet, intoning “Kick About, Los Lobos!” Both of them erupt into a fireball of blue Reiatsu.

Shunsui and Ukitake watch Starrk emerge as a gunslinger. The Espada explains that he and Lilynette are actually one being and that joining together activates their Resurrección. A wolf flecked with flame peers from behind him — it is Lilynette given body as an extension of Starrk’s energy.

The next phase of their battle plays out similarly to how it did in the Canon, with Ukitake revealing his Shikai ability Sōgyo no Kotowari. Starrk remarks that these captains sure are impressive, but that he would rather be battling their Bankai. Ukitake flash-steps beside Shunsui, commenting that Starrk appears to be too laidback to make much use of his strength. Shunsui’s eyes narrow as he admits that he is worried about what happens if the Primera Espada begins to take things seriously.


• Royal Bummer
Karakura Town (Continued) [Byakuya vs. Barragan]

Byakuya is being healed by a 4th Division squadron lead by Hanatarō Yamada. The captain waits patiently while they attempt to bring feeling back to his arm. After much effort, Hanatarō admits with horror that there’s nothing they can do — the limb appears to be dead. Byakuya grimaces, understanding that Barragan’s powers were no mere boast.

Suddenly, the Segunda Espada flash-steps before them. Casting a withering glare at the healers, Barragan asks Byakuya if he has given up. It’s only natural — he is battling the King of Hueco Mundo, after all.

Byakuya, after a beat, wonders aloud how Barragan qualifies as a king.

“You serve under Aizen, do you not?” Byakuya asks. “And you are not even the highest-ranking Arrancar.” Byakuya asks how Barragan can claim the title of King when he is merely a subordinate.

Barragan’s eyes narrow, none too pleased. The Espada hold his axe downwards, hissing out “Rot, Arrogante!” Byakuya advises the healers to all flee as Barragan is cloaked in a black mist. The 4th Division members are all frozen in horror as Barragan emerges from the plumes, now a skeleton capped with a crown. The Espada extends his bony fingers, launching a surge of Respira at the Shinigami. Byakuya grabs Hanatarō by the sash of his robes and dashes away, telling the other two healers to “Run!”

The healers give chase, but are caught by the fast-moving mist. Byakuya and Hanatarō look back in horror as the two Shinigami disintegrate and crumble into dust. Byakuya hurls Hanatarō away from him, meeting Respira head on and throwing up a wall of Kido. The mist splashes against it, quickly disintegrating the shield. Byakuya, realizing that he is wholly outmatched, flash-steps away.

• Trash!
Las Noches / Seventh Tower - Base Level [Kenpachi and Suí-Fēng vs. Yammy]

Kenpachi runs up the spine of a humongous Arrancar, stabbing his sword deep into the base of its skull. The slain behemoth crashes down, Kenpachi launching off from it to slash at another beast. Yammy charges a Cero between his jaws, firing it at Kenpachi as the captain is busied with the Arrancar. Kenpachi swerves around to cleave the blast in half, diverging lines of devastation forking behind him.

Suí-Fēng launches out from the Seventh Tower, diving down with her Shikai released to strike at Yammy. The Arrancar clocks her and swings around, catching her in his fist. Suí-Fēng screams in agony as the behemoth crushes her in his grip. The Espada concludes that she is trash and flings her to the ground. Kenpachi catches her, asking if she’s alright. Grimacing, she responds that she’s fine, but all of her bones are now broken.

Ūryu spins around, firing arrows at the wild Arrancar charging at him. He readies another shot, only to feel a devastating twinge — he has exhausted Ransōtengai. The Quincy falls flat on his back, completely paralyzed from the neck down as three lion-sized Arrancar draw near. He braces himself for death, only for Chad to land before him, fending the beasts back. Chad looks down at Ishida, asserting that he will protect him.

Rukia gets back to her feet, pulling Renji up with her. Nelliel dashes before them, urging Rukia to hop on her back: there’s an opening for them to infiltrate the Seventh Tower and help Ichigo. Rukia obliges and nearly loses her lunch as Nelliel blasts off with awesome speed, bypassing a distracted Yammy and scaling the face of the obelisk.

• Do Not Let Your Guard Down for an Instant
Las Noches / Seventh Tower - Top Level [Ichigo vs. Ulquiorra]

Ichigo cracks Ulquiorra’s blade with a strike powered by his Visored powers. The Espada takes notice, concluding that the Substitute Shinigami has exceeded expectations. The Espada relocates the battle to the upper layer of Las Noches, Ichigo following. Ulquiorra releases his Resurrección, declaring “Murciélago!” and transforming into a winged beast with a long, lashing tail [note: Ulquiorra does not have Segunda Etapa like he did in the Canon, but that form has replaced his traditional Resurrección].

The fight proceeds similarly to how it did in the Canon: Ulquiorra completely trounces Ichigo. He flings the Substitute Shinigami into a pillar, announcing that it is useless to resist. Ichigo struggles to his knees, resolving that he has to defeat Ulquiorra because he has no other choice.

The Espada gazes down at Ichigo passively, retorting that the boy was always fated to lose this battle. He recalls when Ichigo had presumed that he was Orihime Inoue’s overseer. He reveals that this assumption was incorrect.

“From the beginning, my primary responsibility has been you.”

Ichigo’s eyes widen, asking what the hell Ulquiorra is getting at. The Espada responds that Lord Aizen had assigned him the task of bringing out the Substitute Shinigami’s potential. Ichigo is incredulous, pointing out that Ulquiorra had tried to kill him after their first confrontation. Ulquiorra counters that this was planned: Lord Aizen granted Orihime permission to roam Las Noches immediately after, knowing that she would find Ichigo and heal his wounds. What she would not know to remove, however, was the Reiatsu that Ulquiorra implanted inside of Ichigo when he impaled his chest.

A dumbstruck Ichigo touches his right breast, struggling to understand. Ulquiorra explains that it was not a coincidence that the Substitute Shinigami’s Visored powers grew stronger after their first skirmish. The Espada had implanted Ichigo with a unique Reiatsu designed to stimulate his inner Hollow and empower it.

Ichigo asks why Aizen would want him to become stronger. Ulquiorra pauses for a beat, then offers the truth: Ichigo has been integral to Lord Aizen’s plans for a very long time.

This revelation horrifies Ichigo. He lashes out with his blade, only for his wrist to be pinned to the ground by Ulquiorra’s foot. The Espada continues, explaining how it was not a matter of how strong the Substitute Shinigami becomes, but of what he becomes. Ichigo doesn’t understand, but Ulquiorra concludes that the boy’s comprehension is beside the point. He wraps his tail around Ichigo’s throat and lifts him off his feet.

Suddenly, there is an explosion at the entrance to the upper realm. Ulquiorra looks down, recognizing Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck and Rukia Kuchiki as they stare up at him from the base of the castle. The Espada tells them to pay close attention — this will be the last time they see Ichigo Kurosaki alive. Rukia’s eyes widen as the Arrancar charges a Cero Oscuras, blasting it straight through Ichigo’s chest. She cries out in horror.

Ulquiorra tosses Ichigo’s lifeless body from the dome, watching him land on the ground below. The Espada concludes that Ichigo’s injury ought to be enough to bring out “Lord Aizen’s prize.” Nelliel charges up the castle and launches at Ulquiorra, only for him to parry her strike with a flick of his tail. She is in her released state, lance in hand and tears streaming down her furious eyes. Ulquiorra comments that he did not expect to ever see her again, but that her allegiance to Ichigo Kurosaki is not surprising. Nelliel charges at him again, ferocious in her grief.

• I Dreamed of You
The Rukongai - Real Karakura Town

Class is in session at Karakura High School. The gang gossips about the supposed chemical spill while Tatsuki gazes out the window, certain that the sky looks very odd today. She catches a figure running down the street — it’s Orihime. Shocked, Tatsuki leaps from her desk and dashes out of the class, her teacher calling after her. Kon, inhabiting Ichigo’s Gigai, watches Tatuski leave with some nervousness.

Orihime, conspicuous in her Arrancar garb, heads for Urahara’s shop. She is intercepted by two Shinigami: Zennosuke Kurumadani and Eikichirō Sadō. The patrolman of Karakura Town chides Orihime for running about; their objective is to maintain calm amongst the public.

Inoue emphasizes with urgency that she needs to speak with Urahara Kisuke — he is the only person who may be able to rescue Ichigo and the others from Hueco Mundo. Eikichirō takes her input seriously, recounting how he owes a debt of gratitude to Ichigo for fending off Grand Fisher.

Orihime clasps her hands together and puts on a sunny face, trying to smooth-talk the two Shinigami. She asserts that Ichigo and the others would be very helpful to have around should Aizen’s army reach Karakura Town. Eikichirō grimaces, telling Orihime that if Aizen’s forces defeat the Gotei 13 and reach Karakura, then the war is already over.

“HEY, YOU!” Tatsuki calls out to Orihime, terrifying the two Shinigami. Inoue turns back to see Tatsuki, the two best friends gaze at each other in shock. “Where have you been?” Tatsuki asks, her face stern. She then dashes forward and gives Orihime a tight hug. In their embrace, she whispers that she had heard Orihime speak to her in a dream the night of her disappearance. Orihime breaks into tears, replying that a lot has happened. Tatsuki releases her embrace, wiping away tears of relief and demanding that Orihime tell her everything. All of it.

• Bringing Out the Big Gun
Las Noches / The Seventh Tower - Base Level [Kenpachi and Suí-Fēng vs. Yammy]

Kenpachi dashes around Yammy, the irate Espada punching a Bala right at him. Kenpachi swats at the energy blast with his sword, knocking it right back at Yammy’s mouth. The Arrancar yelps as several of his teeth shatter upon impact. He is taking a lot of punishment.

Kenpachi situates himself and readies to swing a Kendo — reflecting on how the Captain-Commander had forced him to study the art years ago. He is ambushed from the side by an Arrancar; he pivots and bifurcates the Adjuchas with his slash. Yammy seizes on the momentary distraction and brings his fist down onto Kenpachi. The captain blocks the strike with his sword, but steadily seeps into the ground. Yammy exerts his full weight until he has Kenpachi waist-deep into the sand, then lets fly a blitz of thundering punches. The Arrancar gleefully brings his remaining arm down in thudding strikes against Kenpachi, battering him.

Yachiru’s eyes widen as she sees a geyser of sand erupt from Yammy’s brutal beatdown. She’s truly worried for Kenny right now.

Suí-Fēng, badly hurt, is being carried by Ōmaeda. She tugs at his ear and orders him to situate her on the ground and to hold her steady. The lieutenant complies, wondering if this means that the captain is going to bring out the big gun. She nods yes; despite how much she hates its inelegance, the current threat calls for it. Furrowing her brow, the injured captain intones “Ban… Kai!”

Yammy cackles as he pummels Kenpachi deep down into the ground, like hammering a nail. Suí-Fēng takes aim at him, a rocket affixed to her arm: Jakuhō Raikōben. She fires, the rocket zipping straight for Yammy.

The Espada spots the incoming missile when it is within 50 yards of him. Alarmed, he pivots and punches a Bala at the projectile — his blast striking and detonating it before it can reach him. The rocket explodes, unleashing a fireball that engulfs Yammy and Kenpachi while all the remaining Arrancar on the battlefield are obliterated. Ūryu, unable to move, is lifted off the ground and flung far away, Chad carried along with him. Ōmaeda cries out in horror as a tidal wave of sand crests right on top of him and Suí-Fēng, burying them both.

• Ichigo is Dead, Long Live the Hell Knight
Las Noches / Upper Realm [Nelliel vs. Ulquiorra]

Rukia runs towards Ichigo, rubble crashing around her as Nelliel and Ulquiorra battle from above. She reaches his body, cradles him up, and begs him to draw breath. He has a smoking hole in his chest and absolutely no light in his eyes. Rukia knows he is dead, the world halting around her. The memory of Ichigo saving her on Sōkyoku Hill flashes through her mind. She remembers him turning to her, giving a confident smile. Hugging his body close, she cries out that she is sorry that she couldn’t save him in return.

Nelliel is knocked back, her lance cut in half and a deep laceration cut into her shoulder. Ulquiorra gazes at her with chilly dispassion, chiding her for having too much attachment to these humans. Nelliel retorts that he would never understand because he himself was never human. He is the only member of the Espada to originate from Hueco Mundo. Born a Vasto Lorde.

Ulquiorra acknowledges that this is true. He is unclouded, never having to harbor thousands of wayward souls who had lost their hearts. In fact, he never possessed a heart to begin with. He is a pure Hollow: completely empty and disinterested in the purpose of his existence.

Nel is silent for a beat, then tells Ulquiorra that she pities him. She will weep for him when he dies. The Cuarta Espada responds that such sentiment is wasted on him. There is nothing for her to pity.

This prompts a cry of rage and sorrow from Nel. She vows to avenge Ichigo. Ulquiorra passively watches her swear her oath before replying that Ichigo will be back up on his feet shortly. Nel gives Ulquiorro a quizzical look. He elaborates that while he effectively killed Ichigo Kurosaki, the boy’s true face will soon reveal itself. Ichigo has an inner Hollow that reacts to threats against its host. Ulquiorra recounts how he had stimulated the Hollow after his first battle with the Substitute Shinigami. By fatally injuring the boy, he has baited the Hollow to come forth and defend its vessel.

Nel is horrified, looking down from the castle to see Rukia nursing Ichigo’s limp body. “Rukia! Get away from him!”

Rukia looks up, confused and grieving, only for a surge of white to erupt from Ichigo’s hollowed-out chest. Rukia dashes back, in shock as she watches Ichigo’s corpse being overtaken by the viscous Hollow essence. He suddenly convulses and erupts into a pillar of light that extends up into the sky.

Rukia looks on in shock as a horned beast steps out from the torrent of Reiatsu. We have seen its likeness before — it resembles the creature that Isshin had encountered 18 years ago. We shall call it White.

Ulquiorra gazes down at the monstrosity, telling Nelliel that he will now subdue the creature and bring it to Lord Aizen. Suddenly, White flash-steps beside Ulquiorra and hacks his left arm clean off. Ulquiorra’s eyes widen with surprise — the creature was not supposed to be this strong.

• Karakura Crisis
Fake Karakura Town [Shunsui & Ukitake vs. Starrk]

Starrk lackadaisically fires a Cero from one of his pistols. Shinji nimbly dodges the blast, wondering aloud what would happen if Starrk got creative with his shots. The Espada retorts that the battle would be over very quickly, then. He demands to see a Bankai and fires another shot. This time, Ukitake flash-steps right into the trajectory of the blast and reflects it back with Sōgyo no Kotowari. Starrk is caught off guard, dodging his own Cero at the last possible second.

The Espada looks back to Ukitake and sees Aizen glaring at him in the far distance, eyes glinting with disapproval. Starrk, taken aback, tells Lilynette that they are at risk of losing Lord Aizen’s confidence. Lilynette swirls around him, bearing her fangs as she responds that they must fight harder than they ever have before. He looks to her, agreeing that they ought to start taking this war seriously.

Lilynette howls, bristling with light. Shunsui and Ukitake stand together, watching with curiosity as the glowing canine sprouts three identical wolves. Starrk tells the captains that he and Lilynette can split their soul into new pieces. Therefore, Lilynette can replicate herself.

The wolf howls as her clones dash forth. Shunsui and Ukitake brace themselves, but are surprised when the three beasts bypass them and scatter in different directions.

Both captains’ expressions drop as they simultaneously realize the wolves’ target.

“They’re heading for the pillars!” Shunsui cries out. Before they can give chase, Starrk flash-steps above them, firing Ceros from both of his pistols. Shunsui and Ukitake are engulfed by the seismic energy beams and launched down in forking directions. Both land in the Fake Karakura streets, the Ceros erupting with volcanic force and obliterating the surrounding buildings.

Hisagi, Kira, and Matsumoto each see a wolf coming towards them. The three lieutenants lunge at the attackers, only for the wolves to nimbly dodge all three of them, each latching onto a pillar. They explode upon impact, blowing the remaining Tenkai Ketchu to smithereens.

The barrier has been destroyed.

This grabs the attention of everyone on the battlefield. Tōshiro, Byakuya, Komamura, Unohana, and Sasakibe all look up with alarm as they watch the sky above them begin to shift. Sasakibe and Unohana both grab Captain-Commander Yamamoto and jump out from the subterranean crater, Unohana crying out for everyone to brace themselves.

Aizen cracks a smile as he watches the Shinigami panic. He casts an approving look towards Starrk, who reacts by running his hand over Lilynette’s fiery fur. “We have done well.”

Orihime and Tatsuki are running towards Urahara’s Shop together, with Zennosuke and Eikichirō following. Tatsuki tries to get it straight: Urahara is one of these “Shinigami,” but he’s been living here in Karakura Town all this time? Orihime gives an affirmative nod, insisting that he’ll know what to do. Suddenly, everyone halts as they feel the air ripple around them. Tatsuki asks what’s happening while Eikichirō’s face turns grave. “We’re fucked,” he observes.

Suddenly, the sky above them changes as Karakura Town is warped back to the World of the Living. All the townspeople sense a disturbance, everyone becoming disoriented. Several vehicles begin to corrode on the main road, their drivers screaming as they are reduced to ash after unwittingly driving straight into Respira.

Barragan watches from above, remarking that all the mindless ants are now scurrying. Aizen calls down to the Hollow King, reminding him that he needs the majority of the humans alive. Eyes narrowing, Aizen advises that Barragan use his Respira “conservatively.” The Segunda Etapa bristles but ultimately relents, contracting the output of his deadly aura. He sprouts his battle axe seemingly from thin air, pledging to track down and hack Byakuya Kuchiki to bits.

Tōshirō Hitsugaya, bleeding profusely from his chest, looks around at all the humans below him, noting with alarm that the tide of battle is turning fast. His attention snaps back as Apacci, Mila Rose, and Cyan all attack with him coordinated strikes. The young captain’s injury is hindering his performance; he is struggling not to be overwhelmed by the Fracciōn. Their battle emits shockwaves that crack surrounding buildings, prompting unaware townspeople to panic and scatter. The humans cannot see the spirits, but they can feel and witness the havoc they are leaving in their wake -- presuming that it’s an earthquake.

Zennosuke and Eikichirō both agree to enact Plan B: Instead of trying to maintain normalcy, they must evacuate the city.

A driver at the border of town juts her thumb back at the commotion behind her, telling the Mod Soul Police that she’ll take her chances with the chemical spill. Several drivers behind her honk in agreement.

Aizen eyes the humans broaching the border of town, noting with disapproval that they will all need to stick around. The Lord of Hollows extends his palm up to the sky, rolling off an incantation from his silver tongue. Walls of Kido erupt from the ground, encircling Karakura Town like a fortress. One of the Mod Souls turns with alarm and presses their arm against the plasmic prison — it doesn’t budge. Everyone in the town is now trapped within its borders.

Aizen concludes that the encasement of Kido ought to keep all of their guests from escaping. Kaname listens as the screams of panic from the townspeople begin to mount. “Forgive us,” he says, head bowed.

Aizen decides that now is the time for the Hooleer to spit out some more Menos to clean up the lieutenants. The behemoth lumbers behind him, birthing scores of Gillian-class Menos. The enormous Hollows begin wading towards Rangiku, Hisagi, Tetsuzaemon, and Kira. Suddenly, the first wave is dispatched by unseen attackers. Aizen cocks an eyebrow as five warriors flash-step before him. They are Shinji Hirako, Hiyori Sarugaki, Love Aikawa, Kensei Muguruma, and Lisa Yadōmaru.

Shinji tips his cap, commenting that it’s been a long time. “Eh, Aizen?”

• Smile, You Son of a B!+#@
Las Noches / The Seventh Tower - Base [Kenpachi and Suí-Fēng vs. Yammy]

A mushroom cloud rises from where Jakuhō Raikōben had detonated. Everything beyond it is blanketed in sand, the landscape pristine. Yumichika sprouts from a dune and climbs out, followed by Renji, Isane, and Yachiru. Ōmaeda thrusts Suí-Fēng up from the sand and shortly follows, gasping for air. Chad emerges several yards behind, carrying Ūryu in his arms. The Nakama all peer at the cloud of smoke ahead, unsure of whether the blast had taken out Yammy — or Captain Kenpachi.

Suddenly, a Bala cuts through the haze, moving so fast it catches Chad off guard and hits him square on. He and Ūryu are knocked back, both unconscious.

Yammy gazes out through the plumes of smoke, merely singed and gripping Kenpachi in his fist. Roaring an obscenity, he hurls the captain towards the Nakama. Kenpachi skids across the dunes, his robes in tatters and body bloody. He slowly hoists himself up, remarking that this Arrancar is a pain in the ass.

Isane laments that the gigantic brute could have been brought down if only Jakuhō Raikōben had reached him. Kenpachi looks back to Suí-Fēng, telling her that he has an idea if she’s up for some teamwork. The 2nd Division captain looks at him incredulously, but begrudgingly accepts. Kenpachi tells Renji that they will need his help, too.

Yammy huffs and puffs, talking to himself as his rage comes to a boil. He has had enough of being humiliated by this trash. The Arrancar spots Kenpachi dashing towards him again, carrying Suí-Fēng in his arms. Eyes bulging, Yammy promises to give the Shinigami one last thrashing. To his surprise, Kenpachi stampedes right past him, running underneath his legs. Yammy tries to follow the captain’s trajectory, but his attention is interrupted when a blast hits him in the chest. Yammy looks forward and sees Renji standing before him, the lieutenant wielding Hihiō Zabimaru. Heaving with anger, the Espada tells Renji that his attack was pathetic and announces that he is going to blow all of this trash off the map. He widens his jaws, charging a Gran Rey Cero. Renji gulps, muttering that whatever Kenpachi is planning, he needs to do it fast.

Kenpachi reaches the tower and begins sprinting up its face, furiously running as he scales the tremendous height. Suí-Fēng barks at him to throw her accurately — they only have one shot at this. Kenpachi sprints until he is level with Yammy’s shoulder blades. He pivots and throws Suí-Fēng like a javelin. The 2nd Division captain flies headfirst into the back of Yammy’s hollow hole.

Yammy readies to fire his Cero, but senses something passing through him. He looks down to see Suí-Fēng launch out from the chasm in his chest — with a reloaded Jakuhō Raikōben aimed directly at his face. The Décima Espada’s eyes widen as Suí-Fēng launches her rocket at point-blank range. The missile smashes through his jaw and connects with the Gran Rey Cero. There is a blinding flash and then a seismic explosion, the shockwave propelling Suí-Fēng headlong into the dunes.

Ōmaeda cries out as he sees his captain plummeting down towards him. The lieutenant frantically positions himself and catches her limp body, her velocity knocking him flat on his ass. Meanwhile, the shockwave of Jakuhō Raikōben blasts away the foundation of the Seventh Tower. The obelisk begins to cave in on itself.

Yammy is dead, his head blown clear off. The Arrancar’s massive body crashes back with a thundering slam, his remains swiftly buried by the collapsing tower’s piling rubble.

Ōmaeda is on the verge of tears as he shakes Suí-Fēng’s unresponsive body, begging her to show a sign of life. The captain gives him the weakest of slaps across the face before passing out. Ōmaeda bawls with relief.

• The Hell Knight Rises
Las Noches - Upper Realm [White vs. Ulquiorra]

Ulquiorra and White’s battle proceeds similarly to how it did in the Canon, although it is less one-sided and more akin to the Hellverse iteration. Ulquiorra demonstrates his high-speed regeneration and Lanza del Relámpago while White fights as a complete berserker. The Cuarta Espada attempts to defeat the creature through strategy, but is repeatedly outflanked by brute strength.

Ulquiorra reflects on how his Resurrección was supposed to be able to restrain this beast. He wonders if Lord Aizen knew that he would be outmatched by White. If this is true, Ulquiorra thinks to himself, then Lord Aizen had intentionally consigned him to death and Hueco Mundo to devastation. The Espada doesn’t have time to ponder the possibility as he struggles to keep up with his opponent.

The battle has the scale of two titans wrestling for dominance, obliterating everything in their wake.

White overpowers Ulquiorra, pinning him down and firing a Cero at point-blank range. As the smoke clears, Rukia approaches the creature and grips him by the wrist. "That’s enough, Ichigo," she says firmly, hoping that her friend is still conscious and fighting for sentient control. Passionately, she calls on Ichigo to remember who he is.

Nelliel, watching from a distance, sees White’s body language and yells for Rukia to flee. The monstrosity impales Tensa Zangetsu through Rukia’s gut and throws her back. In shock, Rukia wonders to herself if Ichigo truly did die and this creature is all that is left. Nelliel flash-steps before her, telling White that he must back down and accept that he has already won. The beast responds by charging another Cero, readying to unleash it against its two supposed allies. Nel closes her eyes in acceptance while Rukia watches with horror as White readies to obliterate them both. They are saved when Ulquiorra flash-steps behind White and shears off one of his horns, shattering the Hollow’s form.

Ichigo regains consciousness, horrified to see the wound he unwittingly inflicted on Rukia. Distraught, he begs Ulquiorra to cut off his arm and leg to make their battle evenly matched. The Espada, concluding that Ichigo is too dangerous for Las Noches’ future to keep alive, agrees to honor the boy’s request -- even if doing so would violate Lord Aizen’s orders. He readies to comply, but halts when he suddenly begins to disintegrate.

Ichigo cries out that this is not how he wanted to win. Ulquiorra, taken aback by Ichigo’s commitment to honor, comments that they boy had defied expectations to the very end. The dying Vasto Lorde turns his gaze to Nelliel, who smiles at him with a melancholy warmth. He asks her if she will still weep for him. She nods, a tear streaking down her cheek. “Of course I will.”

Ulquiorra recollects when Orihime told him of the “heart.” We realize that her words were more impactful for him than he had previously let on. The Espada reaches his hand out to Nel. She reciprocates, only for her grasp to spur the disintegration of his claw. Ulquiorra spends his final moments realizing that the “heart” had always existed here: in the palm of his hand.
 
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- THE WHITE INVASION - (Continued)

- ACT FOUR: THE THREE BLADES -


• Hunkering Down
Karakura Town - Karakura High School

Students press their faces against the classroom window, witnessing what looks like one long earthquake taking place outside. Buildings crack and the ground trembles. Chizuru, Keigo, and Mizuiro all wonder if it’s related to the chemical spill.

Kon, who knows what’s up, is sweating in the corner. Keigo turns to him, nervously asking what they should do. Kon takes a big gulp — this is his time to shine. Stepping atop his desk, the mod soul demands that everyone listen up — there is a natural disaster afoot, so they should to go to Urahara Kisuke’s shop and use his bunker.

The class teacher tells “Ichigo” to sit down. The school has a bomb shelter— it is nonsensical for anyone to leave the premises. Kon bashfully sits back down. The class begins filing out to the basement, but Chizuru grabs her friends and tells them they must escape the premises. “Tatsuki is out there,” Chizuru points out. They should go find her and then all go to Urahara’s Shop, like “Ichigo” suggested. Kon, who is now thinking the school’s bomb shelter sounds pretty safe, begrudgingly agrees to tag along.

• It’s Raining Hooleer
Karakura Town (Continued)

Aizen stares down the Visoreds, asking where they have been lurking this whole time. Shinji recounts how they waited in the real Karakura Town in case the Tenkai Ketchu fell. “The cavalry has arrived.”

Aizen scoffs, dismissing the new challengers as failed experiments. Hiyori nearly pops a blood vessel at the insult, swearing revenge for Rōjūrō Ōtoribashi and Mashiro Kuna.

Aizen asks the Hooleer to produce a fresh crop of Menos to take on the interlopers. Kensei Muguruma, donning his mask, flash-steps before the gelatinous behemoth and kicks it with a pulverizing flex of Hakuda. The creature explodes into a wave of viscera, raining guts down upon unsuspecting townspeople. Gin notices a spot of the Hooleer’s blood on his garb, expressing disgust.

Kensei flash-steps back to the group, his mask phasing off. Aizen arches a brow in mild admiration, remarking that it seems the Visored have utilized their deformity for a modest power-up. “Bully for you,” he concedes.

Shinji tells his comrades to help wherever they can: he will handle Aizen for now. The rest of the Visoreds dash off to battle the Espada, leaving Hirako in a stare off against the Lord of Hollows.

Aizen orders Tōsen to deal with the interloper. The General reaches for his blade, but suddenly senses incoming danger. He swerves, dodging the incoming scythe of Kazeshini.

Shūhei dives towards his former mentor, followed by Captain Sajin Komamura. The three combatants dash away to settle their score. Aizen, with the slightest hint of exasperation, looks to Gin Ichimaru. The right-hand subordinate sighs and draws Shinsō, remarking that he hadn’t planned on fighting just yet. Aizen watches with icy scrutiny as Gin begins to battle Shinji.


• Riptide
Karakura Town (Continued) [Hitsugaya vs. Harribel]

Tōshiro struggles to fend off the coordinated attacks of the Tres Bestias, all of them having released their Resurrección forms. Nursing a nasty slice across his chest, he haphazardly parries away the three Fracción members’ attacks. The captain flaps his ice wings down to the ground, struggling to regain breath. He is surprised when Rangiku Matsumoto flash-steps before him.

Rangiku apologizes for allowing the Tenkai Ketchu pillar she was guarding be destroyed, vowing to help her captain in his time of need. Hitsugaya warns that the combined strength of the Tres Bestias is too much for her. Rangiku, accepting the risk, releases her Haineko and casts Neko Rinbu, obscuring her and Hitsugaya’s precise location from the Arrancars.

Mila Rose launches through the mist and clashes with Rangiku. The 1oth Division lieutenant forms a shield from a concentration of her Shikai. Mila Rose is surprised as the surrounding dust begins to knick at her.

Cyan and Emilou jump out above the mist, only to run into Lisa and Hiyori. The two Visored release their Shikais and don their masks.

Lisa tauntingly aks if the “Tres Bestias are formidable enough to fight one-on-one?” before crashing her oversized spade of a Shikai — Haguro Tonbo – onto Apacci.

Apacci is alarmed by the bookish Visored’s strength while Sung-Sun battles Hiyori.

Hitsugaya flies up above the mist. He recognizes the two Visoreds and expresses gratitude for their help. His expression drops when he feels Tier Harribel flash-step behind him. The captain pivots around but is batted away effortlessly by Harribel’s swing. The Espada fires a wave of Cascada, sending Hitsugaya crashing into a neighboring street.

Tōshiro hops back onto his feet, barely keeping up as Harribel slashes at him with her Pata sword. The pavement of the road cracks and telephone lines topple over as the two warriors swordfight. Hitsugaya thrusts his blade into the ground, a pillar of ice shooting up and enclosing around Harribel. The Espada is momentarily frozen in place, but shatters the prison with a flex of her Reiatsu. She sucks up the moisture and reforms it into a boiling blast: “Hirviendo!”

Hitsugaya nimbly dodges the brunt of the attack, but the piping hot liquid scalds his arm. He screams and involuntarily drops his Zanpakuto, dashing several yards back.

Realizing his folly, Tōshiro moves to reclaim his sword, but halts in his tracks when Harribel flash-steps before him. Pressing the tip of Tiburón to his chest, she asks for his name. Hitsugaya identifies himself, tone dignified as he accepts that death may be imminent. Harribel reciprocates with her title and rank, then retracts her blade and orders him to retrieve his Zanpakuto.

Harribel sees the surprise in Hitsugaya’s reaction and assures him that he will not be shown mercy. She just won’t dispatch him when he is unarmed.

Hitsugaya dashes towards Hyōrinmaru and snatches it from the concrete. Harribel swerves towards him and fires another blast of Hirviendo. Hitsugaya’s wings enclose around him, shielding his body from the boiling onslaught. The captain unfolds his wings and corrals the steaming remains of liquid into Guncho Tsurara, firing Harribel’s attack back at her in the form of ice daggers. Harribel swings her blade, the shockwave of her swipe shattering the projectiles. Hitsugaya’s eyes widen as he watches his attack reduced to fine particles.

• Hey, Got a Bankai?
Karakura Town (Continued) [Kensei & Love vs. Starrk]

Starrk stares at Kensei and Love, wondering to himself if these two new challengers are strong. The Primera Espada calls out to them, asking if they are captains like Shunsui and Ukitake. Getting no answer, he cocks one of his guns.

Kensei flash-steps before Starrk, swiping his Tachikaze against the muzzle. The dagger pushes Starrk’s gun to the side, the Arrancar’s Cero firing out into blank space. Kensei slashes his blade across Starrk’s throat, but the Arrancar nimbly dodges and leaves an afterimage. Kensei dons his mask and turns to see Starrk several yards away, cocking his pistol once again. The Visored slashes at the air, launching gusts of wind that cut into the Espada’s outstretched arm.

Starrk notes the lacerations on his limb with alarm and responds by firing a blitz of Ceros. Kensei dodges them while dashing towards the Primera, bringing his dagger down from overhead. Starrk blocks the slash with his right arm – it deflects off his Hierro – his left arm aiming a point-blank shot from beneath. He fires a Cero, the blast throwing Kensei back and shattering his mask.

Before Starrk can do any celebrating, he dodges a swing from Love’s oversized club of a Zanpakuto, Tengumaru. The Visored dexterously wields his kanabō, not sacrificing any speed. Starrk dashes back several paces and fires a Cero. To his surprise, Love bats at the blast like a baseball and bursts it, his Shikai smoking.

Love conjures Hifuki no Koduchi, lighting his club in flames and launching a blazing ball of energy. When the fireball is within 10 yards of Starrk, the Espada fires a blitz of Balas, puncturing through the sphere and creating a pathway. He flash-steps through the opening, emerging out the other end unscathed. He is met by Love, who swings his club and connects, the force batting Starrk back into the fireball. The Espada dives headfirst into the inferno; it bursts and illuminates the Karakura skyline.

Kensei flash-steps next to Love. The white-haired Visored is bloodied, remarking that the Arrancar’s Ceros pack a powerful punch. Love notes with severity that none of their attacks have inflicted any damage upon Starrk; not even their Visored-enhanced abilities seem to dent him. Kensei wonders aloud if they should kick it up a notch.

Starrk flash-steps before the two Visored, nonchalantly asking if either of them “have got a Bankai?” Kensei and Love exchange a look of bemusement. Starrk scratches the back of his neck with one of his pistols, musing aloud that he would very much like to see their Bankai. Kensei declares with a fiendish grin that they will happily oblige. He and Love simultaneously intone “Ban… Kai!” and erupt in a burst of wind and fire.

Kensei emerges from a cyclone bedecked in Tekken Tachikaze. Love, meanwhile, is encased in a 15-foot black golem — Kikō no Yōkai-ō (Armor of the Goblin King). The surface of the rocky automaton is similar to Tengumaru, with spikes flaring from its shoulders and knees, several protruding from its back in the same arrangement as Love’s hairstyle. Love is situated in the golem’s chest, his face visible behind the slotted helmet of the goliath’s head. It is as though he is piloting a Mecha.

Starrk’s eyes widen as he observes the two Visoreds’ formidable upgrades. Just to see what will happen, he fires a shot. Love extends one of his rocky hands forward, catching the Cero in his palm. The blast explodes in his grip, his oversized fist smoking.

Starrk gives a nod of satisfaction. “Okay,” he decides. “I will fight you seriously, then.”

The Primera twirls his two pistols and holsters them, springing two Reiatsu blades from his bandoleers — utilizing Colmillo. He flash-steps between the two Visoreds and slashes at them, knocking them back in opposite directions. Starrk whirls towards Kensei like a twister, his two blades forming a cylindrical blur. Kensei claps his hands together, generating a countervailing wind-tunnel that unravels Starrk’s attack. He dashes towards the off-balance Arrancar and connects a fist into his solar-plexus.

Starrk chokes for air, feeling as though he is being struck by a thousand fists all at once. Kensei — with a hint of malicious enjoyment — explains his Bankai’s ability and keeps his brass knuckles connected with Starrk’s chest, inflicting a devastating succession of blows into the Primera. The Visored thrusts his arm forward, launching the Arrancar across the sky.

Starrk is caught by Love’s vice-like clutches. The Primera can feel mounting heat surge around him as the Visored grips him tightly between his stoney dukes. Love explains how Kikō no Yōkai-ō can raise its surface temperature until it melts the skin off of opponents. Starrk, feeling himself becoming overwhelmed, activates Ceros from his every limb. The Espada erupts with firepower, breaking from Love’s grip. Drawing his pistols, he fires a blitzkrieg of shots against the golem, pushing it back.

Kensei watches the bombardment from above, transforming his brass knuckles into spiked gauntlets. He flash-steps behind Starrk and swings a punch. The Espada pivots and rapid-fires into Kensei, only for the Visored to fade into an afterimage. Starrk shoots at the swarming speed-clones swirling around him. Kensei reaches the Espada and strikes him across the face, sending him flying down. Before the Arrancar can crash into the buildings below, Love flash-steps before his trajectory and connects a fire-flecked punch, enveloping Starrk in a fireball that launches up into the sky. The sphere rises above the clouds and explodes, illuminating Karakura Town with a brilliant flash.

• Batten Down the Hatches
Karakura Town (Continued)

Orihime and Tatsuki enter Urahara’s Shop and find Tessai sitting in a meditative stance. Inoue asks to see Mr. Urahara, to which the Kido master responds “He is busy.” Extending his palms together, Tessai utters an incantation. The two girls watch in amazement as a bubble-shaped barrier extends out from Tessai and swells out past the shop, encompassing a radius of eight square blocks.

Tessai explains that those without spirit energy can easily pass through is barrier. Meanwhile, those with Reiatsu will meet resistance. He asks Orihime and Tatsuki to herd as many humans as they can within the sphere, where they can be protected from the war. Jinta and Ururu hop up, announcing that they too will help corral as many Karakura Town residents as they can find. Orihime urges that they must also work towards saving Ichigo and the others from Hueco Mundo. Tessai assures her that the matter is being attended to.

...

• Wrong Floor
Karakura Town (Continued) [Byakuya vs. Barragan]

Orihime and Tatsuki run down the street, having already passed the perimeter of Tessai’s bubble barrier. They call out to residents, urging everyone to run towards the golden dome — they’ll be safe inside of it. Tatsuki casts Orihime a worried look, wondering about the safety of their classmates. They agree to head for Karakura High School and turn into an alleyway for a shortcut.

Suddenly, a bloodied Byakuya Kuchiki bursts out from a wall right before the two girls. Tatsuki gasps as Barragan emerge from the rubble, an enormous axe in his hand. Byakuya spots the two humans and grabs them by their collars, dashing away from Barragan at full speed. The Hollow King gives chase, calling on the “noble ant” to stand and fight. Orihime watches in horror as everything surrounding Barragan corrodes. She can hear screams rising and fading from the disintegrating buildings around him.

Byakuya runs up to a corporate building across the street and leaps through its glass windows, carrying the two women behind him as he kicks a open door into a stairway and dashes up the floors. Tatsuki and Orihime watch Respira giving chase, nipping at their heels as they are carried up the flights of stairs. Byakuya slams through the door of the 20th floor and dashes through, only to be confronted by Barragan at the end of the hallway, behind him a widening hole where the window used to be. The captain freezes, realizing that they are now trapped. He looks back to see the wave of miasma surging towards them.

Barragan emits a grunt of confusion as his Respira halts within mere feet of Byakuya and the two women. A golden wall stretching from floor to ceiling glows as the black mist presses against it. Byakuya looks wide-eyed down to Orihime. She seems surprised herself as she juts her hands forward, having summoned this shield.

The Respira is gradually corroding her Santun Kesshun — no doubt about it — but more slowly than should be possible. Byakuya punches a Kido up through the ceiling, leaping up with the two girls in tow.

Barragan watches with incredulity as his miasma swells against the pulsating wall of mysterious energy. He is displeased, letting out a roar of rage as Orihime’s shield cracks and shatters, the black mist surging forth.

Byakuya bursts through the rooftop, the building below him starting to crumble. Hanatarō Yamada dutifully awaits on a neighboring rooftop, asking the captain if he has any new orders. Byakuya tosses Tatsuki towards the healer, ordering him to take her away somewhere safe. Hanatarō catches the irate teenager and blushes as she demands to be put down. He apologizes before leaping away with her in tow, skipping across the skyline.

Byakua flies up into the sky with Orihime in his arms, her fairies surging up after them to return to her hairpins. He demands to know what Kido she used to blunt Barragan’s attack. Orihime stammers that it wasn’t Kido — it was her Shun Shun Rikka. She had learned how to use it more elastically and with greater density under Hachigen’s training. Byakuya listens to her intently, interrupting only to ask if she can stand in the air on her own. Orihime remembers that indeed she can; her fairies create platforms for her to rest her feet upon midair.

After a hesitant pause, Byakuya asks Orihime if she knows of Rukia’s current status. Orihime involuntarily gasps: the last she heard of Rukia was that she had died fighting Aaroniero. She answers that she’s not sure, but the emotion in her voice communicates volumes to Byakuya. The Shinigami is silent for a beat, devastation flashing across his eyes before he resumes total composure. He tells Orihime that he will need her help to fight the Segunda Espada.

Suddenly, the building beneath them bursts apart, a geyser of Respira surging upwards. Barragan glides up from the disintegrating rubble, announcing that he is unsure of how the girl managed to stall his power, but that he will reduce her to ashes soon enough.

Byakuya asks Orihime how sophisticated her techniques had become under Hachigen’s tutelage. She nervously responds that she had developed her powers by leaps and bounds, but that she hasn’t tested them in combat yet. Byakuya, casting some irritated side-eye, tersely responds that she is being put to the test at this very moment. Orihime gulps and promises to try her best.

• Neptune’s Wrath
Karakura Town (Continued) [Hitsugaya vs. Harribel]

Lisa and Hiyori have Emilou and Cyan outmatched, their Visored powers amplifying their superior swordsmanship. Apacci roars with indignation that no “mock Arrancar” can challenge the might of the Tres Bestia. She fires a Cero, only for Lisa to spin Haguro Tonbo and deflect the blast. Apacci’s eyes widen as Lisa flash-steps through her, the Arrancar bursting from countless cuts that disintegrate her body.

Cyan cries out for her comrade, only for Hiyori to bear down on her from above. The Visored’s serrated Shikai — Kubikiri Orochi — bifurcates the serpentine Arrancar.

Harribel knocks Hitsugaya back, horrified as she senses her subordinates’ deaths. In a hushed breath, she commends Emilou and Cyan for fighting well, then whirls around as Lisa and Hiyori attack her from behind. The Espada charges a Cero within her blade and swings it forth, the wide-reaching energy engulfing the two Visoreds.

Tōshiro thrusts his blade into the ground, generating a surge of ice up to engulf Harribel. The Vasto Lorde dives down into the attack, cleaving through it until she has wedged the edge of Tiburōn deep into Hitsugaya’s shoulder. The captain chokes on his breath as Harribel presses her foot to his chest, shoving him off from her blade. She casts vengeful eyes up to Lisa and Hiyori, promising that they’re next.

Lisa braces herself and spins her staff to block Harribel’s surging strike. A masked Hiyori flash-steps behind the Espada, conjuring a triple Cero. Harribel spins back, her blade ripping through the Visored’s charging beams and cutting her across the chest.

Harribel clocks Hitsugaya charging at her from below and nimbly dodges his thrust. The captain’s blade erupts into a massive icicle — his intended attack. Too bad it missed. Harribel parries him back and flash-steps high up into the sky, overlooking her three opponents as they form a defensive line.

Lisa remarks that she has never encountered an opponent with such fearsome power before. Hitsugaya, his breathing heavy and body bloody, admits that he has been completely outclassed by the Tercera Espada.

Harribel gazes down at the trio, charging her blade with Reiryoku and extending it downwards.“Trident."

Her sword fires a three-pronged energy beam, each slash hitting its mark. Hiyori and Lisa’s masks crumble, both falling from the sky.

Hitsugaya, dazed, apologizes to the people of Karakura Town, wishing he could have protected them better. Spitting up blood, the captain plummets down, a deep gash in his side. He lands on the road, his icy wings cracking.

Harribel is not satisfied. She flash-steps before the two fallen Visoreds, dragging her blade on the concrete behind her as she stares at them pitilessly. “You have fought admirably,” she seethes, “but the debt must be paid.” Harribel swings her blade forth, firing a slash of water straight at the defenseless Hiyori and Lisa. They watch with resignation as the blast bears down on them —

— until a figure flash-steps before the liquid strike, kicking it with such countervailing force that the element dispels with a splash. Harribel, eyes narrowing, demands that the intervening Shinigami identify herself. Name and rank.

“Yoruichi Shihōin,” she answers. “But I do not serve Soul Society.”

Casting a look back to Hiyori and Lisa, Yoruichi commends the two warriors for putting up the fight they did against a Vasto Lorde. She will take it from here.

Harribel warns Yoruichi that there will be no mercy for those who stand in the way of her avenging her fallen subordinates. Yoruichi unsheathes a short Zanpakuto from her thigh, welcoming the challenge.

Toraeru (Pounce),” Yoruichi intones, “Hyōgenkotsu (Panther Fists)!”

After a crackling flash, Yoruichi’s arms and legs are clad in gauntlets: blunt instruments for her to dish out punishment (identical to her anti-Hierro armor from the Canon). Harribel watches with awe as the Shunkō Master sprouts wings of lightning from her back, generating enough wind to bend the telephone lines around her.

Yoruichi zips forward and punches Harribel square in the chest. The Vasto Lorde is flung back, her body ripping apart pavement of the road before Yoruichi flash-steps underneath her, both legs smashing into the Tercera Espada and launching her into the air.

• Justice is Blind
Karakura Town (Continued) [Komamura vs. Tōsen]

Tōsen battles Hisagi and Komamura. Their battle has not reached any boiling point yet, the defector easily fending off his attackers’ blows. [This battle is the least altered out of this entire arc, so details about it will be sparse].

• The Wolfpack Cometh
Karakura Town (Continued) [Kensei & Love vs. Starrk]

Starrk floats above the clouds, his uniform still smoldering from Love’s blast. Lilynette nestles up to him, warning that he will be overwhelmed if he does not accept her help. The Espada grimaces, begrudgingly agreeing.

Kensei and Love look up at the clouds, wagering between each other whether Starrk will come back down or just flee. To their shock, five wolves fringed with flame launch down from the sky, charging straight for Kensei. The armored Visored dashes back, urging Love to put Starrk down.

Kensei dashes across the Karakura skyline, fleeing the pursuing lupine missiles. He turns to face them and punches a fist through the air, firing a torrent a sharp wind. The wolves dodge the attack, three of them clamping down onto Kensei’s body and detonating. He erupts in an explosion of fiery Reiatsu.

Starrk flash-steps 40 yards from Love, beckoning the golem to come at him. Sufficiently baited, Love pilots his armor to curl itself into a spiky sphere, spinning in midair. Starrk watches with fascination as the Visored’s hamster-wheel-revolutions spark and ignite into a roving fireball. This is his ultimate attack: Rokkunrōrusekke (Rock ’n’ Roll Comet). After building up crushing forward momentum, Love’s roving comet shoots at the Espada like it’s been loosed by a slingshot.

Starrk nods in approval and summons a Gran Rey Cero from his chest. The energy beam erupts from him — the shockwave shattering all of the windows below — and slams into Love’s fireball, halting its trajectory. The Visored is stunned as his armor is sent spinning in the opposite direction. Realizing that he has been overpowered, he ejects from Kikō no Yōkai-ō and somersaults up towards the sky. He realizes too late that two of the wolves are upon him, sinking their teeth into his limbs and detonating.

Love plummets to the ground after Kensei, both of them bloody and charred. Starrk glides down, offering to look the other way if they choose to escape. Love hocks a bloody wad of spit, turning the offer down flat. The Primera sighs, insisting that he didn’t want to kill anyone today. He touches down, casting a shadow behind him. “I will make it quick,” the Espada promises.

Suddenly, a black blade erupts from Starrk’s chest. Throat curdling, his eyes rove back to see Shunsui Kyōraku emerge from his shadow, dripping in darkness.

Jūshirō Ukitake flash-steps between Starrk and the two Visoreds. Crossing his blades, the 13th Division Captain declares “Bankai! Kurushunagi Jibunōshippotaberu (The Conflicted Eel Swallowing Its Own Tail)!”

Ukitake is cloaked in a torrent of water, emerging from the waves wielding a double-ended Naginta spear, a curved blade affixed to each end of the staff. One end is distinguished by a black frill and an engraving of a fish swimming upstream on the blade, while the other side is distinguished by a white frill and an engraving of a fish swimming downstream.

Shunsui retracts his sword from Starrk’s back, commenting that he and Ukitake were both waiting for Katen Kyōkotsu to get in the mood. Starrk clutches at the wound in his abdomen, grimacing as Shunsui explains the nature of his Shikai. The 8th Division Captain asks Starrk “Ready for Round Two?”

...

Kira and Tetsuzaemon have planted themselves inside of the city, both of them powering Kido barriers to shield townspeople from falling rubble. They aren’t seen by the spiritually unaware, of course. Kira angrily watches his former captain battle Shinji Hirako above.

Gin and Shinji appear to be toying with each other.

Gin extends his Shinsō. Shinji effortlessly dodges the strike, remarking that Gin fights like this is all just a game. The 3rd Division defector cracks a grin, responding that everything has been just a game to Captain Aizen: Stir up as much chaos as possible, keep track of all the roving pieces, and assemble them to your advantage whenever you see fit. Never rely on a particular domino to fall. That’s how you play the game.

Aizen observes the interaction, carefully listening to Gin’s every inflection. Meanwhile, his eyes rove over to watch Orihime Inoue engage Barragan Louisebarn.

• Hail to the King
Karakura Town (Continued) [Byakuya & Orihime v. Barragan]

Orihime casts her fairies to encircle Barragan (the fairies are more like dots of light by this point rather than distinctive figures like they were earlier in the saga). The cloaked revenant broadens the scope of his Respira, boasting that he will decay whatever the girl conjures. Orihime wills her fairies to interlock their energies, forming a prism of light around Barragan. She closes her fist, brow furrowed, the hexagonal trap beginning to shrink.

She reflects on a memory of Hachigen teaching her how to create sophisticated shapes with her powers. He was very proud of her progress.

Barragan watches with incredulity as the prism contracts around him. “You mean to crush me?” he roars. Orihime’s eyes widen as she witnesses her hexagonal barrier begin to crack and then shatter. Miasma seeps through the shards of light, dissolving them.

Byakuya stands beside her, studying the phenomena. He asks if she is able to conjure stronger shields. Orihime recalls Hachi telling her that there seemed to be a link between her level of confidence and the density of her powers. Byakuya gazes at the nervous girl for a beat and then concedes that her confidence is unlikely to improve over the course of this battle.

Barragan interrupts them, bellowing out that he has indulged the girl long enough. He brandishes his axe, sending a chill through Orihime.

Aizen interjects from above, calling down to Barragan. The Segunda Espada looks up to see his master casting him a most threatening smile. “I forbid you from killing that woman,” Aizen orders, eyes glinting with sadistic supremacy.

Barragan, so irritated that his bones rattle, trains his ire on Byakuya. If he cannot obliterate “Aizen’s pet,” he will busy himself with slaying the Shinigami. He flash-steps before Byakuya, swinging his axe down. Orihime reactively casts her Santen Kesshun between the Espada and the captain, Barragan’s axe smashing against the triangle of light.

Byakuya stares up at Barragan, raising his Zanpakuto with the blade facing down. He drops the sword, intoning “Bankai… Senbonzakura Kageyoshi.” Barragan watches as thousands upon thousands of blades swirl around him like cherry blossoms in the wind. The blades converge around Barragan from every direction, only for the Hollow King to swing his axe back and fling waves of Respira towards the incoming waves. Byakuya’s eyes widen as his blades slow and disperse once again, swaths of the cherry blossoms dissolving.

Barragan cleaves his axe down once more against Orihime’s shield, cracking its surface. Orihime hastily reshapes her triangular shield into a cube that encompasses Byakuya’s entire body. Barragan swings again and successfully cleaves the prism in half, wheezing out a laugh in triumph. His gloating ceases when he realizes that the bifurcated cube is empty.

The Espada looks to Orihime, demanding to know what happened to Byakuya. Orihime, terrified of the skeletal King before her, meekly answers that she “traded him away.”

Byakuya looks around in astonishment as he stands inside of a cube 60 yards away. Orihime had transferred him from one cube to another like an instant teleportation device. The 6th Division Captain formulates a strategy as the light around him dissolves.

Barragan draws closer to Orihime, demanding that she return Byakuya Kuchiki. His bony hand reaches out, threatening to caress the petrified girl’s face. He tells her that her fear is merited, for she is in the presence of a god.

Byakuya flash-steps behind Orihime, gripping her by the shoulder and carrying her 30 yards away from Barragan. He asks her what technique she just used to rescue him. Orihime, still shaken by Barragan’s intimidation, stammers out that she used a technique that Hachi had taught her: she creates two identical barriers and “trades” their contents — a useful maneuver for extricating an ally from the frontline of danger.

Byakuya tells her that she must listen closely: he has a plan.

Barragan watches the two opponents chatter. He laughs to himself, concluding that it is useless to “strategize.” His powers are absolute.

Byakuya stares Barragan down, surrounding himself and Orihime with a ring of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. Barragan responds by expanding the reach of his Respira. Extending a bony finger forward, the Segunda Espada beckons his miasma to surge toward his two foes.

Orihime casts a prism around the wave of Respira, containing it. Barragan laughs — declaring her power puny compared to his. With great concentration, Orihime guides the cube containing the Respira towards Barragan.

The Espada watches with bemusement as the prism comes within inches of his chest. The Espada roars with laughter as he begins to understand. “You think my Respira can harm me?” he cackles. His laughter trails off as he sees another cube beside Byakuya — the receptacle swirling with Respira. Confused, the King of Hueco Mundo looks back down at the prism before him. The petals of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi swim inside of it.

Byakuya wonders aloud if Barragan can halt the petals of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi if they were to launch at him from mere inches away. Orihime throws her hands wide like a conductor, the cube of light before Barragan peeling apart. The countless blades surge forward and envelop the Espada, ripping through him.

Byakuya allows himself a soft smile for a plan well-executed. He looks to Orihime and tells her that she has a remarkable gift. He can see why Rukia had considered her both a friend and a powerful ally. Orihime is deeply touched by the compliment. Her newfound piece of mind is interrupted when the sphere of Senbonzakura blasts apart. She and Byakuya look on with alarm as Barragan emerges from the torrent. He is virtually unscathed and furious, crying out that he doesn’t care about Aizen’s orders — both the Shinigami and the girl must die.

The prism filled with Respira beside Byakuya and Orihime starts to crack and then bursts apart, the miasma surging straight for Orihime. Byakuya puts himself between her and the attack, the miasma latching onto his limp arm. Grimacing, the captain grabs Orihime and flash-steps several yards away.

Barragan cackles as Byakuya’s arm begins to disintegrate. Orihime instinctively casts Sōten Kisshun around the captain’s limb, attempting to stave off the corrosion. Barragan boasts that it is no use — the girl will not be able to reject the power of the God of Hueco Mundo. He directs his Respira to swirl around the two “ants,” the miasma closing in around them.

Byakuya, in a cold sweat, has a stroke of inspiration. He grasps Orihime by the shoulder. “Let it rot,” he tells her, gesturing to his arm and then to Barragan.

Orihime is momentarily confused, but then it dawns on her. Her eyes widen as she grasps Byakuya’s idea.

Barragan continues to cackle until he feels a twinge. Something is wrong. He peers out and sees that Byakuya’s arm has been severed, missing entirely from the block of light wrapped around his elbow. It has been “traded” away. The Espada asks Orihime where she has put it.

Orihime meekly — almost apologetically — points to Barragan. She’s given it to him.

Barragan is stunned as his body begins to disintegrate. Embedded in his dissolving chest is a prism of light containing Byakuya’s rotting arm, the limb emanating Respira from within. The Espada doesn’t understand how this is possible.

Byakuya explains that he had a hunch that Barragan was not impervious to his own Respira. Bypass whatever barrier he uses to shield himself from his own attack, and it will work on him like it would on anyone else.

Barragan doesn’t accept what is happening. He defiantly bellows that he is a god.

Byakuya, eyes narrowing, responds “Then why are you dying?”

Barragan thrashes around, using his remaining strength to hurl his axe up towards Aizen, cursing out the Shinigami for having the gaul to boss around the King of Hueco Mundo. Aizen barely even acknowledges the blade as it turns to ash mid-spin.

Barragan’s crown falls from the sky, shattering into ashes upon the ground.

Byakuya finally allows himself to feel his exhaustion. Orihime maternally touches the cube connected to his severed arm. “I reject,” she says warmly. Byakuya watches with astonishment as his hand regrows — with full functionality returning to his fingers. He looks at Orihime with admiration. “Thank you,” says the prideful Captain of the 6th Division, “for saving my life.”

Orihime absorbs his thanks for a beat and responds that she is grateful, too. All this time, she had doubted her ability to be helpful on the battlefield. Her insecurity had crippled her. “Thank you, Byakuya-san, for placing your trust in me.”

• Come Hell or High Water
Karakura Town - 16,000 Feet Above Sea Level [Yoruichi vs. Harribel]

Tier Harribel stands roughly three miles above Karakura Town, levitating amidst a fleet of clouds. She gazes down at Karakura Town, which looks like a thumbtack from this height. She senses that Barragan has died. Good riddance. The Espada's attention snaps back as she pivots to parry a punch from Yoruichi Shihōin.

Yoruichi launches a succession of pummeling blows, her gauntlets pounding against Tier’s Pata sword. Amidst the flurry of strikes, she swings her left leg, the gauntlet crunching against Harribel’s side, sending the Espada flying into the shroud of clouds.

Harribel, obscured by the cumulous sheet, fires down a torrent of water. Yoruichi dodges the shot and speeds towards Harribel. The Espada spins, conjuring a twister of finely honed aqua that threatens to slice Yoruichi through. Yoruichi flexes her Shunkō, unleashing a cyclone that blunts the blast. She thrusts both of her gauntlet-clad arms forward, projecting air-pocket punches that sink deep into Harribel’s body.

Yoruichi dashes back several paces, allowing Harribel to regain her breath. The Arrancar coughs up phlegm, heaving from fatigue. She looks up to Yoruichi and realizes that the Shinigami is scrutinizing her.

Harribel beckons Yoruichi to share what she finds so fascinating. Yoruichi replies that she is merely admiring the amount of punishment that the Espada can take. Harribel hocks a wade of spit and regains her composure, recounting how she had spent her whole existence fighting stronger opponents, fending them off to protect those who looked to her for guardianship. She has weathered worse beatings than what Yoruichi is dishing out.

Yoruichi is intrigued to hear that Harribel has “followers.” From her understanding, Barragan Louisebarn had not ruled Hueco Mundo with any fidelity to his subjects.

Harribel’s face tightens. She admits that Hueco Mundo is defined by anarchy and cruelty. You must constantly put your life on the line if you want to defend the weak. Every kindness requires great sacrifice. Harribel concludes that Lord Aizen may be subjugating the Arrancars, but at least he imposes a civilized order. Before he came to Hueco Mundo, Arrancars wantonly attacked each other. It was savagery.

Yoruichi listens intently, then asks Harribel what Aizen had offered her in return for her service. The Espada is incredulous: he promised her nothing. She follows him because she understands that defying him would mean the death of her and every Arrancar under her care.

Yoruichi concludes that Harribel is lowering herself by serving a master who she doesn’t admire or believe in.

The Espada retorts that she set her dignity aside long ago to protect those under her care.

“Why do you think I am here?” Harribel asks contemptuously, charging Tiburón with Reiryoku. “Sacrifice.”

The Espada aims her fully-charged blade upwards, intoning “Mar Revuelto.” Tiburón fires a ball of Reiatsu that has the smoothness and luminosity of a pearl. Yoruichi watches the orb launch into the cumulous sheet above them and detonate.

The clouds darken and swell into a concentration of Nimbostratus. Yoruichi’s eyes widen as buckets of rain start pouring down around her.

Harribel extends her fist in Yoruichi’s direction and flicks her fingers forward, firing four prongs of water that coalesce into spears. Yoruichi shields herself with her gauntlets – each of them cracking from the projectiles’ force.

Enormous tendrils of aqua erupt from behind Harribel, lashing forward like eels (“Cadenas de Moringua”). Yoruichi punches at the surging jets of head-on, only for her right-fist gauntlet to shatter upon impact. The Shinigami is knocked back, buffeted around by the interlocking, serpentine concentrations of rainwater.

Harribel pitilessly watches Yoruichi thrash around within the writhing clutches of Cadenas of Moringua. The Espada charges a concentration of La Gota and fires it from her blade. The strike hits Yoruichi right in her back, cutting her deep. The Shinigami gasps, blood spurting from her mouth and splashing onto her watery cage.

• Weird Science
Las Noches Dunes

Ūryu slowly comes to, his eyes opening to see Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi grinning down at him demonically. The Quincy’s heart seizes in his chest as the captain bids him hello. Mayuri’s extended fingernail broaches one of Ishida’s palms, testing the nerve response. “It seems that you are paralyzed from the neck down,” the captain gleefully observes. How nice of the Quincy to make himself wholly vulnerable.

Mayuri muses aloud that perhaps he ought to add Ūryu to his cart of trophies and bring him back to Soul Society, where he can finally get to work studying his physiology. The captain’s lips curl into the most delighted sneer while Ūryu’s stares up at him, defenseless and terrified.

A shadow casts over Ishida and Mayuri. The captain looks up to see a bloody Renji Abarai, sword drawn and demanding that he back away from Ishida. Mayuri’s eyes narrow as he asks Renji whether he is seriously challenging a captain. “Your last bit of insubordination against Captain Kuchiki didn’t end well for you, now did it?”

Kenpachi emerges from behind Renji, his body charred and smoking. He tells Mayuri to back off from Ūryu, citing that he and Captain Suí-Fēng owe the Quincy their lives. Mayuri relents, concluding with a huff that he will just have to console himself with all the goodies he collected from Szayelaparro Granz’s laboratory. Nemu pushes an overstuffed cart of collected items behind him. The spoils of war.

• Picking Up the Hollow Pieces
Las Noches - Upper Realm

Ichigo carefully lifts Rukia up into his arms. She applies pressure to her stomach, wincing from the pain. Ichigo, eyes heavy with profound sadness, mutedly apologizes for hurting her. Rukia is taken aback, assuring Ichigo that she knew all along that it wasn’t really him who attacked her. Ichigo is not comforted. His loss of control is precisely what scares him.

He looks back to Nelliel, thanking her for the role she has played in this war. Nel gives him a warm smile, replying that she will walk around the landscape of this upper realm for a while; she wants to be alone and reflect on her sorrow. Ichigo bids her to be safe and readies to leave.

Nel calls after Ichigo, expressing pleasant surprise to have discovered that he is more like her than she had realized. “You are like a Hollow.” Ichigo gazes back at her, unnerved by the praise, and manages weak nod before carrying Rukia down into the dimension below.

The two friends marvel at the destruction below them. The Seventh Tower is now a smoking ruin. Ichigo glides down until he touches the ground. He starts marching forward, aching from his wounds while carrying Rukia. She studies his face, worried about his state of mind. Ichigo trudges on, his eyes unable to meet Rukia’s stare.

“Ichigo!” cries out a voice in the distance. He and Rukia look up and spot Chad standing atop a dune half a mile away, waving to them. Ichigo perks up with relief, his steps growing faster until he breaks into a sprint towards his friend. He is within yards of Chad when Renji springs out from behind the dune, excitedly asking if Rukia’s alright. He rushes up to the two, relieved they are both alive but upset by the sight of Rukia’s wound. “Did the Espada do that to you?” he asks her.

Rukia doesn’t know how to answer. Ichigo falls back into a depressed detachment.



Ichigo and Rukia rest on the ground while Chad, Renji, and Yumichika finish recounting their battle with Yammy. Ishida’s body is propped against a boulder. He studies his two friends’ expressions and asks what happened to them during their battle with Ulquiorra. He can tell that something is amiss. Ichigo struggles to answer before Rukia answers for him: Ichigo defeated Ulquiorra. That’s all there is to it.

Kenpachi sizes Ichigo up, remarking that his spirit seems weaker than last time. The captain swings his blade down, forcing Ichigo to dodge with a yelp. Kenpachi asserts that Ichigo needs to regain his fighting spirit if he’s going to win them the war.

Ichigo is confused by the statement. He points out that they are all trapped here in Hueco Mundo, with no way of escaping back to the World of the Living. For all they know, the war is already over.

Suddenly, a Garganta snaps open right behind Ichigo. He can feel its yawning breath on his back and can see the shocked expressions of his Nakama. Slowly, he turns back and sees his own father, Isshin Kurosaki, grinning at him.

• The Arrancar with No Name
Karakura Town [Shunsui & Ukitake vs. Starrk]

Rainfall drizzles down on Karakura Town. Starrk is struggling to adapt to the rules of Shunsui’s Katen Kyōkotsu. Shunsui explains how his blades manifest children’s games: Bushōgoma, Kageoni, and Takaoni.

The Espada grows agitated and fires a blitz of Ceros at Shunsui. When they are within a yard of the captain, he morphs into Ukitake, who twirls his Bankai and juts out the end with the white frill, his blade absorbing the Ceros like he was drinking them through a straw.

Starrk arches an eyebrow, asking how Shunsui and Ukitake swapped places.

Kyōraku flash-steps behind him and happily explains: his Zanpakuto is also playing the game of Taggumatchi. When his Katen Kyōkotsu senses that Shunsui is ill-suited for a certain obstacle, it will “tag in” Ukitake to fight in his stead. Jūshirō is the only other Shinigami that Katen Kyōkotsu knows well enough to harness this ability.

Starrk spins around and fires into Shunsui at point-blank range. As the smoke clears, Starrk gazes into the eyes of Ukitake, whose spear has absorbed the Cero once again. Ukitake explains that while Sōgyo no Kotowari can redirect an energy attack, Kurushunagi Jibunōshippotaberu will store up the collected energy until it has amassed a reservoir of destructive power that he can unleash all at once. The captain reverses his spear with a twirl, the black-fringed blade tickling Starrk’s chest. “Observe.”

A pulverizing blast of Starrk’s own energy erupts from Ukitake’s blade and overtakes the Espada, sending him flying back. He regains his balance, only for Shunsui to initiate the game of Irooni. The Primera reforges his twin blades with Colmillo, struggling to keep up with Shunsui’s swordplay. Lilynette nervously dashes around them, eager to intervene. Starrk snaps at her, demanding that she stay back.

Lilynette irately barks back that she will not wait on the sidelines and watch him die. She flares up, readying to sprout a new crop of clones. After a beat, her light subsides. The fiery wolf cries out that her soul isn’t dividing.

Ukitake flash-steps before Starrk, confirming that Lilynette will not be able to create new clones. He explains that while his Bankai upgrades his ability to redirect energy attacks, its main power is to halt the progression of everyone within its sphere of influence (a radius of about 1,000 feet). When Kurushunagi Jibunōshippotaberu is released, its opponents can no longer activate their powers.

For example: if Shunsui had not activated his Shikai beforehand, then he wouldn’t have been able to do so after Kurushunagi Jibunōshippotaberu was released. Katen Kyōkotsu can utilize its alternating games because they were all already in its arsenal when the stagnation field was activated. Meanwhile, a technique like Lilynette splitting her soul is no longer possible.

Starrk gasps as he sees Kyrōraku flash-step beside Lilynette, cleaving his swords through her. The blades slice clean through but with no effect — Lilynette remains in one piece. The wolf dashes away, hissing that she can’t be destroyed because she is pure energy. She can only self-destruct. Shunsui chuckles at this, praising her as a truly fearsome “technique.” “However,” Shunsui wonders aloud, “would you continue to exist if your other half was struck down?”

Shunsui and Starrk resume their duel while Ukitake watches from a distance. Starrk is internally panicking, wondering why he had to be saddled with such strong opponents. He is suddenly caught off guard as Shunsui attacks him from above — Takaoni. The Espada’s reaction time is thrown off: he won’t be able to dodge this one.

Lilynette dashes between Starrk and Shunsui, launching herself at the Shinigami. Starrk’s eyes widen. He cries after her, demanding that she stop whatever she’s doing.

Lilynette reaches Shunsui and clamps her jaws around his shoulder. She illuminates, priming to explode — only for Ukitake to stab his spear into the fiery wolf’s side. Starrk watches in horror as his other half erupts into a shapeless pool of energy and suck into the end of Ukitake’s staff.

Starrk dashes forward and strikes at Shunsui and Ukitake. Both captains nimbly dodge and watch as the Arrancar frantically calls out for Lilynette to come back. Ukitake’s expression becomes heavy with sadness as he watches Starrk slowly realize that Lilynette is dead.

Shunsui flash-steps before Starrk. With a heavy sigh, the captain announces that their duel will now be one-on-one.

They resume their battle, but Starrk is preoccupied with the memory of Lilynette’s creation. They were alone, all of their friends perishing from just getting close to their Reiatsu. They split from one original being just to share a companion. They felt relieved when Lord Aizen was unfazed by their strength.

I am alone now, Starrk thinks.

Shunsui tosses his pink captain’s robes at the Espada, momentarily blinding him. Starrk cuts through the garb, realizing too late that the Shinigami is clad in only black and readying his strike. “Black,” Kyōraku calls out before slashing Starrk’s Hollow Hole.

The Espada’s chest cracks and shatters. He plummets down, remembering his first conversation with Lilynette.

Where are you going?” she asked him.

Anywhere.” He replied. “Let’s go together. Forever.

Starrk gazes up and sees Lord Aizen watching him fall. Even from a great distance, he can see the expression in Aizen’s eyes — pure contempt. The Hollow Lord turns his gaze away, no longer interested in the Primera Espada.

I am alone.

Starrk crashes into the ground, cratering the pavement. He is still alive. Struggling to move, he observes the Karakura townspeople running around him in a panic. He hadn’t noticed their fear before this moment. Realizing that he is directly responsible for their suffering, the Espada blinks a single tear.

I need to be alone.

Starrk activates a Garganta beneath him, falling through it while Shunsui and Ukitake watch from above. The portal snaps shut.

Shunsui remarks that even if Starrk survives his wounds, the Arrancar will no longer be a factor in the battle. He looks to Ukitake, who is crestfallen. The 13th Division Captain remarks that there was no honor in this fight; he feels as though they have broken an admirable beast.

Shunsui reminds his dear friend that there is no honor in war: both sides are evil out of necessity.

• Palindromes
Karakura Town (Continued) [Shinji vs. Gin]

Shinji releases Sakanade, grinning from ear to ear. Gin is alarmed as his senses become inverted. Shinji takes advantage of the disorientation, flash-stepping around the defector and landing several slashes.

Gin touches his bloodied shoulder, pauses for a beat, and then announces that he gives up. Shinji is dumbstruck.

Gin looks back to Captain Aizen, complaining that if he continues fighting Shinji Hirako, he will die. What use will he be to Aizen if that happens?

The Hollow Lord’s expression is ambiguous as he stares down his subordinate. A thin smile spreads across his face. He tells Shinji “it seems you have won this round.”

Shinji reseals Sakanade and rests the blade against his shoulder, boasting that many Shinigami have been winning “this round.” The two mightiest Espada have already been defeated; what will Aizen do when his entire army is reduced to just him, Tōsen and Ichimaru?

Aizen merely smiles back, giving Shinji the most condescending side-eye imaginable.

• The Thunder God
Karakura Town - 16,000 Feet Above Sea Level [Yoruichi vs. Harribel]

Yoruichi struggles for breath while being tossed around by Harribel’s Cadenas de Moringua. The Shinigami spins and kicks at one of the tendrils, but her gauntlet shatters upon impact. With only half of her limbs’ armor intact, she is mercilessly slapped around by the torrents of rainwater.

Harribel watches from afar, commending Yoruichi for her battle prowess. “But it will not save you.”

Yoruichi swings her arms behind her and fires a propulsive Shunkō, rocketing her toward Harribel. The Espada meets with her with a sword swing. Yoruichi dives underneath the blade and spins up, punching Harribel in the face. The Arrancar flies back, regains her balance, and swings her Tiburón down, commanding her Cadenas de Moringua to surge down after Yoruichi.

The tendrils wrap around Yoruichi, swirling until they condense into a sphere of water. Yoruichi realizes she been trapped and struggles to wriggle out of the aqua prison. Harribel casts a barrier over the sphere, dooming Yoruichi to drown inside of it. The Shinigami has been ensnared by Trituradora Pulmón (Lung Crusher).

Yoruichi writhes around in panic for a moment, but swiftly centers herself. She begins to punch her fists up, launching air-pocket shockwaves at a fixed point of the sphere. She fires away until her strikes blast a hole through the shield, giving her a brief air pocket.

Yoruichi’s Shikai condenses back into her Zanpakuto. She tosses the blade up. It spins haphazardly and lands between her teeth. She enunciates “Ban-kai!” in the final second before Tritudora Pulmón snaps back to its spherical shape around her.

There is a pause, and then the sphere bursts apart with a brilliant flash of light. Harribel watches in astonishment as her water rips apart to reveal Yoruichi bathed in light. The Shinigami has released Inabikari Sōgano Raimeineko (Lightning Claws of the Thunder Cat). Her hands and feet are gloved with sharp claws of electricity, a black tail sashaying behind her. She looks similar to her canonical Shunryū Kokubyō Senkei form (which will not feature in this revision of Bleach), but she is less scantily clad and maintains full sentience.

Harribel is awed by the power radiating from Yoruichi. The Shinigami cracks a Cheshire cat grin and kicks upwards, unleashing a mighty cyclone of Shunkō up into the cloud overhead, puncturing it. The Nimbostratus disperses, cutting off the rainfall that had fueled Harribel powers.

The Espada corrals the remaining droplets of water and organizes them into her strongest attack: Mandíbulas del Leviatán (Jaws of the Leviathan): two bulky waves enclose around Yoruichi, taking on the shape of enclosing jaws. The thundercat generates her Shunkō in full force, her gusts of billowing wind punctuated with crackles of lightning.

Harribel is astonished when the jaws of her ultimate attack struggle to enclose around Yoruichi, the Shinigami’s Shunkō output blowing the pincers apart. Harribel exerts all of her strength and the two serrated halves of water snap shut. There is a catastrophic collision, the rainwater smashing together and vaporizing into mist.

Yoruichi remains alive and well: the thundercat honed her Shunkō down until it coated her in a spherical barrier, shielding her from the collision.

Harribel flash-steps forward and swings her Tiburón with all of her might, only for Yoruichi to flip over the blade and strike down with a kick. Her heel connects with Harribel’s head, sending a bolt of lightning through her.
...
Karakura Town - Ground Level (Continued)
Rangiku is bloody and exhausted, but has Mila Rose pinned down against a rooftop. Pointing her blade at the Fracción member’s throat, she demands that the Arrancar accept defeat. Mila Rose emotionally retorts that Lady Harribel will stop at nothing to avenge Cyan and Emilou. She must do the same.

Rangiku reluctantly readies to put the Arrancar down, but her attention is interrupted when Harribel streaks down from the sky, crashing at the base of Karakura Town’s water treatment plant.

Harribel struggles to her feet, genuinely afraid when she sees Yoruichi diving down from the sky. The Tercera Espada hones her focus, the water tower behind her bursting open. The gushing liquid surges to the tip of Tiburón.

Harribel brings the concentration of aqua before her to a boil, formulating her final gambit. “Hirviendo!” she cries, firing an enormous geyser of scalding water up at Yoruichi. The thundercat sees the boiling pillar rising up to meet her. She locks both of her lightning claws together, curls into a ball, and spins — blasts of Shunkō emanating from her somersaulting body. Harribel watches in shock as Yoruichi cuts through the Hirviendo, parting it like the Red Sea before unfurling her body and connecting her feet against the Espada’s chest.

There is a boom of thunder and a shockwave that levels the surrounding neighborhood. Harribel is stomped into the ground, her body cratering a square block. She hacks up blood, eyes glazed. Yoruichi stands over her, lightning crackling around her.

Harribel knows that she is beaten. She sees Mila Rose from the corner of her eye, her heart tightening. The Espada tells Yoruichi that she will admit defeat and face execution if her sole surviving Fracción member is let go.

Yoruichi grins, her electricity turning blue. Harribel is confused by the palette change, but doesn’t get a chance to inquire before Yoruichi grabs her by the collar and draws her in close. The thundercat tells Harribel that she should flee with Mila Rose.

Harribel’s eyes widen in confusion. Yoruichi repeats the command: she wants the Espada to flee. Tier responds that she has yet to avenge her two fallen Fracción members. She would sooner die than let their deaths go unaccounted for. Yoruichi draws back, standing imperiously over Harribel, stating that the Espada’s dedication to her subordinates is precisely why she should survive.

Yoruichi beckons Harribel to stand up. The Arrancar struggles to her feet, gasping for breath. Grimacing, she asks Yoruichi why she is showing mercy.

“Because Barragan is dead,” Yoruichi responds. Hueco Mundo will be without a ruler once this is all over. The Tercera Espada is the realm’s best shot at a reformative government.

Harribel considers the idea, then nervously looks to Aizen standing in the sky.

“Sōsuke Aizen will discard you once you cease to be useful to him,” Yoruichi declares. “If you stay and continue fighting for him, you will die regardless of whether he wins or loses.”

Harribel counters that if Aizen prevails, he will come back to Hueco Mundo and slaughter everyone she cares about. What guarantee does she have that the Shinigami will stop him?

Yoruichi pauses for a beat, and then concedes that she can’t promise Aizen will be stopped. But no matter the outcome, the only positive future for Hueco Mundo is under Harribel’s rule.

Harribel absorbs this hard truth. Making a decision, she demands that Soul Society make no more excursions into Hueco Mundo going forward. This all started when the realm was colonized by a Shinigami; it cannot happen again.

Yoruichi promises that if Aizen is defeated, Soul Society will respect Hueco Mundo’s sovereignty. She turns to Rangiku, commanding her to release Mila Rose. The lieutenant complies and watches the Fracción member fly to her superior.

Harribel’s strength gives out. She collapses, but is caught by Mila Rose. The two Arrancar trudge off. Harribel activates a Garganta, then looks up to Lord Aizen. He gazes down at her with cold eyes, remarking to himself that she and the other Espadas made for a “disappointing show.”

Harribel looks back to Yoruichi, her eyes filled with something resembling gratitude. She and Mila Rose step forth into the Garganta and vanish.

Yoruichi reseals her Bankai. Letting out a sigh of exhaustion, she reaches back to touch the deep wound between her shoulder blades. Harribel got her good.

Rangiku touches down behind Yoruichi. She thanks her for saving Captain Hitsugaya’s life. Yoruichi casts her weary eyes. “Don’t mention it...” she trails off before collapsing on the ground, blood spurting from her back. Rangiku cries out for a medic.
...
Hitsugaya sits while a pair of 4th Division healers tend to his wounds. He looks over to Hiyori and Lisa, both of them unconscious. He asks his healers why they haven’t resuscitated the two women yet. One replies that they received orders to prioritize members of the Gotei. Hitsugaya tells them to go and heal Hiyori and Lisa immediately.

One of the medics protests that the captain’s wounds haven’t been fully mended yet. Hitsugaya rises to his feet, insisting that he’s been revived enough to fight again. The two healers relent and run over to the Visoreds.

• Family Reunion - Hueco Mundo
Isshin Kurosaki grins, the Dangai looming behind him as he steps out from the Garganta. He is garbed in his Shinigami uniform.

Ichigo looks wide-eyed at his father, struggling to understand. “D-Dad?” he stammers.

Kenpachi’s brow furrows as he recognizes the mysterious Shinigami. He laughs uproariously and looks to Ichigo. “Your father is Isshin Shiba?”

Ichigo head nearly explodes from sheer confusion. He demands to know who “Isshin Shiba” is. Suí-Fēng interjects, recounting that Captain Isshin Shiba was one of the strongest Shinigami to rise up within the Gotei in a generation. He disappeared almost two decades ago and was presumed dead. And yet here he is, standing before them.

Mayuri wrinkles with disappointment, complaining that he was expecting Kisuke Urahara instead. He explains that while he was unable to uncover a way to open a Garganta within Hueco Mundo, he discovered something interesting in Szayelaparro’s laboratory. Turns out the Espada was a spy; he had been sending out reports on Aizen’s activities to a mysterious source over the years. In the event that his treachery was discovered, he created coordinates to send to his benefactor so they could venture to Hueco Mundo and retrieve him. The formula included instructions for how to calibrate a Garganta so that the portal could bypass the barrier surrounding Las Noches, but it was also designed to only allow two persons to enter through it at a time — presumably Szayelaparro and his rescuer.

Mayuri adds that since Aizen had already invaded the World of Living, he figured that Soul Society was likely busy confronting him. So he used Szayelaparro’s messenger system to send the coordinates to Kisuke Urahara. For whatever reason, Urahara sent Captain Shiba in his stead.

Isshin acknowledges the three captains and concludes “Now, with reintroductions out of the way, it’s time for you to come home, Ichigo.”

Ichigo is shocked. He protests that Kenpachi should go instead; he is a captain, after all. Isshin shakes his head, asserting that Ichigo is the only person who can defeat Aizen. He reminds everyone that the entire Gotei 13 is under the spell of Kyōka Suigetsu, but Ichigo never saw the Shikai’s release. He asks Ichigo if this is true. The Substitute Shinigami begrudgingly admits that Aizen never released his Shikai when he fought him. Isshin concludes that Ichigo is the only warrior strong enough to fight Aizen while avoiding his hypnosis.

Ichigo is coated in a cold sweat, frozen in uncertainty. Chad looks at his friend quizzically, asking why Ichigo isn’t jumping at the chance to help win the war. Ichigo grows upset and admits that he may do more harm than good. He can’t control whatever is inside of him.

Rukia reaches up and grasps Ichigo by the shoulder, capturing his attention. She sternly asks “What is your duty, Ichigo?” He listens intently as she reminds him that he is the Substitute Shinigami of Karakura, and his sworn duty is to protect that town.

Ichigo gives a halfhearted nod. He will go.

Isshin asks Isane to heal Ichigo’s wounds. The strapping Shinigami looks to the rest of the group, observing that they all look like they’ve had a very rough go of it. Suí-Fēng admits that she can’t leave Hueco Mundo soon enough. Isshin replies that Urahara will figure out a way to retrieve them after the war is over. For now, they’ll just have to hunker down.

Ichigo is healed and ready to go. He looks back at Rukia, Chad, and Ishida with a winsome smile and thanks them for coming with him to save Orihime. He vows to finish the job.

The Nakama watches as Isshin and Ichigo step into the Garganta, the portal snapping shut. Ishida is worried, thinking to himself that Ichigo had the expression of someone expecting defeat.



Ichigo sprints behind his father as they make their way through the Dengai. He asks why the Garganta brought them here instead of Urahara’s Shop. Isshin replies that they aren’t heading for Urahara’s Shop, but for Aizen’s location in the World of the Living. They will ambush him and hopefully end the war in an instant.

Isshin notices that his son isn’t responding. He turns back to see that Ichigo has halted, standing still in the darkness. Isshin strides up to him, sternly reminding him that the Cleaner will be after them if they don’t get a move on. He sees the anguish in Ichigo’s eyes and sighs, admitting that his son probably has questions.

Ichigo answers that he isn’t expecting Isshin to explain his history as a Shinigami and why he kept it a secret. He knows his father has his reasons and will tell him about it when he is ready. Instead, what he is worried about is himself.

Isshin listens carefully as Ichigo recounts how he had lost control while fighting Ulquiorra. He transformed into something malevolent and attacked Rukia. Ichigo gazes up at his father, tears in his eyes. “Dad,” he pleads. “What am I?”

Isshin lets the question linger for a long beat, and then smiles. “You are my son.” he answers. “You are Masaki’s son. You are Karin and Yuzu’s brother. You are Ichigo Kurosaki. That’s who you are.”

Ichigo absorbs his father’s words and then smiles back. The Substitute Shinigami has regained his focus.

“Thanks, Dad.“

• The Scales of Justice
Karakura Town [Komamura & Hisagi vs. Tōsen]

Komamura and Hisagi continue battling Tōsen. Their fight plays out like it did in the Canon: Tōsen reveals that Aizen had evolved him with the Hōgyoku. He dons a Hollow mask and begins to trounce his two former friends.

Komamura attempts to understand why Tōsen defected to Aizen. He demands to know when he turned. Kaname answers that he had been working under Aizen from the very beginning; it was Aizen who instructed him to join the Gotei 13. Komamura, devastated, berates Tōsen for believing that working with Sōsuke Aizen could help further his goal for a most just world. Can’t he recognize that Aizen is cruel and duplicitous?

Tōsen responds that he knows Aizen is both of those things. He has understood this for a long time, but it doesn’t matter. Lord Aizen is the only person with the power and the will to remake the world.

Komamura is taken aback, struggling to understand why Kaname would want to destroy the institutions and laws that he had vowed to uphold. Tōsen cackles in response, taking the wolf’s confusion as a bad joke. The blind man asserts that Soul Society is a farce built upon a lie. Justice cannot thrive until it is destroyed.

Tōsen reveals that Aizen has promised to appoint him the new Captain-Commander of Soul Society. When Aizen rules from the heavens, Tōsen will decide what is Law and enforce it below. This was the bargain they struck.

Komamura is horrified. The wolf condemns Tōsen’s ambition: only the truly corrupted would seek to wield the Law like a tyrant. After a beat, Komamura laments that “Kakyō would curse your name if she could see what you’ve become.”

Tōsen is infuriated, damning Komamura for invoking Kakyō. He brandishes Suzumushi, declaring that his Zanpakuto is proof enough that Kakyō would approve of his actions. It was originally her blade.

Komamura is stunned by this revelation. He watches with grim resignation as Tōsen releases his Resurrección: Grillar Grillo. The Shinigami transforms into a monstrosity, gaining the power of sight for the first time. He battles Komamura’s Kokujō Tengen Myō’ō and defeats him, readying to deal a killing blow. He is ambushed by Hisagi, who plunges his Zanpakuto into the back of his former mentor’s neck and releases Kazeshini.

Komamura and Hisagi stand over the grievously wounded Tōsen. Komamura confesses to Tōsen that while he can never understand his goals, he does not doubt his conviction. The wolf trusts that his friend went down this path because he truly believed it would lead towards justice. But he beseeches Kaname to not let his ambitions disfigure his soul. Komamura concludes that losing Tōsen would be like losing his heart.

Tōsen is moved to tears. He reflects on his friendship with Komamura and realizes that their bond was real, above all else. He thanks his friend and then asks Hisagi to come closer so that he may see him for the first time. Kaname suddenly winces and explodes into a geyser of viscera, his blood splashing onto his horrified friends. Komamura looks up at Aizen and bellows that he will never forgive him.

Aizen gazes down at the stain that was once was his confidante. “Soul Suicide,” he remarks to Gin. “Well… I did warn him.”

Suddenly, a Garganta tears open behind Aizen. From it springs Ichigo Kurosaki, Tensa Zangetsu in hand. The Substitute Shinigami swings, unleashing a Getsuga Tenshō against the nape of Aizen’s neck.
 
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I would probably rewrite the ending. It seemed to be cut short at 74 volumes.
 
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Just wanted to update (for whoever may possibly care) on the status of The White Invasion’s final installment, The Deicide. It’s coming along much more slowly than the previous acts because 1) I made it very complicated for myself and 2) my rewrite outline has grown into a full-blown fanfic that is getting beat-for-beat detailed. It’s hard, and I want to move onto something more fun like the Lost Agent arc. But this has become a full-blown passion project lately, and I’m enjoying the process. I also keep going back and rewriting early installments to flesh them out further.

The long and short of this update is that climaxes are hard to write — even when you’re working from a pre-established template — and I don’t begrudge the challenge Kubo created for himself by trying to dovetail so many different plot-lines and characters into a satisfying conclusion.

I suspect the Deicide will be finished within a week. It’s been fun, but coming together slowly. I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into 😂. Aizen sure is fun to write, though!
 
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- THE WHITE INVASION - (Continued)

- ACT FIVE: THE DEVIL'S SNARE -

Ichigo Kurosaki slings a crushing current of Getsuga Tenshō from the edge of Tensa Zangetsu, hoping against hope that it will cleave Aizen’s head cleanly from his shoulders and end the war in an instant.

His heart sinks when his fully-charged attack splashes against the Arrancar Lord’s back and radiates against an unfurling shield of prismatic light. The Getsuga Tenshō ebbs and then disperses, leaving the target completely unharmed.

“Ryoka boy,” Aizen remarks to himself with icy regard.

Ichigo breaks into a cold sweat as Aizen explains that the nape of the neck is a warrior’s most vulnerable spot. He had taken pains to guard himself against such a sneak attack.

“I see that Ulquiorra Cifer failed his directive,” Aizen adds with a thin smile. “A shame, but fortuitous all the same. If you were able to overwhelm even him, then you must be worth the trouble, Kurosaki Ichigo.”

Ichigo angrily phases his mask back on and channels his energy into the tip of his Bankai blade, reigniting a fresh flame of Getsuga Tenshō. Aizen’s eyes widen with delight at the aggression.

“You want to kill me, don’t you?” the Arrancar Lord laughs, hands in his pockets. “Punish me for the little errand I put you through, is that it? Maybe you do possess the will to strike me down, but your fear of yourself still far outweighs your hatred of me.”

Ichigo roars beneath his mask and lunges at Aizen, unleashing a sweeping current of black energy. His target effortlessly flash-steps out of range, only for Ichigo to pivot and fire. “I see you!” he cries out, watching his Getsuga Tenshō overtake Aizen. His blood runs cold when he hears the Arrancar Lord’s voice call out behind him.

“You see your own reflection on the water’s surface, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen gloats. “Careful not to drown in it.”

Ichigo whips around and charges with another wave of his attack. He thrusts Tensa Zangetsu into Aizen’s chest and explodes his energy from the sword’s point, only for the Arrancar Lord’s visage to fade and disperse as the blast vaporizes his after-image. Ichigo, his mask flaking off, turns back in shock to see Aizen smiling at him from 10 yards away.

“Don’t fret, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen says with condescending tranquility. “You are not under my Complete Hypnosis — that would spoil our fun. This is merely my natural speed. See? —“

Ichigo chokes on his breath as Aizen presses his fingertips to his chest. “– I can reach your heart with little trouble.”

Ichigo dashes back several paces, completely unnerved.

“I know you are stronger than this,” Aizen asserts with frosty certainty. “Are you simply afraid to unveil your true face before our audience?”

Ichigo’s eyes dart down to the townspeople below. So many people.

“What’s wrong?” Aizen asks with derisive concern. “Did Ulquiorra show you that that mock Arrancar kabuki you indulge in isn’t the only mask you wear? Perhaps you are worrying over what havoc you might wreak should the mask slip again? You must have observed what you are capable of. Tell me — which of your friends did you harm?”

Ichigo is frozen in fear, Tensa Zangetsu rattling in his grip. His breathing quickens as he feels himself spiraling. His mounting panic halts when his quivering hand is gripped by his father’s fist.

“The battle has only begun, Ichigo,” Isshin tells his son reassuringly. “I’m right here with you.”

Shinji Hirako flash-steps behind the father and son. “So are we.”

Ichigo looks back in astonishment as Shinji is joined by Captains Shunsui Kyōraku , Jūshirō Ukitake, Tōshirō Hitsugaya, Sajin Komamura, and Byakuya Kuchiki; all of them flanked by the Visoreds Hiyori Sarugaki, Love Aikawa, Kensei Muguruma, and Lisa Yadōmaru. 10 formidable Shinigami, all of them wounded but resilient.

Ukitake looks to Ichigo with a reassuring smile.

“You’ve grown since we last met, Ichigo,” the 13th Division Captain warmly observes. “Now we must entrust you with being our eyes and ears in this battle.”

Ichigo is surprised by this bestowed responsibility. Shinji cuts him a sly look, reminding him that they’re all under Aizen’s hypnosis. If the traitor is able to activate his Shikai, Ichigo will be the only person able to verify reality.

“Stay back and keep your eyes peeled, kid,” Shinji advises.

The Shinigami and Visoreds move out, with only Byakuya remaining. Ichigo stares wide-eyed at his former nemesis, struggling to find the words.

“B-Byakuya,” Ichigo forces out. “Have you seen Inoue?”

Byakuya nods, softly answering “She is helping herd the townspeople to safety.” The captain hesitates for a moment, and then asks “Rukia… is she alive?”

Ichigo goes pale. There is a long pause before the Substitute Shinigami replies “Rukia is alive, Byakuya.”

Byakuya tenses, gripped with irrepressible relief before returning to his placid expression. “Thank you, Kurosaki Ichigo.” He flash-steps away, leaving a queasy Ichigo watching the battle begin. Isshin stands beside his son, warning him to pay close attention.

Karakura Town has already taken a heavy toll from the war. Entire buildings are leveled and the inhabitants terrified by the unexplainable destruction happening around them. The enormous walls of Kidō summoned by Aizen wrap around the borders of the town like the fortifications of a fortress.

Kensei, Love, Lisa, and Hiyori flash-step before Aizen, all of them armed.

“Just you and us now, Aizen,” Kensei grits, cracking his knuckles with an obscenely loud pop. “There’s no one left for you to hide behind.”

Aizen smirks as the Visoreds encircle him.

“So you’ve come to avenge Captain Ōtoribashi and Lieutenant Kuna, is that right?” he devilishly queries.

“Don’t forget Hachi,” Hiyori adds, visibly agitated.

“I see,” Aizen whispers, closing his eyes and taking a moment to bask in the comedy of it all. “Your vengeance is a futile gesture. Your comrades’ deaths were merciful; the real cruelty is that you resist the same fate. All this time, you’ve been waiting to kill me so you can go on living again. But there is no future for any of you mock Arrancar. You all died 100 years ago.”

Hiyori is infuriated by this provocation. She lunges forward with her serrated Shikai swinging, only for Aizen to flash-step above and kick her straight down into the town below. The Visored plummets and crashes into a building, collapsing it from within.

“Hiyori!” Lisa cries out, filled with fear and indignation.

Aizen smirks and slides his hands from his pockets, his right reaching for the hilt of Kyōka Suigetsu. He is interrupted when Hitsugaya lunges at him from below, bringing his blade up for a strike. Aizen nimbly dodges the slash, chiding Hitsugaya for his sloppy aim. The Arrancar Lord reaches back for the hilt of his Zanpakuto, but realizes that he cannot draw it: the katana has been bonded to its scabbard, encased in Hitsugaya’s ice.

“Is this your grand strategy?” Aizen asks, looking up at his attackers with an intrigued expression. “You mean to keep me from drawing Kyōka Suigetsu and releasing my Complete Hypnosis?”

Kensei and Love simultaneously release their Bankais, jointly announcing their intention of pummeling the traitor before he has any opportunity to activate his spell.

Ichigo watches the Visoreds flex their power. He is deeply impressed by their Reiatsu.

“That was smart of Hitsugaya,” Ichigo remarks to Isshin. “I’ve fought with the Visoreds – they’re strong. If they can keep Aizen from releasing Kyōka Suigetsu, they can overwhelm him!”

“Keep him from releasing Kyōka Suigetsu?” an oily voice asks.

Ichigo looks back to see Gin Ichimaru standing five yards from them. The snake concludes that the Shinigamis’ strategy is “No good.” Isshin turns his attention to Gin, studying him for any sudden movements.

“Ignore this worm and don’t take your eyes away from Aizen for a second, Ichigo!” Isshin instructs his son. The Substitute Shinigami turns his attention back onto the battle. His heart swiftly drops into his stomach.

Lisa flash-steps before Aizen, darting the wide edge of Haguro Tonbo at him, the blade emanating dozens of slicing reverberations. Aizen weaves through each of the slashes and smashes his palm into Lisa’s mask, shattering it. He grips Lisa by her face and throws her down from the sky with punishing velocity. She crashes through a rooftop, the impact blowing out the windows of the building’s top floor.

Aizen smirks at his handiwork, but his self-satisfaction is interrupted when he senses Kensei lunging at him. The Visored swings both of his knuckle blades around Aizen’s throat, only for the Arrancar Lord to reach up and snatch the Visored’s wrists, keeping his quivering blades at a distance.

“What good is your brute force if it cannot reach me?” Aizen taunts before ramming his forehead into Kensei’s face.

The Visored spins back with a bloody, broken nose. He lunges forward again with his blades transforming into brass knuckles. He swings, only for Aizen to meet his strike. Both of their fists pulsate with shockwaves as they exchange a flurry of punches, Aizen’s knuckles growing bloody while Kensei’s bands gradually crack. The Visored roars and thrusts his arms forward.

Aizen catches both fists, a tight smile curling across his lips as he endures the pain of countless strikes reverberating against his palms. Kensei watches in shock as Aizen crushes the gauntlets between his grip. The Arrancar Lord brings his knee up into the Visored’s abdomen, prompting him to double over in pain. Aizen brings his elbow down against the back of Kensei’s neck, knocking him out cold and sending him falling from the sky.

“That’s right,” Gin hisses to Ichigo, hovering several paces behind the horrified Substitute Shinigami. “There’s a reason why Captain Aizen was able to subjugate those who’d rather die than obey. The Espada didn’t follow ‘im ‘cause of Kyōka Suigetsu — they followed ‘im ‘cause he’s strong.“

Komamura flies up before Aizen, Kokujō Tengen Myō’ō materializes behind him. The wolf swings his sword down, his mimicking goliath following suit. Aizen sidesteps the enormous blade, readying a Kidō from his upturned fingertips.

“Hado #76,” the Arrancar Lord intones. “Aōsuraisu!”

Aizen sweeps his hand across the air, unleashing a arching slash of blue energy that slices a deep laceration into the giant’s chest. Komamura roars and lunges forward, blood spurting from his corresponding wound.

Aizen nimbly jumps above Komamura’s slash, his foot bouncing from the katana’s curved edge, and kicks the wolf square across the face, sending him flying back into his own Bankai. Komamura smashes into the samurai’s chest and comes out the other end, the giant evaporating as the wolf streaks down across the skyline and crashes into the buildings below.

Aizen feels an incoming heat and turns to see Love’s Kikō no Yōkai-ō rolling straight for him. He holds out his hands and catches the spinning sphere; it drives him back several yards, but he manages to halt its momentum, the flames licking his Arrancar garb. Love is incredulous as Aizen places a bloody and smoking palm against the armor’s surface.

“Hado #31,” Aizen intones. “Shakkahō!”

A beam of red light blasts clean through Love’s armor. The Visored is blown out from the back of his golem, his smoking body somersaulting and falling from the sky. Kikō no Yōkai-ō crumbles before Aizen, the Bankai disintegrating into rubble.

Ichigo watches in abject horror as Aizen decimates the Visoreds without even drawing his Zanpakuto. Isshin grimaces as he surveys the onslaught. Gin grins from behind them, resuming his monologue.

“Captain Aizen's abilities ain't like anyone else’s,” the snake continues. “’We'll be careful of Kyoka Suigetsu,’ you say? Nope, that ain't enough. ‘We'll be careful of everything else, then,’ you say? Nope, that still ain't enough. Be it the sky fallin' or the earth crackin' open, you could be ready for misfortune out there, but y'all will never be ready for what Captain Aizen is.”

“Don’t listen to him, Ichigo!” Isshin cautions, gripping the hilt of his Zanpakuto and shooting Gin a glare. “Keep your eyes on Aizen!”

Aizen examines his own smoldering hands. They are torn open and dripping with blood, the skin of his palms entirely shorn off. He watches patiently until blue, pulsating veins seep out from under his sleeves and coalesce around his wounds. He observes his ruined hands rapidly regenerating back to their pristine smoothness. The Arrancar Lord grins, satisfied by this development. His attention is interrupted when Hitsugaya charges straight at him, blade thrust forward.

Aizen curls an eyebrow in exasperation and chides Hitsugaya for charging at him from such an obvious direction. He then notices Shinji hovering in the distance. The Visored is grinning from ear to ear, his Sakanade whirring in his grip. “It’s in reverse,” Aizen realizes just as Hitsugaya thrusts Hyōrinmaru into his back. The Arrancar Lord looks down in shock at the frost-laden blade sprouting from chest.

Shinji casts a look over to Ichigo. “Well, Ichigo?!” the Visored calls out. “Did we get him or not?!”

Ichigo vigorously nods. They got him. It’s no illusion — Aizen has been run through.

Hitsugaya hisses under his breath as he drives his sword deeper between Aizen’s shoulder blades. “This is for Momo, you bastard!” the young captain grits. Shinji reverts Sakanade back to its sealed state and rests the blade on his shoulder, whistling with relief.

There is a long silence as Aizen clutches at the blade protruding from his chest. The Arrancar Lord tightens his grip, gasping in pain as he thrusts his chest forward, forcing his body off from Hyōrinmaru until the blade’s point slides out from his back. Hitsugaya watches in shock as Aizen stumbles several paces forward, blood spurting from his wound.

Shinji and Isshin look on with alarm. Ichigo is flummoxed by the sight. Aizen has freed himself from his impalement, but the maneuver looked suicidal.

Aizen grasps at the frozen hilt of Kyōka Suigetsu, casting his disdainful eyes back at Tōshirõ.

“I am insulted, Hitsugaya Tōshirō,” Aizen grits. “That you of all people thought you could end me?!”

Aizen whirls around, ripping Kyōka Suigetsu free from its scabbard. Shards of ice explode off from the katana’s hilt as the blade slices cleanly across Hitsugaya’s chest. The wings of Daiguren Hyōrinmaru crack and shatter as the 10th Division captain falls back, eyes glazed and torso erupting with a torrent of blood.

Aizen can feel a presence charging from behind him. He turns and parries a strike from Ukitake’s Kurushunagi Jibunōshippotaberu.

I don’t know if Aizen activated Kyōka Suigetsu before I released, Ukitake thinks to himself as he dexterously whirls his spear against Aizen, his Bankai radiating a progression-negating field around them. But if he didn’t, then we still have a chance.

Aizen grimaces, the wound in his chest spurting blood as he deflects the whirring strikes from Ukitake. The two combatants struggle back-and-forth as they fall from the sky, touching down on the street below. Ukitake whirrs his spear, jutting the black-fringed point towards the Arrancar Lord. A blast of energy erupts from the blade and knocks Aizen back several yards, the soles of his shoes scraping along the pavement. He casts a shadow on the road before him.

Aizen raises his Zanpakuto to retaliate, but a torrent of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi surges past and envelops his outstretched arm.

Byakuya touches down beside Ukitake, his eyes narrowed as he directs his countless blades to rip apart Aizen’s limb. The two captains watch as Kyōka Suigetsu clatters onto the ground. Aizen’s right hand has been minced down into a bloody stump.

Before Aizen can react, Kyōraku leaps up from the depths of his shadow and plunges the twin blades of Katen Kyōkotsu into his chest.

“How careless of you, Aizen,” Shunsui chides the Arrancar Lord, driving the duel scimitars deeper into his torso. “You always did cast a long shadow.”

Aizen’s eyes glaze over, his arms falling limp. Byakuya watches approvingly, remarking to Ukitake that their strategy seems to have worked.

“See, what did I tell you, Ichigo?” Isshin grins, looking down admiringly at his former comrades’ triumph. He notices that Ichigo is shaking, with Tensa Zangetsu rattling in his grip.

“G-guys…” Ichigo stammers, struggling to summon his breath. “You guys… JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU ALL THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”

Ukitake turns and slashes Byakuya across his neck. The 6th Division captain falls back, clutching at his throat. Gazing up, he sees that his assailant wasn’t Ukitake, but Aizen.

Shunsui’s eyes widen with horror as he finally recognizes who is truly standing before him. He has impaled Ukitake through the chest.

“Jūshirō!” Shunsui exclaims in a heartbroken whisper. The 8th Division captain feels a sword slip in between his shoulders, the point sprouting out from his chest. He looks back to see Aizen smirking at him.

“Before this is over, Aizen, I swear —“ Shunsui begins to promise, but Aizen rips Kyōka Suigetsu out from him, a torrent of blood following. Shunsui crumples to the ground, followed by Ukitake.

“Before this is over, you will welcome me as your God, Kyōraku,” Aizen retorts with a smile. “And you will weep with gratitude when I pardon you.”

Aizen looks over to Ukitake, who is hyperventilating and writhing on the ground, his eyes rolled back. There are two wide stab wounds in his chest and his right hand has been shorn down to a nub.

“Your wounds are not fatal, Kyōraku,” Aizen muses. “You and your fellow captains need not die today. I grant you this mercy so that you may serve me reverently in the coming era. However, I regrettably cannot extend the same courtesy to you, Ukitake Jūshirō.”

Ukitake is coughing, but it’s not blood spilling from his lips. It is a black, viscous fluid.

“Did you really think that Mimihagi would escape my knowledge?” Aizen asks, raising his katana. “Unfortunately, my reign cannot begin with you alive.”

Aizen swings his sword down. Before it can reach its mark, he is kicked aside with shattering force by Yoruichi Shihōin. He flies back, crashing through a row of buildings, Yoruichi bounding after him. The thundercat swings down the gauntlets of her Shikai, Hyōgenkotsu, and crashes them onto Aizen. He parries the strike and knocks her several paces away.

Yoruichi slides back, panting heavily. She notices that Aizen is bleeding from the wound that Hitsugaya had inflicted on him. Was he not using Kyōka Suigetsu then? she thinks to herself. She readies to pounce again, but the strain of her stance reopens the wound that Harribel had inflicted on her earlier. A ribbon of blood spurts out from her back.

The thundercat stumbles, her strength leaving her. Aizen flash-steps past her and she promptly collapses, a fresh laceration cut into her side.

“If only you had fought me fresh, Lady Shihōin,” Aizen grins. “You would have been an invigorating warmup.”

Suddenly, everything around Aizen inverts. He tenses, realizing that he is now in the thrall of Sakanade. A slash rips through his shoulder, Shinji flash-stepping around him. The Visored dons his mask to amplify his strength.

“What’s wrong, Aizen?” Shinji grits, working himself up into a fury as he lands another cut across Aizen’s leg. “Am I getting the better of you?”

Shinji dashes around his nemesis, thrusting his Zanpakuto in for the kill, only for the blade to phase through Aizen’s visage. The Visored grimaces as he feels Kyōka Suigetsu slash through his side. He falls to his knees, seething with hatred as Aizen strides away from him.

“My Complete Hypnosis controls all five sense, Hirako Shinji,” Aizen calls back with supreme condescension. “There is no world wherein your paltry illusion can compete with my power.”

“Aizen!” Shinji roars after his nemesis. “I’m not through with you!”

“But I am with you,” the Arrancar Lord replies, raising two fingers. “Hado #1: Shō.”

A kinetic pulse fires from his digits and strikes Shinji square in the forehead. The Visored falls back, out cold.

— –

Kon is clinging to the corner of a building like a cat, desperate to shield himself from the shockwaves that continue to ripple across Karakura Town.

Chizuru, Keigo, and Mizuiro urge “Ichigo” to come along as they brave their way through the ruined streets. They turn on a cross-street and see a herd of people marching several blocks over.

The group of high-schoolers approach the procession, only to realize that two of their friends are leading it: Tatsuki is irately barking directions at townspeople while Orihime takes on a more soft-spoken approach. Chizuru nearly has a nose-bleed when she sees Orihime in her Arrancar garb. She dashes over for a hug, only to be smacked aside by Tatuski — who orders all of her friends to get in line and follow them to safety.

Orihime locks eyes with Kon — she looks hopeful for a moment and then softens into disappointment.

“You’re Kon, aren’t you?” she asks the mod soul. He sheepishly admits that he is in a hushed voice so the others won’t hear, then asks her if she saw Ichigo in Hueco Mundo. Orihime wistfully nods that she did, but they were separated. She briefly reflects on the kiss and asks Kon to take care of Ichigo’s physical body.

“Just please keep him safe,” she asks sweetly.

Kon feels reassured by this directive — he never thought of his avoidance of danger as particularly heroic before.

Jinta and Ururu lead another herd of Karakura townspeople from the opposite direction, the two groups converging on the dome of Kidoō created by Tessai.



Tetsuzaemon Iba drags a grievously injured 4th Division healer before Retsu Unohana. The captain kneels down and begins to mend her subordinate’s injuries, thanking Tetsuzaemon for his help. They both perk up when they sense a presence approaching.

Chōjirō Sasakibe draws his blade and releases Gonryōmaru. The First Division lieutenant stands on guard with his rapier-shaped Shikai, requesting Unohana to retreat back to Captain-Commander Yamamoto. He leaps forward, dashing towards danger — only for Aizen to flash-step past him. Sasakibe crumples to the ground, a deep slash bleeding through his robes.

“I commend you for your gallantry, Sasakibe Chōjirō,” Aizen remarks with a smile. He sidesteps a slash from Iba and nonchalantly cuts the 7th Division lieutenant deep, leaving him incapacitated on the ground. “But your bravado is for nought — the result will be the same for all of you.”

Unohana keeps her eyes fixated on her unconscious patient. She refuses to look up as Aizen approaches. The Arrancar Lord halts within two yards of the kneeling 4th Division captain. There is a long silence shared between them.

“Has the time come for you to break your vow, Unohana Retsu?” Aizen asks.

“With your Kyōka Suigetsu in effect, do I even have a chance of landing a blow?” Unohana asks, her hands still busied with healing her patient.

“Of course not.”

“Then you would be a wasteful use of my blade, Aizen.”

There is another silence shared between them, and then a violent flash — Unohana has moved several paces in a blink, her Zanpakuto drawn and swiping at air, the shockwave from her swing peeling off the pavement from the road before her. She grimaces and then topples over with a curving slash etched into her side.

Aizen flicks the blood from his sword, giving an appreciative smile.

“You honor me, Captain Unohana,” he warmly remarks before continuing on his way.

Yamamoto watches Aizen nonchalantly approach. He observes that the townspeople have fled the immediate area — there isn’t a human in sight. That’s fortunate.

“The humans of Karakura Town need not perish today, Yamamoto Genryūsai,” Aizen proclaims, his eyes filled with vicious determination. “No more Shinigami blood need be shed. All you have to do is oblige me.”

The Arrancar Lord flash-steps before Yamamoto and drives his sword into the Captain-Commander’s gut. Yamamoto grins and grasps Aizen’s forearm in a vice-like grip.

“Foolish boy,” Yamamoto grits. “I’ve got you now.”

Aizen counters that Yama could very well be grabbing an illusion. The captain-commander concedes that this could be true, but that there is no mistaking the Reiatsu radiating from the sword in his gut.

Aizen feels Yama’s grip intensify. He gazes down at the captain-commander’s forearm and sees a scar running along the musculature. It’s what he came here for.

“The Ōken,” Aizen intones with awe. “I know that a key was embedded in your arm a thousand years ago, Yamamoto Gēnryusai. You are the only Shinigami who can reach the heavens from below. Grant me passage and there will be no executions of your flock.”

Yamamoto’s lips curl into a condescending grin. “I already told you, boy — you’re foolish!”

Yama’s scar cracks apart to reveal a forking surge of red light. “Hado #96,” he cackles. “Ittō Kasō!”

There is a blinding flash, followed by an enormous Katana-shaped pillar of red energy erupting into the sky. Residents outside of the blast radius scream as hurricane winds sweep past their homes, the ground shaking beneath them.

Aizen emerges from the blast, his Arrancar garb smoking. His right arm has been burnt to a crisp, horrific blisters running up from his shoulder and through his chest. The side of his face that took the brunt of the blast is now completely raw, the skin blistered and pink.

He was willing to sacrifice his own arm to dispose of the Ōken, Aizen thinks to himself in a fury. His loyalty always rested in Reiō before the Gotei or their human charges.

Aizen lands on a neighboring rooftop. He realizes too late that Isshin is lunging at him, the burly Shinigami swinging his sword down with ferocious force.

“Getsugaaaaa…. Tenshō!” Isshin cries as his Engetsu connects with Aizen’s shoulder. A torrent of blue flame erupts from his Zanpakuto, the shockwave cleaving through the building beneath them.

Aizen inspects himself with wide-eyed fascination: he has been partially bifurcated, with Engetsu wedged deep into his chest.

“Ichigo!” Isshin calls out. “Are my eyes deceiving me, or have I cut this bastard damn near in half?”

Ichigo stands several yards back, scrutinizing Aizen. He confirms that his father’s sword has indeed cleaved deep into Aizen’s torso, but something seems off. Aizen seems off — he doesn’t have the countenance of someone who fears defeat.

“Very astute, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen smirks, arching his brow in admiration of the boy’s intuition.

Aizen launches himself back from Isshin’s blade — it rips out of him with a serrated grind. He skids back a yard, blood spurting from his shoulder.

Ichigo and Isshin warily regard Aizen like hunters approaching a wounded beast that can still bare its fangs. Ichigo can see that Aizen is in terrible shape: Hitsugaya truly did impale him through the chest, Yamamoto truly did burn his entire right side, and Isshin truly did cleave through him by a sizable depth. Aizen has sustained enough damage to be at death’s door.

“You’re a sturdy bastard, I’ll give you that,” Isshin concedes. “But you were reckless in the homestretch, Aizen. It may have taken everyone’s combined effort, but you are not getting much farther with those injuries.”

Aizen beckons Isshin to inspect his wounds more closely. The bloody patches on his body begin to bubble and stew — it looks like high-speed regeneration. The Arrancar Lord chides Isshin and Ichigo for suspecting that he would stoop to Hollowfication.

“This is merely a subservient organism protecting its host,” Aizen explains as he draws back his Arrancar garb to expose his chest. At the epicenter of his solar plexus is an orb radiating a strange Reiatsu, swollen veins filled with shimmering light forking out from its source.

“You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” Isshin grumbles incredulously. “You absorbed the Hōgyoku?”

“Absorbed?” Aizen repeats back with amusement. “No, I subjugated it. After much resistance.”

We glimpse when Aizen welcomed Orihime into his chambers, his veins swollen and body weak.

“The Hōgyoku is a remnant of the Soul King, coaxed awake after countless years of slumber,” Aizen explains. “It refused to be subsumed, and would have killed me had I persisted. I wasn’t certain mastering it was possible until I witnessed Inoue Orihime’s gift.”

We glimpse when Aizen showed Orihime the Hōgyoku, the orb cracked and stained with blood. Later, as she heals Aizen a second time, she is unaware that the sphere rests beneath his robes. The cracks mend and it returns to its spherical perfection, embedded in Aizen’s rejuvenated chest.

“The Hōgyoku inflicted a corruption on my body that could not be mended through traditional healing techniques,” Aizen continues. “It was fortuitous, then, when I discovered Orihime’s ability to reject phenomena and undo the will of the gods. Her talent allowed me to broaden the scope of my vision.”

Ichigo is furious as he listens to Aizen brag about making Orihime an unwitting accomplice, but he also doesn’t understand what the Arrancar Lord means by “broaden the scope of my vision.” Isshin, however, gets it.

“So, after a century of recruiting Espada, you decided in the end that they were inconsequential, huh?” Isshin says contemptuously. “You treated them as lambs for slaughter. Their only job was to exhaust the Gotei 13 so you could face a weakened resistance all by yourself.”

Ichigo is taken aback. He’s never heard his father sound this smart before.

“What need is there for an army when you yourself become God?” Aizen replies with a thin smile. All of his wounds have now healed: even his face has returned back to its handsome symmetry.

“There’s just one problem left for you, Aizen,” Isshin says ruefully. “Repurposing the Hōgyoku like that means you can’t use it to create the Ōken. If your gambit was to use Old Man Yamamoto’s key, then it seems like you’re out of options.”

Aizen cocks his head with a coy smile.

“You clearly haven’t been paying close attention, ‘Captain Shiba,’” he replies cryptically. He looks past Isshin to hone in on Ichigo. The Substitute Shinigami feels his heart seize in his chest: he is afraid of the Arrancar Lord.

“Were you surprised to learn that your father was a Shinigami all along, Kurosaki Ichigo?” Aizen asks. “Have you wondered what else he has hidden from you? Or are you just that incurious?”

Ichigo is trembling. He doesn’t know how to process this line of questioning.

“You really ought to have told the boy what he is,” Aizen tells Isshin with malicious enjoyment. “Does he still believe that his Hollow originated from Urahara’s pit?”

Isshin clenches his jaw, the memory of the horned beast in the rain flitting through his mind.

“I see,” Isshin says softly. “Seems like we have a score to settle, then. Ichigo — fall back.”

“Dad, wait,” Ichigo halts. “You’re going to fight him alone?”

“That’s the idea,” Isshin tells his son. “Now fall back, and don’t let his words poison your mind, Ichigo!”

Ichigo levitates off from the rooftop, watching his father with a new sense of admiration. He suddenly senses an incoming strike and turns to parry a slash from Gin Ichimaru. The snake smiles at him, remarking that he’s in the mood to “put you to the test.”

Isshin and Aizen stare each other down for a beat. Their silence is broken when Isshin asks “Truth or Dare, Aizen?”

Aizen cocks an eyebrow. “A novel ultimatum,” he replies. “Is this something that you learned from the humans?”

“Mhmm,” Isshin nods with a warm smile as he recalls fond memories. “It’s a game my daughters love to play together. Now choose; truth or dare?”

“Very well, then. Truth.”

“Was it you who cut me, Aizen?” Isshin asks.

We glimpse at the moment when a mysterious figure slashed a younger Isshin in the back, hobbling him in his battle against the Monster.

“Yes, it was.”

“Alright, then,” Isshin grins. “Well then let’s try a Dare next, shall we? I dare you not to use Kyōka Suigetsu. See how long you can fare against me without your little parlor trick.”

Aizen is deeply amused by the suggestion. “You just witnessed me cut through the Gotei 13 like wheat, and you think you can fight me as an equal?”

Isshin runs the edge of Engetsu along his arm, cleanly slicing flesh. Blood trickles down his elbow as he muses aloud that Aizen fought tired combatants and used his hypnosis against the rest.

“Before you become a god, fight me like a man, Aizen.”

Isshin raises his bleeding arm and roars “Bankai! Magumaburaddo Mikadzuki (Magma Blood from the Crescent Moon)!”

The stream of blood ignites, the flame snaking around Isshin until he is encased in a fireball. He emerges from the blaze with Engetsu transformed into a red-hot katana, molten like it’s unfinished beneath the blacksmith’s hammer. His skin has become translucent; beneath it swirls viscous heat. His blood has literally become magma. He launches at Aizen and swings his sword down, the force of his strike collapsing the building beneath them. Their blades quiver as they struggle in a standstill, staring determinedly at each other.



Orihime and Tatsuki lead hundreds of people to Tessai’s barrier while Jinta and Ururu shepherd their flock from the other flank.

Orihime reaches the wall of Kidoō and halts. She can feel so many of the Shinigamis’ Reiatsu drop.

So many people are hurt, she thinks to herself. It feels like it’s just Kurosaki-kun now, all alone.

Tatsuki passes through the barrier and turns back to give her friend a quizzical look, asking what’s wrong.

Orihime gives Tatsuki a reassuring smile and asks her to continue leading the townspeople to Urahara’s shop.

“Those fighting for us need my help,” Inoue adds before turning heel and running back towards the battlefield.

Tatsuki watches her best friend charge towards danger. Keigo worriedly asks what Orihime thinks she’s doing.

“She’s helping... like she always does,” Tatsuki answers with a smile. “That’s just how Orihime is.”

——

Ichigo and Gin land atop a pile of rubble while Isshin’s duel with Aizen echoes in the distance. Gin notes that it’s been a while since they last fought and asks Ichigo if he recalls their first encounter. The Substitute Shinigami replies that he remembers how emotionally withholding Gin’s sword felt. He elaborates that he can usually intuit an opponent’s interiority when locking blades with them, but that Gin’s sword felt obtuse, like it was closely guarding a secret.

Gin comments that Ichigo’s a creepy kid and sizes up the landscape behind them, concluding that whichever townspeople occupy the buildings in the distance are in for a bumpy ride. He hisses “Bankai” and unleashes Kamishi no Yari.

Their battle proceeds similarly to how it did in the Canon, with Ichigo struggling to deflect Gin’s extending blade, the slashes cleaving surrounding builds in half. We see civilians flee in terror as the floors above them slide and crumble. Ichigo is at first stunned by the length that the Bankai extends, but he gets really spooked when Gin demonstrates that the blade’s X-factor is its speed. Ichigo prioritizes blocking the blade from reaching more buildings filled with people. Gin relishes watching Ichigo struggle to fend off collateral damage.

——

Aizen bounds back from Isshin, intoning a Kidō incantation: “Hadō #82: Hyōga Seiren.” Torrents of ice erupt from his blade, surging down to envelop his pursuer.

“Atsuatsu Purūmu!” Isshin announces before pursing his lips together and blowing. A plume of heat with the velocity of a flamethrower erupts from his mouth, blowing a trail through Aizen’s ice storm. Isshin launches at him with his blade drawn, the molten katana dripping with Reiatsu. He swipes it horizontally and unleashes a scythe of steam that lights Aizen’s sleeves on fire.

The two struggling Shinigami crash through a building, emerging from the other end parrying and lashing at each other with ferocity. Aizen is agile and dexterous while Isshin is deliberate and propulsive — both of their blades clanging against each other. They land on the road, cratering the pavement beneath them. Aizen exerts his strength and drives Isshin’s blade into the ground, magma bubbling around the puncture. Isshin smiles broadly, steam firing out between his teeth. He rears up his fist.

“Kokuyōseki Genkotsu!” he bellows, a surge of heat gathering around the brunt of his knuckles. He unleashes a punch of volcanic magnitude, the strike connecting against Aizen’s chest and launching him back through an array of buildings. Aizen finally crashes into a sixth structure and, after a beat, bursts out from its rooftop, clutching at his chest.

Isshin flash-steps behind Aizen and swings, only for the Arrancar Lord to spin around and meet his strike. The two combatants lock swords, the heat radiating from Isshin’s body prompting Aizen to sweat profusely.

“Shiba Isshin,” Aizen smirks. “After your disappearance, the fortunes of your lineage fell entirely onto your cousin Kaien’s shoulders. He promptly died and your family fell as far as the Rukongai. I hope your desertion was worth it.”

Isshin, provoked by the taunt, flexes his weight and pushes Aizen back. He rears his sword back and charges a Getsuga Tenshō. With a mighty swing, he unleashes a blast that engulfs both of them, igniting a ring of blue fire. The slash has cleanly cut Aizen through the waist, splitting him apart. Isshin believes he has bisected the Arrancar Lord, but the two halves to evaporate like mist.

There is a devastating slash followed by an eruption of magma from Isshin’s chest. He gasps, spitting out flecks of flame as the red radiance of his katana dims and his Bankai disperses. His volcanic blood turns to smoke, billowing out from the laceration carved deep into his torso. His grip around Engetsu weakens until the sword slips from his hand. The blade plunges down and pins into the ground.

Isshin turns his head to face Aizen as the Arrancar Lord materializes behind him.

“When?” Isshin manages to ask, smoke escaping his lips. “When… did you release Kyōka Suigetsu?”

“An odd question,” Aizen replies. “To which I will ask you another: when were you under the impression that I wasn’t using it?”

Isshin’s strength gives out. He slips from consciousness and falls from the sky. Aizen watches him crash into the ground below.

“You challenged me to fight you ‘like a man,’ Shiba Isshin,” Aizen remarks to himself. “I am progressing beyond such pleasantries.”

——

Ichigo grinds back, managing to halt the progression of Kamishi no Yari with his Tensa Zangetsu. He senses Isshin’s Reiatsu take a nosedive; the distraction prompts his defensive stance to slip. Gin’s blade snakes past the broad of his black sword, extending in a blink and slicing through his cheek. The blade retracts back and returns to its stubby size, Ichimaru’s thin lips curling into a sick grin.

Ichigo looks back to the direction where his father has fallen.

“Dad…” he says softly under his breath. When I thought I couldn’t go on, Dad’s confidence kept me steady, he thinks to himself.

“I told ya.”

Ichigo whirls around and sees that Gin has already closed the distance between them, standing only five yards away.

“Y’all will never be ready for what Captain Aizen is,” Gin continues. “I figure it’s just down to you now, and you ain’t gonna cut it.”

Ichigo is in a cold sweat. He wants to disbelieve Gin’s taunts, but deep down he agrees with him.

“Wanna run?” Gin cheekily asks, prompting surprise from Ichigo. “No shame innit. Run away and let Captain Aizen do what he came here for. You’ve already given up, might as well save yer own hide.”

Ichigo doesn't respond. He is frozen in uncertainty.

Gin cranes his dead. “No?” he asks mockingly. “Well then, maybe I oughta just finish you off?”

The snake extends his arm, menacingly pointing his wakizashi-shaped Zanpakuto at Ichigo’s head. Suddenly, a current of frost whips onto his limb, stiffening the joints. Gin turns to see a grievously wounded Tōshirō Hitsugaya lunging at him, swinging his Shikai blade. Gin nimbly dodges the swipe.

“Whoa now, Captain Hitsugaya,” Gin mockingly implores. “I don’t wanna hurt ya.”

Hitsugaya is seeing red, gritting his teeth and bearing through the pain of his wounds as he ineffectually slashes at Gin. “You tormented her, you bastard!” he cries out. “You helped him torture and kill her!”

“Hitsugaya!” Ichigo cries out. “Behind you!”

There is a discrete slash and then silence as Hitsugaya’s onslaught halts. He falls, blood spurting from the fresh cut along his side: Aizen’s signature. The Arrancar Lord materializes behind him, faux-concern wrinkling his brow.

“Don’t overexert yourself, Hitsugaya Tōshirō,” Aizen chides the young captain. “You must not die today. I may still have a use for you in the future.”

Hitsugaya looks back at Aizen with pure hatred in his tear-stained eyes. He tries to summon the strength to continue, buckles, and then collapses in a heap.

Aizen turns his attention to his subordinate, querying “Gin, what were you doing with the Ryōka boy?”

“Just testing him for ya,” Gin replies. “He ain’t up to it.”

“Of course he isn’t,” Aizen concludes, casting his withering gaze back at a petrified Ichigo. “He continues to retreat from his power.”

Ichigo stands amidst the rubble, his hometown in shambles. He stares at Aizen with a mixture of awe and fear. After a beat, he is seized with a new emotion: anger.

“Tell me one thing, Aizen,” he grits. “How long?”

“How long?” Aizen repeats back, brow arching.

“How long have I been a part of your plan?” Ichigo roars, his anger growing beyond his fear. “That’s what Ulquiorra said. How long have you been playing me?”

“I see,” Aizen says. “Allow me to be more truthful to you than your father or Urahara Kisuke ever were. It was after your showing in Soul Society, when your strength grew by leaps and bounds, that I became interested in you. Ulquiorra Cifer was charged with assessing your progress and drawing out your power at a pace that suited my design.

“Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez’s interest in you was problematic, given his lack of restraint, so he was disciplined. However, his rivalry proved to be a fortuitous stepping stone towards you realizing your potential. The simple answer is that you became essential to my vision after I witnessed your strength, such as it was.”

We briefly glimpse when Ichigo swung Tensa Zangetsu at Aizen on Sōkyoku Hill, only for the traitorous captain to block the blade with a single finger.

“However,” Aizen continues. “I have been aware of you from the beginning.”

“What does that mean?” Ichigo roars back. “The beginning? You mean when I met Rukia?”

“No,” Aizen retorts. “I’ve known about you from the very beginning of your life, Kurosaki Ichigo.”

Ichigo doesn’t understand.

“Did you really think that your abundant spiritual awareness was coincidental?” Aizen queries. “Or that the pace of your progression was natural? That you prevailed over stronger opponents because of your willpower? Have you ever considered that if you truly were just a human… that your mother would still be alive?”

The last jest strikes a chord of blinding rage within Ichigo. He poises Tensa Zangetsu and lunges forward at peak speed. Aizen effortlessly parries the strike and backhands Ichigo square across the face.

Ichigo falls back, dazed by the slap. He readies to rebound, but Aizen punishingly strikes his chest with the pommel of Kyōka Suigetsu. Ichigo coughs a wad of blood and doubles over into a kneeling position, planting Tensa Zangetsu into the ground to steady himself.

“Look at me, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen commands.

Ichigo gazes up at the Arrancar Lord in wide-eyed horror. Aizen holds Kyōka Suigetsu aloft; Ichigo’s reflection vividly shines from the blade’s gleaming surface.

“If you must regard your gift as a curse, blame Urahara Kisuke,” Aizen says, his eyes imperious. “He is as responsible for your creation as I, and he saw fit to manipulate your life to a far more insidious extent. You have been a pawn in our game. I am merely claiming you from his possession.”

Ichigo begins to feel woozy as he fixates on Kyōka Suigetsu, staring into his own reflection.

“Time to confront yourself, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen intones, his voice growing melodic. “Dominate your reflection or drown within.”

Aizen’s eyes shine with demonic delight as he intones the terrifying words.

“Bankai,” he coos. “Mugenmagireru Akumanowana (Infinite Plunge into the Devil’s Snare).”

The color drains from Ichigo’s face and his eyes glaze over. It’s as though his soul has been emptied from his body. He slumps over, his shoulder resting against Tensa Zangetsu. He is completely motionless, his face stamped with a chilling blankness.

“What’re we gonna do now, Captain Aizen?” Gin asks.

“We forge the Ōken,” Aizen replies, still gazing down at Ichigo’s immobile form. “Hopefully you didn’t slay too many humans while you were ‘testing’ the Ryōka boy.”

They ready to head off, but halt when Hitsugaya calls after them.

“What… did you do… to him?” the young captain rasps, struggling to maintain consciousness.

“I sent him away” Aizen responds. “While Kyōka Suigetsu controls the five senses, Mugenmagireru Akumanowana submerges the mind entirely. Kurosaki Ichigo has gone where neither you or I can follow. He can either revive himself or wade beneath the surface of himself for eternity. I have left it entirely up to –”

The Arrancar Lord realizes that Hitsugaya is already out cold. Softly chuckling, he turns and continues on his way with Gin following close behind. They leave Ichigo kneeling on the concrete, his eyes empty.

The Substitute Shinigami shows no signs of life.
 
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Here it is, after long delay: the climax of the Arrancar War. The Deicide (in two parts, since it's too damn long for one post.

Tessai sits cross-legged on the floor of Urahara’s shop, his brow furrowed in deep concentration as he maintains the barrier that now houses thousands of humans.

The store’s entrance slides open, Jinta and Ururu entering. Behind them is a throng of confused Karakura residents, all of them standing around and gazing up at the prismatic dome that is housing them from danger.

Jinta slams the entrance behind them, letting out a sigh of relief for a job completed. His eyes nearly bug out of his head when Karin and Yuzu both pop up from the service counter, loudly asking if it’s safe to go outside again.

“Shhhhh,” Ururu softly shushes them, placing a finger over her lips. “Please do not shout. If you break Mr. Tessai’s concentration, then there will be a greater chance that we and all of Karakura Town’s people will horrifically die.”

This warning promptly shuts the twins up, with Yuzu clapping her hands over her mouth in shame. Jinta, meanwhile, is thrilled to have Yuzu in the shop. He eagerly offers her all manner of products in the store for free, delivering his effusive pitch in a comical whisper. Ururu looks on disapprovingly, noting that they get too little business as it is without offering free merchandise.

Karin slides back down behind the register, face scrunched with worry while Yuzu is preoccupied by Jinta’s merchandise spotlight. We see that Isshin’s sleeping body is actually laying down next to her on the floor, snoring. The raven-haired Kurosaki daughter eyes her father’s human vessel, recalling their conversation from earlier.

We flashback to hours earlier, when Isshin plunked down behind the register counter with Karin and Yuzu, telling them that a very scary storm is coming into town and that they’re going to wait it out together in Mr. Urahara’s shop. He speaks in a very robotic manner that is uncharacteristic of him. Yuzu takes his instructions at face value and is delighted when he presents a board game to keep them occupied. Karin, meanwhile, looks concernedly towards the backroom.

The real Isshin, garbed in his Shihakushō with Engetsu slung around his waist, opens the hatch in Urahara’s living quarters to climb down into the shop’s expansive basement.

“Dad?”

Isshin looks up, his eyebrows raising when he sees Karin staring at him from the doorway. Father and daughter gaze at each other for an awkward beat.

“… Don’t tell you sister, Karin,” Isshin requests in a soft voice. “Her spiritual awareness isn’t like yours; it would only distress her.”

“Dad, what’s going on?” Karin asks, visibly nervous.

Isshin tries to think of a concise and honest explanation.

“There are bad people attacking our town,” he answers. “Your brother and I are going to stop them. I need you to stay put until this is over, okay? Keep your sister safe – that’s your job.”


Karin rests her head back against the counter, awash with anxiety as she reflects on her father’s instruction. For a while there, it felt like Dad and Ichigo had come back, she thinks to herself. I can’t explain it, but I knew they were near again, but now… I don’t feel anything. Dad, Ichigo… where are you?

——

Ichigo is five-years-old and crying. He has just lost a fight.

“Don’t be a crybaby!” Tatsuki berates him, hands on her hips after having won soundly.

Ichigo continues to wallow in his helplessness. His inconsolable crying only ceases when he feels his mother’s hands caress his shoulders.

“Don’t cry when you lose, Ichigo,” Masaki Kurosaki says with radiant warmth. “Only cry when you’ve given up.”

Ichigo wipes away his tears and beams up at his mother. The Dojo surrounding them is hazy – as if it were painted with spare brushstrokes. The setting gradually melts away, transforming into Kurosaki Clinic.

Ichigo is 12-year-old and adjusting his tie as he readies to go to school. Who could that be? he thinks to himself as the doorbell rings repeatedly.

He cracks open the front door and is confronted by the most striking girl he’s ever seen: kind brown eyes and burnt orange hair. His awe quickly morphs into panic when sees the injuries on the man she is dragging behind her.

“You don’t understand – we don’t have the equipment to operate on him!” Ichigo tries to explain to the desperate girl as she drags the man inside the front hall. He reaches for the phone, adding “Look, I’m calling for an ambulance —“

The dying man contorts and rears up, letting out a bloodcurdling screech. The phone falls from Ichigo’s hand as he gazes in shock at the monstrous mask forming across the man’s face. The demonic creature roars and then turns its attention to the the orange-haired girl. She is frozen in fear.

“Stop!” Ichigo cries out, pouncing after the beast. Zangetsu materializes in his grip and he thrusts the oversized blade into the monster’s back. The Hollow writhes in agony and collapses onto the ground.

Ichigo watches the mask flake off from the beast, revealing the lifeless Sora Inoue beneath. The girl flings herself atop the slain man, sobbing hysterically as she hugs his body close.

“Please stop hurting him!” she whimpers, nuzzling herself against her dead brother’s chest.

Ichigo looks on in abject horror, speechless and tears forming in his eyes. His heart tightens when Orihime Inoue looks up from Sora’s body, her face the very picture of sunniness.

“It’s okay, Kurosaki-kun,” she smiles, her tears disappeared. “Thank you… for protecting me.”

Ichigo’s expression drops as the full weight of his guilt seizes him. He lets out a primal scream.

He is five-years-old again, sobbing uncontrollably in the Dojo.

“Ichigo?” Masaki asks with concern, her hands holding his shoulders. This is the first time she hasn’t been able to quell his crying. The mother kneels down and holds her boy close. “Ichigo, what’s wrong?”

Ichigo continues to sob.

——

Aizen arches an eyebrow as he assesses Tessai’s barrier, its border situated roughly 500 yards down the street. The Kidō encompasses eight square blocks, an entire herd of Karakura residents shielded behind it. It’s visible to human eyes – a pioneering feat on Tessai’s part.

“Gin,” Aizen says expectantly. Ichimaru draws his Shinsō and aims it at the prismatic dome. The blade extends at lightning speed, only for the tip of Kamishini no Yari to grind against the barrier’s surface, raking sparks. Gin frowns and retracts his sword back.

“Tsukabishi Tessai remains impressive as ever,” Aizen effuses. “Very well. The challenge of circumventing his Kidō should pass the time as we wait for Kurosaki —.”

A blast of red light pierces through Aizen, startling him and Gin. The Arrancar Lord inspects the smoldering hole in his shoulder, recognizing the attack as a modified variant on Hadō #4: Byakurai. You always enjoyed adding your own personal flourish, Urahara Kisuke, Aizen thinks to himself.

The Arrancar Lord turns and sees Kisuke Urahara gazing down at him from a rooftop vantage point. The shopkeeper holds onto his striped hat to keep it steady, his robes billowing in the wind. He is wearing an elaborate visor across his eyes, the headgear resembling infrared goggles.

“You’ve shown yourself at last,” Aizen says with a hint of relief. “I was beginning to worry that you had fled.”

Urahara turns a dial embedded in his mysterious visor. The red lenses dilate as he observes Aizen’s shoulder mending itself in rapid time.

“So it’s true,” Urahara concludes with a sigh. “You merged yourself with the Hōgyoku.”

“I subjugated it, yes,” Aizen replies haughtily. “I am not a benefactor of the Hōgyoku’s evolutionary properties: I am now its driver. Our experiment has finally born fruit.”

Urahara is silent for a beat, then responds “I always practiced humility in my experimentation, Aizen. You, on the other hand, have jammed something beyond our understanding inside of yourself and assume you can control it?”

“Indeed,” Aizen answers bluntly. “I can feel it transforming under my influence. It is growing to understand the desire within my heart and will soon elevate me beyond the plane of…”

Aizen loses his train of thought as he scrutinizes Urahara’s face, distracted by the eccentric-looking visor.

“What is that contraption?”

“Oh, this?” Kisuke replies cheerfully as he revs a dial on his elaborate headgear. “A new invention I call Arisubijōn. Been tinkering with it all week. I figure it’s about time I test it out.”

Urahara unsheathes Benihime from his cane and and assumes an offensive stance. He dives down, thrusting his Katana towards Aizen.

How arrogant of you, Urahara, Aizen thinks to himself as he cloaks his body in his Shikai’s illusionary powers, readying to slash at Urahara from an unseen direction. You presume that the effects of Kyōka Suigetsu do not reach you, but I made especially sure to ensnare you a century ago.

Aizen grins, almost disappointed by how swiftly he has won. He thrusts his katana forward, only for Urahara to whip around and parry the strike away.

What?! Aizen exclaims internally. How did he —?

Urahara launches a balletic onslaught of slashes and forces a shocked Aizen back on the defensive. The Arrancar Lord cloaks himself in Kyōka Suigetsu again and flash-steps discretely behind Urahara, expecting the shopkeeper to continue slashing at a mirage.

Instead, Urahara spins around and swipes Benihime clean across Aizen’s chest, letting fly a ribbon of blood.

How is he doing this?

Aizen leaps back, concealing himself once more with Kyōka Suigetsu. He flash-steps atop a streetlight 20 yards away, brow furrowed as he scrutinizes Urahara’s next move.

Urahara holds Benihime horizontally, staring down the illusionary decoy that Aizen planted before him. “Hado #32: Ōkasen!” the shopkeeper cries out, a radiant energy surging through his Zanpakutō. He pivots and aims his blade away from the decoy and directly at the real Aizen. A blast the width of Benihime’s length fires at the Arrancar Lord.

Aizen, shocked that Urahara didn’t fall for the mirage, assumes a guard stance too late and is swept up into sky by the Hadō. Growing irate, he exerts all of his strength and flings the Kidō away, his hands singed.

Aizen flash-steps back before Urahara, his eyebrow arched in skepticism. “How?” he seethes.

Urahara taps his visor.

“I see you,” he grins. “We’re both through the looking-glass now, Aizen. I figured you’ve actually been lying about your Complete Hypnosis: it doesn’t just manipulate the five senses, but Reiatsu perception as well. That’s the real masterstroke of your technique. So I built Arisubijōn here to observe the gradations of Reiatsu. Y’see, I took some inspiration from humanity’s scientists, who built something similar to see infrared radiation.

“Only problem is that I needed to watch you carefully for a long enough time so I could calibrate accordingly. I needed to watch you exert your Reiatsu and utilize Kyōka Suigetsu in order for me to understand how your spiritual presence changes under Complete Hypnosis.”

We briefly glimpse back to when Isshin released Magumaburaddo Mikadzuki and pounced on Aizen.

“Isshin challenged you because he knew I needed more time to study you in combat,” Urahara explains. “Even though he understood that victory was impossible with your Complete Hypnosis in effect, he fought you head on so that I could decipher your Reiatsu. I’m thankful he did, because your battle gave me the extra data I needed to fine-tune Arisubijōn.

“In short: your Complete Hypnosis will no longer work on me,” Urahara concludes.

Aizen listens to Urahara’s explanation with wide-eyed astonishment. His lips gradually spread into a delighted smile.

“It’s as I said a century ago, Urahara Kisuke,” the Arrancar Lord beams. “You’re just the sort of man I thought you were.”

——

- THE HUECO MUNDO DUNES -

The remaining Nakama all wait patiently amidst the dunes, the collapsed Seventh Tower looming behind them. Kenpachi sits back, scratching the point of his unnamed Zanpakutō into the dirt. Suí-Fēng is standing atop a boulder, her arms crossed as she scans the horizon.

Isane presses her hands to Rukia’s abdomen, emitting a healing energy while Renji sits close by, watching concernedly from the corner of his eye. Rukia is lost in worry, unable to get the look on Ichigo’s face out of her mind.

His eyes, Rukia reflects wistfully. They were filled with defeat, as if he was embarking on a fight that he already knew he would lose.

Rukia’s grimace softens as her wound closes up. She sits up and thanks Isane, patting her stomach.

“Listen, everyone,” Isane announces, rising up and making sure she has the group’s attention. “Each of you have had your wounds closed, but I couldn’t heal the full toll that today has taken on us all. Any more fighting before undergoing full recuperation could result in catastrophic damage, so I am urging all of you to exercise restraint until a rescue party comes for us.”

The healer looks to Ishida, who remains paralyzed from the neck down and propped against a rock. She gives him a sympathetic smile, adding “You in particular must rest, Ishida Uryū.”

Ishida forces a polite smile back, only to hear Mayuri Kurotsuchi cackle.

“You have a pernicious habit of pyrrhic victories, Quincy!’ Mayuri snarks as he rummages through his oversized cart of technological loot, taking inventory. “My, my, my. A Quincy aiding Shinigami in battle…”

The captain gazes back at Uryū, his eyes filled with sadistic enjoyment.

“… What would your grandfather think?”

Ishida’s face is bristling with rage. If he could lunge at Mayuri, he would.

“Tell me, did any of you know?” Uryū shouts, drawing the attention of the entire group. His eyes survey all of the Shinigami present, scrutinizing them accusingly. “Do you know what he’s done? What he did to countless Quincy?”

Chad, Renji, Rukia, and Yachiru look on wide-eyed as they see the emotion in Ishida’s eyes. Yumichika casts him disinterested side-eye while Isane and Ōmaeda avert his gaze altogether. Kenpachi continues to look down at the dirt while Suí-Fēng keeps scanning the horizon. Nemu looks upon Ishida with a placid expression while Mayuri continues to file his inventory, a demented smile curling along his lips.

“He dissected them while they were still breathing!” Ishida cries out, fire in his eyes. “Tortured them to death just to sate his own sick curiosity! Crimes that were sanctioned by Soul Society! And for what —?”

“For the security of the Seiretei,” Suí-Fēng interjects curtly. Ishida falls into stunned silence as Suí-Fēng looks back at him. Her expression is unmoved.

“Captain Kurotsuchi is the reason why we were able to smuggle Kurosaki Ichigo back to the world of the living,” she continues. “He is granted broad discretion because his intellect is necessary for Soul Society’s continued survival. Why do you think Aizen never bothered trying recruiting him to his cause? Because Captain Kurotsuchi is loyal to the Gotei 13 and serves its interests. You think that matters less to us than the lives of Quincy? Captain Kurotsuchi’s hobbies are tolerated for one very good reason: he doesn’t fail…”

Suí-Fēng casts an icy glare at the grinning Mayuri.

“… Except, of course, when it comes to creating a Garganta that works.”

Mayuri’s brow furrows. “You’re not going to live that one down, eh?” he gripes before returning to filing his inventory.

Suí-Fēng returns to scanning the Hueco Mundo horizon, paying no heed to the devastation in Uryū’s eyes. Renji and Rukia fall into reflective silence, both of them ashamed by Suí-Fēng’s answer without disagreeing with its wisdom. Chad kneels beside Ishida, resting a hand on the Quincy’s shoulder.

“Uryū…” the gentle giant says softly, but Ishida turns his face away, eyes full of rage. He doesn’t want to speak any longer.

The tense mood amongst the group is interrupted when the ground beneath them starts to tremble. A chariot pulled by a pack of Menos erupts from beneath the sand, encircling the group. The carriage is piloted by a pair of female Arrancars bedecked in Centurion-esque helms, both of them armed with spears and gazing down imperiously at the Nakama. Dozens of enormous Adjuchas sprout from the surrounding dunes. The crew is surrounded.

“Intruders!” one of the Centurion Arrancar bellows, brandishing her spear from her chariot perch. “On the orders of Lady Harribel, all of you are to leave Hueco Mundo immediately!”

Kenpachi rises up, slinging his sword over his shoulder. “Eh?” he growls. “Lady Who?”

A sinkhole the diameter of a sewer grate forms before the Nakama. From the sifting sands rises Tier Harribel and Mila Rose, both of them nursing their wounds from the Karakura Town invasion. The Tercera Espada, struggling to stand, leans against her sole surviving Fracción member.

“I am Tier Harribel,” the Vasto Lorde announces authoritatively, remaining poised despite her exhaustion. “I will grant you safe passage out of Hueco Mundo, but on the condition that you vow never to return. Las Noches will no longer fight Aizen’s war.”

The other Centurion Arrancar points her spear at Mayuri’s cart, adding “And you will leave behind what belongs to Las Noches.”

Mayuri’s eyes nearly pop out from his ornamented head. He shields the cart with his body and hisses in protest.

“I acquired these spoils of war honestly, Arrancar!” he roars. “I will not relinquish them so easily.”

Harribel glares at Mayuri for a beat, sizing him up. “You may take what you can carry,” she concludes. “The rest will stay.”

The 12th Division captain readies to protest further, but Suí-Fēng shoots him a rueful look.

“We’ve been offered a bargain, Captain Kurotsuchi,” she says sternly. “Do as they say.”

Mayuri grits his teeth and relents, hissing at Nemu to pack as many items onto her person as she can manage. He plans to return directly to Soul Society and inspect his acquisitions.

“The rest of us will go to the World of the Living,” Suí-Fēng announces, determination in her eyes. She looks to Harribel. “Judging from your wounds, I’m guessing that you just returned from the battle?”

“Yes,” Harribel nods. “The Espada have been defeated, but the odds remain against you with Aizen on the battlefield.”

Rukia and Renji are chilled by this warning. Chad closes his fist and squeezes, eager to defend his hometown. Uryū, however, is confused.

“Why are you helping us?” the Quincy asks.

Harribel’s eyes narrow, her jaw clenching with fury.

“Aizen betrayed all the Arrancar he pressed into his service,” the Vasto Lorde answers. “Kill him, and Las Noches will be grateful.”

——

- KARAKURA TOWN -

Aizen and Urahara dash across the Karakura skyline, their katanas clashing in a succession of parries and ripostes. They land on a rooftop and struggle against each other, asserting their weight onto their interlocking blades.

“You may have devised a way to circumvent Kyōka Suigetsu…” Aizen muses before flexing his full might, forcing Urahara back a step. The shopkeeper flash-steps behind Aizen, readying a thrust. The Arrancar Lord whirls around and swings his Kyōka Suigetsu from below; the edge of the katana slices along the concrete and arcs up into Urahara’s gut, impaling him.

“…But ingenuity alone cannot bridge the difference in our strength,” Aizen concludes with a smirk. His gloating ceases when Urahara starts to deflate like a punctured balloon.

Aizen, startled and unamused, watches as Urahara comically contracts around his katana with a gasbag-like squeak – it’s a portable Gigai. He looks up and sees the real Urahara looming in the sky, pointing Benihime directly at him.

“Bakudō #63!” Urahara cries out. “Sajō Sabaku!”

A chain of light snakes around Aizen’s legs, binding his feet to the rooftop. He looks up with annoyance as Urahara readies another Kidō: “Bakudō #79: Kuyo Shibari!”

Aizen’s limbs arms involuntarily spread apart as if by magnetism. Eight black holes sprout around him, the largest centering on his chest. The Arrancar Lord struggles to wriggle out of his bind, but to no avail.

“So you have me at your mercy,” Aizen grits. “But I survived Yamamoto’s Hadō. How do you plan on summoning enough power to kill me?”

“Actually, I figured your own power would do the trick,” Urahara replies, cheekily tipping his cap.

Aizen’s eyes widen with apprehension as his wrists start to glow with cuffs of pulsating energy. “What is this?!”

“Fūsatsu Kakei,” Urahara announces. “Y’know how all Shinigami vent their Reiatsu from their wrists? I plugged yours during our fight. The Bakudō restraints are just to ensure you can’t dig out the seals before you’re cooked from within by your own Reiatsu.”

Aizen’s eyes widen with panic. His body flares into an all-encompassing explosion, obliterating the building beneath him. The eruption rises up into the sky, its shockwave shaking the entire town.

——

Ichigo is now nine-years-old and wearing a funereal suit. He stands next to his father and two sisters, staring blankly at his mother’s gravestone, where she has just been interred. It’s raining.

“Karin and Yuzu have been a grrrreat help around the household!” Isshin cheerfully tells the gravestone, regaling his newly departed wife with updates on the family. “Girls, tell Mommy about how you’ve mastered chores like blackbelt buskers!”

Karin and Yuzu take turns recounting their day-to-day to their mother’s grave, their father’s positive attitude rubbing off on them. Ichigo, however, just stares with gaunt eyes.



The Kurosakis have returned to their household, which has yes to become a neighborhood clinic. A spoil of condolences from the neighborhood are laid out on their stoop. The rain has ceased, but there’s no rainbow in the sky.

Ichigo sits outside on the street, perched on the curb and gazing blankly at the pavement. A boy with shaggy black hair sits beside him.

“So what is the Final Getsuga Tenshō?” the strange boy asks.

“Hm?” Ichigo responds, snapping out of a trance. “Um… I’m not sure.”

“Huh, that’s strange,” the boy says. “… I thought you knew.”

Inside the household, Isshin whistles cheerfully to himself as he swishes a roller up and down against the kitchen wall, creasing in an enormous poster of Masaki smiling until it adheres to its surface.

“Daddy… don’t you think that’s a little much?” Karin asks from the other room.

“Nonsense!” Isshin replies in a singsong voice. “Now your Mother can watch us every day, blessing us with that smile during breakfast, lunch, and dinner”

Isshin gazes up at his late wife’s picture for a beat. He sets down the roller, collects an assortment of dirty dishes from the kitchen table, and carries the pile over to the sink – away from Karin and Yuzu’s eye-line. He turns the faucet on full-blast and begins to wash the dishes, silently crying.

Karin and Yuzu stare out of the living room window, watching Ichigo out on the street.

“How long d’you think Ichigo’s gonna stay out there?” Yuzu wonders.

“Beats me,” Karin replies. “… But whose that boy he’s sitting with?”

Yuzu looks to her sister with confusion: “What boy?”

Ichigo hugs his knees close to himself, casting his forlorn eyes at the ground.

“So what’s it like…?” he asks the boy beside him, “… being dead?”

“It kinda feels the same as being alive,” the Plus answers. “Except… this doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

“Karakura Town doesn’t feel like home?”

“No, it’s not just that,” the Plus elaborates. “It’s the whole world. The air feels angry at me, like it doesn’t want me around anymore.”

Ichigo mulls the answer over for a beat. “Maybe…” he mumbles, “… maybe that’s why she left in a hurry. When I woke up, she was already gone. Maybe this just didn’t feel like home to her anymore. Maybe I didn’t feel like her son anymore, either.”

The Plus casts Ichigo a sympathetic look. “Sorry about your Mom.”

The setting around Ichigo melts away and reforms into the river where Masaki died. Ichigo is now 10-years-old, sitting in the mud and gazing out at the rushing water. He doesn’t notice Tatsuki worriedly watching him from the road overhead.

How long have I been here? Ichigo wonders to himself. Mom… If I stop waiting, will you come back here and find yourself alone, wondering why I wasn’t just a little more patient?



15-year-old Ichigo is in class, realizing that he’s been daydreaming. Chin in hand, he gazes up from his desk to his teacher, who has an indiscernible face and is droning on with words that he can’t decipher. The lesson plan is scrawled out in chalky Kanji on the blackboard: WHAT IS THE FINAL GETSUGA TENSHŌ?

Ichigo realizes that he is only one of two students in the class. There’s a girl with black hair seated several rows before him. His eyes fixate on her until she notices his stare. She cranes her head back and stares right back at him, prompting his blood to run cold: it’s the “girl” he saw that day by the river: Grand Fisher’s Lure.

Ichigo springs up from his desk, knocking over his chair. He hurriedly exits the classroom, the Lure watching him leave with a demented smile. He slams the door behind him and stumbles out into the hallway, struggling to steady his breathing.

“Ichigo?” a warm voice calls out.

Ichigo turns and sees his mother standing before exit doors at the end of the hall. She is smiling at him. He smiles back.

The doors behind Masaki swing open, a wave of viscous darkness splashing out, rapidly rising until she and Ichigo are submerged up to her knees.

Ichigo looks around in confusion as the pool of black spills past him. A chill runs up his spine when he sees the void of black yawning behind his mother. A horned silhouette emerges from the emptiness: it is the Hell Knight, White.

“Mom!” Ichigo cries out, sprinting forward through the pool of black.

The Hell Knight widens its serrated jaws and snaps them shut around Masaki’s neck. The horned beast launches back into the void, dragging her along with it. Ichigo determinedly dives in after them, plunging down into a chasm of infinite darkness.



Urahara watches as the heat of Fūsatsu Kakei subsides, its light reflecting off of his visor. Amid the plumes of smoke levitates a charred Aizen, his limbs smoldering like cinders. The Arrancar Lord gasps for breath, blood spurting from his ruined body. He begins to contort, the Hōgyoku throbbing within the epicenter of his chest. Urahara watches as tangles of glowing veins scrawl out across Aizen’s body, swelling around his grievous wounds.

Aizen writhes in agony, gritting his teeth while his injuries bubble like a boiling cauldron. His grunts subside as his body speedily mends, returning back to its peak form. He smiles.

“The Hōgyoku serves its master faithfully,” Aizen gloats, stabbing his pinched fingers into his wrists and pulling out the Kidō seals Urahara had implanted. “Your magnificent technique would have felled me if I had endured it as a mere Shinigami. Bravo.”

Aizen crushes the seals in his palm, the bloody punctures in his wrists swiftly closing.

“The praise really isn’t necessary, Aizen,” Urahara insists, some edge in his voice.

“It is not praise, but fascination,” Aizen replies. “You intrigue me, Urahara Kisuke. You are the only other Shinigami whose intellect rivals my own. Yet despite your brilliance, you choose to be… servile.”

“Servile?” Urahara repeats back with amusement. “I don’t serve anyone in particular, Aizen. I’m just a humble shopkeeper.”

“It matters not,” Aizen continues. “That last maneuver only demonstrated that your talents no longer pose a threat to me. The only challenge that this world has left for me is Kurosaki Ichigo.”

Urahara assumes a guard stance, his jaw clenched tight. “Speaking of which… what did you do to him, Aizen?”

“Have you developed a newfound concern for the boy’s wellbeing?” Aizen smirks. “Or are you merely curious about the mechanics of my Bankai?”

“I got a feeling you really wanna brag about it,” Urahara replies icily. “No harm in explaining, right?”

“True,” Aizen nods in agreement. “If Kyōka Suigetsu makes one distrust their own subjectivity, then Mugenmagireru Akumanowana drowns them in it. Imagine an impregnable trap wherein the prisoner must forge their own key to escape. It is an ‘infinite’ interment, wherein a minute for us proceeds at the pace of years for the captive. Kurosaki Ichigo has already lived his lifetime several times over while we have fought here in the World of the Living.”

“That’s a pretty cruel torture, Aizen,” Urahara retorts. “How is he supposed to get out?”

“There are two layers of captivity that Kurosaki Ichigo must break through if he is to return,” Aizen continues. “The first is Kokoro no Ori (Cage of the Heart)…”

——

I can reach you.

Ichigo plunges headfirst into the void, extending his hand out for Masaki. She persistently exceeds his reach, the Hell Knight dragging her down determinedly into the bottomless depths.

I can still reach you, Mom, Ichigo thinks to himself.

“Kokoro no Ori submerges the prisoner in the fathoms of their own mind, wherein they are tempted to wallow in the farthest recesses of their memory,” we hear Aizen explain.

Ichigo’s fingers extend outwards until they strain. His eyes are wide with yearning as he reaches out for his mother, content to never cease chasing after her.

“If Kurosaki Ichigo becomes enthralled by the phantoms of his past,” we hear Aizen add, “then he will never escape.”


Ichigo continues to plummet into the infinite darkness, tears of desperation streaking down his cheeks as he refuses to give up. It feels like years have passed. He doesn’t care.

I’m so close. I’m so close, Mom.

Mazaki gazes up at him, the Hell Knight’s jaws taut around her shoulder.

“Ichigo,” Mazaki speaks, breaking a silence that had felt endless. “… Let me go.”

“What?” Ichigo gasps, his voice cracking. “But… I can save you, Mom.”

Masaki extends up her hand, her fingertips grazing his. Her touch sends a bolt of indescribable warmth through him.

“My brave, sweet boy... I need you to protect them."

Ichigo chokes on his breath.

“They're all counting on you,” Masaki concludes. “You have to let me go.”

Ichigo can now remember everyone’s faces: Isshin, Karin, Yuzu, Orihime, Chad, Tatsuki, Ishida, Chizuru, Keigo, Mizuiro, and Rukia.

Ichigo’s face is stained with tears. He halts, feeling Masaki’s fingertips slip from his. She gives him a reassuring smile. He stands suspended in the void, watching as his mother and the Hell Knight plunge into the bottomless depths, receding from his reach. Both become a distant glimmer and then disappear into the black.

“Thank you, Mom,” Ichigo whispers, clenching his fist tightly.

After taking a moment to collect himself, he begins swimming back up to the light. He reaches it in a surprisingly short amount of time, emerging from the void and back into the Karakura High School highway. He trudges past the array of lockers, struggling to remember what he came here for. He looks out the window and is surprised to see that the entire town is submerged underwater. He approaches the window, inspects it, and then punches the glass. A torrent of water gushes into the hallway as he crawls out into the open sea. To his surprise, he can breathe in these watery depths.

“If Kurosaki Ichigo succeeds in escaping from Kokoro no Ori…” we hear Aizen narrate, “… then he will ascend to the next level: Seishin no Ori (Cage of the Spirit).”

Ichigo wades through this mysterious underwater realm, recognizing all of the buildings as Karakura Town. He touches down onto a rooftop, marveling at how he’s able to draw breath.

“It takes getting used to, doesn’t it?” a voice calls down to him from above. Ichigo looks up to see a hooded figure, hands in their pockets.

“What is this place?” Ichigo asks. “And who are you?”

“Do you not recognize your own Inner World?” the figure responds sternly. He draws back his hood, revealing a slim young man with a black mop of hair and piercing blue eyes. He looks like a much younger Zangetsu.

“I don’t blame you for not recognizing me,” the stranger says, the black katana of Tensa Zangetsu materializing in his grip. “This is your first time here in a state of Bankai.”

The stranger throws Tensa Zangetsu down like a javelin. The black katana plants into the ground before Ichigo. He doesn’t recognize it.

“Take it,” the stranger commands.

Ichigo gingerly reaches out and wraps his hand around the handle of the sword. The moment his fingers close around it, he is flooded by a barrage of memories: being shot through the chest by Ulquiorra’s Cero Oscuras; transforming into the Hell Knight and stabbing Rukia through the abdomen; fighting Gin in Karakura Town; Aizen casting some sort of spell over him. He gasps, remembering everything now.

“How… how long have I been here?” he asks, unable to comprehend the journey he just underwent.

“Centuries, but I suspect that mere minutes have passed in the World of the Living,” the stranger answers.

Ichigo is horrified, struggling to wrap his mind around the time paradox. “Are you… Zangetsu?” he asks.

“No,” the stranger replies, generating another black katana in his grip. “Recall the name of your Bankai. I am Tensa Zangetsu.”

The Zanpakutō spirit dives down and swings his blade, startling Ichigo. The Substitute Shinigami struggles to parry.

“Hold on, Zangetsu!” Ichigo protests. “I’m not here to fight you!”

“No,” Tensa Zangetsu replies. “You came here to ask me a question.”

I did? Ichigo thinks to himself. He pauses and reflects on what his question could possibly be. It suddenly comes to him: “What is the Final Getsuga Tenshō?”

“It is my ultimate technique,” the spirit replies. He swings his Katana, forcing Ichigo to dodge once again. “But I will teach you no such thing.”

“What the heck is wrong with you?” Ichigo barks back, his fighting spirit rekindling. “If it’s the strongest attack you got, then I need to learn it to save Karakura Town!”

Ichigo swerves after Tensa Zangetsu and readies a swing. He is stunned when his Zanpakutō spirit reaches him in a flash and restrains his arm with little effort.

“Make no mistake, Ichigo,” the spirit says coldly. “What you want to protect and what I am willing to protect are very different things.”



“What is Seishin no Ori?” Urahara asks Aizen.

“The Shinigami's Inner World,” the Arrancar Lord smirks. “Where the prisoner’s own Zanpakutō spirit is poised against him. He must subjugate his own power or be destroyed by it.”

“Well, you’ve plunked Kurosaki down into quite the obstacle course,” Urahara whistles. “What happens if he clears the challenges?”

“Then he will escape, having grown into the worthy opponent I require,” Aizen answers.

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Well… I do have the ability to retrieve him if I so wished,” Aizen muses. “But if he cannot break free by his own accord, then he is a disappointment. There would be little point in freeing him. You see, Mugenmagireru Akumanowana is as much a training ground as it is a dungeon. Only two other Shinigami have contended with its snare: one continues to flounder beneath the depths of damnation while the other broke through their limitations and escaped, having reached the pinnacle of power that a Shinigami can attain.”

“And who was this fortunate escapee?” Urahara asks, already having a good guess at the answer.

Aizen grins, pressing a hand to his chest.

“Myself.”

——

Orihime Inoue halts, stunned by the carnage before her. Several Gotei 13 captains are sprawled out on the ground, grievously wounded and unconscious. Healers from the 4th Division hover over the injured, nervously trying to mend their injures with Kaidō.

Hanatarō Yamada kneels before Byakuya Kuchiki, attempting to mend the slash across the captain’s throat. The healer looks up and recognizes Orihime, calling out to her.

Orihime sidles up next to him, alarmed by the scarlet tear along Byakuya’s neck.

“Kuchiki-san, let me help you,” she says, only for Byakuya to reach up and grasp her forearm.

“No…” Byakuya rasps. “… Uk… Ukitake…”

Orihime looks over to Jūshirō Ukitake, who is sprawled unconscious on the ground with a fleet of healers trying to mend his horrific wounds: his right hand has been shorn off and there are two broad stab wounds in his chest. Sentarō Kotsubaki is kneeling next to his captain, nervously monitoring the efforts to revive him.

“Please tend to Captain Ukitake first, Miss Inoue,” Hanatarō implores. “The way things are going so far… he won’t make it.”

Orihime nods and rushes over to Ukitake, kneeling down amongst the healers. One 4th Division member casts her a dismissive look and orders her to stand back while they work.

“She’s the best shot we got at saving Captain Ukitake,” Sentarō interjects. “Clear out and let her help.”

The healers reluctantly hang back, all of them promptly astonished when they see Orihime cast Sōten Kisshun over Ukitake.

——

Ichigo leaps at Tensa Zangetsu, roaring as their identical katanas clash. The spirit gives a withering glare, unimpressed, and effortlessly forces Ichigo back several paces. The Substitute Shinigami becomes visibly angry, struggling to understand why Zangetsu is hostile.

“Is this because of Aizen?” he asks. “He turned you against me! Is that the deal?”

Tensa Zangetsu frowns, almost insulted.

“Aizen’s spell has not affected me whatsoever,” the spirit declares. “However sophisticated his technique, it is still a Bankai. When one Zanpakuto attempts to infect another, trickery will fail if the difference in power is stark enough.”

Ichigo’s eyes widen as he considers the implication.

“Aizen cannot compel me to do as he wishes…” Tensa Zangetsu concludes, “…because my power far exceeds his.”

The black katana begins to rattle in Ichigo’s grip. He's furious.

“So… you’re strong enough to beat Aizen… and you have the free will to help me… but you won’t?” the Substitute Shinigami grits. “Zangetsu, that’s… THAT'S TOTAL BULLSHIT! Why did you bring me this far if you're just gonna refuse me now? Answer me, Zangetsu!”

“What obligates me to help you?” Tensa Zangetsu counters. “I had the strength to resist Aizen, but clearly you didn't. After losing faith in your own abilities, you dare demand that I lend you mine?”

“Lost faith?” Ichigo repeats back. “What are you talking about?”

“Look at this world!” Tensa Zangetsu cries indignantly, jutting his hand out to gesture at the watery dystopia surrounding them. “This towering world of yours that was filled to the heavens with hope, has been reduced to your tiny little town! The rain that once poured down on this world may have stopped, but now it’s been sunk down to the bottom of the ocean!”

Ichigo recoils as he recognizes the truth in Tensa Zangetsu’s words: his Inner World has changed drastically for the worse.

“All because you lost hope and stopped moving forward,” Tensa Zangetsu concludes.

The spirit zips before Ichigo and plunges a hand into his chest, digging for something inside of his heart. Ichigo gasps, hacking up blood as he is helplessly rummaged through.

“I refuse to let you linger in this hopelessness, Ichigo,” Tensa Zangetsu says. “I will rip out the roots of your despair.”

Tensa Zangetsu draws his hand back, pulling a wad of matter from Ichigo with a bloody splash. Ichigo cries out in excruciating pain as he feels a piece of himself extracted and tossed away. He opens his eyes and sees what Tensa Zangetsu ripped out: White, the Hell Knight. The beast stands several gory paces behind Tensa Zangetsu, with its own black katana in hand. It opens its maw and lets out a bloodcurdling roar. Ichigo's eyes widen with paralyzing fear.

"You have failed to compel me, Ichigo," Tensa Zangetsu concludes, planting his Bankai blade into the ground. "Try and convince him."

"Wha –?" Ichigo gasps. He immediately finds himself blocking a seismic strike from White. The horned Hollow screeches in the Substitute Shinigami's face before whipping around its blade, forcing him to desperately parry its lightning slashes.

Tensa Zangetsu passively watches as Ichigo and the Hell Knight launch from the building, with nothing but the ocean depths supporting them as they clash. The beast knocks Ichigo back several passes and lets out another sonic scream. Ichigo, head bowed and fed up, squeezes the handle of his katana with rage.

"Alright... if this is how it's gonna be..." the Substitute Shinigami seethes. "... then... COME ON!"

Ichigo launches at his demonic reflection, ready to destroy it once and for all.

–– ––

- KARAKURA TOWN -

Ichigo's body is slouched against the planted Tensa Zangetsu. The sound of battle echoes around him as he remains unresponsive, his body kneeling and eyes chillingly vacant.
——

Aizen swings down his katana with full force, forcing Urahara to leap out of the way. The blade strikes the concrete and cracks it apart, sending a tremor across the road. Aizen flash-steps after Urahara and swipes horizontally. The shopkeeper backflips, Aizen's blade missing the underside of his sandals by a hair's breadth and sending a shockwave that cleanly slices through everything in its path. Aizen, without missing a beat, launches after Urahara in a corkscrew spin, thrusting Kyōka Suigetsu forward like the tip of a drill.

Urahara leaps again, this time flipping over Aizen. He extends his katana mid-air and intones "Shibari, Benihime!" His blade fires a blood-red mesh that unfurls into a net and ensnares Aizen. The Arrancar Lord's spin halts as he is enmeshed by the trap. Urahara lands and turns back to see a frustrated Aizen writhe in the scarlet net. Every time the Arrancar Lord slashes at the mesh, it instantly reforms and stubbornly clings to him.

“Where has that unflappable composure gone, Aizen?” Urahara asks tauntingly as he watches his opponent flail against his binds. “Does it frustrate you, losing the upper hand when you can't fall back on Kyōka Suigetsu? Are you so quick to anger when confronted by your limitations?”

Aizen casts a venomous glare at Urahara before settling back into bemused poise. He lowers Kyōka Suigetsu and ceases to struggle.

“I am merely impatient for Kurosaki Ichigo to return to us,” Aizen retorts. "I have grown bored of your stalling tactics."

“You ought to practice patience, Aizen," Urahara cheekily suggests. "Learn to be still.”

The net constricts around Aizen, forcing him to the ground. The Arrancar Lord kneels, defiantly resisting the mesh's pulverizing pull.

“Oh, I have practiced patience, Urahara Kisuke," Aizen replies, his expression a mix between amusement and contempt. "I have waited for an intolerable amount of time with nary a protestation.”

FLASHBACK
- SOUL SOCIETY: 110 YEARS BEFORE THE WHITE INVASION -


Aizen is amongst the Gotei members bidding farewell to Kirio Hikifune at the 1st Division Headquarters & Barracks before she ascends to the Royal Realm. While the other lieutenants keep a respectful silence, Aizen steps forward and offers his hand in congratulations to the departing captain.

"Captain Hikifune," Aizen says in a highly formal and nervous manner. "Please excuse my temerity. It would be my eternal honor to shake the hand of a blessed member of Zero Division. Please accept my well-wishes."

He kneels before Hikifune and extends out his hand. Lieutenants Iba, Kotsubaki, Kuna, Sarugaki, and Yadōmaru all blush in mortification.

“Eh?” Captain Shinji Hirako angrily interjects. “You’re addressing a member of the Royal Guard, Aizen. Put your hand away before you embarrass the Fifth Division.”

Hikifune, boisterous and rotund (she does not have a “svelte” form like she did in the Canon), beams at Aizen and accepts his gesture.

“It’s really no trouble, Hirako,” she says coquettishly. “And my, Lieutenant Aizen, aren’t you a charmer. I regret having to leave the Seiretei.”

Aizen blushes as Hikifune takes his hand and gives a shake of respect.

Nobody notices the thin reed of light seep from his wrist to hers — like a worm wriggling into her bloodstream.

"What a Suck. Up." Hiyori Sarugaki grits beneath her breath.

Lisa Yadōmaru casts her comrade a reproachful look. "Be open-minded, Hiyori. He's green."

...

It is now evening. Aizen enters his underground laboratory, where Kaname Tōsen is waiting. The fifth seat Shinigami asks Aizen if it worked: was he able to plant the optical charm on Hikifune? Aizen excitedly confirms that the first stage of the mission was successful: When the new Royal Guard recruit rises up to the Soul King’s Palace, he will be able to see what she sees.

“My eyes will observe what only a handful of Shinigami have witnessed,” Aizen says, his glasses shining malevolently.

“Will you describe it to me?” Tōsen asks.

Aizen sits down and nestles into a meditative posture, replying “Afterwards, Kaname.”

He falls into into a deep trance – necessary to tap into the optic connection. The world around him dims as he enters the perspective of Hikifune rising up to the heavens. The feeling is euphoric.

Aizen sees only vague impressions of what Hikifune is witnessing as she is led through the Royal Realm: Pillars flanking the Vestibule-Road. Enormous cities suspended in the sky. And then there is the cylindrical centerpiece: the Soul King’s Palace.

Aizen braces himself when Hikifune is lead into the throne room: He has been waiting his entire life to see this.

A curtain is drawn back and there is a silhouette encased in what looks like amber. Disquietingly, it does not have limbs – a mere head and a torso suspended in a translucent cocoon. Aizen feels a twinge and is gripped with panic. The silhouette's eyes – irises like honeycomb, emitting indescribable power – peer not at Hikifune, but at him.

Aizen opens his eyes and sees that he is now within a black void. The silhouette stands before him, it's limbs returned and posture imperious. Aizen can feel the specter's gaze boring straight into his very being.

“YOU You you ARE Are are NOT Not not AIZEN Aizen aizen SŌSUKE Sōsuke sōsuke,” the silhouette murmurs in a chorus of distinct yet synchronized voices. Its speech reverberates in endless directions, echoing in perpetuity throughout the void. A tear of awe streaks down Aizen's cheek; he feels overwhelmed by the silhouette's scrutiny. It leans closer, as if imparting a secret:

"KILL Kill kill ME Me me."

The specter's eyes emit a blinding light. Aizen's sight is blotted out and then cracks. His optic connection with Hikifune has been been forcibly cut.

Aizen emerges violently from his trance. He clutches at his chest and hyperventilates. Kaname rushes to his side and touches his shoulder, helping him steady his breath.

“What did you see?” the blind Shinigami asks.

Aizen's choking gasps gradually subside, his eyes bulging with epiphany. As air fills his lungs, he begins to chuckle, and then uproariously laugh.

“A farce fitted with a crown, Kaname!” Aizen answers with a cackle. “It is as we suspected: Heaven is not a throne, but a prison!"

Aizen, in an uncharacteristic show of camaraderie, grasps Tōsen by the shoulders. The Arrancar Lord's eyes are animated with mania, tears of mirth falling behind his glasses.

“Know this, Kaname: No matter the cost of our ambition; we will not ascend to the top as conquerors, but as liberators."

RETURN TO THE PRESENT
- KARAKURA TOWN -


Aizen's reminiscence is interrupted when Urahara kneels and stabs his Zanpakutō into the edge of the blood-red net. "Hiasobi, Benhime, Juzutsunagi!" he cries out. Rung by rung, the scarlet net bubbles and erupts. Aizen, without any recourse, braces himself as the triggered mines reach and engulf him. The cacophony of blasts crescendo into a booming explosion that shakes the foundations of Karakura Town.

Urahara stands before the ensuing blaze, watching Aizen emerge. The Arrancar Lord is engulfed in fiery Reiatsu, the upper half of his garb reduced to embers. The flames gradually disippate and Aizen's body is swiftly scored with glowing, palpitating veins. His regeneration is getting faster.

“Your best efforts are swept away as quickly as they are inflicted,” Aizen boasts, the inferno raging behind him. “Why persist if you have no means of destroying me?”

Urahara genuinely considers the question for a beat.

"The honest truth is that I'm fond of this place," the shopkeeper replies. He assumes a guard stance, surrounded by Karakura Town's rubble. "I'm just a concerned citizen defending my home."

Aizen scoffs and raises his katana. "Now, you will use the mightiest technique in your arsenal," the Arrancar Lord commands, "and then I will finish this amusing diversion."

The two archenemies stare each other down, silhouettes framed by the fire.

"Careful what you wish for, Aizen," Urahara retorts, his eyes narrowed with determination. "BAN...KA –"

A surge of light spears through Urahara's side, skewering him between the ribs. His words trail off and he drops Benihime, the katana clattering onto the ground. Aizen watches in shock, unsure of what is happening. The light sucks back out from Urahara and returns to the hilt of Gin's Kamishini no Yari. The snake gives a cheeky grin.

Urahara falls to his knees, blood spilling from his lips. He reaches his quivering hand out to reclaim Benihime, but Aizen flash-steps before him and swings a vicious kick up into his face – smashing Arisubijōn into smithereens. The shopkeeper flies back in a heap, his hat blowing away into the blustery flames.

Aizen turns his attention back to his subordinate. “Did I request your interference, Gin?” he asks with icy annoyance.

“Nah, but I figured you were gettin’ bored of him yappin’, Captain Aizen,” Gin answers.

Aizen eyes the snake for a beat and then concludes “Very well. We shall proceed with creating the Ōken.”

Urahara lays on his back, on the knife's edge of consciousness. His blurry vision makes out Aizen looming over him. The Arrancar Lord grabs the shopkeeper by the scruff of his robes.

“Come," Aizen coos to his archenemy. “I don’t want you to miss the climax."

------

Orihime nervously looks up at the towering inferno peeking above the skyline. Urahara-san's hurt, she thinks to herself. She feels her anxiety mount, but then puts it out of mind. No – focus on what you can do right now to help. Do not become overwhelmed.

She gazes down at the Sōten Kisshun encasing Ukitake. Her negation has worked: the captain's hand has grown back and the two fatal stab wounds in his chest have closed up. She disperses her nurturing light and leans down, gently shaking his shoulder.

"Ukitake-san?"

The 13th Division Captain's eyes snap open and he projectile vomits a torrent of black bile. The crud splashes onto his chest and all over Orihime, caking her in inky sick. She blinks in dumbfounded surprise for a moment and then retches, scooting back several paces in abject horror. The healers and Lieutenant Sentarō gasp in unison.

“What’s wrong, Ukitake-san?” Orihime asks, her voice brittle with fear as she watches the captain writhe on the ground.

“It's his illness!" Hanatarō exclaims, leaping up from overseeing the unconscious Byakuya. "You’ve fixed his body, but his illness has been provoked. We need to –"

The 4th Division healer grunts, feeling something pierce through him. He looks down and sees the tip of Kamishini no Yari protruding from his gut. The blades retracts and Hanatarō collapses in a heap.

Orihime's heart sinks when she sees Aizen’s malevolent smile. He strides up to her at an unhurried pace, flanked by Ichimaru and dragging Urahara in his wake. The rest of the healers all flee, leaving only Sentarō flanking Orihime. Gin nonchalantly aims his blade and spears the 13th Division Lieutenant through; the Zanpakutō retracts and Sentarō falls back unconscious, leaving Orihime standing alone amongst a pile of defeated allies.

Aizen stops short within three yards of Orihime. He gazes at her with fondness, studying her terrified face for a beat. There is complete quiet, with only the crackle of the far-away blaze providing an aural backdrop.

“I was pleased by your performance against Barragan,” Aizen says, breaking the silence. “You truly have come a long way, Inoue”

Orihime sees the Hōgyoku’s light emanating from his chest. She gasps, suddenly understanding. His mysterious wounds in Las Noches now make sense to her.

“Take pride in a job well done,” Aizen smiles, tracing his fingers along the gleaming orb in his sternum. “You have done more to help me win this war than anyone else. Now I need but one more thing from you: the creation of the Ōken.”

“W-what?” Orihime stammers. She doesn’t even know what the Ōken is.

"You can blame this man," Aizen says before throwing Urahara's broken body before Orihime. "If he had not smuggled his Hōgyoku inside of Kuchiki Rukia, then you would have continued living as an unremarkable mortal and I would have never known what you truly are."

Orihime is frozen in confusion and fear. She looks down at Urahara: the shopkeeper's expression is wholly defeated. Not a good sign.

“The Ōken requires the sacrifice of 100,000 souls and the Jūrechi,” Aizen recalls. “Those raw materials are at hand, but harvesting them requires an artifact so rare that its existence was long dismissed as superstition: a Shard of the Soul King. What the disbelievers failed to comprehend – and what Urahara and myself discovered – was that these treasures were not buried beneath the ground, but within souls.”

Aizen smiles at Orihime. Her blood runs cold.

“You are beginning to understand," Aizen beams. "There are spirits among us who churn through the cycle of reincarnation with a single constant embedded inside of them. Impermanent and possessing self-determination, they are the perfect hiding places for such priceless materials. It was miraculous when I found but one of these souls within my lifetime. Now I have found a second: There is a piece of God hidden in your heart, Inoue. Your power to negate what has occurred? A manifestation of your inherited divinity, awakened by your proximity to the Hōgyoku that resided within Kuchiki Rukia. I knew the moment I first witnessed your power."

Aizen turns his gaze to Urahara.

“You must have suspected as well, Urahara Kisuke," Aizen muses. "The obvious assumption was that I would sacrifice the Hōgyoku to forge the Ōken, but you’re astute enough to have wondered whether Inoue was another pathway to the heavens.”

We briefly glimpse back when Urahara told a crestfallen Orihime that she must sit out the war against the Arrancar. The reason he gives her is that she would be a liability on the battlefield.

Urahara gazes up at Orihime with crestfallen eyes. "I'm... sorry..." he rasps, too weak to manage more.

“My original intention was to simply use the Ōken embedded in Yamamoto's arm, but he spitefully destroyed it,” Aizen continues. “Now I must repurpose Inoue as the catalyst to forge a new key. I would have preferred that she live, but Gēnryusai’s stubbornness has forced us all into this conclusion."

Orihime is gripped with bottomless dread. Aizen extends out his hand, beckoning her to submit.

“The time has come for you to be brave, Inoue.”

A storm of ash sweeps through the street, enveloping everyone’s line of sight. Orihime feels someone grab her by the wrist and drag her away.

“Neko Rinbu,” Gin remarks to himself, recognizing Rangiku’s Shikai ability. He feels a blade lash out from the haze and smack against his leg, doubling its weight. The snake raises his Shinsō, only for Wabisuke to emerge from the shadows and clang against his wakizashi-shaped Zanpakutō.

Izuru Kira leaps through the fog, landing another strike against his former mentor's sword.

“Honor is for the honorably dead, right Captain?” Kira says contemptuously, swinging his blade again. Gin sighs and leaps back, disappearing within the waves of ash.

“You think doublin’ the weight will dull the snake’s bite?” Gin's voice hisses from the shadows.

Before Kira can respond, Kamishini no Yari pierces through him. It’s a clean stab – not passing through any organs. The lieutenant falls onto his back, watching as his former captain strides past him.

“Don’t get back up unless ya wanna die,” Gin says bluntly as he passes by his former subordinate. He walks until he emerges from the smokescreen, Aizen awaiting him.

“You dispatched Izuru rather expediently,” Aizen comments. "And I recognize this diversionary technique; it belongs to Matsumoto Rangiku. You have feelings for her, do you not?"

“Feelings, eh?” Gin replies with a smirk. “Nah, ‘fraid not. Don’t got none o’ them. Didn’t I tell ya, back when we first met? I’m a snake. Cold of flesh and devoid of heart. My tongue flicks back and forth, ever in search of new prey, and if I like what I find, I swallow ‘em whole. I told you that. Didn't I?”



Orihime struggles to keep up as Rangiku Matsumoto leads her through the alleyways of Karakura Town.

“Come on,” the lieutenant beckons with urgency. “If we can get you to Tessai’s barrier, then we can —“

Aizen and Gin flash-step in the middle of the corridor, stopping them in their tracks. Aizen scrutinizes their unnerved faces before chiding Rangiku for taking what doesn’t belong to her.

“Now hand over Inoue Orihime,” Aizen commands. “Given your history with Ichimaru, I would pain me to have to forcibly take her from you.”

Rangiku is shaking, but not with fear. She has rage in her eyes.

“Was it you, Aizen?” she grits.

“You'll have to be more specific,” Aizen retorts with a smirk.

“I heard what you said about Orihime,” Rangiku seethes, pressing a hand to her heart. “Was I like her? A carrier of the Soul King? Is that what you took from me that day?!”

We glimpse back when the Shinigami identified as Hikaru Midorikawa knelt before the young Rangiku, extracting a sliver of light from her. He hears the snap of a branch and looks out to the brush, seeing a young Gin. We finally see the man for who he truly was: Sōsuke Aizen, using Kyōka Suigetsu to assume the appearance of another.

“Answer me, Aizen!” Rangiku bellows, but the Arrancar Lord declines to respond with nothing but a thin smile. With furious tears in her eyes, she turns her attention to Gin. The snake watches passively as his childhood sweetheart gives him a glare of pure hatred.

“You promised to never make me cry,” Rangiku says contemptuously before summoning a Kidō. "Bakudō #21: Sekienton!"

The lieutenant slams her palm into the ground, igniting a burst of red smoke that engulfs the alleyway. She grasps Orihime by the arm once again and begins running with her in the other direction.

“My apologies, Gin,” Aizen sighs with mild exasperation, extending his blade forward. “I will try to be delicate.”

“Allow me,” Gin interjects, striding past his master. “I know how to handle her.”

Aizen gazes down at Gin's fingers when they pinch the back of Kyōka Suigetsu.

“Gin…?”

Kamishini no Yari erupts from Gin’s sleeve and spears Aizen through the chest. Smirking, the snake releases Kyōka Suigetsu from his grasp.

“The only way to escape from Kyōka Suigetsu's power is to touch the sword before the activation of Complete Hypnosis," Gin recalls. "Gettin' that information outta you took a few decades. Doin' it Urahara's way woulda saved me some time, but then again..."

Gin's blade retracts back into its stubby original length, a ribbon of blood spurting out from Aizen's wound.

"... I ain't as clever as he is."

Aizen clutches at his chest, crimson spilling out from between his fingers.

“… I always knew,” Aizen admits with a grimace. “Ever since the moment I spotted you in the forest, I knew you would come for me. I was amused when it was under the guise of serving me. But you have an odd sense of timing, Gin –"

"Y'think I planned this?" Gin interjects. "I decided to kill ya about 30 seconds ago. Always thought about it, but hadn't made up my mind. Soul Society, the Gotei, this town? They can all drop dead. Don't care. There was a world where I woulda followed you to the Soul King's Palace, Captain Aizen. Yer dream really was big – made me unsure of whether you oughta die. But... then ya pointed yer blade at her, and suddenly I was sure."

"I don't care about your reasons," Aizen grins, effulgent veins branching out from the Hōgyoku to coalesce around his wound. "You waited too late to make an attempt on my life, Gin. Did you really think this attack –"

"Would kill ya?" Gin interjects merrily. "Nope."

The snake holds up his Shinsõ, pointing out a missing chink in the blade.

"I just left that piece inside you," the snake explains, pointing to Aizen's chest.

"What...?"

"Lil' secret about my Bankai: It turns to dust for just a second when it expands and contracts," Gin elaborates. "It's the bite that delivers the venom. My whole blade's laced with a poison that breaks down cells. Breaks 'em down real fast – faster'n the Hōgyoku can regenerate 'em. Get it, Captain Aizen? You took somethin' from her heart, so I put something in yers."

"All this because of a Rukongai wench?!" Aizen cries out, infuriated.

"Alright, Captain Aizen," Gin says chirpily, placing his hand against the Arrancar Lord's chest. "Time for ya to die... Korose, Kamishini no Yari."

Aizen looks down in horror as the wound in his chest expands at a rapid rate, overturning the rejuvenating veins of the Hōgyoku.

"Yer gonna die with a hole in yer chest," Gin concludes. "Just like ya always wanted."

The snake's blue eyes gleam as the Hōgyoku hovers before him, the flesh and bone of Aizen’s chest dissolving around it. He reaches out and grasps the orb, only for Aizen’s hand to lunge at him.

Gin flash-steps several paces out of reach with the Hōgyoku in his possession. Aizen stumbles back and crumples onto the ground, his torso a gaping chasm. He struggles for breath like a fish on dry land, the vibrant fear of death animating his eyes.

"G-Gin..."

Gin watches with pleasure as Aizen’s entire body dissolves into nothingness, without a trace left.

 
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And here is the second half of The Deicide.

Rangiku and Orihime turn a corner into an alleyway, the lieutenant desperate to get her charge to safety. Gin flash-steps before them, presenting the Hōgyoku in his outstretched palm.

“Gin!” Rangiku cries out, shocked and suspicious. “What did you —?”

“Destroy it,” Gin tells Orihime, offering her the orb. It is throbbing with light, as if it were agitated.

Orihime gulps and nods, casting Sōten Kisshun over Gin’s hand. Rangiku looks at him apprehensively. His blue eyes meet hers, and suddenly she understands.

The Hōgyoku pulsates beneath the light of Orihime's barrier. She senses that something's wrong, her anxiety mounting as the orb begins to blink at a rapid pace. There is a flash and the Sōten Kisshun shatters – a surge of energy shocking Orihime like a cattle prod. She stumbles back, her eyes wide with terror.

"It's him," she gasps.


A torrent of purple light erupts like a geyser from Gin’s hand, unfurling into a winged silhouette. The radiance sharpens into the features of Aizen, his inverted irises gazing down at Orihime.

“Your power can negate the will of the gods,” Aizen speaks, his words reverberating with different vocal pitches simultaneously. “But it cannot undo God himself.”

Aizen’s Transcendent state looks like a mixture of his unhatched Chrysalis form and his Butterfly transformation from the Canon. He largely resembles the former, with his hair lengthened and windswept. The white of his Arrancar garb has now become like a second skin, melded onto his entire body below the v-cut that exposes his chest. The sclera of his eyes have turned a shade of violet along with ghostly white irises, punctuated by piercing black pupils. An elongated bang hangs from his rich hairline. He is holding Kyōka Suigetsu, but it is not bonded to his hand. A purple gem is lodged within his forehead and a void resides in his chest, with a crosshatch of flesh in the shape of a cross encasing the Hōgyoku. His back is flanked by outstretched wings – not those of a moth, but the broad and feathered texture of an Archangel. He is hovering off the ground, his feet levitating inches above the pavement.

Gin wrenches his arm back, only for a bloody stump to withdraw from Aizen's pulsating core. The snake's limb has been obliterated below the elbow.

“It is as I predicted, Gin,” Aizen proclaims, gazing back at the traitor with a pitiless expression. “I made the Hōgyoku inextricably mine – steal it and you will simply be carrying me in your hand.”

Aizen raises his milky white finger: a crackle of purple energy shoots from it and strikes Gin like lightning. The snake flies back, his chest bursting apart in an explosion of viscera. The Transcendent turns his attention back to the horrified Orihime, his Reiatsu shaking the foundations of the two buildings sandwiching the alleyway. Rangiku puts herself before Orihime and swings her Haineko, but Aizen catches the katana with his fingers. The tendons in his hand flex and the Zanpakutō shatters into infinitesimal pieces.

“Orihime, run! —“ Rangiku cries out before she is seized with an unbearable weight. Aizen glares down at the lieutenant, not heeding Orihime as she flees.

“To give you peace of mind before the end: It was indeed me, Rangiku,” the Transcendent boasts, asserting his immeasurably heavy Reiatsu onto Matsumoto. “I pried the only thing of value from you and now it radiates inside of me. Your recompense is looking upon the God that you helped birth.”

Aizen raises Kyōka Suigetsu and readies to plunge it down, only to detect a surge of Kamishini no Yari firing behind him. He glazes into a silhouette of luminosity, Gin’s blade passing through it ineffectually. The Transcendent rematerializes behind Gin, who is kneeling with his chest caved in and Zanpakutō in hand. The snake whirls around and poises for Butō, firing point-blank. Aizen raises a hand over his face with even faster speed and catches the surging thrust in his palm. Sparks fly as Gin’s unstoppable Bankai grinds against Aizen’s immovable hand. Kamishini no Yari retracts, the blade blunted and smoking. In a flash, Aizen impales Gin through the heart with Kyōka Suigetsu

Rangiku screams, watching helplessly as Gin is killed.

"I would have elevated you to the heavens, Gin," Aizen remarks with complete tranquility. "Thousands of years from now, when all else is forgotten, they will still tell fables about your folly."



Orihime runs down the main street, sheer panic animating her. She halts when a silhouette of purple light flashes before her, Aizen materializing from the raw energy. He is extending his left hand out to her, his right grasping a blood-stained Kyōka Suigetsu.

“Come, Inoue,” Aizen says soothingly, his eyes full of affection.

"Hey, swan!" a gravelly voice shouts from behind Aizen, drawing both his and Orihime's attention.

Aizen looks back and sees Kenpachi Zaraki grinning at him from the other end of the street.

“Ho, ho,” Kenpachi laughs, unsheathing his jagged katana. “You look pretty, Aizen!”

“Zaraki Kenpachi,” Aizen remarks, his violet eyes narrowing. “How did you escape from Hueco Mundo?”

“Some Arrancar woman kicked us out,” Kenpachi grins. “Says she runs the place, now.”

“Us?” Aizen repeats. He turns his gaze back to Orihime, who is now flanked by Suí-Fēng. The 2nd Division Captain shoots Aizen a defiant scowl, grasps Orihime by the wrist, and flash-steps away with her in tow.

"Very well," Aizen sighs, roving back to face Kenpachi. He beckons the 11th Division Captain to come at him.

Kenpachi excitedly rips off his eyepatch, roaring with exhilaration as his Reiatsu surges. He starts sprinting towards Aizen, his momentum building to a gallop as his stomps smash the pavement beneath. He leaps into the air with both hands firmly grasping the hilt of his Zanpakutō. He brings the sword down upon Aizen with the full force of Kendō, the kinetic energy obliterating the entire street. Windows shatter and tile is torn off from rooftops as the shockwave completely levels everything in its path.

Aizen has caught Kenpachi’s swing in his hand, holding the edge firmly. Kenpachi is stunned: he put everything he had left into that attack.

“I admit that I intentionally avoided tangling with you when I was a Shinigami, Zaraki Kenpachi,” Aizen muses. “Thank you for demonstrating how high I have ascended.”

The Transcendent presses two fingers against Zaraki’s chest. “Hado #1” he intones. “Sai.”

There is a pulse of energy and Kenpachi is thrown back with the velocity of a rocket, his body barreling through Karakura Town and tearing up everything he smashes through. Aizen watches dispassionately as the 11th Division Captain crashes as far as 1,000 yards away, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.



Suí-Fēng bounds over the Karakura skyline, dashing at her maximum speed. She drags Orihime along by the arm; the girl nearly losing her lunch as they leap from building to building.

“That lout Urahara filled us in after we arrived,” Suí-Fēng calls back to Inoue. “I need to get you out of Karakura Town, away from the bounds of the Jūrechi.”

The captain reaches the outskirts of town and comes upon the barricade of Kidō erected by Aizen. She leaps onto the translucent wall and starts dashing up its surface, nearing the peak. Her heart sinks when the summit begins to curve upwards, expanding its height. She attempts to outrun the growth of Kidō, but the curvature grows too steep and she plummets back down with Orihime.

Aizen levitates beneath them, his fist outstretched and squeezing. He smirks as his fortress of Kidō coalesces into an enormous dome, sealing Karakura Town completely off from the outside world. His wings spread out – giving him the span of 30 feet – and he launches into the air, flying straight for Suí-Fēng and Orihime.

Suí-Fēng clocks the incoming Transcendent and hurls Orihime away from herself, putting an extra kick of Shunkō into her throw. Orihime screams as she plunges headfirst down towards Karakura Town.

Suí-Fēng, falling with style, releases Suzumebachi and dives down to meet Aizen. She lunges her stinger at him, hoping to nail him with her two-strike kill. He reaches out and snatches her gauntlet away with all the effort of plucking a leaf from a branch, taking her hand as well. Suí-Fēng watches in shock as blood spurts from the stump where her forearm had been. Aizen takes the gloved limb he tore from her and backhands her with it, sending her somersaulting violently down until she crashes into the hillside of the Karakura outskirts.



Orihime flies through the air like a javelin, nearing the face of a building. She braces herself for impact, but is caught by Renji.

“I got ya, Inoue!” he grins reassuringly. He dives back down into Karakura Town with Orihime in tow.



Gin gazes up at Rangiku’s face, his head resting in her lap. She strokes his hair, softly crying as she tries to make him comfortable for his final rest.

"Stupid, stupid boy," she whispers to him before her face softens into a look of profound affection.

Gin grasps her hand, his blue eyes gazing into hers.

“Only thing I regret was making you cry. I couldn’t retrieve what was taken from you… I'm... I'm sorry.”

Rangiku feels Gin’s hand grow limp in her grasp. She hugs him close and wails, letting loose a heart-wrenching scream of primal grief.

–-–

Isane crouches before Ichigo’s kneeling body, her hands emitting a healing glow.

“I don’t understand,” the 4th Division Lieutenant says nervously. “He is completely catatonic.”

Chad looms behind her, holding the paralyzed Uryū in his arms.

“Ichigo?” Chad asks warily, seeing no light behind his friend’s eyes. “Ichigo, can you hear me?”

Uryū is horrified by the destruction surrounding them. How many people have already died? he thinks to himself. The Quincy turns his attention to Ichigo and feels a deadening despair set in.

You always carved out victory even when it was impossible, Uryū thinks while gazing at his rival. If even you are down for the count, then we really are up against something unstoppable.



Renji touches down on the street and sets Orihime down. They’re standing before Tessai’s Kidō barrier, Rukia awaiting them. Tatsuki watches them from behind the wall of light; Chizuru, Keigo, Mizuiro, and thousands of Kakura residents crowd behind her.

“Just step through and run until you reach Urahara Shop, Inoue,” Rukia orders breathlessly. “Jinta and Ururu will lead you to the Garganta and get you far away from here.”

“But what about you two?” Orihime asks in a hushed whisper.

“That Kidō’s designed to keep Shinigami like us out,” Renji replies, releasing and whipping around Zabimaru. “We’re staying behind.”

“But —“

“There’s no time, Inoue!” Rukia exclaims. “Go!”

Orihime closes her eyes and charges towards the barrier. She is mere feet away from passing through it when she feels a vice-like grip seize her arm. She looks back to see Aizen materializing from thin air, his alabaster-hued hand gripping her.

“Did you hope that a mere Shinigami’s Kidō could protect you?” Aizen muses, his violet eyes regarding her sympathetically. “How naive.”

The Transcendent extends a finger up towards the barrier. The thinnest thread of energy fires from his fingertip and pierces through the translucent wall, travels past thousands of humans, passes through the doors of Urahara’s shop, and fires straight through Tessai’s chest.

The Kidō master flies back from his cross-legged posture, coughing up a splash of blood as the infinitesimal puncture in his chest blows out with the radius of a baseball from his back. Jinta and Ururu rush to his side, horrified by his wound.

Tatsuki’s eyes widen as the wall of golden light before her parts like a curtain and then disperses into shattered fragments. The barrier has fallen, leaving all of the gathered Karakura residents vulnerable.

Renji leaps at Aizen from behind and swings Zabimaru, aiming for the neck. The Transcendent doesn’t even turn to acknowledge his attacker; a purple spark of energy whips against Renji’s side and sends him crashing through the adjacent storefront.

“Hm?” Aizen murmurs as he distractedly lifts up his katana, inspecting it in one hand while grasping Orihime with the other. “Kyōka Suigetsu… no longer speaks to me.”

The Transcendent casts his eyes to Rukia, recognizing her as the only audience he has left.

“Rather, it no longer recognizes me,” he continues. “I have grown beyond its parameters of power. Do you know what this means? I cannot retrieve Kurosaki Ichigo even if I wanted to.”

“What?!” Rukia gasps, struggling to comprehend. “Retrieve? What… what did you do to him, Aizen?!”

“I provided him with ample time to break his limits,” Aizen replies matter-of-factly. “If he has yet to show himself, then I suppose he never will. There is nothing left here to interest me.”

Ichigo, where have you gone? Rukia whispers to herself, feeling her heart break.

Aizen begins to levitate from the ground, dragging a petrified Orihime with him as he ascends to the sky. Tatsuki falls to her knees, helplessly watching her friend be taken away.

“I think it’s time that we bring our little drama to an end,” the Transcendent announces, gazing down at Rukia. “Take comfort in the knowledge that the ritual will not destroy you or any other Shinigami. It is only the humans souls that the Ōken will feed upon.”

Orihime feels emptiness emanate from her heart as they rise above the Karakura skyline and touch down on the roof of a 20-story building, overlooking the horizon. Aizen sets her down on the gravel with a gentleness that is almost tender.

“Are you ready, Inoue?” the Transcendent asks with a dreamy cadence.

Orihime looks forlornly down at the gravel. For whatever reason, all she can think of is the night her brother died.

She is 12-years-old and sitting outside of the Kurosaki clinic. Paramedics wheel Sora’s body into an ambulance: he died before they arrived. Isshin is conferring with the paramedics while Orihime sits on the curb, gazing down at the hairpins in her hand. She snaps them into her burnt orange hair, tears streaming down her face.

She shivers in the cold and hugs herself, then feels a blanket drape over her. She looks up to see the orange-haired boy who had received her at the clinic: Ichigo. He wordlessly sits down next to her and they share a long silence.

“Do you… have anyone else?” he asks.

“No,” Orihime shakes her head. “It was just Sora and me. He was my only friend… He always stood up for me, whether it was against Mom or Dad or mean people at school. He… he was always there to protect me.”

Orihime bows her head and cries, only to cease when she hears Ichigo sniffling. She looks over and sees that he’s crying, too. He wipes his nose with his sleeve and puts on a brave face.

“I’ll protect you,” he vows.


Orihime reflects on the memory, caressing one of her hairpins. She then looks up to meet Aizen’s gaze.

“I’m not afraid,” she says.

Aizen nods admiringly, holding his hand out before Orihime's chest. His palm emits a soft glow and her heart reciprocates, the shard inside of her beginning to awaken.

“A radiant spirit to the very end,” Aizen says fondly.

Orihime resignedly watches as her chest shines like a lantern, emitting divine light as Aizen coaxes energy into the piece of the Soul King embedded within her. Soon the shard will explode and envelop all of Karakura Town along with it.



Ishida feels a twinge. His looks up at the skyline.

“Orihime,” he whispers. “We’re too late!”

“Look, Uryū!” Chad cries out. “Ichigo’s sword, it’s…”

Black Reiatsu begins to rise from Tensa Zangetsu, dancing from its edge like flames. Chad, Isane, and Uryū all watch in astonishment as the Bankai blade stirs awake.


Aizen detects that an interloper has arrived. He looks over and sees Rukia Kuchiki standing five yards away. She has leapt up to the rooftop, her Sode no Shirayuki drawn and poised.

“What is it you hope to achieve, Kuchiki Rukia?” Aizen asks with equal parts curiosity and exasperation. “Your role in all of this ended on Sōkyoku Hill. Yet here you stand, making a mockery of yourself to defend the dignity of an Order that saw fit to execute you on my command. How misguided.”

“This isn’t about Soul Society!” Rukia fires back. “It’s not about dignity and it’s not about honor, Aizen. I… I won’t let Orihime die alone!”

Orihime’s eyes widen with emotion. Heartened by Rukia’s words, she smiles as the coalescing radiance in her chest grows brighter. Rukia sees the surging light and realizes that the proverbial bomb is about to go off.

“Stop, Aizen…” Rukia whispers, her sword quivering in her grip.

The Transcendent merely smiles back, continuing to feed energy into Orihime’s heart.

“I cannot promise that you will survive the ritual if you witness it in such proximity,” Aizen warns. “If you value you’re life, you will flee and allow Inoue to fulfill her use.”

“DAMMIT, AIZEN!” Rukia cries out, readying to lunge in desperation. “I SAID STOP!!!”


Suddenly, Rukia feels a set of feet slam into the gravel behind her, asserting an unfathomable weight. She freezes, seeing the surprise on Aizen and Orihime’s faces. Slowly, she turns to see the new arrival.

Ichigo Kurosaki stands before her. The Substitute Shinigami is barefoot, his frayed black robes billowing in the wind. His right sleeve has been shorn off, exposing the sinewy muscle of his bicep. His gloved hand grasps Tensa Zangetsu, which has been lashed to his arm with a black chain that snakes from wrist to shoulder. What is most startling about his appearance, however, is his expression: he looks like he’s in full control.

His eyes… Rukia thinks to herself as she looks upon Ichigo with awe. His eyes are filled with…

“Rukia,” Ichigo says with relief, a warm smile spreading across his features. “Just stay right there. Right where you are. I’ll handle this.”

Rukia is taken aback. She is astonished by his confidence, but somehow… she believes him. You aren’t the same Ichigo I saw mere hours ago.

Aizen sighs and closes his palm shut. The light emanating from Orihime’s chest dissipates in response, the fuse inside of her relaxing.

“So you’ve returned, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen remarks. “I commend you for escaping from Mugenmagureru Akumanowana, but I’m afraid you’re too late. Gin has already fulfilled your use to –“

“— Aizen,” Ichigo interjects with icy nerve. “Let her go.”

Aizen arches his brow, amused by Ichigo’s bullishness.

“The Ryōka boy rides in to rescue the maiden,” Aizen smirks. “A heroic gesture – all the more poetic for being completely futile.”

He reaches down and grips Orihime by the collar of her Arrancar garb, lifting her up from the ground.

“If you want her, how about you come and take —“ Aizen begins, only to realize that Ichigo has disappeared and so has Orihime from his grasp.

What?! Aizen blinks in astonishment before turning around to see Ichigo on the other end of the rooftop, holding Orihime in his arms.

Orihime isn’t quite sure what just happened, either. All she can do is gaze into Ichigo’s eyes while he gives her a reassuring smile.

“I’ll protect you, Orihime,” Ichigo promises. “Always.”

He sets her down and then turns his attention back to the Deicidal god before him.

“Let’s take this elsewhere, Aizen,” Ichigo says. “I don’t want to fight here.”

Aizen stares down the Substitute Shinigami, annoyed by his impertinence. He rises to his full height and spreads his wings, not unlike a peacock basking in its own beauty.

“Your disrespect has grown tiresome,” Aizen declares. “Your use to me has expired, but if you must insist on the girl’s survival, then perhaps you can take her pla—“

Ichigo’s palm smashes into Aizen’s face, shutting him up.

The Substitute Shinigami launches from the rooftop with Aizen in tow, their velocity generating a blast of wind that sweeps through Orihime and Rukia’s robes. They watch Ichigo fly away, both of them slack-jawed.

Isshin lies on his back amidst the rubble, immobilized but still conscious. He smiles when he sees his son streak across the sky.

Ichigo reaches the dome of Kidō that Aizen had encircled around Karakura Town. He thrusts the Transcendent forward like a shield, both of them crashing through the prism. They come out the other end having punched a hole through the barrier – it promptly collapses into fine particles around Karakura’s border.

The Substitute Shinigami reaches the end of the horizon and hurls Aizen down into a craggy wilderness. The Transcendent’s body craters the ground, sending up a plume of dirt. He struggles back up to his feet, gingerly nursing his face with a quivering hand.

How did he…?!

Ichigo gracefully touches down before Aizen. Their arena is a wide valley that slopes up into a chunky mountain.

“I am the Substitute Shinigami of Karakura Town, and you will not step foot in my jurisdiction ever again,” Ichigo announces with authority. “Now prepare yourself, Aizen. I’ll finish this… in an instant.”

Aizen’s eyes narrow. His hand lowers to reveal that his jaw has been horrifically dislocated, jutting grotesquely to the side. He presses a palm to his bent maw and snaps it back in place.

“Point taken, Kurosaki Ichigo,” the Transcendent spits, roving his realigned mouth before reassuming complete poise. “Even a God can be humbled from time to time. The elation of transcendence and the vagaries of your Reiatsu prompted me to lower my guard. This embarrassment could have been avoided had I greeted you as an equal. Allow me to do so now.”

Aizen’s angelic wings spread wide and he assumes a guard stance, the muscles in his body tensing. A pillar of purple Reiatsu erupts from him and rises up towards the sky. The Transcendent grins as he begins to show the true depth of his power, the crater beneath him broadening out.



Orihime and Rukia stand together on the rooftop, watching a pillar of purple light spiking into the clouds from miles and miles away.

“Are you alright, Orihime?” Rukia asks without taking her eyes away from the towering display of power.

“I think so,” Orihime replies, clutching at her chest. “Thank you, Rukia… I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Rukia says with surprise, looking to her. “What are you apologizing for?”

Orihime fidgets with her hands as she summons the courage to come clean: “There was a time when I was… jealous of you.”

Rukia is perplexed for a moment, but then it dawns on her. She smiles at Orihime, suddenly understanding.

“Kurosaki-kun… I mean Ichigo seemed different, didn’t he?” Orihime adds wistfully.

“Yes; especially the look in his eyes,” Rukia responds. “They had so much confidence, but they were also…”

“Sad?”

Rukia nods. There is a clap of thunder in the distance followed by a gentle breeze sweeping into town. Rukia realizes that the tremors are the shockwaves from Ichigo’s battle.

We surge past Orihime and Rukia's perspective… past the outskirts of Karakura Town… past the miles and miles of empty wilderness… and center on the valley wherein Ichigo and Aizen are clashing.


The two godly combatants lash at each other with percussive strikes, flash-stepping across the craggy field and leaving devastation in their wake. Kyōka Suigetsu clangs against Tensa Zangetsu, their exchanges emitting percussive reverberations that shatter the surrounding stones. Their slashes are rapid-fire and echo with resounding power, the earth beneath them splintering from the strain.

Ichigo parries Aizen’s strike and sends the velocity of his thrust surging across the field, obliterating everything in its wake. Aizen cackles, exhilarated as he gets to flex the full extent of his new powers. He glazes into a silhouette of pure energy and reemerges from Ichigo’s right flank, swinging viciously. Ichigo parries away the slash and dashes around Aizen at such speed that he generates a dozen simultaneous after-images. The Transcendent roars and lets his Reiatsu explode – the energy blowing away the apparitions and sending Ichigo dashing back. He lands on the mountain’s surface, a cave entrance yawning behind him.

Aizen juts out his index finger, his eyes filled with bloodlust. “Hado #99: Goryūtenmetsu!” he cries out gleefully. The ground shatters beneath him, five enormous dragons comprised of purple flame sprouting from the cracks and surging towards Ichigo.

The Substitute Shinigami turns heel and sprints into the cave, the serpentine beasts giving chase. Ichigo dashes at supersonic speeds through the dank tunnels, peering back to see the fiery jaws keeping pace behind him, incinerating the innards of the mountain as they slither through it.

We cut to a wide angle on the mountain as it crumbles internally, flame erupting from its spouts. Ichigo bursts through its summit and flies up towards the clouds. Aizen materializes behind him and swings Kyōka Suigetsu, only for Ichigo to whirl around and catch the katana’s edge in his hand.

Aizen’s eyes widen in disbelief while Ichigo glares back at him with determination. The Transcendent asserts his full power, roaring with indignation as his blade struggles against Ichigo’s grip. The Substitute Shinigami holds the sword at bay, blood trickling down his palm. He lashes out with Tensa Zangetsu, cleaving through Aizen’s right wing.

The Transcendent flutters down, his dragons erupting up from the mountain’s summit to meet him. He lands atop the snout of the leading serpent and rides it as all five beasts surge up towards Ichigo. The Substitute Shinigami poises himself, his silhouette framed by the sun, and then launches down like a missile. He passes through the throng of serpents in a flash. They all shatter, having been cut clean through.

Aizen watches in shock as his mightiest Kidō spell crumbles beneath his feet. He glides down and lands on a crag on the ruined mountain, only for Ichigo to flash-step before him. The Substitute Shinigami blitzes a countless flurry of slashes, echoing the same maneuver he used to repel Byakuya’s petals on Sōkyoku Hill. Aizen stumbles back, gasping for air: dozens of lacerations have been carved into him, his divine visage cut to ribbons.

“Was this a part of your plan, Aizen?” Ichigo asks coldly, flicking the blood from his Bankai onto the stone ground. “Is this the power you were eager to face?”

Aizen grinds his teeth, bristling with rage. “You should be thanking me,” he spits. “You were a cowering child before my intervention. The subjugation of your Zanpakutō was only possible because of me.”

“Subjugation?” Ichigo repeats back, unimpressed. “Is that what you call it?”

Blood drips down Aizen’s milky body. A new wing grotesquely burgeons out from his spine, the rest of his wounds bubbling like a cauldron.

“Tell me…” Aizen grits contemptuously, “… when you were confronted by what was most precious to you inside the depths Mugenmagireru Akumanowana – what did you do?”

“… I let it go,” Ichigo answers.

“Exactly!” Aizen hisses. “You learned that it wasn’t necessary! All this time, it has been your sentimentality holding you back, Kurosaki Ichigo. Your obsession with the weak made you afraid of your own might – you were so fearful of crushing the puny beneath your steps that you chose to remain still! Only now, after casting aside that which you held as sacred, can you finally see the truth of —“

“— You keep making a lot of assumptions about me, Aizen,” Ichigo interrupts. “My turn to make some about you: this is the first time our blades have actually crossed. Y’know what I felt coming from your sword? Loneliness.”

Aizen’s brow furrows. He doesn’t understand.

“I let go of what what was closest to my heart because it was the only way I could protect everyone else I care about,” Ichigo continues. “When you threw away what mattered most to you, what did you have left? Now that you know I’m stronger than you, are you starting to wonder if that sacrifice was worth it, Aizen?”

Aizen bristles with rage, Kyōka Suigetsu rattling in his grip.

“Do not presume to understand me, boy,” he seethes. “How dare… how dare you lecture A BEING YOU CANNOT COMPREHEND!”

The Transcendent screams with pure, unbridled pique, prompting the gem implanted in his forehead to split open. Aizen falls silent, gazing up in horror at the third eye roving within his skull. His face cracks like a porcelain pot and he erupts into a torrent Reiatsu, his body bursting at the seams.

Ichigo watches as a monster emerges from the viscera: a black skull with serrated teeth flanked by the flaps of Aizen’s molted face. Its bleached musculature has three holes in the torso, the Hōgyoku hovering in the highest rung. Kyōka Suigetsu has been bonded to its arm, curving out like a sickle. The feathered wings have now become a fleshy array of eyeless, mewling heads, with two optical orbs in the shape of Aizen’s withering glare embedded in the pectoral fins.

The beast opens its sawtoothed maw and emits an otherworldly screech, its language incomprehensible.

Can you hear me, Kurosaki Ichigo? a voice rumbles within Ichigo’s mind. The Substitute Shinigami realizes with alarm that Aizen is speaking to him via telepathy.

How ruinous, absolutely ruinous of you… to provoke your God!

One of the six mouths chattering from Aizen’s wings lets fly a compacted shot of energy. It flies towards Ichigo at frightening speed – he shields himself with his arm at the last possible moment. There is a flash and then an explosion of nuclear proportion, leveling the entire valley.

The shockwave reaches Karakura Town, shaking its infrastructure like a rattle. Rukia and Orihime brace themselves, the building beneath them wobbling. They look on in horrified awe at the mushroom cloud sprouting in the far distance.

Aizen’s colorless eyes watch as Ichigo emerges from the inferno, his left arm a cinder. The monster dives towards his prey and pins him to the molten ground with a clawed foot. Ichigo screams as lava seeps over his ruined arm, the ground gradually crumbling beneath him.

From the beginning, you misunderstood the nature of this battle, Aizen hisses in Ichigo’s mind. It doesn’t matter if your strength temporarily exceeds my own – the Hōgyoku will not allow me to be defeated.

Ichigo lashes out with Tensa Zangetsu, hacking Aizen’s spindly leg clear off. The Substitute Shinigami flips back into a crouch and then leaps up onto the mountain, getting away from the volcanic valley.

Aizen flash-steps atop the bursted peak of the mountain, staring down at Ichigo imperiously. The beast sprouts a new leg in mere seconds, his regeneration achieving record time. Ichigo glares up at Aizen defiantly, grimacing from the searing burns across his arm.

You have done me a great service, Aizen purrs in Ichigo’s thoughts. Do you think a mere Shinigami can overthrow the Soul King? No — only a being of equal or greater transcendence can slay Reiō and assume his throne. I needed an adversary of divine lineage to help me evolve into a plane of existence capable of reigning. You have fulfilled that purpose, Kurosaki Ichigo! Now, as you face your end, do you wish to know what you truly are?

“ENOUGH!” Ichigo shouts, banishing Aizen from his mind. “I already know who I am, Aizen… I’m the son of Isshin and Masaki. The brother of Karin and Yuzu. I'm Kurosaki Ichigo, and my job is to protect our home.”

His burnt fingers hook into a link in the shackle wrapped around his arm. “It’s time I show you…”

He yanks it off, breaking the chain. The manacle disintegrates and his glove turning into vapor. A deluge of black Reiatsu flows out from Tensa Zangetsu, engulfing Ichigo like smoke.

“… the Final Getsuga Tenshō!”

——

- FLASHBACK TO ICHIGO’S INNER WORLD -

How long have we been doing this? Ichigo wonders.

He continues to exhaustedly parry the Hell Knight’s strikes. They balletically hack and slash back and forth, tussling in the ocean depths while Tensa Zangetsu passively watches.

If this monster really wanted to destroy me, it could have done so from the beginning, Ichigo thinks to himself. I am no match for it, but it continues to fight me on a level that treats me like an equal.

The demon screeches and charges a Gran Rey Cero from the space between its dual horns. Ichigo’s eyes widen and he lunges out of the way. The blast cuts through the ocean floor, parting the water like a curtain and exposing the Inner World to daylight for a brief moment before the waves come crashing back together. Ichigo swirls amidst the tumult, lost in reflection.

It could kill me whenever it wants, but it hasn’t. I’ve felt nothing but hatred for this monster, so why… why do I feel sadness flowing from its sword?

The Hell Knight pounces with a wild roar, thrusting its black katana forward. Ichigo makes his decision and tosses his own blade aside, allowing the beast to impale him straight through the heart.

Tensa Zangetsu is startled, but then softens into begrudging acceptance. He slows drifts towards the two interlocked combatants, his head bowed.

“You finally understand…” the spirit says softly.

Ichigo gazes down at the sword buried in his chest. “There’s no pain…” he observes.

White begins to change, its monstrous features shifting into a pale reflection of Ichigo – it was his Hollow all along.

“‘Course it doesn’t hurt,” the Hollow says affectionately. “I’m you. Once you accepted that, I couldn’t hurt ya any longer.”

Ichigo’s eyes widen when White kneels before him, acknowledging him as king.

“I will lend you my strength, Ichigo,” the Hollow announces with a wistful smile.

“As will I,” Tensa Zangetsu adds, hovering behind White. Ichigo sees that the Bankai spirit has tears in his eyes.

“Why are you crying?” Ichigo asks.

The Hollow looks back to his fellow spirit sympathetically. “Remember when he said that what you wanted to protect wasn’t what he wanted to protect?”

“What I wanted to protect was… you, Ichigo,” Zangetsu answers.

Ichigo is taken aback. He watches as his Zanpakutō Spirit and Inner Hollow stand side by side.

“The secrets of the Final Getsuga Tenshō will flow into you from that blade,” Zangetsu explains, motioning to the sword in Ichigo’s chest.

“But there’s something else you oughta know, Ichigo…” White adds.

——

- RETURN TO THE PRESENT -

Ichigo is engulfed in an otherworldly Reiatsu. The black and shifting sphere rises until it is level with Aizen atop the mountain, it’s torrents of energy raking along the sky like scribbles.

Where… have I seen that form before? Aizen wonders to himself, his curiosity piqued like a moth to flame.

The scratching waves of black Reiatsu part, revealing a transformed Ichigo, His entire right side is bandaged up to his nose, his eyes a vibrant red. His orange hair has lengthened into a raven mane while a blot of black smolders around his arm.

“Tensa Zangetsu’s ultimate technique… is to become Zangetsu himself!” Ichigo announces, his energy blackening the sky above.

Aizen feels an indescribable weight fall upon him. His claws crunch into the stony surface of mountain summit.

Why… can’t… I… move?!

“Using this technique…” Ichigo continues, “… will permanently cost me my Shinigami powers. That is the price of the Final Getsuga Tenshō.”

Aizen is frozen in place, feeling as though his every muscle is being pulled into the earth. He struggles to understand until he arrives at the only logical conclusion.

Is he overwhelming me with the sheer weight of his power? he ponders. How could he possibly be this far beyond me? Could it… NO!

Aizen finally realizes why he recognizes Ichigo’s transformation: a figure black of hair with red piercing eyes flits through his memory.

The Transcendent lets out an animalistic screech, using all of his might to pitch his wings forward. His six demonic mouths each begin to charge compacted blasts to retaliate.

“Mugetsu,” Ichigo says.

He swings his arm down, a seismic curtain of darkness following. The slash bifurcates Aizen, travels a mile into the wilderness, and then dissipates.



Ichigo levitates down to the brutalized earth, his transformation gradually flaking off. He trudges across the ground, then perks up as something lands with a crash to his right. He looks over and sees two charred halves of Aizen in the dirt. To his surprise, the two slabs of meat begin bonding back together.

He’s still regenerating after that? Ichigo thinks to himself.

He flash-steps before Aizen and readies to deliver the killing blow. As he raises his hand, he feels all of his strength flood from him. His black Reiatsu dissipates and he turns into a disembodied Plus, collapsing in a heap while Aizen shakily rises.

“A valiant effort, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Aizen growls, his face a disfigured mishmash of both angelic and demonic features. “But you lose!”

The Transcendent brandishes Kyōka Suigetsu: the katana is disintegrating.

“You exposed the Hōgyoku to the power of a Shinigami becoming one with their Zanpakutō… and now it is bestowing me with that evolution!” Aizen cries out triumphantly. “You meaninglessly threw away your divinity, but not before giving the gift of showing me how much higher I could rise! It’s over, Kurosaki —“

Aizen grunts when a spike of red Reiatsu erupts from his chest.

“What… what is this?!” the Transcendent gasps. “When did you…”

“Looks like it’s finally activating.”

Aizen and Ichigo both look on in shock as Kisuke Urahara touches down before them.

“It’s called Kyūjūrokkei Kakafūmetsu,” the shopkeeper explains. “It’s a Bakudō that I embedded within another Kidō during our battle, before you had transformed.”

We briefly glimpse back to the moment when Urahara cast Kuyo Shibari, conjuring a collection of black holes around Aizen, with one centered on his chest.

“I figured that once you had merged with Hōgyoku, it would be impossible to kill you,” Urahara concludes. “So I developed this seal to trap you instead.”

Aizen juts forth his hand and lets the last remnants of Kyōka Suigetsu crumble from his palm.

“To think I once considered you clever, Urahara,” Aizen bristles. “You’re mad if you believe that you can seal me away with this level of Kidō!”

Aizen’s divine visage shatters, much to his shock. He grasps his face in horror, feeling his power rapidly contract.

“What… what is happening?!” the mere Shinigami asks aloud.

“It is the will of the Hōgyoku,” Urahara answers, drawing a panicked glare from Aizen. “I suspect that the seal is only activating now because the Hōgyoku has stopped repressing it. It’s because of Kurosaki. After he defeated you so completely… the Hōgyoku lost faith in you, and no longer recognizes you as its master.”

“That can’t be,” Aizen whispers to himself. “That’s not…that’s not possible!”

He doubles over, and array of crosses sprouting from his back. Ichigo watches in awe as the Arrancar Lord is slowly encased in molten Kidō.

“URAHARA KISUKE!” Aizen roars. “Do you know how much I despise you, you servile wretch? How could someone with your brilliance stand idle! Why?! Why do you continue to obey that thing?!”

“That thing?” Urahara repeats back. “Are you referring to Reiō?”

Urahara sees the look of pure, unbridled scorn in Aizen’s eyes.

“Ah… So you saw it,” Urahara says resignedly. “… Reiō is the foundation upon which all of the world has been built. Destroy him, and everything would devolve into chaos, and then oblivion. That’s just how the world is.”

“That is the rationale of a slave!” Aizen cries with impassioned fury, the seal coalescing around him. “A master of his own destiny speaks not of the world as it is, but of the world as it should be! I will —”

The Kidō sweeps Aizen up into a whirlwind of energy that solidifies into a statue pronged with crosses. Everything settles into silence. Ichigo exhales.

It’s over.



Byakuya opens his eyes to see Rukia kneeling over him. She gazes down worriedly at the wound on his neck.

“… Brother?” she says timidly.

Byakuya doesn't respond. Instead, he reaches up and grasps Rukia's hand, holding her in his weak grip. She smiles.

——

Lieutenant Isane helps Captain Unohana up to her feet, leading her back to the Senkaimon. The 4th Division Captain wistfully regards all of the wounded emerging from the ruins.

“I should stay.”

“You need medical attention, Captain,” Isane replies. “Everyone will be collected and brought back to Soul Society, don’t worry.”

Nanao Ise arrives on the scene and rushes to her captain, Shunsui Kyōraku. He’s being carried on a stretcher by a squadron of healers.

“Captain, are you alright?”

“Oof, not so loud, my Nanao-chan,” Shunsui groans. “Of all the things that hurt, this headache is the worst of them.”

“Kyōraku!” Lisa calls out, standing before them. The Visored stares Nanao down, noting their shared resemblance. “Well… you certainly have a type.”

“Aw, c’mon, Lisa. It ain’t like that,” Shunsui blushes.

“Like what?” Nanao asks with alarm.

All three of them fall silent when an adjacent group of healers lift Ukitake onto a stretcher.

“Jūshirō…” Shunsui says hesitantly, gazing at his friend. “I could live a thousand lifetimes and spend every day of them doing nothing but right, and I would still never rid myself of the shame of what I’ve done to you.”

Ukitake manages a weak smile. “Doing right… for just one day would be a start, Kyōraku —“ the captain jokes before descending into a coughing fit.

Shunsui watches his friend hack away, his eyes filled with concern.

Shinji and Hiyori observe the interaction from a distance, Kensei and Love groggily resting on some rubble behind them.

“I had forgotten…” Hiyori says reflectively, “… how much I missed them all.”

Shinji looks at her with surprise, but doesn’t comment. He turns his attention to Unohana and Isane as they trudge up to him.

“Soul Society owes you all a debt of gratitude,” Unohana states.

“You can take that gratitude and shove it!” Hiyori fires back, proving that old habits die hard.

“… Your scorn is merited,” Unohana replies. “But if you should one day come to forgive the Gotei 13, it will need warriors of your caliber to become whole again.”

“That an invitation?” Shinji asks skeptically.

Unohana turns with Isane and continues to trudge on, calling back “It is my hope, Hirako Shinji.”

——

Orihime walks through the herd of confused townspeople gathered before Urahara’s shop, looking for Tatsuki. She happens upon Chad, who is carrying Uryū in his arms. She halts, tears welling in her eyes. Both of her friends smile back, having finally found her after a very, very long day. She leaps forward and gives them a tight hug, then realizes that Uryū is motionless.

“He needs your help, Inoue,” Chad says. He lays the Quincy down and Orihime hurriedly casts her golden light over him.

“How are you feeling, Ishida-kun?” Orihime asks nervously.

Uryū smiles and reaches up to clasp her hand. “Much better,” he answers, hoisting himself from the ground. “Thank you, Inoue.”

——

Karin has ventured outside of Urahara’s shop while Yuzu stayed behind to continue being bombarded with attention from Jinta. She walks through the crowd of residents and bumps into a pale girl who can’t be much older than her.

“Hey – sorry about that,” Karin says reflexively.

“Oh, it’s okay,” the girl replies. “I should have been paying attention… are you lost, too?”

“Um… Well, no,” Karin answers, not eager to sound like a clueless kid. “Just looking for my dad and brother.”

“Oh – I’m looking for my mom!” the girl says optimistically. “I hope you find them.”

“Sure, you too,” Karin replies.

They part ways. Karin watches the girl disappear into the crowd and then turns to press on. She makes it several yards forward before she notices a woman wailing on the street. Bystanders come and go as a mother kneels on the ground, clutching at her daughter’s lifeless body. The girl had been stuck by rubble.

Karin goes white as a sheet when she recognizes the dead child: she had just spoken to her ghost.

“Karin.”

Isshin stands behind her, having witnessed the entire interaction. She turns to him, distraught.

“… Dad?”

Father and daughter embrace.



Ichigo gazes out at the ruins of his hometown.

“Mr. Kurosaki,” Urahara calls out, striding up to him. “The Shinigami have all returned back to Soul Society. When nighttime falls, they’ll deploy the Seiretei’s craftsmen to come and discretely rebuild all of Karakura Town. Fortunately, they all have first-hand experience with how it looked before.”

He sees the sadness in Ichigo’s eyes.

“What’s with that look?” the shopkeeper asks.

“Lotta people are dead, Urahara.”

“This entire town would have been wiped out if it weren’t for you,” Urahara counters. “You saved thousands of peoples’ lives —“

“I know,” Ichigo admits. “When Aizen put me under… I learned that I can’t save everyone. I accept that, now. But… doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Ichigo?” a soft voice calls out.

The Substitute Shinigami turns and sees Orihime and a bunch of other familiar faces.

“Orihime, Rukia, Chad, Uryū, Renji?” he says, elated. “What the heck, guys? What’re you doing walking around?”

“Pfft, speak for yourself,” Rukia saucily retorts. The Shinigami softens when she sees Orihime melt before Ichigo.

“Ichigo…” Orihime repeats. Chad, Renji, and Uryū all look at her quizzically, sensing that something’s changed between her and Ichigo.

The Substitute Shinigami responds with a warm smile. “Welcome home, Ino—“

Ichigo collapses in a heap, eyes wide with shock as he clutches at his chest. His Nakama rushes to him, concerned. He passes out.



- SOUL SOCIETY: 10 DAYS LATER -

“We hereby sentence Aizen Sōsuke, former captain of the Fifth Division, to interminable confinement within the deepest level of the Muken!” the high chair of Central 46 declares. “You shall remain incarcerated for the rest of your unnatural life, or until a method of capital punishment is devised.”

“I see…” Aizen smirks, his eye peering at the array of committee members. He has been bonded to a chair, his body bandaged in black. A patch encloses over his right eye. “So you all have the temerity to pass judgment on me? Rather comical.”

The court erupts into chaos, with the Central 46 members all angrily ridiculing the traitor.

“You shall not speak again!” the high chair commands. “Hurry up and bind his mouth.”

Aizen grimaces as his bandages rise to encompass his lips. His eye narrows with disdain.

——

Yamamoto, fully recovered but still missing his arm, angrily berates Byakuya, Kenpachi, and Shunsui for losing their captain’s robes during the Arrancar War. The three captains take their licks while an amused Ukitake observes the lecture from his wheelchair.

——

Rangiku plants her shovel into the ground and gazes down at Gin’s freshly filled grave. They are in the Rukongai’s 45th District, where they had grown up together. Izuru Kira stands behind her, his arms crossed.

“I’m sorry that he has to be buried in this place,” he remarks. “The first Gotei captain not to be interred in the Seiretei…”

“He never belonged in Soul Society,” Rangiku replies. “The man I knew… his heart always remained here.”



- KARAKURA TOWN: 20 DAYS LATER -

“Ichigo?”

Ichigo stirs awake. He blinks twice, swearing he can see Chad, Orihime, Rukia, Tatsuki, and Uryū all standing over his bed.

“You’re awake!” Orihime perkily announces.

Ichigo springs up, startled as he realizes that all five friends actually are in his bedroom. He asks how long he was out for.

“A month,” Rukia replies. “You fell ill as a side-effect from losing all of your Shinigami powers. Your spiritual awareness needed this time to adjust, but…”

“But now that’s gonna fade away too, huh?” Ichigo says resignedly.

“Yeah.”

“I figured,” Ichigo sighs. “Guess I’ll have to resign as Substitute Shinigami, huh?”



The group has relocated outside. Ichigo looks around in astonishment, bowled over by how the entire neighborhood has returned back to normal.

“Soul Society spared no expense in rebuilding Karakura Town,” Rukia explains.

“They got the job done in a day.” Chad adds. “It… well, it kinda —“

“— It’s freaked out the entire country,” Tatsuki chimes in.

“Yes,” Uryū concludes, irritably pushing up his glasses. “The most popular conspiracy theory is that aliens are behind it.”

Ichigo smiles at his friends and then turns his attention to Rukia. He can see her slowly fading before him.

“This is goodbye, Ichigo,” she says.

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“Now don’t look so sad. You can’t see me, but I’ll still be able to see you.”

“How’s that supposed make me feel better?” Ichigo grumbles. “Now I’ll get paranoid every time I open my closet.”

Rukia’s lower half has disappeared, now. She gazes up at Ichigo wistfully. He smiles at her reassuringly.

“So long, Rukia,” the retired Substitute Shinigami says.

“Goodbye, Ichigo.”

Ichigo now stands alone, gazing out at the Karakura skyline before him.

“Thank you.”

 
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