Far below, he could hear them.
Traitor, they called him.
Hundreds of voices cursing his name, his soul, his honor as he rose to heaven on a pedestal of light.
Traitor, they called him.
But they did not matter, for they could not see.
They could not see his chosen path, the path of least bloodshed, the path of justice, the path that twisted away into the shadows, the path that shone like white fire.
His feet were set upon that shining road, and so he followed the even footsteps of Aizen Sousuke into the death-dry air of Hueco Mundo.
And as he walked, he smiled.
The war, the great war, the war of souls, thundered on. Ash and ice rained from the sky, sometimes upon the Living World, sometimes upon Soul Society. Ash and ice and blood.
Sometimes he would stumble over a broken body half-buried in rubble and his heart would freeze. He would remember, remember that he feared death above all else. And then the light that showed his way would flicker and dim.
But the corpse would always remind him of her. Her cold body in her cold coffin, a victim of senseless violence and all that was unjust in this world.
It had been she who had inspired him to walk this path. It was in her memory he followed its knife-edge.
And so he could not waver.
At last, it had come to this.
The war had been long. Bloody. Cruel. But it was over, now.
A contingent of Shinigami stood in the throne room of Las Noches, drawn zanpakuto clutched in their blistered hands. From where he stood upon the high dais, he could feel their burning hatred.
But there was no answering hate from the man who sat like a king upon the massive throne. No hate, no fear. Aizen feared nothing. Even as his Hollow armies were ground into dust, even as his Espada fell, one by one, even when Ichimaru had been taken, he had shown no fear.
And even now, facing seven captain-class opponents, there was still no fear in Aizen Souske. There never would be.
“Shatter, Kyouka Suigetsu.”
Their screams tore through the hall, echoing and splintering and shattering against the walls as the Shinigami burned with illusionary flames or beat at the swarms of ravening, formless insects that gnawed at their flesh.
Upon his high throne, Aizen smiled beatifically down at the spectacle, his long pale fingers gently caressing the naked blade of his sword. Finally, he sighed and stood.
“I think it is time we put an end this. Don’t you agree, Kaname?”
“Yes” he agreed. “It is time.”
And then Suzumushi danced in his hand, and the headless body of the Lord of Las Noches slumped back upon his blood-splattered throne.
The war was over.
Chains. Chains about his neck, at his wrists, around his ankles. Chains binding him to an immense stone block in the center of the courtroom. A man who had betrayed two masters was too dangerous to risk getting loose, after all.
Beside him, he could hear Ichimaru’s whimpering, and the occasional clink of the chains that bound only the traitor’s wrists.
A sudden silence fell over the court as the chief magistrate rose again to his feet.
“Tousen Kaname. You are hereby charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason of the highest degree. Your companion, Ichimaru Gin, has already acknowledged his full guilt on all accounts. How do you plead?”
His voice, clear and confident, echoed throughout the whole room.
Each day, he had calculated the cost of the fallen.
Then, he had been but a lowly intelligence officer in the Ninth Division, each day sitting alone at his desk, his reiatsu-enhanced fingers gently coaxing the shapes of words from parchment. For three quarters of a century, endless reports had filtered through his hands in order that he might pass them along—reports on politics, on troop movements, on happenings in the Living World, on unrest in Rukongai.
Reports on the ongoing battles between Shinigami and Hollow.
December twentieth—six Hollows slain, one Shinigami dead. January eighth, near Kyoto—nine Hollows, four Shinigami dead. March sixth—an ambush. Twelve dead. April seventeenth—four more Menos Grande sighted. Scouting party of five missing, presumed dead. May third—two dead.
Empty, bland words that reduced people—their lives, their hopes, their dreams—to nothing but numbers.
And day by day, as he sat at his desk, groping blindly at those cold words and numbers destined for his superiors’ eyes, a slow horror began to grow in his mind.
They did not believe him.
Again and again he showed them his calculations. Grim numbers, compiled over decades, undeniable proof that what he brought before them was truth. Numbers didn’t lie, could not lie.
But still they did not believe him.
Why couldn’t they understand? Why couldn’t they admit that this was the end? Why could they not see that each year, fewer young Shinigami graduated from the Academy than were slain by Hollows? That year by year, with the rapidly increasing human population, more and more Hollows were born?
Why couldn’t they believe that the Shinigami were, soldier by soldier, losing their millennia-long war?
Why did they insist on doing nothing?
Why were they all so weak?
It was that day he decided to be strong, to go forward, to do what his so-called superiors could not in order to achieve the victory they could never reach, to save the world from its inevitable destruction. It was that day he vowed to carry out true justice.
It was that day that Aizen found him.
It had felt a little surreal. A balcony, bathed in sunlight, on Seireitei’s eastern side did not feel like a place where the overthrow of kings and gods should be discussed. Nor did gentle, bespectacled Aizen Sousuke, rising star of the Gotei thirteen, seem like a candidate for plotting revolution and war.
He understood why he had been chosen, though; his sightless eyes were the one threat to Aizen’s powers of illusion, and pariah status had made him into a potential ally.
And so he had listened, smiling at the traitor’s plan. And when Aizen offered the chance to create a world of justice when a new lord sat upon the throne of Heaven, he had pretended to snap at the bait.
They had sealed the deal with a handshake, and as he turned away from his new comrade, he could not prevent his joy from showing on his face.
Aizen Sousuke, in mad his quest for power, had unknowingly shown him the true path.
There were times, many times, when he wondered if he was straying.
When the first great rush of Shinigami had poured out of the rift and onto the bleached sands of Hueco Mundo and met the first wave of Hollow in a clash of fangs and claws and ringing steel, he had pulled back from his window in Las Noches . Leaning against the wall, his fingers twining about the cloth-wrapped hilt of his zanpakuto, he had cast his mind back through the centuries, trying, trying to remember the sound of her voice.
Her voice had been soft and kind as she had described to him the colors of the sunset. Sad, when she told him of her husband, whom she believed had ceased to love her. Wildly exuberant that day of the first snowfall, and again on the day she had spotted the buds appearing on the branches of the sakura trees.
Her hands had been kind, too, callused as they were from wielding her zanpakuto. He used to wonder about those hands, then, whenever they seemed to linger too long on his arm or against his cheek. He had wondered, but had had said nothing.
And then, in single moment, both her beautiful voice and hands were gone.
Her drunken husband, in a moment of rage, had cut her down.
It had been then that he had first seen, with blind eyes, his path stretching before him. The path of justice, the path of least bloodshed. In her memory, he would walk this path of daggers, this way of preserving life.
If she were still alive, would she be proud of him? Would she smile when she saw how many lives he was saving? Would she…?
His sightless eyes closed, his hands wrapped about the sword that had once been hers, he wondered about the sound of her voice, deaf to the screams of the dying Shinigami and Hollow on the bone-white sands far below.
His plan was working. The war was going as he had hoped.
For the first time in centuries, the captains of the Gotei Thirteen had been forced into battle. Rather than allow their weaker subordinates to die alone, one by one, in skirmishes in the Living World, slowly robbing Soul Society of its vitality and strength, they wreaked destruction themselves in Hueco Mundo. Hundreds of Hollow died on their blades, and thousands more perished as they hurled themselves futilely against the pure power of bankai.
Soon, there would not be any Hollows left. As it was, so few of the corrupted souls remained that their attacks on Soul Society and elsewhere would be few and far between for the next millennium.
So many Shinigami would not have to die on saw-edged fangs and claws. So many lives—Shinigami, Human, Whole—would be saved. The world would be saved. The future he had foreseen, hidden in the cold numbers of his intelligence reports, would be averted, and would be replaced with a better one.
A future that was an end to bloodshed.
Suzumushi buzzed anxiously at his hip, and he placed one hand on his zanpakuto’s hilt in comfort.
“Soon,” he had told her quietly. “Soon, this will be over.”
Yet, one obstacle to his bright future remained.
Aizen Sousuke was too dangerous to leave alive. Over a century of observation had proved this without doubt. The man was evil, obsessed with power, and fiercely intelligent. Should he escape the war, he would undoubtedly rebuild his armies and mount another assault on the world. Many more would die.
Therefore, Aizen himself must die.
This thought running through his mind, he had taken his position behind the throne of the man he had sworn his allegiance to so many years before. It had been but a hollow oath for a Hollow king.
His true loyalty lay to justice.
On the far side of the room, the heavy doors blew open. A half-dozen captains, lead by that orange-haired ryoka boy, burst into the throne room.
His hands had tightened on his sword hilt. This was the end. The end of everything.
Would she have been proud of him?
He swung her soul-blade down.
His chains bit cruelly into his flesh as he finished his tale, his throat hoarse from speaking more words in a single hour than he had uttered during entire course of the war.
The magistrates were silent.
Their eyes were fixed on him; he could feel each piercing stare as though it was a red-hot needle. Still, he could not help a thin smile from creeping across his features. It was so simple really. Everything he had done, he had done for the greater good, done to achieve a bright, bloodless future. He had committed no crime. He was not like his former superiors who, unwilling to act, would have let the world fall to pieces around them. He was no traitor.
It would not be long until they unlocked these chains that fettered him. It would not be long until he was hailed in the streets as a hero. It would not be long until he would stand at her grave again, and tell her that, though he had been unable to save her, he had saved everyone else in the world.
It would not be long.
And still, the magistrates were silent.
At noon on the winter solstice, Ichimaru Gin was executed atop Soukyoku Hill. His death, witnessed by the few broken and weary soldiers that had survived the war, was bright and swift, a harsh warning for those who might someday try to follow in his footsteps, or in those of his master.
Nine minutes later, Tousen Kaname met the same fate.