Hello everyone, and welcome back to the invasion of Las Noches. Last time we kicked things off and things seemed to be going very well for the Gotie. However, now is when the real battles begin. I wont delay any further, let's get on with the show!

Bleach is owned by Tite Kubo and Shounen jump. Fairy tail is owned by Hiro Mashima and weekly shounen magazine. I own NOTHING. This is all just for fun.

"Status report."

The old man's voice was firm and resolute. Soifon wished she shared his confidence. This operation was risky- although so far, it had not gone awry. Perhaps he was on to something. She thumbed the controls of the portable reiatsu-reading device her team had set up to monitor the progress of the battle groups, tapping it impatiently.

"Battle group Scarlet: we've lost contact with Zaraki Kenpachi, captain-commander. He appears to have veered off course. We've detected signs of conflict in his general direction, but we do not know more than where he was headed."

"As might be expected," Yamamoto grumbled. "At least he seems to have found enemies to kill. The others?"

"Captain Komamura reports hostile contact- a high-tier espada."

"Keep an eye on them," Yamamoto ordered. "Be ready to provide backup if necessary."

Soifon nodded. "Battle group Hitsugaya: no serious resistance yet encountered."

"If they have nothing to report within five minutes, I want them pulled back."

"Understood, sir," said Soifon. As tense as the situation was, they were rapidly getting a hold of Aizen's castle. Section after section had yielded to their advance, and as new data poured in, they were getting a clearer and clearer picture of the place they were invading. If this kept up, if there was no devastating loss, then maybe…

"Battle group Kuchiki: minor resistance encountered, but nothing major reported by Captains Strauss or Abarai. However, Vice-captain Ryuin of Sixth Division reports that Captain Kuchiki has engaged in combat with the espada Ulquiorra Cifer."

"Await reports," said Yamamoto. "Reinforcements will stand by-"

"Did you say Ulquiorra?"

The voice that had so insolently interrupted them, of course, belonged to the churlish auxiliary, Kurosaki Ichigo. His little group had been allowed to enter Hueco Mundo, and the girl, Inoue, was already making herself useful, patching up the wounded that trailed in from the skirmishes ahead. Soifon, whose opinion of them had softened a little after befriending Erza, was nevertheless in no mood to tolerate insubordinate behaviour from entitled little brats. This was a serious military operation, not some Sunday picnic.

"Hold your tongue, boy," she snarled. "You will speak when spoken to!"

"You think I'm playing around?" Kurosaki exclaimed, and Soifon's patience was starting to run thin.

"I saw him fight Ulquiorra before. It wasn't even close. If you wait with the reinforcements, he's dead meat. Come on, send me in! I'll do it; I'm faster than almost any of you!"

"Captain Kuchiki can handle himself, and you are not part of command," Soifon said sharply. "One more word out of you, and-"

A gesture from Yamamoto silenced her.

"I remember that report," said the old man. "I also remember your presence affecting the good captain quite negatively. Your presence might make things worse."

"I can do it, sir," said Kurosaki stubbornly.

"Why should I believe that? You are young and prideful. Captain Kuchiki is prouder still."

"We learned to work together, commander," Kurosaki insisted. "I… respect him. I won't get in his way."

The captain-commander gave him a scrutinizing stare. Soifon narrowed her eyes. She had been a little baffled that the old commander had humoured him at first, but it occurred to her that he was seeing something she had not. Kurosaki had addressed the captain-commander civilly. He had argued, rather than rush headlong into action. Either one of these actions showed more maturity than she had expected of him.

"Sir," Kurosaki entreated, "he's in danger. I know I can help. I'm your ally, ain't I? I can act the part if I have to."

The wizened captain-commander gave him another long, quiet stare.


Komamura's cry was passionate, in between enraged and pained. He called out to his former friend as soon as he was within earshot, but there was no reply. Erza heard Komamura growl, a guttural, feral sound deep down from within his chest. It would have frightened her a little, if not for the foe approaching her right next to Tousen.

Halibel. Erza had often sparred with the espada, back when she was still a puppet to Aizen. She had not won once. In fact, it hadn't even been close. And now… she had become an arrancar, and her already monstrous power had been distilled into something terrifying.

"Want to switch opponents?" Erza muttered under her breath. "I'd understand if fighting him would be too painful."

"On the contrary, Captain Scarlet," Komamura said, his voice trembling, "I would not have it any other way. Tousen is mine to deal with. I would not have you lay a hand on him, even if I was at death's door."

"I understand," said Erza with a sigh. Halibel probably felt the same way. Her face was obscured as always, even now in her tall, buxom human form, but Erza could feel the hatred she emanated.

"I will leave you space of your own," said Komamura, walking away from Erza. "I would not infringe on your fight any more than you would infringe on mine."

The room was spacious, thankfully, the ceiling sitting some forty feet above them, but the terrain was the last thing on Erza's mind. Resolutely, she drew her blade and assumed a stance.

"Hello, Tier," she said, as the espada came closer. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Erza Scarlet."

Her voice was cold, so very cold. Tier Halibel had never been what anyone would call warm or opening, but there had been a subtle sense of empathy about her. The way she cared for her servants, always looking out for their needs; the way she had befriended Neliel, despite their personalities being almost polar opposites; the way she had indulged Erza, time and time again, despite always sounding as if Erza was something of a nuisance to her… It was gone now.

As she came closer, Erza took a look at her old friend, her new enemy. She had been humanoid even before the transformation, and out of all the hollows Erza had come to know back then, Halibel's transformation was among the least drastic. She had dark skin, generously exposed in an outfit that seemed to be designed with the idea of showing the body off rather than concealing it. Great curves accentuated an athletic, muscular body. A collar hid her face such that her cold eyes the only thing visible between her coat and her blond hairline. A short blade with a very wide guard hung across her back, rather a lot smaller than the enormous blade that had once been fused to her arm.

"I guess he didn't do much for your mask," Erza said. "How have you been, Tier?"

"I have nothing to say to you, traitor," said Halibel icily.

"Oh, on the contrary," said Erza, carefully thumbing the rune at the side of her plate mail, causing it to instantly unbind from her body, the heavy metal dropping to the floor with a clang, "I think you have rather a lot to say to me. Enough to fill several pages, I would bet. You've always been the quiet type, but not for the lack of having something meaningful to say. If you're going to kill me, wouldn't you rather I knew exactly how you felt?"

"Are you stalling?" said Halibel, furrowing her brows. "Have you grown cowardly as well as deceptive, Scarlet?"

"You know," said Erza, gritting her teeth, "whatever our differences, I demand more respect than that. I went another way than you because I absolutely believed it was necessary. Everything I've done is out of sincere conviction. You may think little of me, Tier, but I do not accept being called a coward or a liar."

Slowly, Halibel reached for the blade at her back, pulling it out by one part of its wide guard. Nimbly, she spun it around mid-air, grasping the weapon by the hilt.

"I will give you that much," she said, grasping the weapon tightly. "You've never been a coward. But, you have lied to me, Scarlet, and even if you are not cowardly, you are a traitor to what I believe in, at best delusional or critically ignorant of what we will need for the future."

"You know, I was told something real similar not long ago," said Erza, staring Halibel in the eye, refusing to back down, "and it wasn't wrong. Not entirely. I get that if you've lived a life of suffering, pain, and uncertainty, any option that takes you out of it is going to sound great. You'll do anything for it. I get that. But the thing is, what I said then is still true. I still know Aizen Sousuke better than any one of you. I've seen his true face. I've seen what he is in the dark, and Tier, he will use you and throw you aside the moment you stop being useful to him. I want you to live. He doesn't care."

"Let me guess. 'Come with me, and I'll give you a free pass?' The Gotei will offer us nothing. Aizen… Aizen can be a cruel man, but if we win…" She paused, shaking her head. "No. This is foolish. You have rejected us, Erza, and you continue to spit on us. There are no words left to change any of this."

She pointed her blade at Erza, and the captain noticed it was hollowed out, a mere metal cut-out of a real weapon.

"Call your bankai," Halibel commanded. "You will stand no chance without it."

"You can't help but offer me a sporting chance, huh?" said Erza, letting her reiatsu flare. Truth be told, she knew Halibel was right. Not only was the tercera an absolute powerhouse, but she was good at what she did. Her skill with a blade may exceeded even Erza's, the weapon she had wielded literally a part of her body. This would be a fight for her life, the kind that made Zaraki Kenpachi seem like small potatoes.

"Bankai," Erza cried, as her reiatsu flared and peaked, the blade coming aglow with the command, "Tetsuken Yoseitamashii!"

She was encased in gleaming armour, and Erza felt a rush of power, the howling, prideful spirit of her blade egging her on, urging her to rise up and crush her foe. Halibel simply looked on, and gave her a small nod.

"You've grown some," she said. She raised her blade.

"It is not enough."

In an instant she was upon her, and it was purely by reflex that Erza blocked the strike. Halibel was fast, as fast as she was powerful. Erza reeled from the blow, just barely able to remain standing. The tercera had hit like a truck, harder than Kenpachi and with precision to boot. Erza grit her teeth, defiantly staring Halibel in the eye.

"God… damn…" she managed, nearly overpowered just from the tercera pushing against their locked blades.

"If that is all you have, then you truly are dead," said Halibel, shaking her head. "You may have had some chance at catching up to me if I had remained a hollow, but I have ascended. Only a handful of shinigami could even touch me, and you are not one of them."

"You know," Erza grunted, "there's this saying among humans. And that is…"

She angled her hilt very slightly upwards while angling the blade down, and as Halibel's blade began to slide down the length of her blade, Erza surged forward, slamming the hilt of her blade into the tercera's forehead. Surprised more than harmed, Halibel staggered back, immediately raising her blade in a defensive position.

"…'pride goes before the fall!'" Erza cried, charging. Summoning every inch of her courage, her skill, and her heart, she raised her blade to strike. She thought of Momo. She thought of Orihime. She thought of her family and she thought of home, and firmly shoved away the part of her that felt very sure she was about to die.

She couldn't afford to lose here. Not even to the likes of Tier Halibel.

Komamura kept his blade low, not yet ready to engage his old friend directly. As a courtesy they had both walked well away from their respective partner's space, never taking their eyes off each other- figuratively speaking, in Tousen's case. They had stopped at last, standing face-to-face some five yards apart.

"Tousen," said Komamura, his voice a low, regretful rumble.

"Say the words," said Tousen neutrally. "Say what you doubtless need to say. The sooner you have done so, the sooner we can get on with this."

He truly didn't care. The realization hit Komamura hard, like a wave of ice-cold water. No matter what he had to say, it would never be considered. But, he still had to, because no matter the odds, one had to try.

"It is not too late to do right by the people you've wronged," Komamura started. "Tousen, you have betrayed us- but I know there is honour left in you."

"It is precisely because I believe in honour, in justice, that I have taken this path."

"Is it? Tousen, I was your best friend. I must have missed something to never have seen this anguish in you that turned you this twisted, but I know you. This is about more than justice. No cause such as Aizen's comes about through just means."

"History will be the judge of that."

"It's about vengeance, is it not?" Komamura insisted. "Vengeance for the one you lost along the way. It was that event that embittered you in the first place, wasn't it? Where Aizen found a seed to plant to poison your mind. So, here you stand, aligned with a murderer, poised to slaughter untold thousands for some greater good- all for retribution, not justice. Tousen, can you not see the madness of it?!"

Tousen's grip around his blade tightened. "Are you finished?"

"I do not want to kill you, Tousen," said Komamura, "so I beg you one last time: Wake up. Justice is not what you've chosen."

"I will not defend myself further. You could never understand," said Tousen dismissively. "You will never know pain like our new companions have, and you will never understand the need for a new order with lasting peace."

"Then you truly are lost," Komamura rumbled.

He raised his blade and thundered forward. Tousen met his charge in stride, deflecting the force of his blow to the side and counter-attacking with a piercing thrust. Komamura dodged the attack, skipping back with nimbleness that belied his bulky frame. He blocked the next strike, knowing exactly where it would come, and pushed Tousen back, going on the offense with a series of heavy, wide-arcing swings. Tousen dodged, evaded, and occasionally parried, but went untouched.

It was a familiar dance. Ever since their youth, the two of them had sparred together. They had been close friends all these years, and they knew each other's fighting styles by heart. They had bested each other more times than any of them could count, and it had never been a one-sided fight. Their record, as far as Komamura could recall, was dead even.

Except, this time it was for real.

That was another reason, more practically, that Komamura had wished to fight Tousen. Tousen's bankai would eviscerate almost any captain-level fighter from the shock of having to deal with something that robbed them of the use of their senses, but Komamura knew it well, and he knew its weakness. Tousen, therefore, would be hesitant to use it before he had first gained an advantage. He would look for an opening to wound, if not kill Komamura, and to finish the job with Enma Korougi.

It was Komamura's job to prevent that from happening, to press Tousen into using it prematurely. He had a battle plan- now he had to execute it.

A single, quick shunpo took Tousen behind Komamura, but the captain swung around, meeting the strike directly, redirecting Tousen's blade to the floor.

"Tenken!" he roared. A gigantic fist manifested at Komamura's left, and at his mental command it slammed into Tousen. The sheer force of the blow sent the traitor captain flying, slamming into the far side of the wall, which formed cracks where he impacted. Tousen coughed, the air knocked out of his lungs, but recovered quickly, just in time to meet Komamura's furious charge. He rolled to the side, under a wide swing that nearly sheared him in two, and lashed out with his blade as he sprung to his feet. As Tousen regained his bearing, he smelled blood from where it trickled down his old friend's side. First blood was his.

Aizen watched amusedly from the control room Szayel had set up. Every battle was unfolding before him, and it was a pleasing sight. The shinigami had spread themselves thin. Aizen had allowed them to advance deep into his fortress before he had ordered any counter-attacks. Right now, the majority of the Gotei's forces were either bogged down in some assault that would gain them nothing of value, or held in reserve- far away from the ones who needed help the most.

"Neliel, status?" he said, speaking into the kido-enhanced communication device he had set up for his warriors.

"Engaged," said Neliel, her voice strained, undoubtedly in the middle of combat. Aizen smiled. Zaraki was a base brute who could only be beaten by raw force, and Neliel had been the ideal choice. Starrk would have ended it quickly, certainly, but he was not about to play that card for somebody as insignificant as Zaraki.

"Gauge his strengths, but do not risk yourself," Aizen ordered. "Release as necessary. Kill him."


"Ulquiorra, report?" said Aizen, switching frequencies.

"Nothing to report yet, lord. I estimate I will have slain my opponent soon."

Kuchiki Byakuya. The man was so intensely prideful that he had, predictably, been first in the fray, bravely leading the vanguard. Sending in Ulquiorra, whom Aizen already knew was superior by far, had been an easy choice.

"Halibel, report?"


Aizen did not respond further. Halibel was everything Erza was and more: intensely skilled, equally determined, and incredibly powerful. They were similar in all respects, except Halibel was just stronger. And, if any of these fights somehow went awry… well, he had reinforcements of his own, too.

The day was his.

Byakuya had wasted no time in unleashing the full might of his sword. After a few tentative strikes, it had become obvious that the cuarto was every bit as sharp as he had been in the world of the living, every bit as powerful, every bit as lethally quick. As the storm of pink blades was unleashed shinigami and hollow both had scattered. An unspoken truce of sorts had formed, both sides staring in awe as their leaders clashed in a battle of titans, the likes of which none of them had ever seen.

Byakuya was well aware of the eyes watching him, well aware that failure might very well consign all the men and women under his command to an early grave, but the thought did not distract him. His mind was a thing of sharpened steel, of absolute focus. He would not let his emotions get the better of him this time.

Even so, he struggled. It had soon become apparent that Ulquiorra was, if anything, even deadlier than Byakuya remembered, as if he had held himself back a little in their encounter back in Karakura. He had attempted to go on the offense, but after it had nearly cost him his life, Ulquiorra's blade coming just short of his neck, he had been forced back on the defensive. Right now, he was weaving great patterns of blades through the air, crashing against the espada like waves breaking against rocks. The bursts were precise, controlled, and quick, guided by his hands, and more than a few hollows that had strayed too close had been shredded to bloody paste. Byakuya barely noticing their passing.

He side-stepped a thrust that nearly skewered him and took a quick step back. The espada was relentless in his offense, but despite appearances, Byakuya was not being helplessly pushed back into a corner. As the espada pulled back for another thrust, Byakuya weaved his arms around rapidly, a quick burst of pink surging up from around Ulquiorra's feet. The stream shot up, shredding through the arrancar's white uniform. Byakuya's fingers twitched rapidly in an intricate pattern, and the blades spun around, grinding back and forth, spinning at high speed as a million of them raked against Ulquiorra's skin. The rest of Senbonzakura was floating around, docile, the entirety of Byakuya's focus going into this one attack.

Ulquiorra's hierro was pierced, dark red blood spraying across the floor as a gash was torn into his chest. This was a new technique for Byakuya, far from perfect, but it seemed to have done the trick. Focus was the key- and like sandpaper on wood, he had worn down the hard exterior.

Ulquiorra's eyes widened very slightly, probably more out of surprise than pain, and with one powerful swing, he forced the blades to scatter, the sheer force of his strike disrupting their flow through the air. He took a step back, and a cheer erupted from the lines of Byakuya's sixth division soldiers.

"That was new," said Ulquiorra, giving his opponent an inscrutable stare.

"I have adapted, arrancar," said Byakuya, beginning to whip the storm of pink blades around him into a frenzy. "Mighty though you may be, you are not invincible."

"Indeed," replied the espada. The wound had already stopped bleeding, clotting over, and although it looked grisly, it seemed too superficial a cut to give him pause.

The relentless assault broken, Byakuya took the offensive, unleashing a veritable storm of blades upon the espada. Ulquiorra evaded the waves of pink with relative ease, though, too lithe and quick to be captured by them. Byakuya grit his teeth. This monstrosity of an arrancar hadn't even released his blade- and although this was progress, Byakuya had barely even phased him.

Fighting the fight of his life, he sustained his assault. The dome of blades was an option, but the monster had an advantage in hand-to-hand combat, much as it pained Byakuya to admit it. He was too old, too experienced, too tough, and too powerful to best in direct combat. Ranged combat was Byakuya's best bet right now, to be backed up by whatever kido he could throw at it-

Suddenly, Ulquiorra lunged into the air, and although Byakuya launched a stream of blades to seize the opportunity to ensnare him, he suspected something was afoul. The espada was much too clever to leave himself vulnerable to attack, unless…

In an instant, the billions of blades were thrown aside. A cero had formed at one of the espada's fingertips in the blink of an eye, detonating near Byakuya's feet with devastating force. Byakuya nearly lost his footing, going into a roll to regain his bearings. Pain registered as he rolled over some sharp piece of rubble, but the hurt was secondary, inconsequential. Even as he got to his feet properly, he knew what the espada had done.

It would take him but a second to recall the blades again; they had been scattered but not broken- just as the monster had intended. A second, more than enough time to close the distance.

In the fraction of time it took Byakuya to deduce this, the espada was already at his throat, sword raised for a stab. Reacting with the instinctual precision of a peerless elite, Byakuya bent back and to the side, very narrowly avoiding a cut that would have run right through his spine. His shoulder burned as the blade cut through it. Byakuya was off balance, though, and the next cut would hit.

His focus unbroken, Byakuya managed to raise an arm, twisting it aside just as the arrancar's blade ran through it. His arm was skewered, and a fresh wave of pain poured into him, only barely kept in check by adrenaline and furious determination. However, he just barely avoided being run through the heart, the blade missing its mark again. Knowing the espada needed only to pull back and strike again, Byakuya lashed out, grabbing Ulquiorra by the collar. A second of time, and he would surround the monster in blades…

Ulquiorra raised his hand, and Byakuya saw the light of a cero forming. The world seemed to slow to a crawl as he saw his own death. The blades were coming, nearly there; if he had just one moment more…

The cero formed. Byakuya blinked, knowing this was it. It would discharge, and if it didn't kill him outright, he would be left too wounded to defend himself. He would die here, then, with nothing more to his name than defiance, his honour still spoiled.

Then a bright red light flashed, and another fresh jolt of pain reminded Byakuya that he was alive. Ulquiorra was reeling back, his blade pulled free from Byakuya's arm. His skin was singed, if not broken, and he stared up just behind Byakuya.

"Sorry I'm late," said a voice, familiar even with the eerie reverberation of a hollow's tone, "but I got the old man's okay on this one."

Incredulous, Byakuya turned to see Kurosaki Ichigo, a hollow's mask resting atop his head, the sleek form of his bankai held firm in both hands. There was a yellowish glow in his eyes, but even with that abominable phenomenon, Byakuya felt oddly… relieved.

He had nearly died. Now, he was alive. Thanks to…. Kurosaki Ichigo.

I owe a life debt to that kind of person?! he thought, a little bit of disgust seeping through the concoction of adrenaline, excitement, fear, and anger.

"Please, Captain Kuchiki," said the boy, "accept my help in this. You want the Gotei to succeed in this, don't you? I don't want to be the one to tell Rukia her brother died in action."

Byakuya gave him a look, a series of emotions running through him. It wounded his pride to have been saved by a lout like this, and it wounded his pride to accept help. It wounded his pride to fail to defeat this enemy by himself. He was a captain. This brash, inexperienced brat was just a fool with more power than he had earned.

But, all the same, he had a duty. A duty to the Gotei, to win, to turn the tides of this war.

He needed to live. He needed to regain his honour before he died.

"You said… you are here on the captain-commander's orders?"

"Yes, sir," said Ichigo, a little cockiness creeping into his voice. "Ya think the old man would have let me go on my own?"

Slowly, Byakuya nodded.

"You lead, then," said Ichigo, "and I'll follow, if that's what it takes."

"Very well," said Byakuya, turning his eyes to the hated espada. "I… will accept you as my temporary subordinate."

Kurosaki rolled his eyes, then chuckled. "Whatever you say, Mr. Captain, sir. Let's kick his ass, yeah?"

That, Byakuya decided, was a novel idea, no matter how crudely put.

Neliel grit her teeth, her hate-driven fury given pause by the sheer, overwhelming force of her opponent. She was strong, she was fast, but there was nothing that could have prepared her for… this.

He fought with a savagery unlike any shinigami she had seen, reckless and wild. She had given him a dozen wounds already, grievous and deep, and all they had done was to inspire him further. He fought more like a hollow than like a shinigami, except hollows were usually extremely focused on their own survival. Where a sensible hollow would avoid risk, he revelled in them. He'd rather take a wound and counter-attack, it seemed, than to parry or evade.

It had started well enough. Her power and finesse had won out. She had cut him from shoulder to hip, driving him to his knees momentarily. For a moment, she had dared to hope that she had won, or at least started on the beginning of the end for him.

Then, with a mad grin, he had reached for his eye patch, and the explosive force of his oppressive, overwhelming reiatsu had made her stagger back. It was like nothing she had seen, outside of maybe the former king Barragan, or Starrk. Force so overwhelming that it seemed unbelievable. She had done her homework, learned all she could about the captains of the Gotei, but she had always thought that Zaraki Kenpachi's description had been, if not exaggerated, then at least more of a poetic descriptor. A particular emphasis on their champion, a particularly vicious and skilled warrior.

Here and now, she realized it had been very literal, and she cursed herself for her short-sightedness.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" the beastly captain hollered, swinging his blade about in wide, reckless arcs, each strike feeling like a sledgehammer's when Neliel parried it. "Ya gotta have more than that, woman! Show me all ya got. It's the least you can do now that I went all out!"

Neliel reminded herself of the broken, nearly dead bodies of her fracciones, bloodied and weak on the floor, and mustered the will to meet his furious advance. They locked blades, and Neliel managed to redirect a furious sideways swing, leaving him wide open. She stabbed forward, drawing blood, but she knew it wouldn't be nearly enough. Most enemies would have been crippled or at least slowed down by a foot of steel in their chest, but Zaraki Kenpachi seemed possessed of a positively unnatural constitution.

She followed up the attack with a ferocious punch to a fresh gut wound, stepping inside his guard to stop him from getting a good angle with his much longer sword. The action earned her a grunt of pain. Ever vicious, he responded by slamming his head down onto hers, but Neliel was ready, meeting the headbutt with the bone of her mask. It was Kenpachi's turn to stagger now, shaking his head.

"You really aren't the brightest, are you?" Neliel said coldly, taking a few steps back, guard raised.

"Fightin' ain't about brains, it's about fun," said the captain, seeming to shake himself out of his daze.

"Fun. I read your file, and I thought it was unbelievable any shinigami could view violence that way."

"Believe it, woman."

"You said you wanted me to go all out?" said Neliel darkly, her reiatsu rising as she held out her blade. This had gone on long enough. She had a duty to Lord Aizen, and a duty to the friends he'd nearly killed. She would destroy him.

"You about to finally get serious?" Zaraki said, cocking his head. "I was starting to think I'd have to really hurt you before you wised up."

Neliel held her blade up horizontally, her power beginning to peak.

"Declare, Gamuza," she said calmly, staring the monster in the eye. There was an explosive discharge of spiritual power, and Neliel felt herself change. She had not used this form outside of training since she had been turned, but this was as good a time to bring it out as she could imagine.

As the light of her transformation faded, there she stood on four legs with cloven feet, a furred centaur body, shaped more like a goat's than a horse's. The horns on her head had grown, curving downwards around her head, and her arms were laced with bony, armoured protrusions. In her right arm was a lance, some twelve feet in length, pristine white bone with either end as deadly sharp as the other. She reared on her hind legs, staring down on the contemptible man beneath her.

"Now we're talkin'," said Kenpachi approvingly. "Now show me what it can do."

Neliel moved away in a flash without responding, landing some seventy yards away.

"Hey!" cried Zaraki. "You ain't gonna run away from me, are ya?"

"Anything but," Neliel whispered under her breath, moving forward in a trot. It soon became a gallop, heading into the furious speed of sonido.

She could see Zaraki Kenpachi laughing, readying his blade. Let him. He wouldn't make it. She saw him as if in slow motion, his blade ready to come down on her the moment she closed in, but he underestimated her speed- couldn't read it, more likely. Neliel aimed her lance, and braced herself for the impact.

With bone-shattering, flesh-tearing force her lance struck, spearing the savage captain in the chest. The shock of it made him lose control of his swing, his arm thrown to the side as she struck just under his heart, running him through. Zaraki Kenpachi was lifted into the air, held aloft by Neliel's lance, and she felt a deep, shameful sense of satisfaction as his blood dripped down on her face. No matter how savage, or how powerful, this form was the perfect counter to any fool who relied only on strength.

Mayuri sneered, driven back, deflecting another blow. In theory, this expedition was a golden opportunity to gather data like never before, to bring back samples that could keep his department busy for years, even decades. Practice, as was often the case, was very different from the theoretical model.

Truth be told, he had held little regard for the captain-commander's orders. He had gone far ahead in his route, hoping to seize an arrancar or two and bring them back for experimentation, but before he could get his hands on anything more consequential than an ordinary hollow or two, he had been confronted with the serious-looking espada in front of him, a stern, blue-haired figure with a tattooed face, who had introduced himself as Jellal Fernandes. He had wasted no time in engaging, and Mayuri had found himself hard pressed. His shikai, which was ordinarily all he needed to disable a specimen, had found no luck against the steely skin of the espada, in the few instances he had even had a chance to strike. The specimen-to-be was fast, furious, and skilled with a blade. Mayuri, although no stranger to the martial, spent most of his time in a laboratory, and it was becoming clear that this was not something he could solve with violence. Casting a quick shou, he put some distance between him and the espada.

"You are a stubborn little creature, aren't you?" said Mayuri, increasingly irritated. "If you do not cease this ridiculous resistance, you will be very sorry when I examine you in my facilities."

"Kurotsuchi Mayuri," said Jellal, scowling, "the Gotei's greatest monster. To think that the shinigami view us as evil, yet do not bat an eye at the likes of you walking amongst them. You are a symbol of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Gotei. It will be my pleasure to take your head, scum."

"Yes, yes, whatever," said Mayuri dismissively, contemplating his next move. Poison? He could think of a dozen different neurotoxins that would effectively slow down or even paralyze the hollow if he could administer them. He had a good idea of how much he would need to use, based on the varying levels of strength of the specimens they already had, compared to the power of the specimen before him. But administering it… where his blade failed to penetrate, surely so would a needle. In short, he would need to subdue the espada first- non-fatally, at that.

"I'll tell you what: If you surrender right now, I will let you keep the use of your limbs, and I will even let you stand up and walk for an hour each day. It is as good a deal as I have ever offered anyone."

Jellal's face locked into a deep scowl. "Go to hell."

Mayuri shrugged. "Remember that I did give you a chance," he said, tut-tutting. "And they say I'm merciless."

There was nothing for it. He would release his blade fully, and in the relatively narrow confines of this corridor, however spacious, there would be no escape from the poison gas. It would paralyze the espada, and from there on it would be child's play.

"Bankai," Mayuri cried, raising his blade, "Konjiki Ashisogi Jizou!"

The halls echoed with the haunting, warped cry of a toddler, as the freakish entity manifested, like a thing of nightmare; a child's face, a caterpillar's body, heinous to look at. Jellal, though, had lived through hell for most of his existence, and had seen far worse in his time. Resolute, he stepped forward.

"Not impressed, eh?" said Mayuri coyly.

"I am sure it must be terrifying to your own kind," said Jellal, "but what I see is a creature too large to move through this space effectively."

His reiatsu was growing, and he discreetly channelled force into his left hand, building up a cero in his palm. The restrictions had been lifted, as part of emergency wartime conditions. He could let loose with anything he wanted.

"You underestimate it. No less than I would expect from your brutish ilk," said Mayuri. "Konjiki Ashisogi Jizou, attack!"

The creature inhaled, and spewed out a vast quantity of purplish, noxious gas. Jellal, though, had not underestimated it at all. Kurotsuchi Mayuri had been studied as carefully as any other captain, and Jellal remembered the file's summary: Cruel. Ruthless. Reliant on poisons, chemical concoctions, and similar devious tricks rather than brute force or martial skill. As the gas approached, Jellal leaped up against a pillar, propelling himself into the air. His next leap took him to a wall. He avoided the floor like the plague, moving toward the heinous creature. The first volley of gas had stopped, sent far down the corridor in the opposite direction. Jellal sailed past the creature, landing beside one of its stumpy legs.

In the meantime, the cero kept growing in his hand like a red, deadly flower, slowly taking on a lighter colour.

"I'm over here, you fool!" he taunted, cutting into the side of the bankai with his blade for good measure.

"You think you can escape?" Mayuri sneered. "I can fill this entire chamber with gas. I am immune to it. You are not. Turn around and face him, you useless beast!"

He snarled the last part at the bankai, which clumsily turned about, readjusting to face Jellal. Just like the espada had anticipated, the monstrous bankai was slow, adapting poorly to the conditions of the palace. More than enough time to build up…

As it turned about, Jellal stepped forward, revealing his hand, literally. A supercharged cero had built up, almost to completion, the bright blue almost white from the raw, intense heat it emanated.

"Gas him!" cried the captain, realizing, too late, that something was going wrong. The creature reared, opening its mouth to inhale, and in a second it would fill the chamber with gas. In a second, it would be over.

"It's over," said Jellal sharply, raising his hand up, pointing it forward. "Gran Rey Cero!"

There was a blinding ray of bright white light as the immense power of the cero discharged. Even with his eyelids closed, Jellal's eyes were stung by the light. He felt the raw force of it, pumping from his core, into his arm, through the conduit in his palm. This was power in its rawest form. It was a method most higher-tier espada seemed to disdain- but none of them were above using it. It had its place.

The cero hit home, striking the mouth, the head of the bestial apparition. It took only a few seconds to fully discharge, but it felt as if it took forever, the sheer raw force burning at Jellal as it played out. Finally it was done, and Jellal saw the ruin it had brought.

Konjiki Ashisogi Jizou was no more, its head and most of the body adjacent to it blown away. What was left of its body was dissolving into nothingness, like burnt paper disintegrating in a wildfire. The gas it had spewed was being funnelled out through a gaping, newly made hole in the wall- several new holes, in fact; the upward angle of Jellal's aim had ripped open not only the wall in to his right, but several floors up as well. In the distance, he could see the open, eternal night sky of Hueco Mundo through the conical arc of devastation his cero had wrought. Its use was normally barred in the palace. For good reason, Jellal decided as he saw just how much he had brought to ruin in an instant.

The captain stared, wide-eyed, clutching the forcibly sealed shape of his blade, reverted to its most base form.

"Normally I wouldn't have tried it," said Jellal coldly, taking a step forward, his sword sheathed. "Normally, a captain-level opponent would have been too fast, and this kind of cero too costly for this to be a viable tactic. Especially for me. I'm not nearly as strong as Tier or Neliel. But, with a creature this unwieldy? I could hardly pass up the opportunity."

"Do not come closer!" Mayuri said, anxiety creeping into his voice.

"What's wrong? Where is that confidence you had a second ago? I thought you were going to capture me and vivisect me in one of your labs."

"I have allies close by!" Mayuri croaked, raising his blade. "I warn you, engage at your own peril! I will-"

Before he could finish the sentence, Jellal had lunged. He leaped through the air, spinning himself around like a whirlwind. Mayuri struck out with his sword but Jellal parried with his arm. However, the captain did not see the vicious kick slamming into his left arm until it connected. Jellal felt the satisfying sensation of bone crunching. He landed on his feet and pressed on with his attack. The captain, still in shock from the way his bankai had been overwhelmed, was only barely holding his own. Jellal was not about to let him have the initiative back. He slammed a fist into the captain's solar plexus, and although the man seemed impervious to pain, he still doubled over. Quickly, Jellal grabbed the wrist of the captain's sword arm with one hand, the other grabbing him by the throat. Furiously, his grip tightening around Mayuri's neck, he lifted him off the ground.

"I would normally prefer to kill you quickly," he hissed through his teeth. "I am not normally a cruel man. But you, Kurotsuchi Mayuri, I will gladly watch the light die in your eyes."

He tightened his grip. The captain was not breathing, feebly struggling in Jellal's grip. His broken arm twitched; no doubt he would have used it to reach for some devious drug if he could move it. Jellal could feel the bone in the captain's neck under his ever tightening grip, and knew it would be over in a matter of minutes. At this rate, he would break the captain's neck before the man ran out of air.

"Let him go!"

The cry came from the end of the corridor, and without letting his grip slacken, Jellal turned to see the new arrival. There stood a short young man with bright white hair, a much too long sword in his hands.

"Captain Hitsugaya Toushirou," said Jellal calmly, as if this was an everyday conversation. "I've been led to believe you are at least somewhat virtuous, misguided though you may be. Are you sure you wouldn't rather let me finish this before you attack? I am sure none of your companions would miss him."

"That may very well be," said Hitsugaya severely, "but when I sensed trouble nearby, I came to assist regardless of personal opinions. I cannot let you kill him. Let him go, or I will strike you from behind."

"A little virtuous, then," said Jellal. With a little frustration, he flung Mayuri into a wall, the vile captain lying limp. He was unconscious, but not dead, not yet. Shame.

Turning about, he pulled his blade out.

"Come on, then," he said.

"Sit upon the frozen skies, Hyourinmaru!" cried Hitsugaya, charging. The temperature around them dropped, and Jellal smiled. Loathe as he was to admit it, he wasn't bad at this part. The violence was contemptible in and of itself, but one couldn't be where he was, an espada, without having learned to enjoy it when necessary.

The metal coils of Zabimaru sailed through the air, whipping up a frenzy of deadly, carefully controlled movements. Renji forced back the arrancar in front of him, the assault of his shikai forcing the arrancar on the defensive. Through an opening in Zabimaru's coils, carefully left there, Lisanna surged forward, striking from the side, just as their enemy parried a vicious strike from Zabimaru. Her shikai was also released, the lightning claws of Arashi Raijin primed with force and ready to kill. She surely would have hit home with her stab, but at the last second, with unbelievable speed, the second of their foes intercepted her, halting her charge with a flawless parry. She immediately retreated, covered by a quick set of movements from Renji's bladed whip.

"These guys don't quit, do they?" she muttered, as she returned to Renji's side.

"They're still testing us," Renji muttered, examining his opponents carefully. They had introduced themselves as Zommari Leroux and Luppi Antenor, the noveno and octavo espada, respectively. Luppi had an arrogant air about him, the look of a youthful sadist in his eyes, in contrast to the stoic, quiet aura of intimidation that surrounded Zommari.

"One's deadly fast with the blade, the other's as deadly fast on his legs," Lisanna observed. "Still, we've got one thing on them."

"And what's that, hmm?" said Luppi, lazily advancing on them, blade in hand.

"You're hollows," said Lisanna disdainfully, "and everyone knows you don't play well together."

Truth be told, they had so far, although the teamwork had been pretty minimal- Luppi, keen on the glory of killing a captain, had been pushed back until Zommari had stepped in to bail him out, protecting him. The calm, calculating nature of the dark-skinned espada marked him as the more dangerous of the two to Lisanna, despite the considerable power and skill Luppi had shown so far.

"Again?" said Lisanna. "They're bound to slip up. So long as you can cover me…"

"We can't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect it to work," Renji said, shaking his head, "but most of all, we have a choice to make here."

"What?" said Lisanna, eyes on her enemies, ready to pounce.

"First of all, do we stay and fight at all? We've pushed far, and this is some pretty hard resistance."

"We can take them."

"Maybe," said Renji skeptically. He did not doubt their ability to fight, but the tactical nature of the situation meant something had to change. "But, there would be no shame in retreat."

"Retreat from these speed demons?" Lisanna said, shaking her head. "Even if we could get away, they'd tear through every last soldier that followed this way. Not happening."

"Agreed," said Renji, "but that being the case, we can't keep testing the waters. We need to go all out."

"Here I was hoping to save the bankai until we hit something bigger than these two chumps. Or at least until they went all out."

"What's a bankai for if not to kill your enemies?" said Renji with a shrug.

"True enough," Lisanna agreed.

"Oh?" said Luppi, who had listened intently. "Zommari, it sounds like the little bumped-up, second-rate officers are ready to go all the way."

Zommari just shrugged, clearly not the bantering type.

Seeming a little off-put, Luppi raised his blade and cried, "Well, I'm not going to be shown up by two greenhorn shinigami who got their bankai yesterday. Strangle, Trepadora!"

Responding to his command, the blade released, an explosive discharge of reiatsu following in the wake of it. A bony chest plate surrounded Luppi's torso, and from the back six extremities hovered, three pairs of tentacle-like appendages. In itself, it looked less than threatening, but Renji and Lisanna both knew better than to underestimate the resurreccion of an espada.

Luppi took a few steps forward, and the tentacles sprouting from his back lashed out, elongating unbelievably. Renji spun his Zabimaru in a defensive pattern, deflecting a couple of blows, but there were six tentacles and one Zabimaru, and they were both forced to jump back. The floor was crushed and pulverized stone tiles sprayed through the air where they had stood a second ago.

"Son of a bitch," Renji swore, but before he could do more than dodge, Zommari had appeared beside him, aiming a stab at his chest. Renji just barely parried; his sword was rather unwieldy at such a close range. Lisanna rushed to help him, but Zommari rushed away, gone in an instant. The blink of an eye later, a tentacle slammed into Lisanna, and she was sent flying into a wall.

Renji wove his blade around in a defensive pattern again, creating a circle of blades around him. He had no choice here- he had to go all out.

"Captain Strauss?" he cried out.

"I'm fine," Lisanna grunted.

"Alright, then," Renji said, his spirits flaring as his reiatsu began to grow. "Bankai: Hihiou Zabimaru!"

There was a feral cry as his bankai became manifest, the bamboo serpent rearing its skeletal head, displaying its rich mane of red. Renji felt his confidence grow.

"Defensive focus!" Lisanna said sharply, a shunpo taking her right next to Renji. "Your bankai has better range than he does, so use it. I'll cover your back from that quick bastard."

"Sounds good to me!" Renji cried, and raised the tailbone in his hand, commanding the serpent. It surged forward, striking Luppi with surprising speed and immense force. The espada absorbed the blow with his tentacles, crossing all six of them in front of him, but he was ruthlessly flung to the far end of the spacious chamber.

There was a blur at the corner of Lisanna's vision, and she responded instantly, stabbing forward as she leaped to her right, channelling lightning into her shikai. Zommari parried her first and second swing, taking care not to lock blades with her. He'd had the sense to realize, already, just what her shikai could do.

"Impressive," he said, having been forced back a few steps. "You anticipated exactly where my attack would come."

"A big, burly thing like that bankai?" said Lisanna, gesturing quickly to Hihiou Zabimaru. "A fast guy like you could sneak through. I just looked at the way it moved and asked myself, 'Where would I go to stab him in the back?'"

"Evidently, your analysis was sound."

As Renji moved the bankai about, the great coils swept all around them, and they both jumped over a massive section of bamboo. He was focusing on keeping Luppi pinned down, trusting her to handle the defense- and handle it she would. She launched forward with a quick series of attacks, testing the espada's defense. He parried deftly, but mostly dodged and evaded. Then he disappeared, and Lisanna dashed back toward Renji, throwing a quick Shakkahou when she realized she would be too late. The kido, although imperfect, threw Zommari off his balance just before he could take a swipe at Renji. Lisanna followed up with a dash forward, letting out a spirited cry as she slashed down with both sets of claws at Zommari.

"You keep your eyes on the prize, don't you?" she growled. "Trying to lure me away just far enough that you can take him down."

"Is this outrage the fabled shinigami morality?" Zommari retorted, evading her attacks again. "Is this too dishonourable for you, Captain Strauss? Would you rather I engaged in noble, direct conflict?"

"I'll settle for you dying!" she clapped back.

Zommari lunged at her, and they continued their deadly dance.

Meanwhile, Renji was putting his all into pinning down Luppi. The superior range of his bankai was working out. Although the violent force of his resurreccion was scraping at the hard exterior of Hihiou Zabimaru, tearing little chunks off it, the arrancar was making little headway. He leaped into the air, trying to close the distance, but Renji was on top of it, twisting around the bamboo serpent to snap at him mid-air. Luppi nimbly avoided the strike with an acrobatic twist, his lips curled into a victorious sneer. He surged forward, aiming to close the gap.

"You're just too obvious, you arrogant little pretend captain!" he snarled gleefully, his tentacles folded back behind him, ready to strike at a moment's notice.

"Heh," said Renji, grinning right back. "You know what's arrogant?"

Luppi's eyes widened, as if sensing something was wrong.

"Underestimating a bankai user just because he's new!" Renji cried, and as he twisted his wrist a little, two gigantic folds of bamboo blocked Luppi's path. The espada slammed right into them, very barely landing on his feet, and Renji didn't give him any time to recover. A wide, sweeping blow from the serpent's body sent Luppi flying, sailing through the air until he ungraciously slammed into the wall at the far end of the chamber.

"I'm not letting you get back up!" Renji cried, and his reiatsu began to rise. Red energy began to charge into each individual segment of his bankai, and Renji spun it around from the tail, guiding the gigantic serpent to surge forward.

"Hiktosu Taihou!" Renji cried, and there was a massive discharge of power, an explosive burst from every segment of the serpent's body in succession, gaining power each time, until it burst from the serpent's mouth. A huge ray of red, raw force exploded forward in a surprisingly neat, controlled arc, striking Luppi just as he got up. The espada jumped to the side, managing to avoid the worst of the strike, but when the dust settled, there was a large hole in the wall- several large holes in several walls, in fact- and the arrogant espada was nowhere to be seen.

Zommari moved back in a blur, putting some distance between him and Renji, who made Hihiou Zabimaru rear up again, ready to strike. There was a triumphant grin on his face, and he raised his free hand, pointing at the remaining espada.

"Come on, Strauss," he said confidently. "Let's mop this guy up."

"Amen to that," Lisanna said, wiping her brow. Keeping up with the bastard had taken a lot out of her; he was devilishly fast and deadly, and she had saved Renji's life at least a dozen times already now.

Zommari stared out into the distance, through the wrecked part of the palace where Luppi had disappeared.

"I must decline," he said, turning around.

"Tough!" Renji cried, sending down the bony head of his bankai to snap at the espada. It only shattered pieces of floor tiles, though, as the swift espada had already run away. They caught a faint glimpse of him as he ran, a blur of motion in the distance, gone in seconds.

"Coward!" Renji bellowed.

"Let him run," Lisanna said coolly.

"We beat his punk friend," Renji said, "and you didn't even get all out. Let's get him."

"No," said Lisanna, shaking her head, "our flank is secure. Seal your bankai. We'd better start thinking about whether we want to continue at all. You were right before- we've gone far enough. We need to return to report. If we just run after him, we might get lost and end up cut off."

Renji sighed. "Yeah, I guess so. Damn…"

"Hey, chin up," said Lisanna, nudging him. "We did good. We won."

"…yeah," Renji said, nodding. "Yeah, we did, didn't we? Good start."

"Yeah," said Lisanna, "so let's go and check up on the troops-"

They both felt it at the same time, well before they could see it. An overwhelming force, something so enormous that it beggared belief. A figure with long, brown hair stepped into view from a doorway further down the chamber, a furry pelt draped over his shoulders.

"It can't be…" Lisanna said under her breath.

"Primero," said Renji solemnly, all his cheer and confidence gone. They knew very little about the strongest espada, but there was no mistaking what was in front of them. Power, raw power, so overwhelming that it felt like hanging over an endless pit, like staring down a tidal wave, like being in a landslide about to burst.

He came closer, and the two young captains stood petrified, clutching their weapons. How could anyone hope to stand up against something like this?

"It's kind of a pain," said Starrk, as he came in closer, "but I'm supposed to make some noise here. I'd rather kick back and relax, but… this is the whole big battle I promised to be part of, so I don't have much choice."

Renji summoned what little courage he had left and snapped out of his stupor.

"How much juice you got in your bankai?" he said to Lisanna, a bead of sweat trailing down his forehead.

"Not nearly enough."

"Give the order to fall back," said Renji. "Even if we can't beat him, we can… buy time for their escape."

"You know," said Lisanna sadly, raising her blade, "I really hoped I'd last longer than this." She reached for her belt, unsealing a bound kido, a hell butterfly containing the right order, and let it fly.

As Starrk moved closer, not even bothering to draw his weapon, she let her reiatsurise, readying to release her bankai.

"You always try, right?" she muttered. "Even if you're screwed."

"Even if the chance is one to a googolplex," said Renji with a nod, "even if you're scared shitless."

"She's going to be heartbroken…" Lisanna muttered. "That's war for you." She sighed. "Bankai!"

As she released her blade, Starrk continued his slow march toward them. It would be over soon now. But, a minute or two? They might be able to manage that.

And so the war continues onward. It seems that Erza has quite the uphill battle on her hands, Harribel is no joke. I truly believe that Toshiro survived only due to the convivence of his Zanpaktou being a good counter to her ability. Needless to say that is not the case here.

I know many of you were worried about how well Nel would do against Kenpachi but i think many arnt giving her enough credit. This version of her, unlike in cannon, was never weakened and continued to train for several more years, not to mention the added bonus of being a Vasto Lorde in this continuity. She is much stronger here than she was in cannon.

I've been building up the rematch of Ulquiorra VS Byakuya & Ichigo for some time now, and I'm rather happy with how it's turned out. I find group battles to be fairly interesting when done right, and considering how strong the 4th Espada was with just his first release it makes sense to me to have this be a team effort.

It's also why I'm rather happy with the fight's I had with Lisanna and Renji. Truth be told, I wanted to do more with Lisanna than I have so far in this story, but its very difficult to balance out so many character's. I do hope that you enjoyed their battle with the lower teir Espada, though now that the two are facing down Stark...Oh boy.

I have more I could easily comment now, but I think ive said enough. Im looking forward to hearing what you all think of our version of the Hueco Mundo arc thus far, as well as the fights that your enjoying the most. So please, feel free to leave us a review to give us your thoughts.