"What are you waiting for? Bring it out!" Grimmjow was covered in more than a dozen wounds, but none of them were deep enough to be anything more than an annoyance. "What the hell is this shit?! You really intend to beat me with this; me, of all people?"
Black and Gold eyes narrowed, Ichigo didn't need his mask to defeat Grimmjow, and he knew that. "Just use it Aibou, give him a taste of our real power. Show him what we can do." He and the Hollow had been fighting together up until this point, their minds working together, their reiatsu meshing, but it wasn't anything, they weren't even trying. The Hollow was whispering in his mind, urging him on, to use their power.
"Fine," Reaching up, he pulled his left hand over his face in a raking motion. His right arm hung at his side, holding his zanpakutou in a tight grip. A white and red bone mask formed over his face, dissolving out of thin air; it was the first time he had called upon it since his last fight with Grimmjow. It was weightless, like it wasn't even there, just another part of his face, but with the surge of power running through his body he couldn't tell the difference.
Ichigo knew the mask took on a different shape than it ever had before, and Ichigo somehow knew the patterns that adorned the colorless bone without even looking at it. Horns protruded from the sides, curving forward, sharply angling along his cheekbones, and ending in a vicious point. The blood-red designs were different than those of the other mask he had used; they started from the top and streaked down over the dark shadowed holes for his eyes. The jaw of the bone mask extended further down, showing a skeleton-like row of jagged, sharp teeth. This wasn't its full form, but it was more than it had been before when he could only hold it his hollow's power for a mere eleven seconds. There was more than just a mask at this point; it was a transformation. The very skin of the red head seemed to be peeling, allowing a pale, smooth bone surface to be revealed along the hands, wrist, and chest.
"You look fucking stupid." Grimmjow sneered, examining the mask. "And no matter how stupid you look it still won't be enough."
Ichigo, and the Hollow in him, smirked, the expression spreading over his lips and hidden behind the skeletal grin of his mask. The world looked different through eyes like this, his body felt lighter, like everything was a dream and he was just watching and feeling second hand. The Hollow's grip on his mind was firmer now, and he couldn't hear that twisted voice, instead of knowing the thoughts as if they were his own. It didn't even occur to him that he was losing himself to the darkness inside of him.
Everything moved in slow motion, he stepped forward, watching first shock then anger spread over Grimmjow's face as he brought up his armored hands, too slow to block a slice from his collar down across to the opposite hip. Dark blood hit his mask, running down the side of it, invisible against the crimson markings.
Grimmjow fell, as if his legs had lost their strength and he took a headfirst dive to the ground below, falling the hundred or so feet from their mid-air battle. "That's it," both the Hollow and Ichigo asked, their voices in completely synchronicity. Disappointment filled their voice, but what had they expected, how could someone like this stand up to their power?
He was ready for his next opponent, for the next fight to fill the void where his heart should be. This had been amusing up to a point.
"Where do you think you're going?" He looked back over his shoulder, Grimmjow picking himself up off the ground, sand sticking wetly to the blood pouring down his chest. "This isn't over yet. You think you can beat me with that? Don't you fuckin' underestimate me, Kurosaki!"
"What is that?" The Hollow and Shinigami watched as Grimmjow lifted one hand into the air, his reiatsu gathering around it long ribbons.
"This is my strongest technique." Grimmjow's confidence was unwavering, his disgust with this fight clear in his voice. "You're finished Kurosaki, you will lose to me!" He brought his arm down in a powerful sweeping gesture.
"I am the King!" He shouted as his technique hit, putting all of his strength into it. His blood matted hair blowing back from the force of the impact.
"What the hell is this King shit?" The bands of reiatsu shattered like gloss against Ichigo's bare hand, not even bothering to raise his weapon against the enemy he already considered defeated and as good as dead. "You were my first target. Just as you said, I came to Hueco Mundo to fight with you. I came here to defeat you Grimmjow." His voice rang clearly, loudly across the distance between them as he looked down on Grimmjow who could barely stand on his feet. "I will defeat Ulquiorra, I will defeat Aizen, and I will defeat anyone else who stands in my way."
"Like hell I'd ever lose to someone like you." Grimmjow leaped into the air and rushed to the transformed Shinigami, a cero gathered in the palm of his hand, one more powerful than he had ever used before. "Gran Rey Cero," Ichigo did not move, did not even try to dodge as the Sexta brought his palm forward, releasing the charged energy straight into the man's chest.
After the deafening explosion, the light cleared to reveal Ichigo holding Grimmjow's wrist in one hand, his sword buried up to the hilt just above the Espada's Hollow hole. Blue eyes met gold, neither blinking as a huge white column behind Ichigo crumbled and crashed to the ground.
"Fuck you…" Slowly, the Espada slipped down, his weight acting against him as he fell off the blade of the sword, his release form reverting back into a zanpakutou, sheathed at his waist. Ichigo held him there by his wrist, dangling him above the sand as he hung limply. He let the body slide through his fingers; the body of his opponent disintegrating before the carcass even hit the ground, blown away as if in some breeze. All that remained of the Sexta Espada was a sword in the sand.
Renji and Ishida stepped out into the barren wasteland that was Hueco Mundo, Sombre de Las Noches looming above them, stark white and imposing. Renji suppressed a shudder at seeing this place again. "'Can't say I'm glad to be back."
Ishida pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, calmly surveying the area, it had not changed at all since the last visit. "We need to find Inoue and then Kurosaki."
Sado, as always, seemed an immovable force standing there, both physically and mentally. "It's going to be difficult."
"Yeah," Renji said, analyzing Ichigo's reiatsu in the distance; it wasn't close, more like the other side of the looming castle before them. "What the hell happened to you?" He muttered under his breath, the spiritual energy felt more Hollow than either Shinigami or human. That bastard inside of Ichigo was eating everything that was left of the idiot.
"No point standing around." Ishida started off, none of them were going to back out of this despite having nearly died before. That was the price of friendship, and they'd be damned if they were going to pay it for the likes of Ichigo. Renji was sure that if he beat him upside the head enough, he'd fix whatever was broken in there and that would be good enough.
Finding a way in was too easy, and remembering what had happened the last time, all of them were wary of what awaited them. It wasn't like they had been slacking off or anything, Renji had used every moment of his free time training, not that he had much of it up until now. He couldn't say he was looking forward to another run in with the Octava Espada.
The hallways were just the same as they had been before, white and undecorated. They didn't bother keeping track of where they were or where they'd been. Renji and Ishida had learned the hard way that they got to go wherever the Espada wanted them to go, it was just a matter of whose territory they were in.
"Wasn't it… noisier last time?" Things were strangely quiet as they searched through the maze before them, heading towards Orihime's reiatsu somewhere near the center of the impossibly large building.
"Nel," Sado pointed out the absence of the little girl and her companions. Renji didn't much like Peche or Don Don Chaka, but he worried about them anyway. They'd been left behind, from what he heard, taken away during Ichigo's fight with the Sexta Espada along with Orihime. They were Arrancar, though that was hard to believe. He hoped they were okay.
"Now that you mention it, I wonder what happened to her." The Quincy slowed his pace, as did the rest of them as they entered a wider area, a walled in open space, the floor turning into desert and the ceiling into sky.
"You want to know what happened to that little bitch?" An impossibly tall Arrancar, taller than even Kenpachi, stepped out of the shadows. Like the tenth division captain, this one wore an eye patch over one eye; however the docile looking Arrancar who trailed behind him didn't look like the fight-loving sort.
Sado wasted no time, his reiatsu spiked and armor covered both his arms. Renji didn't need the cue to draw his own sword, and a spider web like bow formed in the Quincy's hand.
A momentary look of disappointment flashed over the Arrancar's face. "You again," His eye fell on Sado. "And the rest of you were beaten by Szayel Aporro. What a waste of time."
"Who the hell are you?" Renji had drawn Zabimaru in shikai, ready for bankai at any moment, and he had the feeling he'd need it against this guy.
"Tesla, these guys are yours." The Arrancar walked off, sitting himself on a rock not too far away to watch how events would unfold. He placed his elbow on his knee and his chin on an upturned hand.
"Yes Nnoitra-sama." The small blond stepped forward, sword in hand, the blade near the hilt divided into a circle leaving an opening in the blade.
A smile returned however, showing all of his teeth in a menacing way. "I'll tell you what happened to Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck." Renji would guess by the way he was ordering the other Arrancar around that it was the same as Szayel Aporro and his Fraccion, which would make Nnoitra an Espada.
"Crush, Verruga." Tesla released his zanpakutou, transforming from the small meek looking man he was, into a towering, muscular creature with a boar's head.
Ishida notched an arrow, Sado crouched, ready to rush forward and attack or defend, and they waited to see who would strike first. The three of them should be able to take a Fraccion on their own; they'd have to if they wanted to stand up to an Espada.
Nnoitra grin grew wider still as he watched; if that was possible, seeming to laugh at something only he knew. "I killed her."
Ishida was the first to react, losing an arrow not at the hulking beast before them, but at its master. However, Tesla was faster than they thought for such a size, moving to take the damage instead of Nnoitra.
Renji swung the huge form of Zabimaru around Tesla, the weapon transforming from the small metal form to its bankai, the bones clacking loudly against each other as them came crashing down on Nnoitra.
The bones settled, Nnoitra hadn't moved save for one hand; the arm was raised and the pale fingers held the bankai at bay. Sado had rushed forward, struggling hand to hand with Tesla; he looked miniature in comparison to the Arrancar's released form. Ishida was on the move, searching for a clear shot as to not catch anyone in the cross fire.
"Oh," Nnoitra stood. "What would you care if I killed her?" He was remained unconcerned as Renji wrenched his zanpakutou away and out of his grip. "She should have been dead a long time ago; I don't know how she managed to survive, stripped of her rank and power." He walked forward, his huge weapon slung over his shoulder, double crescent blades reflecting the light and chain dragging on the ground behind him. "She didn't deserve to be an Espada, and she didn't deserve to live."
Ichigo blasted his way through another wall, cutting his way through Las Noches. His hollow mask was gone, but his eyes remained their odd coloring. His goal was deeper in the castle: Orihime, and Aizen. He would save one and defeat the other.
He had seen few other Arrancar since his fight, none were Espada, however. They were nothing and so he consumed them, filling the hole where his heart should have been. It ate away at him, clawing at him, demanding he destroy everything. He resisted it; resisted its temptation as he calmly walked through the gaping hole into yet another white hallway. This was not the time to hunt and kill; he had a goal, someone to save.
He felt other reiatsu, ones he knew. A Shinigami, Renji the name echoed through his mind, a Quincy Ishida and a human Chad. His friends were here, in Hueco Mundo, fighting against a powerful reiatsu. "Another fight," The thought crossed his mind, before it faded.
Why was Renji here? Hadn't he returned to Soul Society and betrayed him for what he was, even though this was for everyone else's sake? Isn't that what the Hollow said? Where else would his reiatsu have disappeared to, why would he leave in the middle of the night like that? Each question passed quickly and were just as quickly forgotten.
Sado he could trust, their friendship was strong, and Ishida was a good guy- if a little stuck up. Though he'd thought the same about the Shinigami, they were friends with Orihime nonetheless and would put her first. Once this battle was over he could deal with them and whatever they threw at him. It was too much to bother about now, he was the one who abandoned them anyway.
"Relax, they couldn't do shit to us if they wanted to. Leave them; we have our own battles to win." The Hollow spoke to him, moving his legs for him not allowing him to falter, their minds in sync, urging him forward. "They came even though we are here, selfishly putting themselves in danger, not trusting us to save her. Not trusting us at all. Let them get a little bruised up, it'll teach 'em."
Ichigo's grip tightened on the hilt of his black sword; they were up against an Espada- that much he could tell. The reiatsu wasn't quite as strong as Ulquiorra's, closer in level to Grimmjow's. The Hollow wasn't interested in anyone like that, and he kept influencing Ichigo to just end this now and not make any detours. He was right, they'd thrown themselves into this mess on their own, they could at least hold out until the important part was taken care of. Next up was another Espada, a higher rank and a more promising fight. He lay ahead, not far, and directly in the path between Orihime and him.
"We'll destroy everything in our way, Aibou." He wanted to fight- they wanted to. Ichigo didn't find it odd admitting to that, like he would have in the past. It only seemed natural to fight or die right now, to struggle for survival. He remembered the brief flash of this feeling before when he fought Kenpachi, and even before that the first time he and Renji had crossed swords what seemed an eternity ago. Never had the feeling been as strong as this, but he knew it had been there, always on the edge of his mind.
"Right, let's go."
He didn't feel the smirk spread across his lips; the action completely of his other half.
Orihime dropped to her knees, a powerful reiatsu bearing down on her, crushing her until she fought to simply breath. She knew this signature too well by now, "Ulquiorra."
The Cuatra Espada stood not far from her, calm and collected as always. He didn't look at her but at something off in the distance, as if he could see through the walls towards where Ichigo raced towards them. His cold green eyes turned his head following as his gaze locked on her. "Aizen-sama wishes to speak with you."
The pressure let up slightly and it she found it easier to take in oxygen again. Orihime got to her feet, a much more difficult task than it should have been, all the while, her mind raced. Aizen wanted to see her? Maybe he knew what she planned, but there was no way. She hadn't mentioned it or given any clues, even if he did know she'd been sneaking around before, he couldn't have known her purpose, right?
Ulquiorra didn't wait for a response, turning and walking down a side hallway she had not noticed before. She followed silently, head hung in defeat. Her plans had been ruined now that she was in his grasp. She could wait for Ichigo to catch up, but how soon would that be? They wouldn't just let him cut his way through Sombre de Las Noches unchecked.
She could feel the other Espada's reiatsu, the excitement in them. They were all ready to fight, to kill her friends if they got the chance. Orihime just prayed that everyone would be all right, though she didn't understand what Ishida, Sado, and Renji were doing on the other side of the castle, or why other Shinigami were at another location entirely from the rest of them. It was like three different groups working independently, rather than everyone working together.
She was brought to the room that had been her goal from the start, where she knew Aizen kept the Hyougoku. It was entirely empty of the man or any other Arrancar, just her and Ulquiorra alone.
"Wait here." The Espada turned, walking back out of the room, "Aizen-sama will be here shortly, until then, do not move."
"Wait." She called out, not sure why she wanted to stop him, she just had a bad feeling. "Where are you going?"
Ulquiorra stopped, turning those soulless yes back on her again. "To deal with a pest," Then he was gone, back the way they had come, back towards Ichigo.
"Kurosaki-kun," He wouldn't lose- couldn't lose -he was too strong for that. She had faith in her friends. Besides, now was not the time to worry, this was her chance to do what she had come for, before Aizen came to greet her.
Balling her hands into fists she moved towards the throne on a raised pedestal, white and uncomfortable looking, imposing in its simplicity. She couldn't be scared of this; she had made up her mind and would stop at nothing to end this war once and for all. It seemed like the longest walk of her life, traveling the length of the room. This room where she had healed Grimmjow's arm and scar; watched him kill another Arrancar. This room, where Aizen ruled over all of Hueco Mundo…
As she reached the throne, Orihime stretched out one hand tentatively, triggering the mechanism to release the Hyougoku. It opened easily, the small object sitting there safely; inconspicuously for how dangerous it was to everyone. She swallowed, taking a deep breath and bringing up her other hand, facing them both towards it, palms out.
Byakuya's plan had not turned out quite how he had intended, finding out for the first time just how stubborn Rukia actually was. She had never spoken back to him or defied his wishes, so it had come as quite a shock when she had put her foot down. He supposed that in certain situations, such was to be expected even of the most unlikely of people, and despite being disrespectful he felt that it was a good thing that she finally acted herself around him instead of quiet and reserved.
It wasn't much of an argument, honestly, and he had somehow agreed to let her come along, as his acting vice captain, while Renji remained missing. It had gone over better than he had thought with Yamamoto as well, even with the dissenting opinion of Mayuri on the matter. So they had set out immediately for Hueco Mundo, but only after strict instruction that Rukia was to follow his every command to the letter. In return he would warn Kurosaki Ichigo of the charges against him.
When they arrived he did not miss how Rukia tensed up, he could see the distracted look in her eyes, perhaps remembering her battle the last time she was here- or just a reaction to how Hollow Ichigo's reiatsu had become. Both of them noticed, however, that there was one reiatsu here they should both recognize. Abarai Renji was alive. Byakuya wouldn't say that fact put him at ease, but that would make things a bit easier in the long run.
"We have little time to waste." They had managed to put themselves in the castle, not deep into it, even the advantages Soul Society had were not enough to put them right at the center. It was enough that they had successfully infiltrated an area clear of Arrancar activity. Ichigo was moving closer to them, more aptly, closer to the center of the castle, and that was better than being on the far side from them.
Rukia nodded, and they began their exploration of this white place humming with hostile energy. Before they had even left, Byakuya instructed her to keep her reiatsu suppressed so they seemed like minor threats; it increased their chances of avoiding strong resistance as they moved. The last thing they needed was half the Espada forces launching an attack. That seemed unnecessary with the way the others were fighting; beacons of power meant to draw all attention upon them-selves.
Byakuya was aware that there would be those here who would disguise their presence, much as he and Rukia had. He was also aware that in this place they had the advantage over such things. Thus he was not surprised when the hallways suddenly widened into a large room, once again revealing plain white walls, undecorated save for the occasional pillar that extended up to the impossibly high ceiling.
"Arrogantly entering our domain, did you not think you would be stopped?" A large man, with dark skin and a bone mask in the form of spikes along the center of his head awaited them. He drew his sword calmly. "This is as far as you will go, Shinigami."
Byakuya placed his hand on the hilt of Senbonzakura, waiting for the correct moment to move. "That haori, I suppose you are of Captain Class?" The question was more of a statement, his tone indicating that he knew he was right. "I am the Septima Espada, Zommari Leroux. Now, identify yourself, intruder."
"I need not answer, for we have but one true form; your enemies." The Espada was speaking down to him; such an opponent did not warrant an answer like an equal. He gestured for Rukia to stand back, out of his way.
"True." Zommari dismissed the question. "I must inform you that if you have any thoughts of making it past this point that your efforts are futile."
"I don't comprehend, what do you mean 'Futile'?" He was quickly growing tired of this.
Zommari image seemed to blur, then he was behind Byakuya sword raised. "This."
Using shunpo to dodge the attack before it landed, Byakuya turned to set eyes on the damage; where he had once been standing were now two of the Espada, one the original, one a clone. "What is this?"
"Gemelos Sonido; among the Espada my Sonido is the fastest." The second form faded as he spoke, leaving only the real one. "If I increase my steps even the slightest it produces clones. I suppose you could say it's a game of magic tricks. This one is designed to surprise the enemy, so if you are unable to follow me due to shock… do not feel embarrassed."
"I see." He drew his zanpakutou. "Instead, you should be ashamed. You have just revealed your secrets to me at the beginning of this battle." He stepped forward, using shunpo to slice down and across the chest of his enemy.
"Regrettable. Gemelos Sonido is not limited to two clones." There were now three of the Espada around him, the one he had sliced, another clone and the original.
"I had assumed as much." Byakuya looked over his shoulder at the one who had spoken, raising his arm behind his haori. "Hadou number four, Byakurai." A beam of light shot from the palm of his hand, piercing Zommari's chest; he fell to the ground silently. The number of clones increased from there, from three to five.
Zommari began to speak. "The number of clones can grow to five at maximum." Yet another of the forms spoke, different than the one who had started the sentence. Calm as before, the five of them moved at once, all of them thrusting forward with their swords. "Farewell, Captain whose name I never knew. The reason for your defeat is the arrogance that kept you from telling me your name."
Rukia gasped, covering her mouth with her hands, watching as things progressed. She took several steps forward, hand on the hilt of her sword. She stopped though, noticing at the same time Zommari did that he had pierced nothing but an empty haori.
"Way of the Onmitsu, way of the Shihou: Utsusemi." Byakuya announced, standing on the far side of the only image of the Septima Espada left, Zommari's eyes widened as he realized what had happened. "I did not want to use that woman's techniques." Yoruichi had taught him many things but he did not like to incorporate them unless necessary. "The arrogant one is you Espada, but be at ease; the reason for your loss is not that arrogance. It is a difference in power."
"Arrogant? Me? What would make you think that?" Zommari lifted his arms in a broad gesture as he spoke. "You are my enemy, but of Captain class, I think of us as equals and intend to act as such. There is no such thing as arrogance within me."
Byakuya raised an eyebrow at the statement. "An Arrancar thinking himself an equal to me? That is a form of pride in itself."
"It seems that arrogance is part of your nature." Zommari took his zanpakutou placing it horizontally before his chest where it floated as he lowered his arms and widened his stance. "Then allow me to take that pride and destroy it to the very core of your being." His forefinger and middle finger curled up to meet his thumb. "Abate," His head turned at a ninety degree angle, his neck twisting impossibly, "Brujeria."