Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, or any of its characters; Tite Kubo does. I do, however, own this story and all of its OCs, so please don't use anything herein without first asking my permission. Thank you kindly.
A/N: The backstory presented in this chapter for Stark is partly inspired by Spin1978, so I thought I'd give him props. Specifically, the idea of Stark being a reluctant leader-figure of sorts. Exactly how he winds up in the Espada is my idea, but Spin1978 provided the impetus. Kudos to you, man.
Empire of the Moon
Chapter 2: Blitzkrieg
The world was darkness, and in that darkness was nothing more than pain. Each mask fragment that had been torn off felt like she was being given a bit of a soul only to have it trampled into dust a heartbeat later, and for the first time since being reborn as an Arrancar, Halibel wanted nothing more than to die.
Of course, the pair of guards standing right outside of her cell kept that from happening, the bastards. The former Second Espada couldn't figure out what they were keeping her alive for; her once-pristine uniform had been replaced by filthy rags, and only a thin fragment of mask along her neck stood between Halibel and regression. She was all but broken, and the Arrancar could only assume that the Dekatimori wanted her final humiliation to be both cataclysmic and public. The captive was thrown out of her thoughts as a sharp voice sliced through them like a blade, pulling her unwillingly back into the present.
The pounding of the exiting guards' boots had faded into mere buzzing by the time Halibel raised her head to evaluate her visitor, only to narrow her green eyes to murderous slits.
"Come to tear off the last little bit, Janus?"
The dark-eyed Arrancar's mouth curled into a grin that reminded the former Second Espada far too much of Nnoitra's, and a tendril of fear began to coil around the base of her spine, rising higher and higher as he approached and gradually paralyzing Halibel as it grew.
"Of course not," the Arrancar replied in a tone that was far too genial for someone like him. "Why would I ever want to do something like that? No," he finished, his voice turning menacing as the feral gleam surged in his eyes,
"We're going to do something much, much more enjoyable. Well," he chuckled, "for me, anyway."
Halibel had the distinct feeling that something was about to go horrifically wrong, so she tried to do what always worked when trying to distract self-absorbed, mildly psychotic egomaniacs: keep him talking.
"What the hell are you blabbering about?" she asked acidly, still slightly unnerved by the feeling of air sliding over her now-uncovered face as she spoke.
"The Dekatimori have been persuaded by myself and a few others to… accelerate our timetable, so to speak," Janus replied smugly, his grin never abating. "We were going to give those Soul Reapers ten years originally, but some of our brighter minds realized that your comrade Stark probably overheard us and decided to use that to our advantage. If we strike now, we'll catch them completely off-guard!"
The Arrancar's voice had risen steadily to crescendo in something like a strained cackle, but the former Second Espada forced herself to remain superficially calm.
"And this has what to do with me, Arrancar?" she spat, causing Janus' grin to widen.
"Even now you act like you're superior," he said airily, "like you became more than just an Arrancar when you joined up with Aizen. Let me tell you something, bitch," he snarled, his voice becoming more serrated than a chainsaw as he lunged forward with surprising speed and ferocity, pinning Halibel to the wall by her neck,
"You're not special. You may think you are, but you're not. It doesn't matter if someone tells the hooker she's got a heart of gold, Espada," Janus finished, letting his hand relax its grip until it gripped the mask fragment along her neck and Halibel went rigid,
"At the end of the day, she's still just a hooker. In your case, a hooker who's officially outlived her usefulness as of right now."
The top half of the sliver of mask was abruptly snapped off and the former Second Espada's vision tunneled as agony rushed through every vein, from her heart all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes. Her movements were limited to instinctive shudders and spasms as the pain branded itself onto her mind; she barely felt her body being slammed against another wall, nor Janus' fetid breath as it spread over her skin like a disease, his teeth nipping at her neck and mere inches away from rending off the last shred of sanity that stood between her and the base existence of an ordinary Hollow…
Until suddenly the pressure of his body crushing hers was stripped away, and Halibel could breathe again. After blinking a few times, the female Arrancar could see that her tormentor had been thrown against the opposite wall with enough force to shatter the outer layer of stone. A figure now stood between them, wearing an expression that was best be described as blood-hungry.
"Janus," Jason asked pointedly as his heterochromatic pair of eyes surveyed the traumatized former Espada and her harasser, "may I ask just what the fuck you think you're doing?"
Despite his disheveled state, the rubble-strewn Arrancar still had the confidence to smirk.
"You just answered your own question, coward," he replied. "Or, at least, that's what we would have been doing if you hadn't barged in here like a total asshole…"
The command was uttered with so much blunt force that Halibel felt like she'd been smacked across the face with a two-by-four, and Jason hadn't even been talking to her. The dark-eyed Arrancar growled and stormed out, turning his head back to glare at his comrade as he reached the door's threshold.
"This isn't over," Janus grit out. "You side with that bitch, you side against the rest of us. Mark my words, coward: your head will be on a pike outside of this palace before this war ends, and I'm going to put it there."
Jason sighed as his fellow Dekatimora vanished with a buzz, leaving him alone with an unsettled but increasingly curious former Espada.
"Why did you do that?"
The gray- and red-eyed Arrancar raised his head to look at Halibel, one of his eyebrows arched quizzically.
"Save me," she prompted, but Jason's curious expression remained.
"You ask that like you didn't expect anyone to stop him," he replied, and suddenly the green-eyed Arrancar felt like she was the one being questioned.
"Why would I?" she parried. "What would you possibly have to gain from protecting me?"
His red eye flashed as Jason chuckled.
"Quite a lot, actually," he answered. "Not from them, of course," he continued, jerking his thumb back towards where Janus had left from, "but they won't be the ones that win this war."
"I don't quite follow you," Halibel said, flinching when the other Arrancar put the broken piece of mask up against her neck, touching the single remaining shard.
"Don't worry," he half-whispered, energy flowing into his hand, "this isn't going to hurt at all."
The green-eyed Arrancar almost shuddered as she felt a pleasant warmth flow through her body, re-invigorating the swathes of it that had been left a scorched wasteland in the wake of the pain Janus' torture had caused. Halibel thought in that brief moment that this must be what love felt like, before the soothing feeling was gone as quickly as it had come.
"Told you," Jason quipped, a smirk on his face as he saw the glazed contentment that had spread over Halibel's normally acute eyes. But she shook it off a moment later, fixing her gaze on her savior and speaking.
"You still haven't answered my question, Arrancar," she said with as much of an edge as she could, an affectation Jason seemed to ignore completely as he walked over to the bench facing the door to the cell and sat down.
"Did you ever meet Stark before he was made into an Arrancar, Halibel?" he asked, and the former Second Espada found that she honestly couldn't remember a time she had known Stark in any form other than the one he currently possessed.
"I did," Jason replied, his voice taking on the tone of someone dredging up memories they kept buried for a reason.
"It was the most terrifying thing I've ever seen," he continued, resting his forehead in his hands.
"Some of Aizen's flunkies were rounding up the Vasto Lorde for his army, and they tracked down Stark. He had become something of a god to a group of Adjuchas and Menos, with no effort on his part whatsoever. It seemed that it was in the Vasto Lordes' natures to be magnetic, to draw Hollows to them, the very power that made Stark what he was ultimately proving to be his greatest and only weakness.
"I was a roaming Adjuchas back then, and happened to stumble upon this makeshift colony around the time when Aizen's flunkies were making their third trip to try and "convince" Stark to join Aizen's ranks. When he told them in no uncertain terms to piss off, those two sorry bastards made the biggest mistakes of their immensely shortened lifespans.
"They waited until Stark had turned in for one of his many naps, and came back to the colony. That afternoon, Stark woke up to the pungent smell of burning flesh and the sound of screams. I saw him walking as calmly as Death itself towards the two Arrancar, seemingly unfazed by the carcasses arrayed around him. But I could see it in his eyes: Stark was absolutely furious, and even glancing sidelong at his eyes then was like looking directly into the light of a full moon.
"The Arrancar that Aizen had dispatched had taken a few hostages, intending to make Stark surrender by tapping into an empathy for his 'subjects' that didn't exist in the slightest. But Stark was no fool; he turned his head to look at me, his yellow eyes keen and sharper than any blade.
"'You there,' he said, 'if I refused to go with these Arrancar, would you join me?'
"What could I say other than 'Yes, sir'? In that moment, Stark realized that his power was a curse with no cure; that as long as he existed as a Vasto Lorde others of his kind would be drawn to him, and suffer dearly for it.
"He obliterated the two Arrancar and the hostages they were holding in a manner so horrifying, even to me, that I can't repeat it here. Suffice to say he was like an unchained storm, a destructive force the likes of which I have not seen since. When the carnage had passed, I found him observing me with those yellow eyes, narrowed and sharp.
"'Why didn't you stop them?'
"It was a simple enough question, but I found myself inexplicably and profoundly ashamed; I had no answer for him. Stark eventually walked on, leaving the blasted sands of Hueco Mundo and entering the marbled halls of Las Noches, the very palace we appropriated from Aizen following his death. For my part, I vowed to become strong enough so that I would never again be asked why I didn't do something I should have had the power to change. But like him," Jason finished wearily,
"I was fated to be drawn into something I had no desire to join. To answer your question, Halibel," the Arrancar said as he rose and walked towards the door, "I have no doubt that Stark will come for you. And when he gets here, these halls will see destruction the likes of which they have never witnessed before. I'm not about to fight him, but if he learned that I chose not to stop you from being psychologically and sexually assaulted, nothing, and I mean nothing, could rescue me from death. That is why I saved you from Janus, Halibel," Jason concluded,
"And that is why I will continue to do so, until his judgment falls upon Las Noches. A time which, thanks to the assassins Ulysses unleashed upon Soul Society, should be coming quite soon. Sleep well, Espada," the Arrancar said as he vanished with a buzz,
"Your guardian angel will be here soon enough."
Suzaku hadn't gone more than 30 steps carrying Old Man Yama when a voice called out from behind him.
"Hey, kid! Where the hell do you think you're taking Yamamoto?"
The Shihoin prince was so stunned by the fact that someone else knew who this man was that he stopped and turned, finding himself looking at a breathless, flustered man who had apparently been chasing after him.
"What does it look like?" he asked. "I'm taking him to get help. He's been horribly bruised, if you can't tell."
"I'm not blind, jackass," the man sighed, exasperated. "But the people at our Home for the Elderly take care of his medical needs just fine, whenever they arise."
Suzaku's eyes widened in surprise and he turned around completely, gradually going from mildly befuddled to full-blown weirded-out.
"I said, we take care of him. While I appreciate your misguided attempt at altruism, I can take it from here; Old Man Yama there is one of our residents."
The orange-eyed Soul Reaper felt his brain move that much closer to exploding.
The man sighed, rubbing his eyebrows in a vain attempt to stay calm and civil.
"Look, kid, you sound like a broken record. I don't know who you are, or where you came from, but Yamamoto's been in our Home for almost two decades now and we are doing a perfectly good job taking care of him as it is."
"Doesn't look like that to me from where I'm standing," Suzaku mumbled, but the last thing he wanted to deal with was some stupid human calling in the cops while he was trying to keep a low profile. Seeing no way out of this jam, he handed Yamamoto over to the surprisingly strong man before grasping at one last straw.
"Can I just ask him one question?"
The man shrugged.
"Go ahead, but you'll just be wasting your time. The guy's mind is rotting; he doesn't even know where he is most days. That's why he gets out like this sometimes: we're understaffed at the moment, and the old codger just slips out for a walk when no one's looking."
"Yeah, you're taking excellent care of him," Suzaku grumbled, before shoving his righteous indignation aside and addressing Yamamoto, who had risen to his feet and was leaning on his cane once again.
"Sir," the purple-haired Soul Reaper began almost hesitantly, not knowing how to speak to someone of such legendary stature, "do the names Kyoraku Shunsui and Jushiro Ukitake mean anything to you?"
The old man's right eye opened, and for a moment the Shihoin prince thought he saw a flash of recognition buried somewhere deep within it. That must have been a trick of the light, though, because a heartbeat later the ancient eye closed once again and Yamamoto shook his head almost imperceptibly.
"No," he replied gruffly, "I haven't heard those names before in my life."
Suzaku felt like a balloon that had been opened up from the bottom and was slowly deflating. The man had no memories of his time as a Soul Reaper, and from what the prince could tell he was devoid of all but the most trace amounts of spiritual energy, perfectly normal in humans.
And that's just what Genryusai-Shigekuni Yamamoto was, now: a human, through and through.
Now feeling utterly defeated and flummoxed, the purple-haired Soul Reaper left the old man be and continued on his path to the place he hoped to find hospitality, his previous run slowed down to a contemplative walk. Surely someone like Yamamoto wouldn't have just lost all of his spiritual energy just through the process of soul transmigration; even if his memory had been torn to shreds and then incinerated, there should have still been some vestige left in his soul of the titan he once was. Maybe he just needed the proper catalyst…
Suzaku was yanked out of his thoughts when he found himself standing a few steps in front the door that marked his destination. Taking a deep breath and trying to clear his head of all the crap that had happened to him recently, the Shihoin prince walked the rest of the way to the unassuming white door and rung the doorbell. After a few moments of silence the door swung open, revealing a girl about the same age as Suzaku, with sharp blue eyes shielded by elegant glasses, long black hair and a figure that would send most men into a coma.
"Can I help you…?" She asked reflexively, until she got a good look at the visitor and her eyes widened immediately.
"Suzaku!" she said happily, her mother's personality shining through as she gave her friend a bone-crushing hug before backing off when he was starting to turn blue.
"Hey, Iteza," the prince half-wheezed. "Long time, no see."
"You could say that," the young Ishida replied, readjusting her glasses as her calm returned. "What brings you here? And where's everyone else?"
Usually when any of Iteza's friends from Soul Society came knocking on their door there was more than one of them and at least one parent, and the fact that Suzaku seemed much more frazzled than normal only served to compound her growing sense that something was wrong.
"It's just me," the Shihoin prince said as evenly as he could. "I got the shift to patrol Karakura Town, and I was wondering if maybe I could crash here for a few days until I got an apartment or something."
"Come on in, then," the Quincy said with a sly smile as she stepped back from the door to make room for her guest, "but don't expect to be doing much Hollow hunting while you're here, Suzaku; I think I have things pretty well in hand."
"Sure you do, Quincy," the Soul Reaper parried, a smirk on his face as well as the old rivalry between their peoples surfaced once again, "I'm sure you do."
Orihime and Uryu were more than happy to accommodate Suzaku, peppering him with questions while they ate as the sun began to set. Sure, Ichigo and their other friends came by to visit every once in a while, but they hadn't been seen in Karakura Town in quite some time and that made Inoue and Ishida quite hungry for news. Suzaku assured them that the rebuilding process was going splendidly and that Captain Kurosaki and the others were doing well.
After the food had been finished off, with Suzaku and Uyru giving their portions as gracefully as possible to Iteza and Orihime, they all turned in for the night. Sleep, however, was the last thing on the Shihoin prince's mind. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, he laid his zanpakuto across his knees and closed his eyes, descending into his Spirit World for a chat. When he got there, a surprising and decidedly macabre sight awaited him.
His zanpakuto spirit, which took the form of a Roc, was now nothing more than a mangled corpse strewn on the floor in multiple pieces. Standing before him now, with malice flashing in his eyes and a small, yet chilling smile on his face, was Sosuke Aizen.
"Hey, kid," he said casually. "I've been waiting for you."
Janus was stalking angrily through the halls of Las Noches and fuming over how that bastard Jason had robbed him of his first decent screw in far too long when he ran into a group of his comrades coming the other way.
"Oh, there you are, Janus," one of them said happily. "We've been looking for you everywhere!"
The Arrancar stopped walking and looked over the faces of the newcomers, recognizing them as his fellow Dekatimori Agamemnon, Medea, Helen and Menelaus, who were being accompanied by some of their underlings.
"Why?" the dark-eyed Arrancar asked, curious; usually, these guys went out of their way to avoid him. Medea exhaled scornfully and spoke for the assembled Dekatimori.
"Why do you think, Janus? The five of us have been chosen to comprise the ambush party that strikes Soul Society tonight. Get ready; we're leaving in a few hours."
Rather than feeling his bloodlust carry him away like it usually did before a battle, though, Janus was very skeptical of the situation.
"Wait," he replied, "are you seriously telling me that Ulysses thinks it's a good idea to send more than half of our best warriors on this mission? If we fail…"
"Janus," Agamemnon spoke out, his aged eyes shining in the dim light of the dusk moon, "your assumption that we will fail in any part of our mission is erroneous. But even if one of us fell, it would be worth it to defeat the majority of Soul Society's strongest warriors. We have each been given a target, and all told they represent five of Soul Society's greatest fighters.
"If even two of those warriors fall in battle to us, we will have dealt Soul Society a grievous blow, and those who may have been defeated by some twist of fate can simply retreat before any kind of deathblow is struck. Of course, we anticipate complete and total conquest all the same."
Janus was beginning to warm up to the idea of some good old-fashioned hit-and-run carnage, but he did have one nagging question left.
"How do you expect us to be able to sneak into the Seireitei undetected? After what Aizen pulled on them, I doubt the Soul Reapaers are going to let us waltz right in."
"You seem to forget about my ability, Janus," she said smugly. "I can open portals, remember? From anywhere, to anywhere. And once the trip into Seireitei has been made, all it takes to get back into Hueco Mundo is a simple garganta."
Janus was beginning to warm up to the plan, but there was one more thing he needed to know.
"Who am I going up against?"
Menelaus, a tall, strong Arrancar with a patchwork of scars covering his body, flashed a toothy grin and told his comrade the name of his future opponent.
The dark-eyed Arrancar grinned widely in kind, already envisioning the lifeless body lying in a pool of blood in front of him.
"Why didn't you say so earlier?" he asked, his voice regaining the bloodlust it had lacked moments before. "I'm ready when you are; let's go butcher us some meat for dinner."
Tomoe Jaegerjaques sat on a knoll watching the sunset, mentally kicking herself as she did so. Being in love with someone, she decided, was absolutely not worth it. She'd slipped up and lost a sparring match while the Captain himself was watching because she was too distracted by thoughts of Kikazaru and what an idiot he was being. She had thought that a genius like him would be able to take a hint, but now she wasn't sure if anything short of slamming him against a wall and kissing his brains out would get the point across. Boys could be such a pain in the ass sometimes…
"Fancy seeing you here."
Speak of the devil.
Tomoe looked out of the corner of her eye and was greeted by a flash of blond hair, glimmering golden in the light of the setting sun.
"You don't strike me as the kind of person who likes watching the sun set, Tomoe," Kikazaru said quietly as he sat down next to her, keeping his eyes trained on the horizon.
"You saying I can't appreciate something peaceful like this?"
"Not at all," the Shihoin prince parried evenly, admiring the evenly-spaced petals of a flower before letting it blow away in the breeze. "It's just that I've never seen you here, in all the times I've come down to watch the sun set."
The young Jaegerjaques' heart clenched as she realized that Kikazaru was right; she'd always known he would come down here as regularly as clockwork, which was why she made a point of avoiding this knoll like the plague. So why was she down here now? What had changed?
"You see that bird over there?"
The question pulled Tomoe away from her thoughts, and the blue-haired Soul Reaper looked over to see the golden-eyed Shihoin pointing out a multi-colored crane that gleamed like a compacted rainbow in the light, its caws a combination of yearning melancholy and vain hope.
"It's called a Rischia," Kikazaru continued, his voice more emotional now than its usual dry, analytical tone. Before he had the chance to explain anything else, Tomoe broke in with a question that felt like it was clawing at her throat.
"Why does it sound like that?" she asked. "It's heartbroken."
Kikazaru got a sad smile on his face that he was thankful Tomoe couldn't see, entranced as she was by the glittering fowl.
"The Rischia mates for life, Tomoe. It picks a female, courts it, and hopefully doesn't wind up running into the one snag that makes the bird's life a gigantic game of Russian Roulette."
"And what snag would that be?"
"There're three males to every one female. And if some poor bastard winds up picking out someone who's already hitched, well," he finished, gesturing to the keening, sorrowful bird, "he ends up like that."
The Shihoin prince finished his speech with a sigh and got up, flashing away as he left the blue-haired Soul Reaper to ponder what he had just said. By the time Tomoe figured it out a few minutes later, the stars had begun to twinkle in the sky as the sun dipped down completely over the horizon. Her dark eyes widened in shock as she put the last pieces of the riddle together. Jaegerjaques was surprised by not only how blind she had been, but also by how much of a self-deprecating moron the younger Shihoin was being.
"Zaru, you idiot," Tomoe grit out, an almost predatory smile on her face that perfectly balanced the fury and elation she was feeling. "I can't believe I wasted so much time pussy-footing around. The next time I see you, I'm going to pound sense into you so hard it'll put you in a fucking coma."
Intent on making their next meeting an immediate one, Jaegerjaques was about to flash-step down to the lab and knock some brain cells into her ridiculously thick-headed crush when a wall of reiatsu stopped her in her tracks. Looking over, Tomoe saw the imposing figure Captain illuminated by the starlight and she smiled despite herself.
"Captain Zaraki," she said formally, saluting. Kenpachi just snorted derisively at the gesture.
"You know you don't have to pull that saluting crap around me, kid," he replied gruffly. "I noticed you weren't your best this afternoon, Jaegerjaques. Something on your mind?"
"Yes," she answered hastily, before realizing what she'd just said. "I mean, no… maybe?" she finished lamely, and the Captain chuckled warmly.
"C'mon," he spoke, "let's go spar. Maybe fighting for your life'll clear all that junk out of your head, kid."
Tomoe smiled; she could use a good duel right about now. Tearing Kikazaru a new one for being such a fool could wait until tomorrow, as could the enjoyable activity that would surely ensue afterwards.
The five Arrancar made sure to emerge from the tear in the world's fabric in as secluded a place as possible, with the underlings that had accompanied them following in their wake.
"You all have your targets," Medea said coolly as the group prepared to disperse into the still, silent night. "Circe," she continued, and a female Arracar came to her side promptly, saluting.
"Yes, my lady?"
"Go to the Twelfth Division's Laboratory and seize your target. Once he is secure, open a garganta and immediately return to Hueco Mundo."
The Arrancar nodded, disappearing with a buzz.
"Let's get a move on," Janus all-but growled, "the dawn ain't waiting for us."
"Quite right," Agamemnon agreed, and the five Arrancar vanished as their underlings split off to combat whoever they could find.
This was going to be a fun night.
Kikazaru Shihoin was pulling an all-nighter in the lab when he heard what sounded like a footfall off somewhere to his left, behind some stacks of equipment and supplies. When he went to go check on it, though, there was no trace of reiatsu and the lab was silent as the grave. He had purposefully waited until Nemu had called it a night before coming down; Kikazaru liked working in isolation, where it was easier to hear himself think and work out tricky problems. Like how the hell he was going to get the glitches in this tenshintai worked out before the established deadine, for example.
The golden-eyed scientist was so wrapped up in scribbling notes on a chalkboard and simultaneously trying to deal with his roiling emotions that he didn't hear the footsteps behind him, inching closer and closer. Kikazaru also failed to notice the reiatsu signature of the bala racing towards him until it was mere fractions of an inch behind him; flashing away at the last possible moment, the Soul Reaper saw the smoldering hole left in the chalkboard and sighed.
"God damn it," he cursed. "Do you have any idea how long it took me to get those balanced?"
As Circe saw her target turn to face her head-on, the Arrancar had to admit that she was surprised. After all, Kisuke Urahara was supposedly much older than this. But this was the right laboratory, this guy was clearly a freakish workaholic, and he had blond hair. That, and the sound of her bala had probably attracted the attention of anyone who happened to be nearby: it was now or never, and the last thing she wanted was to return to Lady Medea empty-handed.
"Arrancar, huh?" Kikazaru mused cockily, while growing uneasy under his exterior. He'd never seen one of them, apart from Stark, in the Human World or Soul Society, let alone in the heart of the Seireitei. What the hell was going on?
"That's right," Circe replied, hoping that a hole would open up while she was conversing with the Captain. Still, if Urahara was really as powerful as she'd heard, she would have to make her move soon or things could get messy.
The young Shihoin shelved his fears for the moment, focusing all of his energy on taking stock of his opponent. She was lithe and graceful, clearly a speedster from the way the majority of her muscle definition was focused in her legs and abdomen. Her zanpakuto took the form of a kusarigama, or chain-sickle, which told the Soul Reaper that she liked attacking from a distance to tire out her enemies before pouncing.
If that was the case, he wouldn't give her the advantage.
Circe cursed sharply as her target closed the distance between them with terrifying speed; still, she noticed as she parried several zanpakuto strikes that there were a shocking number of weaknesses in his stance for someone of Captain class. If they were all this poor at combat, the Dekatimori wouldn't even have to exert itself to topple the Thirteen Captains. Exploiting an opening that appeared after a parried strike, the Arrancar reached in and struck several nerve points in succession. This paralyzed her enemy long enough for Circe to grab the prone body, rip open a garganta and dash into the rift just as she felt a powerful reiatsu racing down the stairs towards her.
Kisuke Urahara leapt down the last four stairs to the lab and looked around with self-imposed calm, taking in every detail and every single disruption in the normally-pristine room. The traces of reiatsu lingering in the air told the Captain everything else he needed to know, and his grey eyes narrowed murderously when he felt a presence akin to that of the recent kidnapper appear above him.
Someone was about to die an excruciatingly painful death.
Fifth Division Captain Ichigo Kurosaki was enjoying a nighttime stroll through the Kuchiki cherry blossom grove when he felt a heavily-veiled reiatsu appear behind him that carried a particular smell with it, a smell that meant only one thing: Arrancar.
"I should have known that you bastards wouldn't hold to the ten-year ceasefire," he said calmly as he turned around, drawing Zangetsu from behind his back as he did so. The Arrancar before him was tall and wizened, his frail outward appearance belying a fearsome amount of power.
"Such language," the white-haired, balding Arrancar said. "You truly are as headstrong as your profile suggested you would be, Ichigo Kurosaki; this battle should be no trouble at all."
"You got that right," Ichigo retorted, readying his zanpakuto to attack. "I won't even be able to get the rust off of this thing before I pound you into a pulp!"
The Arrancar drew what looked like a fencing sabre, and the orange-haired Soul Reaper chuckled.
"If you seriously think you can block Zangetsu with that thing, you should just give up now."
No sooner had the words left Ichigo's mouth than his opponent had vanished with a buzz and the Captain felt a searing pain shoot through his left hand. Almost dropping Zangetsu in shock, Kurosaki spun around to see his enemy holding the sabre out perpendicular to his body as blood dripped from its tip.
"Hubris is deadly, young Kurosaki," the Arrancar taunted as he turned around. "If you seriously think you can hoist that massive zanpakuto with one working hand, you should just give up now. If you insist on fighting, however," he continued as Ichigo cast a basic healing kido to stop the pain and bleeding for a few moments, "then I, Agamemnon, will show you the cost of your pride."
"Bring it on," the brown-eyed Soul Reaper growled, hoping that the kido numbed the pain in his hand long enough for him to mince this old guy into teeny little pieces. After his first head-on strike with Zangetsu was parried with ease and the counterattack left a wound extending from his sternum down to his bellybutton, however, Ichigo realized that this fight was going to be far from simple.
He just hoped he could make it out of this alive, or Rukia would track down his soul and kill him all over again. As he crossed blades with his much quicker opponent again and again, the Fifth Division Captain noticed out of the corner of his mind that another sizable Arracar reiatsu had surfaced in the Kuchiki mansion.
Just how many of them were there?
Kaien Kuchiki would later regret having the craving for a midnight snack, but at the moment he thought nothing of the danger that was about to crash down upon his head as he wandered groggily towards the kitchen. Just as he was about to reach his destination, the young Soul Reaper suddenly felt like all of the breath in his lungs had been forced out at once and he could barely feel his limbs, let alone move.
"Well, what have we here?" a sultry voice called out from behind him. "It looks like a little cub strayed from the den. Tell me, little one," the voice continued as a blond-haired, hazel-eyed Arrancar appeared in front of him with a deafening buzz,
"Where's the papa bear?"
Kaien couldn't speak. His tongue might as well have been anchored in place, and he felt like he would pass out from lack of oxygen in ten seconds if this pressure didn't let up. The Arrancar flashed a mocking smirk.
"Can't tell me? That's fine; there are plenty of ways to draw him out. I apologize in advance, kid," she spoke as she drew her katana-shaped zanpakuto. "This is going to hurt."
Kaien's world exploded in pain as he was stabbed clean through the chest, his fury at being so helpless raging almost as intensely as the agony from the wound carved right near his heart. With the strength ebbing rapidly from his limbs, there was nothing to oppose the immense reiatsu that shoved the young Kuchiki noble roughly to the ground. As he hit the floor hard Kaien began to slip mercifully into unconsciousness, with the last image he saw that of his father facing down the woman who had impaled him, rage and bloodlust blazing from eyes that had turned yellow and black.
I'm sorry, father…
Byakuya Kuchiki surveyed the scene, his worst nightmare given physical form. Kaien was rapidly bleeding out on the floor, a gruesome wound in his chest. If he didn't get medical attention soon he was going to die, and it had been Byakuya's fault for being asleep and not awake and alert. He had let this happen. His only son, his pride, might not see another sunrise and it was his fault. The building sensations of guilt and self-loathing morphed swiftly into rage and all-encompassing hatred as his eyes fell upon the one who had made the wound. The mask fragment sitting around her neck like a regal necklace was a testament to her status as an Arrancar, and her power level was far beyond that of an Adjuchas.
It seemed that the Dekatimori had come to call a year early, and the Seireitei had been caught sleeping on the job. Before he knew what was happening his vision sharpened and his hearing became much more acute, with every breath he drew in relaying fuel to his muscles at twice the normal rate.
"Well, well," the Arrancar mused, "look what we have here. I see I was right not to underestimate you, brother."
"Hold your tongue, you worthless whore," the unleashed Vizard in front of her hissed out, the wreath of bone that sat on his head shining majestically in the moonlight as his emotionless, steely grey eyes quickly became smoldering orbs of black rage and yellow ferocity.
"Ooh, so the dog can bark after all," the Arrancar cooed. "But the real question, big boy, is can you bite?"
Byakuya barely had time to raise Senbonsakura in anticipation of his enemy's lunge before the woman had struck, her face inches away from his as her hazel eyes flashed and she licked her lips seductively.
"I like what I see," she said in a low voice that would have had most males on their knees. "The name's Helen, by the way. What's yours?"
Kuchiki snarled, pushing back with all of his considerable strength and shoving the temptress several paces away from him.
"There is no need for someone as base as you to know my name," he grit back. "Merely content yourself with knowing that this is the face of the man who will kill you."
"In your dreams, handsome," Helen retorted, lashing out once more and vainly attempting to penetrate Byakuya's defenses. The Vizard knew that he had to take this battle out into the open if he was going to unleash his full power, but he didn't want to leave Kaien unattended. As if to answer his prayers, an orange-haired female Soul Reaper flashed into the room right by his son's side. If he hadn't been fighting for his life at the moment, Kuchiki might have smiled at Masaki Kurosaki's timely arrival.
Masaki had been up to no good that night as usual, and had snuck into Kaien's room with the intention of putting spiders in his bed. When she had found it suspiciously empty, however, the young Kurosaki had been about to go downstairs towards Kaien's reiatsu when that very same spiritual energy took a very sudden, seemingly fatal dive. Getting over her shock as quickly as she could, the violet-eyed Soul Reaper flash-stepped the meager distance and found her uncle locked in combat with a female Arrancar while her friend was lying on the floor, horribly wounded and rapidly bleeding out.
"K—Kaien?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to believe the scene in front of her eyes.
"Masaki, get him out of here!" Byakuya shouted. "Go to the Human World, and seek out Orihime Ishida. I would not risk the Fourth Division's headquarters right now, if I were you."
Snapping out of her shock and nodding hastily, the orange-haired warrior unsheathed her zanpakuto and opened a Gate as quickly as she could, hauling Kaien's body over her shoulder and running in as soon as possible. As she spared one last glance over her free shoulder while the Gate closed, Masaki saw her uncle and the Arrancar vanish simultaneously. Another reiatsu signature then flashed into the room for the briefest of moments, before giving chase to the dueling pair.
Byakuya and Helen continued to fight outside, with each of them becoming more and more ferocious in their strikes as the need for restraint ceased to exist. Gashes and cuts appeared on their bodies in generous amounts as Senbonsakura sliced right through the Arrancar's hierro, and with each wound the opponents' fervor and bloodlust only increased.
"I like a man who knows how to handle a blade," Helen said as she languorously licked a small trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.
"Sorry, bitch," a hard voice broke in from the right, "but he's taken. Hado number 33: Sokatsui!"
This time Byakuya couldn't repress a smile; his wife did have a knack for dramatic entrances.
"You certainly took your time," he teased, and Kuukaku just growled.
"Stuff it, Byakushi. Where's Kaien?"
"Getting help," the Kuchiki noble replied seriously.
Helen chuckled, having taken the seconds she had been given to size up the new arrival after easily deflecting the surprise kido with a single hand.
"Well, this is a damn shame," the Arrancar complained. "Here I thought I was going to be able to have some fun with this hunk once I beat him senseless, but I guess that's not to be."
Realizing that the odds were now stacked against her, Helen whistled.
"Paris, get over here!"
No sooner had the order been given than a tall, muscular Arrancar with dark hair and eyes appeared at her side.
"Deal with this whore," she ordered contemptuously, and the lesser Arrancar nodded gravely before turning to face his opponent as one duel expanded into two.
Shunsui Kyoraku was just about to close up the First Division headquarters for the night and was gazing at an especially clear sky replete with stars when he felt a decidedly hostile reiatsu appear in the main hall. It was waiting patiently, seemingly daring him to come out and face its owner. Never one to be rude and turn down an invitation, the current acting Head Captain strode calmly into the main hall and found himself facing down a female Arrancar with dark hair and brown eyes whose reiatsu had an edge sharper than many zanpakuto.
"Shunsui Kyoraku, I presume," she said pleasantly enough, the mask fragment along her arm glinting in the light of the full moon. Shunsui bowed, his head hatless as his brown eyes keenly observed this new adversary.
"You presume correctly, milady," he replied smoothly, unable to quell his inner Lothario even on the brink of a battle. "May I inquire as to your name before we begin?"
"Medea," the Arrancar replied, and Kyoraku smiled.
"That's a strong name," he said, "and exotic. Just how I like them."
"Your women, or your duels?"
"Who says it can't be both?" Shusui parried, smirking in kind as he drew the katana blade of his zanpakuto and the Arrancar followed suit. "Shall we?"
"With pleasure," Medea replied, and the two of them began as the elegant ring of two blades clashing together echoed throughout the hall.
As the game of give-and-take progressed, it became much more like a dance than a duel; the two opponents' strikes were in perfect harmony, with every attempt on Medea's part to land a blow rebuffed by a parry of equal force from Kyoraku. Whether she tried to speed up or slow down, the Captain effortlessly matched her tempo with each and every shift.
"I think you might have bit off a little more than you can chew, my dear," Shunsui quipped. "You're already struggling to keep up, and I haven't even drawn my second sword yet."
Medea smiled wickedly, and suddenly her reiatsu spiked to at least double its previous strength.
"Neither have I," she answered, using the scant moments Kyoraku's surprise at the change had given her to unveil her true strength.
"Blot out the moon and shake the stars from their thrones, Hyperion!"
Shunsui jumped back to escape the violent explosion of reiatsu, and when the smoke cleared he couldn't help but utter a low whistle of approval at the sight that greeted him. Medea hadn't grown at all in size, still being equal to Shunsui in height, but her plain robes had been replaced by resplendent golden, bone-like armor and her previously dark eyes now blazed with a molten orange glow that seemed to shift and shimmer like living magma. Her original katana's blade was now a dark, burnished gold that almost approached copper at points, and was joined by another blade of the same hues. The swords' hilts were wrapped in golden cloth, and finished off with a small tassel that was colored bronze.
"Very impressive," Kyoraku allowed, drawing his wakizashi blade and wordlessly calling out his shikai before rejoining the fight.
The two combatants met in a heated clash, Shunsui's laugh ringing above the chorus of the swords as he gloried in the first true duel he'd had since his fight with Stark so many years ago over the fake Karakura Town.
Medea was soon grinning as well from the sheer exhilaration of it all, the pain from what few wounds she received dulled by the adrenaline and euphoria that combined in her veins to make the Arrancar feel unstoppable. She scored a solid strike on Shunsui's shoulder and the Captain jumped back to catch his breath, the joviality gone from his face and replaced with a deadly serious look.
"Well now," he said in a voice that was much heavier and edgier than his previously flighty tone, "that's enough foreplay."
The Arrancar's grin vanished as well and her eyes flared.
"Hit me with your best shot, Soul Reaper," she challenged, and Kyoraku's brown eyes gleamed dangerously, the depth of their wisdom and power finally becoming apparent.
"As you wish," he said, leaping forward once again.
This time, neither of them held back.
Kenpachi and Tomoe were finishing up their sparring match when a man appeared on the opposite side of the dojo with a buzz, the white mask fragment covering one cheek and half of his chin plainly announcing what he was.
"Kenpachi Zaraki," he said in a gruff voice, his numerous scars piquing the interest of the Eleventh Division Captain, "I, Menelaus of the Dekatimori, have come for your head."
The eyepatch-wearing Soul Reaper smiled widely, before turning his attention back to Tomoe.
"Get out of here, kid," he ordered. "Find anyone else who might be under attack and help them if you want, but leave this guy to me."
"Yes, sir," Jaegerjaques replied tersely, flashing away at once and leaving Zaraki alone with the Arrancar.
"The last time I faced one of you bastards, he said his hierro couldn't be cut and I wound up slicing him almost clean in half."
"I can assure you that I am not anything like that arrogant swine, Nnoitra Jiruga," Menelaus replied gravely. "Nonetheless, it is the simple truth that my hierro is, in fact, absolutely impenetrable, whether or not you decide to harness the power of kendo. Us Vasto Lorde Arrancar are much, much stronger than Adjuchas trash like the former Fifth Espada."
Kenpachi readied his zanpakuto and smiled, jacking up his reiatsu as he did so.
"Vasto Lorde, huh?" he said, his casual attitude at odds with his stoic opponent. "Looks like this will be more fun than I thought. I just hope you're right, and I can't cut through your hierro without using my full power."
"Why do you say that?" Menelaus querried, and Zaraki just laughed.
"I wouldn't want this to end too soon, that's why. You got any Fraccion you can call in to make things more interesting?"
"I will admit, you are as bloodthirsty and unhinged as I expected," the Arrancar replied, tacitly refusing to acknowledge the Captain's request. "I take particular joy in putting wild beasts out of their misery," he continued. "Come, and I shall give you your last rites."
Menelaus reached behind his back and revealed a zanpakuto that took the form of a guandao, a weapon with a heavy, curved blade secured on top of a steel shaft to form a weapon that was at least five, if not six feet long all-told. Kenpachi looked his enemy in the eyes and his feral grin widened.
"Now this is interesting," he mused. "I've never seen a weapon like this before, Arrancar. What's its name?"
"If you are trying to goad me into unleashing my resurrecion, Soul Reaper," Menelaus intoned deeply, "you will not succeed. The name of this weapon is irrelevant, as I will not need to call out its true power to defeat you. Know simply that it is the last weapon you will ever see, and that it will sing your requiem."
"Cut the poetic bullshit and let's get down to business," Zaraki growled, letting loose even more of his reiatsu. The Arrancar's calm, however, remained undisturbed.
"As you wish," he replied, matching the Captain's strength and then exceeding it again by half without breaking a sweat. Kenpachi barely had enough time to smile at the odds stacked against him before he was blocking the first strike from the surprisingly heavy blade, his zanpakuto growling in anger as it ground against the Arrancar's weapon. The Captain pushed back with all the strength he had in one arm, satisfied to see that it was enough to shove the arrogant bastard back a few steps.
Eager to keep up the assault Zaraki charged forward, hacking like a madman and laughing with glee at the harsh sounds made by each clash of his sword against Menelaus' zanpakuto. When he swung down hard on his enemy's shoulder, however, Kenpachi was unable to cut through the hierro: it was just as Menelaus had predicted.
"What did I tell you, you brash, mindless beast?" the Arrancar taunted, striking with his own weapon and ripping a huge chunk from the Captain's own shoulder. "You cannot cut me. I pity you, driven by such blind rage and pointless bloodlust. You lack the armor of my kind and that will be your undoing, Kenpachi Zaraki."
"You know," the spiky-haired Soul Reaper replied with a growl, "I think your hierro bullshit is way overrated. I mean, if you can't bleed, if you can't feel pain," he continued, reaching up to grab his eyepatch before yanking it off entirely, "then what's the point of fighting!?"
Lashing out with a vicious strike, Kenpachi watched in satisfaction as not only did Menelaus' zanpakuto barely block the strike, but it shook like a leaf from the shock of the blow and the smooth shaft now had a very deep notch in it.
"Well, look at that," Zaraki said appreciatively. "You may be blade-proof, but your zanpakuto certainly isn't. This is going to be fun; so much more fun than I originally thought! Once I break your zanpakuto, I'll get to spend hours slashing at you before I finally find the way to get through that barrier of yours and carve you up like the pig you are!"
"Don't get cocky, you ingrate!" Menelaus roared as his exterior crumbled for the first time. Pure rage surged up in the Arrancar's eyes as he met the advance of the equally ferocious Captain and the duel began once again in earnest, each man fighting to achieve nothing less than the complete and utter annihilation of their enemy.
Stark was sleeping when Janus came for him, stalking silently over to the former First Espada's sleeping form and raising his katana-shaped zanpakuto up high, poised to deliver the killing blow before the duel had even truly begun. The sword arced downward with heinous speed, strength and precision, only to stop dead against the sleeping Arrancar's collarbone.
"I'd hoped that whoever would have the guts to come for me would also have the honor to at least wake me up first," Stark said lethargically, "but I guess that's asking too much from a scumbag like you."
Janus grinned and jumped away, readying himself for the greatest duel of his life as Stark rose to his feet. The former First Espada appraised his enemy for a few moments before sighing.
"This will be over quickly enough," he said. "Vasto Lorde or not, you're still weak compared to me."
"Says the rat bastard who rotted in our prisons for almost two decades," the dark-eyed Arrancar spat back. "Where was your strength then, Stark? Why didn't you save that little green-haired bitch you called your Fraccion?"
The steely-eyed Arrancar stiffened at that, and Janus' grin widened.
"That's right," he said vindictively. "You watched her die and did nothing to stop us. While we're at it, why is Halibel still rotting away in Las Noches? Why haven't you stormed in, all fire and brimstone, and struck every single one of us 'weaklings' down? Is it because you're weaker than you'd like to think? What is it, Stark? What's holding you back?"
"My reasons are my own," the former First Espada said curtly. "And you had best hold your tongue if you don't want to lose it, brat."
"Ooh, big talk," Janus crooned mockingly. "Did'ja know that Halibel's just one shattered mask fragment away from regressing back into a normal Hollow? That's right," the dark-eyed Arrancar pressed on as he saw the shock flash in Stark's eyes. "I've done the last few myself, actually," Janus gloated. "You would not believe the agony, man. It'd almost be hot if it wasn't so pathetic. I mean, she just lays there writhing and moaning in pain like some animal that's been beaten half to death, begging and bleating for the final mercy-blow to come down. But that's nothing compared to the nightmares.
"I've heard Halibel calling out to you so many times it makes me want to just tell her you're never going to show up and put her out of her goddamn misery. I feel like you're the only thing she's got going for her," the Arrancar finished, "which is one of the many reasons I look forward to bringing your head back to Las Noches. Not only will I win enough glory to last multiple lifetimes, but with you out of the picture that slut will have no one left to run to. She'll be completely broken, and that's when I'll finish her off with the ultimate coup de grace. I've always wondered what it would be like to see a Vasto Lorde regress…"
Before he could finish the sentence, Janus felt a burning pain in his mouth followed by a suffocating sensation as he began to choke on his own blood. After taking a moment to staunch the bleeding from the wound that had sprung up seemingly out of nowhere, the Arrancar looked up and his eyes widened in horror and rage.
Stark was standing there just like he had been throughout Janus' entire speech, except now he held a chunk of pinkish flesh between his gloved fingertips.
"What did I tell you about holding your tongue, boy?" the former First Espada said nonchalantly as he let the now-useless organ fall to the ground and drew his sword.
"I'm going to make you pay for what you've done to her," Stark continued solemnly, his expression pitiless and utterly unforgiving.
"I'm going to make you pay dearly, Arrancar."
A/N: Don't throw tomatoes at me just yet for setting up so many different fights at once and leaving them hanging; they do serve an important purpose, you just have to wait until Chapter 3 to see what that purpose is. Trust me when I say this isn't just action for action's sake, and that this story will still be predominately character-driven once this skirmish settles down. And I know I threw in another abduction, but that, too, has a purpose; just bear with me.
Set-up qualities of this chapter aside, though, I hope you still enjoyed it. Please review, and I'll see you guys at Chapter 3 for more on Suzaku's struggle with Aizen, Kikazaru's captivity and the Soul Reapers vs. the Dekatimori!