Chapter 6: Wunderkind
Orihime walked through the darkness of the void with calm and happiness radiating from her stride, feeling more fulfilled than she had in years. Some part of her felt as though she should be mourning for Shiro, but she quickly suppressed that instinct as her mind reminded her that the Hollow had been responsible for Kaien Shiba's death and her body recalled the feeling of Zangetsu's cold steel being pressed against her neck. The pain of the wounds Ulquiorra had given her had dulled to an annoyingly persistent ache, but still looked fresh enough to be convincing. Walking on until she had reached the boundary of the first District of the Rukongai, Orihime used her Koten Zanshun to strengthen her katana and cut a rift through the void, stepping out back into the light of Soul Society.
Hoping that some of the acting tips she had picked up from Rukia over the years would finally pay off, the Captain disappeared in a flash of shunpo and hurried towards the First Division's Headquarters.
"Shiro is dead?"
"His last act was to open up a garganta for me to escape through, Sir," Orihime answered Byakuya, hoping that he bought the story. "I managed to defeat Ulquiorra, but Wonderwice was with him and took out Shiro easily before going after me. Shiro revived long enough to stall him and open up the garganta; after that I can't be sure what happened, but I'm certain Shiro would have chosen death over surrender."
"I see," Byakuya spoke after a moment, "how unfortunate that we lost such a strong warrior. But he was a beast at his core all the same, and at least his sacrifice helped to bring down Ulquiorra. Do you have anything else to report, Captain?"
"No, Sir, I do not," Orihime answered, inwardly immensely relieved that Byakuya had believed her story.
"Very well, then; you may go. The execution of the prisoners is slated to begin at noon, in a few hours. I trust you will be in attendance?"
Byakuya watched her go and smiled to himself: he was fairly sure that Orihime was lying, but it didn't matter at this point. He would use her for her powers as long as they were necessary, and when it got to the point that the object he had found in a secret safe in Unohana's former quarters could be fully relied upon, she would be dealt with accordingly.
The door to the room deep inside the Maggot's Nest swung open with a creak, and the heads of the prisoners rose collectively to regard what they assumed would be the white-robed Shinigami who had come to lead them off to their execution. Instead, the visitors were black-uniform-clad Shinigami that had thuggish dispositions and murderous, vindictive looks in their eyes.
"Looks like we got here in time after all," one of them said with a sharp, leering edge in his voice, "Byakuya said we could exact some of our own justice on you freaks before the execution, so long as we didn't kill you."
Héctor charged at the one who had called him a freak, the shackles around his wrists holding him back scant inches from the bars of his cell as he all-but snarled at the Shinigami like a caged beast.
"Héctor, calm down!"
The hard words coming from his father stilled the Vizard's tirade at once, and he gave him a questioning glance as the black faded from the corners of his eyes.
"They want to see you break, kid," Grimmjow said seriously. "Don't give them that satisfaction."
"You can put up as much of a front as you want, Arrancar," another one of the Shinigami crowed, "But your reactions will show you for the beast you are."
The door of Soi Fon's cell was wrenched open, but the Captain didn't even flinch as a trio of Shinigami walked in and surrounded her.
"Héctor," she said as evenly as she could, "It'll be all right."
The first blow was a crippling strike to the solar plexus, but Soi Fon had been expecting that and her tightened muscles absorbed most of the impact. Unfortunately, that also meant that the subsequent strike aimed at her arm met no resistance whatsoever, and the sickening sound of snapping bone echoed off the walls with a crack.
Grimmjow wanted to move. Every muscle in his arms was tensed, chafing painfully against his restraints. His teeth were grinding against each other as he forced his mouth to remain shut because he knew that if he opened it he would roar. And there was no way he was going break in front of these Shinigami bastards, and especially not in front of his son.
Blows rained down on Soi Fon without mercy, but her mouth remained set in a determined line as she resolved not to so much as groan in pain, no matter how hard the bastards decided to strike her.
"Enough, enough!" the lead Shinigami called out after a few minutes of beating. "We need to keep these shit-stains alive for their execution, and if we keep going like this I might not be able to hold myself back. Besides," he finished, glancing around at the other cells as his Shinigami companions advanced on them, "I'm more than happy to just watch the rest of this unfold."
The remaining Shinigami advanced on Grimmjow, Gin, Héctor, Eris and Saika, but Unohana's cell remained closed. The former Captain Commander turned to regard a lone Shinigami who stood faceless in the shadows, her voice unusually sharp.
"Why is no one coming for me?"
"Someone convinced Byakuya to spare you from execution, Unohana," they said, the voice disguised through the use of some kido and their reiatsu signature surprisingly hard to pinpoint.
"His orders are to spare you alone; everyone else is fair game."
Unohana bowed her head in silent grief and shame, wishing that she could do something to relieve one of her fellow captives' suffering but powerless to do so. The metallic smell of blood was soon hanging thick in the air, both from the wounds of the prisoners and the skinned knuckles of their punishers.
Saika watched his lover gradually being reduced to a bloody pulp and his heart began to break in agonizing shame and anger, but his guilt only did so much to divert the Arrancar's attention from the pain his own body was being put through at the hands of the Shinigami torturing him. His right arm and left leg had been broken, and his other arm was following close behind its brethren.
"You took down my Captain Komamura during the War," one of the Shinigami that was beating him spoke. "I'm going to pay you back for that!"
"I can't say I begrudge you that," Saika rasped as the ribs that had just been broken rattled in his chest, "but this is a pretty petty way to even the scales, don't you think?"
The only response the Arrancar's attacker gave him was letting loose with another vicious right hook.
Saika, you idiot, Eris thought sadly as she watched him slump over, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. Stop antagonizing them. If you get yourself killed here and leave me on my own to face the executioner, I'll never forgive you!
Gin had expected the backlash against him to be the worst, and he wasn't disappointed; within a few minutes, his attackers had decided to stop throwing punch after punch against his flesh and had instead unsheathed their swords, cutting with enough precision to cause pain without excessive bleeding. Bloodlust finally got to one of the men's heads, though, and the blade of his weapon lashed out right at Gin's neck.
The single word of command was strong enough to make all of the Shinigami stopped their current attacks in mid-strike.
"It's time for them to march out to the execution grounds," the idle Shinigami who had been cloaked in the shadows up until now said as they stepped forward into the light, revealing a dark-haired young woman with sharp gray-blue eyes. "Now get the hell out of here, and let the devotees do their jobs."
"Fucking Fourth Division rat," the one who had almost severed Gin's head growled, "who the hell are you to boss me around!?"
The Shinigami charged his comrade in blind rage, and in the moment he entered her sword's reach, a grin flashed across Amara's face that would have been at home on her father's face.
She disappeared and reappeared in a double-flash of shunpo, her would-be attacker falling into the dirt dead behind her as Amara flicked the blood off of the blade of her sealed zanpakuto and re-sheathed it calmly.
"Anyone who wants to join him on the ground can stay," she declared to the gathered thugs. "Otherwise, get out of here."
The Shinigami saw the seriousness smoldering in Amara's eyes and they scrambled for the exit, leaving her alone with the bruised and battered prisoners.
"You certainly took your time, kid," Gin said with knowing smugness, a smirk on his face no less taunting than his normal grin.
"If I'd known that was the kind of thank-you I was going to get, you bastard," Amara seethed, "I would have just let him kill you back there."
"No, you wouldn't have," Gin parried almost happily, as the other prisoners apart from Héctor and Unohana, who knew what was going on, looked at the arguing duo in confusion.
"You wouldn't have killed me," Gin repeated with cool assurance, "because you want answers, Amara."
The younger Shinigami smirked despite herself, breathing out a bitter chuckle.
"This is the first time I've ever seen you," she said, "and after all of two minutes I already despise you, father."
Gin's eyes opened fully at her acknowledgment of their blood relation, but the smirk remained on his face.
"This isn't the first time you've seen me, kid."
"What are you talking about?" the younger Shinigami asked in confusion, Gin's smile vanished instantly as his tone became serious, his garnet eyes narrowing as he regarded his daughter keenly.
"The wilds outside of the Rukongai. Five years ago, when you were on that exploration mission. Do you remember that?"
"I don't think I'll ever forget it," Amara answered distractedly, already being pulled back into the memory.
All she could smell on the air was the metallic scent of blood as the mission went from bad to worse before jumping off the edge of a cliff and free-falling into a total catastrophe.
"Damn it, Amara," the Eleventh Division soldier ground out as he strained to keep his block up against the claw of the massive Hollow that was currently trying to decapitate him, "just get the hell out of here! Someone from Fourth Division has no place in combat!"
Amara bristled at the implied jab in her companion's words, but when Iura's guard broke and the claw sliced him clean in half, she began to think about taking his advice and hurrying back to the Seireitei. The giant, sphinx-like Hollow reared its head back and let out a single shrill screech, bringing both Amara and her two surviving comrades to their knees. Sloppy garganta opened up all around them moments later, and what had started as a single Huge Hollow had now become several.
"Holy shit!" one of the other two Shinigami shouted, before hastily calling out his zanpakuto. "Tell me there's backup on the way!"
"I put the call in as soon as this bastard showed up," the other warrior answered, "but it looks like we're gonna have to hold these monsters off until they arrive!"
"So much for this being an easy reconnaissance mission," the one who had spoken earlier grumbled. "Hey, Fourth Squad," he shouted out to Amara, using the derisive nickname he'd given her at the beginning of the day, "if you want to make yourself useful, run away and shout out as loud as you can. If the backup hears you screaming, maybe they'll hurry up!"
Amara's killer instinct spiked up sharply at the taunt, and for a moment she weighed the good and bad of just slicing off this asshole's head and dealing with the Hollows herself. She didn't have long to deliberate before the horde decided to strike, and the three Shinigami scrambled to stay alive.
Arcs of light tore through the air and sliced through Hollows as Amara danced and spun, leaping out of the way of massive punches and claw swipes as her enemies tried with more and more fervor to bring her down. Two of the Hollows worked in tandem to trap their prey, one forcing the Shinigami to dodge left while the other let loose with a blast of energy that slammed into Amara's midsection with crushing force, causing a crimson stain to darken her teeth and lips. Straining the shocked muscles in her limbs to stay tense, she barely managed to right herself and twist to the side, a claw that would have sheared her clean in half tearing a nasty gash across her stomach instead.
Buckling under the weight of her wounds at last, Amara pulled out a last-ditch technique and created an image of herself with her zanpakuto's power before flashing away, hoping that the Hollows would go after the bait and give her enough time to heal at least a few of her wounds. As she focused the rest of her energy into healing kido and concentrated on patching up her injuries, however, Amara was horrified to see a shadow loom over her. Turning around, she saw that one of the Hollows hadn't fallen for her decoy, and was about to pound her into mush on the ground with its mammoth fists.
"Bakudo number 39: Enkosen!"
The shield was able to deter the blow, but the Hollow wasn't about to give up and reared back its other fist, now even more enraged and determined to kill his foe.
But then a surge of reiatsu rose up from out of nowhere as an impossibly long wakizashi blade shot through the Hollow's skull, shattering it into pieces as the monster evaporated into thin air before it had even known what had struck it.
"Boy, this takes me back," a light, masculine and totally unconcerned voice spoke out. Amara turned to see who her savior was, but the only thing she could make out was a black cloak the man was wearing, which obscured him completely from view.
"I wish I had enough time to have more fun with all of you," the unknown Shinigami spoke to the crowd of Hollows that had now turned to evaluate this new threat, "but the backup's gonna be here soon, and they can't be seein' me, now can they? 'Sides, you had to go and make this personal, and I can't say that makes me very happy."
The wakizashi's blade, which had retracted to its normal size, extended again, covered in white light as it raced forwards. The weapon seemed to gain no weight as it grew in size, and the warrior swung it around with ease as it reaped the lives of the Hollows before it like wheat before a scythe.
"That's better," the Shinigami said happily as the last Hollow vanished, as if he'd been doing nothing more strenuous than cleaning errant papers off of a desk. Turning slightly, he faced Amara. She still couldn't see his face, but she felt something very familiar about him, even if she couldn't place it.
"You're not the backup?" she managed to ask through the haze of her pain, and the man shook his head.
"Can't say that I am, kid," he answered. "That was a nice couple 'a moves you pulled off there, if I may say."
"Thanks…?" Amara replied, her brows furrowing. "Do I know you?"
"No, y'don't," the other Shinigami answered, raising one slim hand up, "and it should stay that way.
Amara's instincts told her to avoid the knockout kido, but there was nothing she could do given the state she was in and a heartbeat later she slipped into unconsciousness. When she woke up the backup from Fifth Division was crowded around her, the lone survivor.
When Amara forced herself up onto her elbows and blinked a few times to clear her vision, however, the cloaked man was nowhere to be seen.
Amara's confusion turned into shock as the pieces of the scattered memory finally fell into place and she realized who had saved her life back then.
"That… that was you?"
"Sure was," Gin answered evenly, and Amara was silent for a few moments, clearly wrestling with herself. Eventually she came to some kind of decision and stepped forward, crouching down beside her wounded father and covering his injuries in the green glow of healing kido. When the process was done she rose and looked down at Gin, and the former Captain was sure he could see tears gathering at the corners of her eyes against her will.
"We're even," she said, her voice holding only the barest of trembles. "If I see you again after today, I swear I'll make you pay."
"I look forward to it, Amara," Gin said with rare sincerity and a touch of regret showing in his eyes. The younger Shinigami turned around and walked a few steps before disappearing in a flash of shunpo, the sound failing to completely mask her sob.
The room was silent for a few moments before that quiet was broken by Grimmjow, who spoke with all of his characteristic tact.
"They let bastards like you have children?"
Gin smiled dangerously at the provocation, and was about to reply when a group of white-robed Shinigami came into the room and their leader made an announcement.
"It is time," he decreed solemnly. "We shall now guide you to the Soukyoku Hill."
"Took you long enough," Saika grumbled as his shackles were unlocked and replaced with a reiatsu-blocking red collar. "I was starting to get bored over here."
The six prisoners left the room single-file, leaving Unohana alone to ruminate in the darkness.
The sunlight that slammed into the prisoners' faces as they went above-ground for the first time since their captivity was almost blinding, but they didn't shirk away and instead kept their eyes to the ground as they walked, blocking out the jeers of the crowd that pelted them with curses and refuse as they passed. Still, they walked or limped with as much dignity as they could manage, and after several minutes they found themselves standing on the Hill before Byakuya, who was flanked by a few other Captains who had come to witness the execution. Orihime was among them, but she looked away as Eris attempted to read her with a searching gaze.
"Soi Fon," Byakuya's voice rang out coldly in the silence, "you alone among this filth once wore a Shinigami's haori in combat against the army of Sosuke Aizen. In honor of your service, I am prepared to grant you a final request."
The former Captain of Second Division hesitated for a moment, gathering together what pride she still had and swallowing it whole as she prepared herself to beg for a favor from the monster standing in front of her.
"I have such a request, Kuchiki."
"And that is?"
"I will not ask you to spare my life, nor Grimmjow's," she said evenly, "but please, spare the life of our son. Let him go."
"I see," Byakuya said solemnly, his eyes closed. When he opened them again, however, his steely eyes glinted with cold malice.
"I will grant you this request, Soi Fon," he said, "on one condition:
"What?!" Soi Fon exclaimed in shock, as Gin's mouth set itself into a rare frown at Byakuya's words.
"Renounce him as your son," Byakuya answered, his tone still frigid. "Declare him unloved, an enemy, a disgrace, sever him from your thoughts forever, and I will let him live."
"There's a special place in hell for people like you, Byakuya," Gin said coldly, his voice utterly devoid of its normal affectation, "and I'm looking forward to watching you burn there."
"What is your answer, Soi Fon?" the Captain Commander pressed, totally ignoring Gin's words. Soi Fon's fist trembled as she held it clenched, her onyx eyes burning with rage. On one hand, she wanted to do as Byakuya said, and hope that Héctor could see that she had only done what she'd had to do, and hadn't truly meant it. And yet… if she broke here, if she bowed before Byakuya and did what she was told, there was no way she could convince herself that she was lying. And if she couldn't convince herself, there was no way Héctor wouldn't take her words as the truth. Either submit and break her son's heart as the cost of saving his life, or refuse and drag him down to hell with her as the cost of her selfishness: the choice was almost too much to bear.
"Mom," Héctor's voice broke in, emboldened by the fact that he was facing his final moments, "don't even answer him! I'd rather lose my head than see you bow and scrape before this cocksucker!"
"Very well," Byakuya answered coldly, "it seems your brat has made up his mind of his own accord. We shall proceed."
A brief signal later, six hooded executioners took their places silently behind the prisoners and raised their swords in unison, prepared to cut off the heads of those in front of them at a word.
As the blades swung toward the prisoners aimed unerringly in a decapitating blow, the weapons suddenly found themselves shattering harmlessly against a bright barrier of yellow light.
"What the fuck?" Grimmjow spoke in surprise. "Negacion?!"
"Oya, this is most certainly unexpected," Gin said with amusement only someone like him could muster having just narrowly avoided death. "I can't say it's unwelcome, though."
"Who…?" Soi Fon breathed out, but a loud tearing sound drowned out the rest of her question as a huge garganta opened up in the sky above them, revealing a single glowing, purple eye amidst the blackness.
"Well, if that ugly thing's here, means Wonderwice must be pullin' its chain," Gin mused as the ground he was standing on was torn from its foundation and began to float upwards. "Man, that kid creeps me out big time."
The shouts of Byakuya and his accompanying Captains faded into a mere buzz as the six escapees reached the garganta, stepping into it as the negacion barriers around them all vanished.
"See, Ulquiorra?" a calm, yet smug voice spoke out, "I told you it would work."
The six looked over to behold Wonderwice and Ulquiorra standing on discs of reiatsu in the blackness of the void, the haori of the Fifth Division still draped over Wonderwice's shoulders. Ulquiorra said nothing at first, a troubled, distracted look on his face as he merely turned and walked deeper into the blackness.
"How in the hell do you have our zanpakuto, Ulquiorra?" Grimmjow asked as he held Pantera in his hands reverently, and the other Arrancar gave a minute shrug.
"I did nothing," he answered. "If you want to thank anyone, thank Orihime."
Grimmjow took a moment to inspect the blade of his sword, but as he slid the blade all the way back into its sheath a catlike grin flashed over his face.
"Orihime, huh?" he said slyly. "So what happened to put you two on a first-name basis, Ulquiorra?"
The other Arrancar's expression clouded at the taunt and he said nothing; rather than fire off some hard-edged retort like he might have done back in the days of their rivalry under Aizen, Ulquiorra simply vanished in a buzz of sonido. Grimmjow looked after him with an arched eyebrow for a few moments, before just shrugging it off.
"So, the question now is," Saika said as he hefted his spear-shaped zanpakuto over his shoulder and looked around at the vastness of the Menos Forest, "where the hell do we go from here?"
"I don't suppose you have any other plans up your sleeve, do you," Wonderwice spoke towards a shadow cast by a massive tree,
The eyes of everyone else present shot open in surprise as the Captain of the Twelfth Division stepped out into the light, a smile on his face that unnerved even Gin. Yoruichi stood next to him, and flashed a feline grin at a thoroughly-flabbergasted Soi Fon.
"For now, no," Urahara said calmly. "For now, you're on your own. I'll do what I can to get Yoruichi re-instated as Captain of the Second Division, but there's only so much we'll be able to do for you from now on."
"Your best bet would probably be hiding out in the Human World," Yoruichi suggested. "Kisuke had Tessai whip up a few reiatsu-cloaking gigai, and those should keep the dogs off your scent for a while."
"Why are you doing this, Urahara?" Gin asked, and the Captain met his former enemy with an even gaze.
"I'm not doing this for you, Ichimaru," he said, "nor do I have any personal vendetta against Kuchiki or those others who opposed Unohana; right now, my interests and your interests just happen to coincide.
"But before the six of you head off to parts unknown, however," Urahara continued, his voice taking on a solicitous edge, "there's something I think you ought to know."
"Which is?" Wonderwice pressed, irritated that he'd been kept in the dark about something important.
"Byakuya Kuchiki is currently in possession of the Hougyoku," Twelfth's Captain declared darkly,
"And it has reached the pinnacle of its true potential as the ultimate engine of conquest."
A/N: And there you have it, the interlude/bridge fic/part two of the trilogy, whatever you want to call it. Props go out one last time to JasoTheArtisan for being a super-duper beta, and for coming up with the title to this chapter that was bugging me for so long. I hope you enjoyed the story, and as always, please review!
And just as a heads-up, it'll probably be a while before you see any of the main sequel popping up, because I'm going to be studying abroad for this coming academic year and probably won't have that much time to write amidst all the other crazy stuff that'll be going on. If you want to be sure you won't miss anything, though, just add me to your Author Alert list and you'll get an email notifying you as soon as I post the first chapter of the main sequel. But again, that probably won't be for some time.
So if any of you were asking yourselves, "But Jazzpha, why were you being such a speed demon posting up all of these chapters so quickly?!", that's why.
All the best, thanks for following me through yet another decidedly bittersweet tale, and here's hoping that I'll see you over at the concluding story of the trilogy.