'No....

She couldn't believe it.

He appeared before everyone in a flourish of sonido. "Behold, woman." They had long since gathered at the roof, hoping to see any signs of the ensuing clash that had taken out a third of the dome from Las Noches. "The death of your so called, savior."

Finally, the silence was broken.

"NO!"

With a dull thud, his body fell to the ground. The pallid sands greedily sucked in his blood, heedless of her horrified shriek, nor of the his labored last breath's. Like death itself, Ulquiorra loomed over him, the shadow of his hand, raised high for the final blow, blotting out the moonlight."Let this be a lesson to you, fool. You will find no peace in this death."

He didn't respond. He could feel it, his body, slowly shutting down, despite the Orihime's best efforts to restore him. He tried to gather himself, perhaps for one last attack, or one final insult, but no sound, no movement came. All that followed was blood, vomited from his ruptured lungs.

"Kurosaki-kun!" Inoue tried to run towars him, but found herself not been held back by Ishida. Had he not been there, she would have gone after him, this thing, this creature who'd struck down her beloved. "Oh god no! No!Get up Kurosaki-kun! Ichigo! ICHIGO!"

"Stop it!!" Ishida snarled at his friend as she renewed her efforts. "You'll be killed!" His normally quiet voice tripled in volume as he grabbed her by the arms hands in an effort to get a better grip on his distraught friend. Still Inoue thrashed and struggled against her friends, ignoring the fact that she would most certainly join him in death, if she were to interfere.

"Silence, woman." Ulquiorra scowled, directing a glimmer of her reaitsu at the duo. "Your pleas will not save him." Ulquiorra turned to direct a scowl at Orihime, but she had something to say. "Sh-Shut up! You-You B-Bastard!"Now, the cuarta was met with such an intense glare, that even he was momentarily at a loss for words.

But not for long. "I said silence." Ishida and Inoue felt the full force of his reaitsu as the brunt of it fell upon their shoulders. As one they fell, gasping and panting for breath. But her words had not been wasted, for at the moment, Ichigo twitched, ever so slightly.

Inoue? His conciousness was there. Faint, but definitely there. Inoue?Slowly, it began to stir, rising from the murky depths of darkness, that terrible blackness that threatened to consume it, swallow it whole. Inoue? With a slight twitch, he stirred.

Wha?

Am I dead?

No...I can't be dead?

"Kurosaki-kun!"

Inoue?

"Kurosaki-kun!"

I can hear her...

"KUROSAK-KUN!"

Stand.

"Please!"

Get up damnit!

A tear fell, rolled down his cheek.

I...I will protect her.

--

(Music Quincy's craft)

"!!"

A hand lashed out to catch the ground, slamming down with enough force to crack the tile.

Then it happened.

From the blackest depths of hell, the blaring roar of reaitsu came, consuming the corpse. Slowly, Ichigo's body began to patch itself, forming clean white marks over each wound, then disappearing into the flesh. A blazing masked skull growled above his prone form, laughing silently as if it were alive. Reddish black light gathered from the hole at its chest, and within moments, the reaitsu was in full effect.

Slowly, the deformed carcass took on human shape. Indeed, within moments, the vizard was back on his feet, standing as if nothing had happened, as if he had merely been asleep.

Ulquiorra stared in gobsmacked fascination as the two separate halves sewed themselves into a complete whole, leaving complete and flawless skin where before there had been little more than ragged flesh. Inconceivable. He'd been split in two. How could he get back up from that?

"Kurosaki....kun...?"

Inoue could only blink as she beheld him. It, the creature, was barechested, but now its hollow hole could be seen, dead center in its chest where she'd ripped out his heart. He gave a low growl as he seemed to notice something was amiss here.

He had a mask, resembling more of a human skull, complete with a jaw joint and rounded forehead. From the back of the mask, four spike-shaped marks stretched, two of them stopping by the forehead, and the other two stretching past the eyes and teeth, going past his chin and joining with the marks on his chest. There were also small marks resembling a heart, but with the top and bottom open, extending from the inner corners of his eyes.

But the mask's most prominent features were two long forward-pointing horns with black strips extending from their center towards the tips.

Ichigo extended a hand, and Zangetsu flew to him, shearing up the sand as it went. With an audible pop, it landed back in his palm, creating concussion force that shattered the nearby pillar into a thousands fragments. Jamming the sparking pole into the sands, what was left of the debris dissolved.

The beast huffed once, apparently satisfied, then turned its attention to Inoue. She blinked in surprise as it lumbered towards her, then disappeared with the punch of sonido, scooped her up, and reappeared upon intact part of the roof.

All in an eyeblink.

"....Protect." It rumbled, setting her down, staring at her intently. "I...will protect you."Inoue could only nod and stare up at the behemoth that gently touched her cheek with a clawed hand. Though he hadn't gotten any taller, this creature that radiated power, power that now hissed and spit at the air around them.

Ulquiorra finally found his voice. "Impossible...you were dead." The moment lost, the beast placed itself firmly between him and Inoue. It shook itself, tossing its mane wildly, spiritual pressure deafening to all those present. "Who are what are you?" It noticed him then, and slowly raised its gaze...

"OOOOOOOOH!"

(Music change: Invasion)

"I see." Black reaitsu swirled from his hand. "Yes, its just as I thought. You've become little more than a mindlesss beast." The current circled his index finger, then at his command, lunged, hoping to drown the monster before it could move.

It seemed vaguely aware of the incoming attack, but still, made no effort to dodge. No, it stood firm in the wake of the technique, for the terrible current had not struck home. No, the creature emerged from the steam, dripping wet, but entirely unharmed.

'He dodged?'

Saffron eyes narrowed as black light gathered once more from the tips of his fingers.

"Cero Oscuras."

It snorted, as if in contempt, then raised its horns in a trio pointed edge. Violet red light flickered at its tips, coalescing into the distinctive, fluctuating soccer ball sized sphere that was a cero.

Ulquiorra fired seconds later.

It howled at him , and a tug of war ensued. Red, black The two pinpoints of light crashed against one another, creating a sphere as the reaitsu surged and buckled under their feet. Within seconds Ulquiorra realized his disadvantage. Whatever this new strength was, it was too much for his cero to handle. With a dull thump Ichigo overpowered the black cero and the fire rushed forward to consume Ulquiorra. The creature tilted its head as if in confusion as he was lost from sight.

But not for long.

With a punching sound, he was suddenly behind him, a lance of green light raised vertical above his head. Ichigo twitched as Ulquiorra carved a thick gash from his right shoulder to his back, but no sooner had the steel left his chalky white flesh then it did heal, flawlessly.

Halibel hissed in surprise.

"Instantenous Regeneration?!"

With a shriek, he rounded on his enemy.

Ulquiorra had no choice now but to take the attack, the powerful sword opening a slice down his belly. The gash ran down along his flat stomach, in addition to the dark crimson that leaked from his hollow hole. Thankfully, his hierro proved strong enough to render the wound non-fatal, but his blood still stained the ground beneath his feet as he continued his leap backwards.

"Impossible."The espada hissed, touching a finger to the blood that was now trickling down his gut stomach. "How could you have cut me?" Ichigo's response was to click his tongue, stamp a foot and raise his reiatsu. Red light exploded from the seal, and he leapt once more.

"I see," the pallid arrancar said slowly, his spiritual pressure rising to match the vizard's. Ichigo bellowed at him, but the espada suddenly whirled-

"Bala."

A massive explosion suddenly crashed through the back wall of the innermost pillar, causing Ichigo to take his attention off of Ulquiorra and sonido towards Inoue, a futile attempt to shield her from harm. The bala hit his chest with a dull crunch, throwing him into the foremost pillar. As he appeared again, he found the cuarta directly across from him, his lance pointed at his chalk white chest as he trapped him between the incoming cero and his deadly weapon, blocked by Tensa Zangetsu. Black light began to swell along the edges of his lance and a small smirk crossed his face.

The hardened bullet of reiatsu launched forth, its piecing tip aimed directly for Ichigo's head. The beast raised a hand and the blast turned to steam against his hand, the mist vanishing back into the blade.

Ulquiorra vanished suddenly, his body vanishing in a buzz of black and white. He swiftly appeared behind his shinigami opponent and fired off a twin pair of ceri , the two missiles screaming through the air towards the hollows turned back.

The creature raised its free hand, and sliced them clean in half with Zangetsu performed the same feat. Scowling, Ulquiorra retreated again, but now, the air was laden with heat, a thick dry sky that was deprived of any and all humidity.

He soon found the answer as he stabbed the scythe into the ground and a wall of flames rushed at her.

Reishi.

Indeed, the power stemmed from his blade, which was greedily absorbing many spirit particles from the air. They wreathed across his skin as if they were alive, crawling over his chalky white flesh like unearthly vines. He roared a challenge and flung the the getsuga like flames at Ulquiorra, cutting through another useless cero as if it were dust.

He was being overpowered.

With a buzzing shock, Ulquiorra was directly in front of Ichigo , his lange crashing into Zangetsu. Ichigo blocked with the same lethargic force that seemed to move his hand a moment ago. But it was enough to spur his weapon forward, causing the Arrancar to repel back forcefully. A dull punch of sonido reached his ears too late. Ichigo was already there, behind him, carving into her back as if his skin were made of paper, not impenetrable steel.

Blood spurted from the space between his shoulder blades. Refusing to give him the satisfaction of crying out, Ulquiorra whirled on him, . But Ichigo seized the lance with his bare hand, shattering it without so much as an effort.

With a dull crunch, he seized Ulquiorra's arm, cold, black eyes boring into the surprised orbs of the cuarta. A fierce ripped from behind the mask, and he pulled his hand from the limb, taking the entire appendage, hand and all with it, leaving little more than a trail of blood in his wake.

"OOOOOOOOOOH!" A deafening roar bled into his ears, leaving him dazed both by screams of Ichigo, The loss of his arm, and the degree to which he'd been overwhelmed. Discarding Tensa Zangetsu, he used his new power to leap at his foe, wrestling Ulquiorra for a moment, then, and with but a snarl, he struck.

The final blow, stained Zangetsu red with blood, as Ulquiorra fell on his back.

Defeated..

"Damn...it..." The cuarta wheezed, glaring up at him, this muscle bound hollow that had beat him to a last slash had nearly split him in two, and he'd lost one of his horns to boot. "To lose... to be beaten...by some human turned hollow...how...ridiculous.

"..."

Ichigo planted his foot firmly upon Ulquiorra's skull, and with a grunt, the hollow leveled its horns and Ulquiorra. His intent was murderously clear as the cero began to spit and hiss in between his horns, whom it was meant for.

"Finish me." Ulquiorra asked at last. "I have no reason to live now that I have failed."

"Ichigo!" Ishida could see the cero growing larger by the second.

"Do it!" Ulquiorra was practically begging him now.

"Kurosaki-kun!"

"!!"

Ichigo snapped his gaze to the left at the last second. One hand latched onto his mask, yanking his horns upward and away from their intended target as he kicked Ulquiorra aside, just as the mighty explosion lit the skies of Las Noches.

The smoke cleared immediately, and there he stood. Gone were the strange markings on his chest, gone was the mask, and gone was the hollow hole he'd had. "Wha?" An incredible, joyous sense of relief filled Orihime when she saw him unharmed. He stood there for a moment, a blank look in his eyes as they roamed across the battlefield.

Confused amber met frightened violet silver.

"Inoue...?"

He took one step towards her before his legs gave out.

With a silent rush of air, he collapsed.

Next time: Cero esapda.