Chapter Forty-Five: The Battle for Dragon's Keep (Part II)

Renji and Shuuhei stood with ten other Dragon's Keep fighters, outside the gates of Dragon's Keep. Overhead, several flyers buzzed about the main road; the Terrans clearly anticipated Serian reinforcements were on their way. The gates to Dragon's Keep had been locked from behind, and Renji, Shuuhei and the others had found themselves pinned against the high stone walls, cut off from the rest of the men. Most of the soldiers that they faced were Terran, although more than they cared to admit were Serians who had joined with the Terrans to fight for Aizen.

"They have no idea what the Terrans intend to do," thought Renji angrily, using the flat blade of his sword to deflect an energy beam from a Terran blaster. "How weak is Seriana that we cannot band together to fight for our planet? Even if we win this battle, what chance do we have of surviving against the larger Empire, if they truly want to destroy us?" He knew the answer, of course – if the planet survived this assault, the keeps would need to band together to defend Seriana. "Just don't get yourself killed, you idiot," he thought, wondering how the orange-haired regent was faring at Aizen's hands. "You've wanted to unite this planet for years and you're the only one fool-hardy enough to believe it's possible."

Another blaster sliced its way to the center of their group, and one of their companions fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Several Serians ran to meet the swords of non-Terran fighters, and the sound of metal against metal rang out against the stone walls, echoing about. At this rate, their group would only survive a few minutes more – the blasters were far more powerful than the Serians' conventional weapons, even though there were fewer Terrans to wield them.

"Shuuhei!" Renji shouted, catching the dark-haired man's eye. "It's time."

Shuuhei nodded almost imperceptibly, then said to the soldier fighting next to him, "Shield me." The man nodded as Shuuhei sheathed his sword and pulled his star stone from underneath his tunic. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Renji do the same.

They had hoped to wait to use the power of the matrices later in the battle, but they had lost too many of their ranks – if they waited any longer, the gates to the city and the main entrance to the Keep would fall. They needed to hold out long enough for Rukia and Ichigo to finish their work inside the castle and, more importantly, they needed to keep the road clear in case fighters from the other keeps had gotten word of their plight.

"This will only work if we pace ourselves," Renji thought, as he pulled out his own stone. He and Shuuhei had discussed the strategy before; but without time to work with the Serian troops, neither was sure of how well they might fare. With a quick glance at Shuuhei, Renji closed his eyes. Even at a distance of ten yards, he could feel Shuuhei's power combine with his. A low, humming sound rose around them, and the air filled with a tangible electricity. The Serian fighters on the Terran side backed away from Renji's group, and the Terrans looked around to find the source of the energy.

"Now!" thought Renji to Shuuhei. The humming sound suddenly rose in pitch, and the Terrans' weapons turned brown, then orange, and finally red, as the black metal superheated. There were shouts and cries from the soldiers, followed by the sound of metal clattering on the ground. Renji, looking to Shuuhei, motioned the Dragon's Keep fighters forward. They charged the enemy with renewed zeal, easily defeating the now-unarmed Terran fighters, who were far less skilled at hand-to-hand combat.

From about fifty yards away, they heard the shouts of more of the Dragon's Keep defenders and they ran to join the others. Renji, leading the group, reached the Dragon's Keep officer in charge. "What do you hear of the main road?" Renji asked, anxious for news of reinforcements.

"It's not good," the man replied. "More Terran flyers were spotted in the high mountains here" – he pointed in the direction of the mountains that led to the city – "and in the area where Regent Hitsugaya are his men are fighting. Reports are that the Terrans have sent dozens of the machines."

"Dozens more?" Shuuhei gasped as he caught up with Renji. His expression was grim. "What about the Kyrri?"

"We've seen several Kyrri in the air over the mountains, as well," the man replied, "but they've taken heavy casualties. They simply can't defend against so many flyers at once."

"And the rest of your men?" Renji pressed.

"They're fighting in the foothills, about a mile from here."

"Shuuhei," Renji ordered, "have the men arm themselves with as many of the Terran weapons as they can."

"Sir?" Shuuhei asked with shock. The thought of handling the Terran weapons was repulsive to him.

"Instruct the men in your group to use them only if the flyers threaten the city," Renji said without hesitation. "Show the men how and where to aim the beams – I am told that a well-placed blaster hit can disable the ships or even destroy them. Ask the Dragon to find out from Toushirou where you must aim."

"Of course, sir," Shuuhei replied. It was one thing to use the weapons against a human, another thing entirely to use them against the very technology upon which the Terrans replied. He could live with such a compromise. He focused his energy back on the star stone to contact Hyorinmaru.

"You, you and you" –Renji pointed to several of his men – "come with me. We'll see what we can do to hold off the Terran flyers. The rest of you, stay here and keep the gates clear. We can't allow more Terrans inside the city. Not yet, at least." He took off at a brisk run down the main road, thinking to himself, "You'd better hurry, Ichigo. We won't be able to hold out much longer…"

Rukia walked hurriedly up the stairs to the eighth floor of the castle's east tower. For nearly two hours now, she had wandered the castle, thankful that she had memorized its blueprint. It was a complicated, convoluted design, created from years of haphazard additions to the original fortress built nearly a millennia before. Of the dozen or so places they had expected they might find Aizen's weapon, she had explored the seven most accessible first. Now, however, having so far failed to discover the weapon's location, her path required her to mingle more with guards and servants alike. She reminded herself to walk with determination, acting as though she belonged in the castle.

She neared her next destination without incident, carefully peering out from the stairwell into the short corridor beyond. The door was only several yards away, but it was heavily guarded by Terran troops, their hands resting on their still-holstered blasters. She tried to reach out and touch the Terrans' minds, but the constant interference of telepathic dampers neaby made it impossible for her to hear their thoughts. They were, however, clearly tense, wary for intruders. "It's here," she thought with certainty.

She withdrew her matrix from underneath her tunic, unwrapping it and holding it in her right hand. It warmed to her touch and glowed slightly. She closed her eyes, envisioning the inner workings of the Terran weapons. With the interference from the dampers, she found it difficult to focus, but Ichigo had reassured her that the dampers only worked to block the ability to read minds, and had no effect upon the Serians' other psi powers. For that, he reasoned, Aizen would need use other nobles to defend his position, such as the donya Ichigo had encountered before.

"Better to start small and work my way up," she thought with a grin. Disarming a weapon capable of destroying the entire planet, and of which she knew nothing, would be far more difficult a feat than destroying a couple of blasters.

She closed her eyes, redoubling her efforts to probe within the weapons. Bit by bit, she felt her mind reach through the outer skin of the blasters and she pressed onwards into the mechanical parts beneath. They were simple, these deadly weapons, much like the flyers – constructed to cause the maximum damage possible, but easily disabled by melting a few key parts. She focused in on the trigger mechanisms – electronic switches that charged and discharged in quick succession. She imagined the parts melting and reforming once more as solid pieces.

"Now all I need to do is to figure out if it worked," she told herself, hoping that Ichigo was correct. If not… No, she would not even consider that option. There was just too much a stake.

Moving her star stone to her left hand, she took a deep breath and rested her right on the hilt of her sword. She stepped out of the stairwell and walked boldly towards the guards. As expected, the two guards drew their weapons and pointed them at her.

"What business do you have here, Serian?" one of the men demanded of her.

"Lord Aizen has asked me to check that the weapon is safe," she lied.

The guard laughed. "Lord Aizen wouldn't entrust its safety to a mere boy, let alone a Serian dog. Who are you?"

"No one with whom you need to be concerned," she replied, drawing her sword and swinging it at them, purposely missing her target. She had no intention of doing either of them permanent harm, although she prayed the blasters were disabled.

As expected, the two men fired as she swung – or rather, attempted to fire – their weapons failing to respond. Breathing a sigh of relief, Rukia took the hilt of her sword and hit one of the guards on the chin. He dropped to his knees as his comrade tried to grab Rukia by her shoulders. She kicked the second guard hard in the groin, then took her sword and hit the first guard with the hilt.

"Why you…" the second guard shouted, grabbing her leg and pulling her to the ground. Her sword dropped from her hand, falling to the floor with a clatter. She struggled to free herself from the guard, kicking her legs and, finally managing to grab the sword and hit the guard in the face, knocking him out. Scrambling to her feet, she opened the door and ran inside.

In retrospect, she knew she should have remembered Ichigo's warning: "When you find the weapon, you can expect the place will be crawling with guards."

She was surrounded by half a dozen men and, in the corner of the room, the donya that had fought Ichigo stood, smiling at her. "Damn," she thought, knowing she did not have enough time to use her stone to disable their weapons this time.

"I need at least a dozen more men on the crest!" Hitsugaya shouted over the din of Terran flyers, as he scrambled up the steep embankment to get a good look at the size of the Terran force. What he saw when he looked nearly took his breath away: a dozen Terran flyers. His troops were completely surrounded.

"Hyorinmaru!" he called to the dragon. "We need you here!" Even with the dragon's help, he knew their chances of defeating the Terrans were next to none.

"We can defeat them," he heard a familiar voice say, and he realized he had forgotten to shield his thoughts. Karin touched his shoulder.

He wanted to tell her to leave, and he was quite sure she expected him to order her to safety, but he knew she wouldn't listen. Instead, he took a deep breath and said only, "We'll do the best we can."

On the road that led to Dragon's Keep, the view from Renji's perspective was little different than Hitsugaya's. "Why aren't they firing?" he wondered aloud, staring up at the dozens of flyers that hovered like menacing metal birds overhead.

"Ichigo!" Hitsugaya's voice, relayed by the dragon.

Ichigo awoke with a start from his uneasy slumber. He had not intended to sleep, but the buzz of the leg irons had exhausted him.

"What's wrong?" he thought. A picture of the situation in the mountains and outside the city arose in his mind's eye, and he felt suddenly cold with fear.

"Zangetsu," he thought. He felt the fury's silent response. "I can't wait any longer." He closed his eyes and reached for the fury's power.

"I had heard you were here, Princess," said Donya Sibelia.

"How…?" Rukia stammered.

"How do I know who you are?" Sibelia answered. "We have met before. Years ago."

The woman's reiatsu had seemed so familiar to her, and now she understood why. "You…you were one of the women who I met at the tower," Rukia said.

"After the old donya died," Sibelia answered, "the East Tower fell to me to guide."

"Then why would you lend your services to someone like Aizen?" Rukia asked, uncomprehending. "You must know what he intends to do. What this" – she gestured to the box-like device in the corner of the room – "thing is meant to accomplish!"

"But you already know the answer, child," the Donya replied. She held herself with the haughty bearing of a woman of power, confident in her convictions, loath to bend to the will of others. The mark of a donya, and a powerful one, at that. "Your beloved brother understands. That he would release you from your duty to serve…"

"My duty is to serve Seriana," Rukia retorted angrily, "not become a human weapon to serve human greed. My brother understands that only too well." As she spoke, she memorized the layout of the room, noting the number of weapons, the locations of the guards, and the small device that pulsed with red light in the far corner.

"The old traditions must return," Sibelia continued, unmoved by Rukia's words. "And, if not…"

"If not, you would prefer to see our entire civilization destroyed?" Rukia pressed, reaching out blindly with her mind to scan the alien apparatus that she knew she must defeat.

"My lady," one of the guards said, interrupting the two women. "I have received word that the last shuttles are prepared. The triggering mechanism has been set; we must leave within the next hour, or we will not make the last transport off-world.

To her horror, and in spite of the faint hum of the dampers from outside the room, Rukia saw a clear vision of the destruction of Seriana and heard the words resonate through her mind, the voice strangely familiar, "It will start as a thunderclap in Dragon's Keep, shaking the foundations of the planet, eating away at its strength until the seas will rise and reclaim the burning land." Then another thought, more urgent still, "You must both do this. I have given you the means to stop this abomination. It must be done, regardless of the cost!"

Rukia shivered, wondering if the Donya had also heard the words. If she had, she did not show it, for she laughed to see the pallor of Rukia's cheeks. "You are afraid of dying, aren't you, child?"

"You're wrong, Donya," Rukia replied unwaveringly. "I fear for this world, but if I must die to save it, then I shall not regret my death!" She focused on the stone she still clasped in her palm, and several of the guards shouted, dropping their blasters, now glowing a bright orange.

"You will not interfere!" Sibelia shouted, and Rukia felt her legs buckle beneath her with the woman's power.

"I am stronger than this," Rukia told herself stubbornly, fighting to regain her focus. Struggling back to her feet, her teeth clenched, she aimed her sword at the innocuous looking weapon in the corner.

"Stop her!" the Donya screamed now, aiming her hands at Rukia's chest. Focusing on the internal structure of her own blade, Rukia moved the sword sideways, using the blade to reflect the blue light from Sibelia's hands back towards the older woman. Sibelia cried out, diving out of the way as the energy hit the wall, sending rocks and dust flying about the room.

Rukia could only see the reddish glow the weapon emitted, but it was enough. She clasped her star stone in her left hand and her sword in her right, closing her eyes and reaching out to peer inside of the weapon itself, to learn its inner workings.

"You must not let her destroy it," Sibelia shouted to the guards, who were getting to their feet.

Rukia's body was now lit with a faint blue glow; the shield would not hold long, but she could not fight and come to understand the weapon at the same time. It would only need to hold long enough…

A flash of scarlet illuminated the dust-filled room, and Rukia's eyes snapped open as she was tossed onto the floor, losing her grip on her sword, which clattered against the nearby wall. Rukia had known the Donya was strong, and she had guessed her shield would do little to protect her; her own strengths lay not in a defensive spell, but in the ability to see within objects and change their form.

"I just need a few minutes more," she thought desperately, ignoring the pain in her shoulder and struggling to focus once more.

"I will not let you destroy it," Sibelia hissed. Blaster fire rent the air, and Rukia rolled over, barely avoiding the red glare of the weapon. She could smell smoke rising from the wall-hangings, which were now blackened from the impact of the beam.

"I have to maintain my focus," she told herself, trying to hide behind a nearby chair. She did not see the guard approach over her shoulder until she saw his finger on the trigger of his weapon and she felt the heat of the blast on her skin.

"No! I must stop it!" But the room began to dissolve around her, and she felt herself fall…

"Kill her," Sibelia ordered. "Now, before it's too late!"

"Rukia!" Ichigo stopped in his tracks, leaning against the wall to steady himself. "No! Rukia!"

He could see the room through her eyes: the Donya, watching Rukia fall, the guards, clamoring to their feet, ready to fire again. He saw the weapon, pulsating in the darkness like a silent, menacing dragon, waiting to strike. He felt the sharp pain in his back as if it were in his own body, and he gasped. He watched all this, helpless to do anything, knowing that he could not – he would not let her die.

He felt anger rise within his soul – an uncontrollable anger, ancient and devastating –the raw emotion of the fury that he had learned to suppress many months before. Only this time, the anger was too great; he felt her pain as if it were his own, and he would not stand for it. "You will not harm her!" he felt an ancient voice inside shout.

He could hear their screams and feel their fear, but he did not care. Nothing mattered but her. "Rukia!"

Hitsugaya gazed at the sky – they looked like menacing black birds, the Terran flyers appearing on the horizon. He had been mistaken to think there were only twelve or so, now he realized there were nearly three dozen, coming from the direction of the city. Karin, still at his side, pointed her weapon skywards at the black machines. "We will die here, defending this place," he thought, finding himself both strengthened by her presence and somber to think that it would end here for them.

"We will fight bravely," he heard her think. "I am happy to die this way, by your side."

High over the Terran vessels, Hyorinmaru soared, poised to attack. Hitsugaya could feel the beast's power, and it gave him courage. It would not be enough, he knew, to save them from so many attackers, but the dragon would destroy as many it could in the effort.

"Wait until they are directly overhead," Hitsugaya instructed the dragon. He glanced around at the men who fought beside him – men whom he had known for years, faithful to the end. He nodded to them, and the fierce gazes they returned eased his mind.

The first group of flyers had nearly reached the plateau where they fought. It wouldn't be long now. Steeling himself, he reached out once more for Karin's mind. "I love you," he told her.

"I know," she replied, with a taut smile.

He pulled his star stone from around his neck, easing it out of its silk covering and feeling it warm his hand. "Godspeed, Ichigo," he thought.

"Wait!" shouted Karin. "Look!"

Against the gray sky, Hitsugaya saw bursts of blaster fire. But the blasters were not aimed downwards, at the mountain, they were being fired from the newly-arrived group of flyers towards the original dozen or so. Several of the vessels exploded like tiny suns, and the ground beneath Hitsugaya's feet rumbled, sending snow tumbling down the side of the mountain.

"What the…" Hitsugaya gasped. "Take cover!" The realization that they faced a new kind of danger hit him as a large piece of smoking black metal crashed to the ground nearby. Replacing his star stone, he grabbed the astonished Karin by the hand and gestured his comrades towards the narrow cave where they had hidden, only hours before.

All around them, pieces of twisted metal rained down on the snow. They managed to get to the cave as one of the flyers fell, wholesale, its powerful engines screaming. Rocks and snow mingled with bits of the ship, and the fighters shielded their faces, diving to the cold ground.

"Go to the others!" Hitsugaya ordered the dragon, seeing the air battle in the creature's mind's eye and realizing they were saved.

"But how?" Karin asked, peering cautiously out of the cave as the few remaining enemy flyers were chased away by the newcomers.

"It seems not all the Terrans would join with Aizen," Hitsugaya replied, his relief palpable.

"Chad," Karin whispered to herself. "The boy – no, the man whom Ichigo befriended on Terra. The one who is now the Governor."

"Ichigo. Ichigo!" Ichigo opened his eyes to see Chad looking down at him. "Are you all right?"

"Rukia," he gasped, reaching for her. "Rukia!" He felt the reassuring warmth of her mind from far away. She was alive. "Thank God."

"We have to get out of here, Ichigo," Chad said, pulling him up off the ground. The brief contact with Chad's wrist left him with a head full of images, as their minds met over the din of the dampeners.

"Flyers? What the hell have you been up to?" Ichigo rubbed his eyes; his head ached and he felt dizzy. "What did I do, a moment ago? I lost control."

"Keeping you out of trouble," Chad said, smiling now. "You didn't think I'd let you take care of this mess by yourself, did you?"

"I owe you," Ichigo said, looking relieved.

"Good," Chad answered. "I may be looking for a new job soon. Much as the Empire won't condone what Aizen's done, borrowing six dozen flyers without permission won't exactly please my superiors."

"We have to find Rukia," Ichigo said urgently, "or your Empire will lose more than just flyers. Aizen's armed the warhead." He needed to get to her, to help her disarm the device.

"I know where it's being kept," Chad said, taking off down the hallway with Ichigo on his heels.

They reached the end of the corridor, and Chad kicked the doorway. It flung open and they rushed, headlong, into the darkened throne room. Ichigo was immediately met with the sensation that they were not alone in this place and, seconds later, the lights turned on in a blaze of white. They were surrounded by Terrans, each with a blaster, fully charged and pointed at their heads.

Rukia stirred on the cold, stone floor. She sat up with some difficulty. Her back ached and she put her hand on the place where the blaster had struck her. It felt wet, sticky. In her left hand, she still clutched the small, blue stone. She closed her eyes briefly, focusing on her wound, forcing the blood vessels to constrict and seal. The wound was not life-threatening, but she could ill afford to bleed to death by ignoring it.

Satisfied that the wound would not reopen when she moved, she got slowly to her feet. She looked around the room to get her bearings. The telepathic dampers that had hummed outside the room had fallen silent now; the Terran guards lay, dead, their bodies broken as if they had been thrown like sacks of grain, dashed against the stone walls. In the corner, near the device which still glowed red like blood, lay Sibelia. Her eyes were open, staring, unseeing, at the ceiling.

"What happened here?" She could guess at the cause; she had felt Ichigo's presence as she had lost consciousness. The smell of death made physically ill, but she forced herself to focus on the task at hand.

She walked over to the door and bolted it shut. It would not do to have any more interruptions. She crossed back to the other side of the room and, stepping over Sibelia's body, she reached the weapon. She closed her eyes and reached out to grasp the fundamentals of the device.

She knew immediately that, although the weapon was armed, it was not yet programmed to trigger the cascade which would release the destructive energy contained within. "Thank goodness," she thought. She could take her time and diffuse the weapon.

It was a surprisingly simple device, she realized after a few more minutes. Highly volatile material surrounded the core of energy which seemed to glow with the heat of the bloody sun above Seriana. Instinctively, she knew that it was this core that she must, at all costs, prevent from releasing its power; the explosives were the trigger, just like the metal trigger on the blasters she had come to understand so well. She decided that the best way to disarm the apparatus was to destroy the trigger mechanism itself. She would fuse the trigger, so that the explosion could not occur. The core would remain stable; they could dispose of the device later. She clasped her matrix tighter in her palm, forcing her body to relax, channeling her energy to her mind and the work ahead of her.

She followed the relays and wires along the inside of the cool black box, riding up and down, seeking the trigger mechanism. There were tiny lights inside – the red she had seen before, illuminating the corner of the room – others, too, blue and yellow. She noted different metals, encased in a smooth substance she knew, from her connection to Ichigo's mind, to be plastic. She reached deeper, looking for the tiny, flat objects – circuits – the switches that enabled the machine, seeking the place where she could disable its functions. She found it finally, a tiny piece of brown plastic where the wires seemed to meet. She reached out with her mind, imagining the plastic melting, the wires fusing…

The machine hummed to life, and she came abruptly to her senses, pulling her mind out of the mechanism for fear that she might not be able to leave it willingly if she hesitated. The red light had now turned yellow.

"No!" she thought, a ripple of fear rising from her gut. Her mind met another's, strong and comforting. "Ichigo! The weapon – it was programmed to sense psi powers. I've accidently set off the triggering device!"

From where he stood, facing down the barrels of more than a dozen blasters, Ichigo could hear the panic in her thoughts. The weapon had been booby trapped; Aizen had most certainly expected they'd try to disarm it! But how much time did they have?

"You can do this, Rukia," he thought, trying to reassure her. "I'll be with you, helping you." He glanced at Chad, then thought, "I'll need your help, old friend." And, without another moment's hesitation, Ichigo closed his eyes and joined Rukia's mind.

Author's Note: I had said this would be the last chapter –oops! Obviously, not, given the cliffie I've just left you all with! XD But I do think next will be the final installment in the Battle for Dragon's Keep and, probably also, the epilogue. Almost there! Hope you liked it.

Also, for you die hard IchiRuki fans, please check out my new one-shot fic, "The Frameup." Kiriban for Neko Feathers, AU. Ichigo is a cop who falls for the crime boss's wife, imprisoned for the murder of his partner. Thanks! -Lex