Chapter 19: Pit of Horrors

"Are you ready to fight, Red Warrior?" Shira asked, sliding a hand over the redhead's shoulder and down one muscular arm, "It is almost time."

"Yeah," Renji said, his eyes focusing out the window at the large estate home in the distance, "I just...hope he's still all right, you know? I hope that nothing has gone wrong, and that Rikichi gets back soon."

The lady hollow considered his words for a moment as she made an adjustment to the collar at his throat, then nodded.

"We all have something to lose today," she commented, "There is nothing to do but to move forward and fight to protect what means something to us."

"Right," Renji agreed, unable to escape the sense of something being very wrong, "Just try not to freak out and kill me yourself, okay? My friends aren't the kind of people to come up short when one of us is in a pinch. They'll be here. They'll free the ones at the estate, then they'll come to stop this fight. Trust them, Shira."

Shira smiled.

"This from the man who can barely stand still for all his doubts and insecurities. If you have so much faith in your friends, then why are you so worried right now?"

Renji closed his eyes for a moment.

"Because his life is on the line. That man back there is the center of my world, Shira. I begin and end with him. I can't lose him, not after all we've already been through. And I swear, when we make it through this mess and go back home, I am never letting him out of my sight again. Not ever."

"Ah," Shira sighed, "I feel the same about the man you are fighting today. I hope that you are right about your friends, that they arrive, as promised, and the fight is stopped before one of you is killed."

"I trust Rikichi," Renji replied, "And Orihime can definitely heal that guy, Tomio. I know she can. It's just a game that may come down to minutes, or even seconds."

"Yes," agreed Shira, moving forward and gently massaging the redhead's shoulders and back, "But you must put all of that out of your mind until the time comes to act. You and Ryota must fight a convincing battle and hold each other at bay until your friends free the others and arrive here."

"Yeah," Renji said, taking a deeper breath and nodding, "They will be here. I trust them to come. I'm ready to do my part."

"Then come," said Shira, placing a guiding hand on his arm, "It is time."

XXXXXXXXXX

"There!" cried Tomio, pointing.

All eyes turned to the elegant statue of the noble.

"Wh-what?" gasped Rikichi, "Captain...?"

"What the hell?" growled Ichigo, his hand tightening around Zangetsu, "You mean, he's trapped in there?"

"Damn!" breathed Yoruichi.

Orihime's eyes rounded and she moved closer to Ichigo, sadness overtaking her features.

"He's not...," she began, "Ichigo, you don't think he's..."

"I'm gonna get him out of there!" Ichigo said, his power glowing white around him.

"Wait!" cried Tomio, "You can't just destroy it. He could be destroyed with it."

"He's right," said Yoruichi, "We have to find a way to protect him so that we can shatter it around him."

"But how are we going to do that?" Rikichi asked shakenly.

"Is that even possible?" asked Gavet Dal, shaking his head.

"It has to be," Ichigo insisted, "I'm not going to accept that he's trapped in there and can't be gotten out."

"Hey!" yelled a voice from down the hallway, "What are you doing there?"

"Guards!" said Ichigo, stepping forward and holding his sword ready.

"Nobu!" cried Tomio, emerging from within the group, "It's all right! These people were helping me."

The guards' faces paled and they lowered their swords.

"MasterTomio!" the lead guard exclaimed, "But you were...gravely injured. We all thought that you and Master Dal's child were killed! How can this be?"

"It was all because of that man," Tomio explained, pointing to the statue of Byakuya, "He discovered me and had his friends bring Orihime, this girl, to heal me. Nobu, I know that Sai became angry with Byakuya, but..."

"B-byakuya?" repeated the guard, looking confused, "But that is Master Dal's lover, Tama Yoshino."

"No," insisted Tomio, "That man is my cousin and clan leader, Byakuya Kuchiki. He only pretended to be another so that he could free his vice captain, whom had been made a fighter in the Battle Pit against his will. Nobu, we must free my cousin! What has Sai done to him? Is he inside this statue, or has he actually been transformed? And more importantly, how do we get him out of there?"

"I wish I could tell you, Master Tomio," the guard said penitently, "but I don't know exactly what he did. Sir, I am sorry that he harmed your cousin. You know that all of us who work here know what effect you had on Master Dal. When he was with you, he was like a different person. Since you have been gone, he has been dangerously volatile. He angers easily and inflicts terrible punishments!"

Tomio sighed softly, his dark eyes filling with sadness.

"I understand. But I can help to calm him, Nobu. Just...we must find a way to help my cousin! We have to free Byakuya, and then we have to stop the Grudge Match so that innocent people are not killed!"

"But the match is about to start," Nobu objected, "There isn't time!"

Yoruichi's features grew determined and she nodded to Ichigo.

"It sounds like Ichigo and I should go on ahead to the arena to try to delay things until Byakuya can be freed."

"Rikichi," said Ichigo, "I need you to watch over Orihime for me. She'll help you find a way to free Byakuya, okay?"

"Okay, Ichigo," Rikichi agreed, "We will find a way to help the captain!"

"I will remain to help my cousin," said Tomio, "But as soon as he is freed, I will join you at the arena."

"No," said Gavet, shaking his head, "Tomio, it is too dangerous. My brother is planning something. I am sure of it. We don't want you and the baby caught up in this. That has already happened once, and I couldn't bear for you to be hurt again!"

Tomio's eyes softened.

"I understand," he said, touching his brother-in-law's shoulder affectionately, "but it may be the only way to stop Sai without hurting him. After all that has been done to bring me back, I don't want to lose him now. He is hurting inside and it has made him act wrongly, but I know he will listen to me if I can only reach him."

"Then," said Yoruichi, "Let us go and try to clear the way for you to reach him. You stay here and help with Byakuya. Then, when he is freed, he will see that you reach Sai Dal safely."

Yoruichi turned to Ichigo.

"Come Ichigo. We need to go and delay the start of that match!"

"I'm with you!" Ichigo called out, flash stepping away with her.

Rikichi stepped closer to the statue of Byakuya, placing a hand on the cold stone and looking up at his captain's proud face.

"Captain Kuchiki," he said softly, "I'm sorry. Renji trusted me to protect you...to get you out if you were threatened. But this..."

"Don't feel bad," Orihime reassured him, smiling sympathetically, "I'm sure we'll find a way to help him."

"Do you think that your power could help?" Rikichi asked, "Renji once told me that your power rejects things. Could it reject what Sai Dal did to him?"

Orihime's hand reached up and her fingers touched Byakuya's lightly.

"I think that it can," she said bracingly, "but the spirit particles that make up his body seem to have been shocked by what happened. I will have to go slowly to try to reverse this, or I might overwhelm the particles and cause them to disperse."

"If that happens, then...Captain Kuchiki will die?" Rikichi queried, swallowing hard.

"I won't let that happen," Orihime promised.

"Maybe I can help," suggested Tomio, "I have an empathic ability. I can send my reiatsu into the statue to strengthen the connections between Byakuya's spirit particles. That will give Orihime the best chance to reverse this."

"Are you sure that you can do that without harming yourself?" asked Gavet Dal, frowning worriedly.

"Oh, yes!" insisted Tomio, "I will be fine. But we should begin. Every moment counts now!"

Tomio approached the statue and knelt at the base. He laid his slender hands on Byakuya's feet and bowed his head, focusing deeply. After a few moments, a gentle blue mist accumulated around the pretty hollow and slowly seeped into Byakuya's transformed body.

Tomio felt immediately the strong emotional reaction in his cousin, the desperate reaching as his power wrapped around the clan leader's spirit particles.

Renji! Byakuya's voice called out in Tomio's mind, Please, you have to stop Sai Dal! Don't worry about me. Just...go and help Renji. Sai Dal is going to have Renji, Ryota and Shira all killed!

Tomio held his reiatsu carefully in place around Byakuya's spirit particles.

Ichigo Kurosaki and Yoruichi Shihoin have already left to delay the match, he thought soothingly, We will join them just as soon as we have freed you. Cousin, hold very still and focus on me. Orihime is going to reverse the transformation, but we have to move slowly, so as not to overwhelm the spirit particles in your body.

But, Renji!

Tomio smiled inwardly.

It will be all right, Byakuya. We won't let Renji down. You and Renji saved my life, and my child's. I am not going to let anything bad happen to you.

Byakuya went quiet for a moment, then answered softly.

Arigatou. I wish that our clan had not let something bad happen to you, Tomio. I would understand if you did not wish to help me, after what the family did to you.

Tomio sighed sadly.

I will not blame you for what was done to me. You were just a child, Byakuya. And...you seem a much more understanding person. You acted to help me. And you are giving everything to protecting a man whom you love, who is not even noble. You are not like them, Byakuya. And that gives me new hope. If you lead them, then they will be the better for it.

Thank you, Tomio.

Thank you, Byakuya. Now...focus on me.

Tomio opened his eyes and nodded to Orihime, who invoked her power, then watched with widened eyes as the golden oval encircled Byakuya's transformed body. All eyes watched raptly as the girl poured her power into the spell. The statue remained still and lifeless for several long minutes as Orihime struggled to reject the transformation. Just when she began to worry that her power wasn't strong enough, an odd glow rose out of the statue, dim and flickering at first, then strengthening gradually as Orihime continued to raise her power. Tomio felt a warning shudder in the spirit particles he protected.

"A touch more slowly," he directed the human girl, nodding in approval as she reduced the output of her power slightly, and Byakuya's spirit particles settled somewhat.

Is it very painful? Tomio asked Byakuya, I can help to ease it if it becomes too painful.

I will be all right, Byakuya assured him, We must proceed quickly if we are to be of use to Renji and the others.

Tomio couldn't hold back a gentle smile.

As much as I admire your courage, watashi no itoko, I would rather take a little longer and not have your spirit particles break apart!

Tomio, if the cost is Renji's life, then it does not matter if I live. I will die inside. I will be as lifeless as this statue anyway. I already lost Hisana. I cannot lose Renji too! I do not care how much it hurts or how dangerous it is. All that matters is reaching him. You...understand that, Tomio...do you not?

Tomio's eyes grew sad again.

I do understand. But you do not have to worry, Cousin. We will reach Sai and Renji in time to stop all of this. And by the time we lie down tonight, we will be lying, safe and sound, in our lovers' arms.

My friends and I must be out of here, out of Hueco Mundo by tonight, Byakuya warned the hollow, Sousuke Aizen knows that I am here, and he is coming to take me back to Las Noches with him.

Ah, I see. Well, do not concern yourself. We will finish this soon and be at the arena before you know it.

We will, Byakuya agreed.

Tomio's smile warmed sweetly.

We are both going home, Byakuya. I promise you.

Their thoughts went silent as the two focused the whole of their energies on the spirit particles that held the transformed noble's trapped soul together. Byakuya made a sound of pain as the light around him intensified, and he started to feel the unfreezing of his internal organs. Pain rocketed through him as his body slowly and agonizingly softened back into its normal form, finally leaving his pale, shaking form sanding on the statue base. He quietly met the eyes of his cousin, then Rikichi, as the former stood up in front of him. Then, the stress of the reversal of his transformation overwhelmed him and he collapsed into Tomio's arms.

"I am all right. I will be fine!" he insisted, struggling free and standing on woblling legs as the others tried to object.

But, true to form, the stubborn noble shook his head firmly and met Tomio's eyes expectantly. The lovely hollow nodded, and the two flash stepped away while the others moved to follow.

"You should have at least let someone break the seal on your powers," Tomio chided him, reaching over and performing the task quickly as they ran.

Byakuya was surprised at the other man's agility, considering the fact of being near to delivering his child.

But I imagine that his concern for Sai Dal is no less than mine for Renji.

He sighed in resignation and continued to run.

What fools love makes of us, ne?

They were still well short of the arena, when a raucous roar rose up in the distance, just ahead of them.

I cannot tell. Is that just the sound of their anticipation of the Grudge Match, or has Sai Dal loosed the hollows he warned me about?

Renji...

They reached the stadium entrance, and Tomio stopped the clan leader in the lobby.

"I am going into the stands to find Sai. Go into the arena and protect your Renji until I can convince him to stop the attack!"

Byakuya nodded and broke away from the other man, ignoring the warning shaking in his limbs as he forced himself to his fastest speed.

It doesn't matter.

Nothing matters but reaching him. This will all have been for nothing if Renji dies. I won't let that happen, no matter what!

Stadium guards appeared in front of him, but he leveled them with a flash of kido and blazed past their unconscious bodies. He ran through the lower corridors, throwing down anyone who crossed his path and seeking Renji's reiatsu like a man gone mad. He sensed it in the arena, and heard the roar of the crowd, rising as Sai Dal's voice announced the impending start of the match.

"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to The Battle Pit!"

A cacophony of screams, roars, shouts and clapping hands erupted and went on for several long seconds before dying down to let the announcer go on.

"Will you all feast your eyes on the center ring! You will see our combatants, Master Shira's Red Warrior and my own reigning champion, Ryota!"

Applause and shouts erupted again, halting Dal for several more seconds.

"We have a new challenge for this year's combatants. Up above the pit, a lovely lady dangles, a sweet morsel for either of our virile fighters."

Byakuya looked up and gasped as he spotted Shira, bound and hanging from the ceiling of the arena's dome.

"To win this beautiful prize, our young men must, as you know, fight a battle to the death, after which the winner will claim her. But...in order to make this challenge equal to these two great fighters, they must conduct their battle amidst...a horde of hungry, feral hollows!"

Byakuya heard a warning rumble, as the doors along the corridor he was in opened, and hollows began to pour into it. His eyes desperately sought an opening, but found none. As they closed in on the lone shinigami, shrieking and snarling, Byakuya acted in the only way he could, under the circumstances.

"Hado #73, Soren Soukatsui!"

The twin lotus blast incinerated the hollows in front of him, but the confines of the corridor made the power recoil, throwing him back against the wall and shattering it, sending him tumbling into the arena. He landed in a heap, a short distance away from the fighters, and rolled to his feet, ignoring altogether the feeling of fire assaulting his spirit centers.

"RENJI!" he cried, flash stepping forward.

One moment, he was on his feet and closing in on the stunned redhead, and the next he was bowled over by the throng of incoming hollows.

"Shit!" howled Renji, flash stepping in the direction where he had seen the noble go down, "BYAKUYA!"