Kick About, Destroy, Bind
Chapter 17: La Distancia Para un Duelo
Stone Hill, Capital City of the eastern Gensei Provinces
"The Gensei Provinces are falling into a state of chaos, Mr. President," one of the men at the long table said.
"If we do nothing, then the Arrancar threat could very well come further east," an old man said as he stroked his long beard. "Mr. President, the fall of Fort Seireitei has taken out a major obstacle against an invasion from the west. By this time tomorrow, the enemy could be on our door step. We need to launch a counter attack now."
The President of the Gensei Provinces sat in thought. He tapped one finger on the glistening cherry wood surface. His ever-present frown deepened and his dark-blue eyes seemed to stare into great distances from behind his gold-rimmed glasses.
"Mr. President," an older woman sitting next to him said, "it's clear that something must be done. Without our intervention, the western Gensei Provinces could very well enter a state of anarchy. My sources have informed me that their banks have no money to help rebuild and the Arrancars are almost prepared to attack Karakura Town. We need to send in the Military."
"What's the point?" another man asked. "By the time they arrive, much of the Gensei Provinces would have already been engulfed in flame. I agree that we need to send them in as soon as possible. However, it would be wiser if we keep them closer to the more established parts of the eastern Gensei Provinces. We…"
The President slammed a fist on the table's surface. All eyes turned to him as he stood.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," he said in his low and smooth voice. "I have listened to what you had to say, and now I have something to say.
"You have told me of this imposing Arrancar threat, but I think that they will come no further east than the ruins of Fort Seireitei. What happens to Karakura Town is a concern, because it is the capital of the western Gensei Provinces. But the western Gensei Provinces are a dying land that was formed because of the mining and oil opportunities that our predecessors saw in them. Through conquest and bribes and trickery, our predecessors took that land from the Arrancars and made it their own.
"As a result, that land is our land. Now, the Arrancars think that they can just take it back from us? How do you think that will look if the mightiest nation on the earth cannot keep a hold of their land from a bunch of savages?"
He looked at them in turn and sighed.
"We will send in the Military, but we won't be able to stop the Arrancar attack on Karakura Town. It's too late to do anything about that right now. However, make no mistake, we will drive them back. If the Arrancars succeed in retaking those lands then we will drive them back to the Hueco Mundo Wastes. But this time we will not stop there. We will wipe-out their race from the face of the earth. For every drop of Gensei blood they spill, we will make sure that they pay ten times over.
"Future generations will remember us, ladies and gentlemen, for being the ones who did not compromise. Compromise is for the weak. Instead of compromise, we will destroy them completely. Every man, woman, and child Arrancar will suffer for this trespass."
"But sir," one of the younger members of the cabinet said, "didn't you say that our predecessors took the land from them? Don't they have a right to it?"
"Ah…the folly of youth," the President said. "They have no right to what is no longer theirs. It was the fault of their ancestors that they lost it. They were too evil to keep it and so God gave it to us. It is our Divine Right to have that land and who can deny the will of God?"
Some of the members looked at each other, clearly uncomfortable. The notion of Manifest Destiny was a dying belief. However, even though rationality was beginning to win out over dogma, there were still those who believed that genocide was the equivalent of righteousness, and their fiery hatred was still strong. The more rational and enlightened members of the cabinet were afraid that such an action that the President was advocating would only breed more hatred against them. They wanted the cycle to end, but as long as those who advocated war and genocide and blind rage remained in power there would be no end.
"Any dissension will be taken for treason," the President said. "I will not compromise with ungodly savages. Instead of compromise, we must let the blood flow.
"Do you all agree?"
The members of the President's cabinet looked at each other and one-by-one they nodded in agreement. However, some did so hesitantly and the more politically ambitious were inwardly smiling. After all, there was nothing like warmongering and fear-mongering to win the hearts and minds of the civilians in an election. The President nodded his head in approval.
"Good. Now…what's the next topic on the agenda?"
Sergio Leone Ranch
Ichigo found it hard to believe that despite the coming storm the birds could still sing. He allowed the warm morning breeze brush against his face. He looked up at the blue sky.
Soon, it'll all be over, he thought. And how many more will have to die before it does?
He didn't want to think about that. He knew that he couldn't afford to backslide into the despair he felt after seeing his father and Renji executed in front of him. He couldn't afford to dwell on past mistakes. If he did, then he had a feeling that he would truly fail. And his father never taught him how to fail.
"Failure is when you refuse to get back on the horse after you fall off," his father had told him when he was younger. Ichigo wondered how many times he had fallen off of that proverbial horse and how many times had he managed to get back on.
Even then I always had to be helped, he thought. One can never remount that proverbial horse without help.
"Ichigo!" someone shouted from behind him.
He turned and saw Riruka standing with a fried doughnut in one hand.
"What is it?" he asked.
"They're ready to get started," Riruka answered.
Ichigo nodded and started to make his way back to the cabin. Riruka walked next to him and split her doughnut in half.
"Here, you need to eat something," she said as she held the half-doughnut to him.
"I'm not hungry."
"You may not be hungry, idiot, but you need to eat. We can't have you fainting on us. Now eat or do I have to shove it down your throat?"
Ichigo sighed and took the doughnut. He looked at it and took a tiny bite.
"Happy?" he asked as he ate.
"Idiot, didn't your mother teach you it's impolite to eat with your mouth full?" Riruka asked as she ate her own breakfast.
Ichigo sighed as he took another bite.
Aizen watched from the rail-line's administrative office as the trains were being loaded. Carts filled with ammunition and weapons taken from the storehouses lined the dirt roads. Arrancars, mercenaries, and former Gotei soldiers unloaded the carts and carried their loads to the boxcars already hooked together.
The horses crowded in the corals whinnied and stomped, frightened by the loud whistling noise the train engines made as steam was released to ensure that the boilers wouldn't overheat and explode.
"I see that the loading process is occurring a little slower than expected," Aizen said.
"The men are working as fast as they can," Arturo said. "Some of the equipment is proving to be a little more troublesome than expected. The main problem is going to be with the nitroglycerine. It's extremely unstable and…"
"I understand how unstable nitroglycerine is," Aizen said. "At this rate we won't be able to leave until this afternoon."
"That was the original projection, sir. However, we will be able to reach Karakura Town by tomorrow morning if we have the trains run through the night."
"Well, at least we'll still be on target for that." Aizen bit his lip. "Have you heard anything from Rudobon and the Exequias?"
"They will reach the Garganta Pass later tonight. Shall I give him word to begin the assault at dawn?"
"No, it won't be at dawn. Have him and the Arrancars under Baraggan begin the assault three hours after sunrise. That way we can attack in sync and overwhelm Karakura Town in less than an hour."
"What about your men in Karakura Town?"
"They're expendable," Aizen said, smiling. "And besides, I have a feeling that they might have their own plans."
"You're expecting betrayal?"
"I would be a fool not to. Arturo, I want you to round up as many of your men as you can find and get them to work. I think that a few extra hands will get the job a lot quicker. And inform your brother to order his patrols to return from hunting down any escaped Gotei."
"Is there anything else you would like from me?" Arturo asked.
Aizen thought about it for a moment.
"I want you to bet back to work, Arturo," he said. "And I want you to get them to quicken their pace. I don't care if you have to work them to the brink of death."
Arturo nodded and left the office.
Aizen sighed and continued to watch his army continue their preparations on the three trains he would be using. The box cars were all connected and the engines were getting prepared.
Soon, he thought. It will all come to an end soon.
A part of him felt relieved.
Pinkerton Offices, Karakura Town
Shukuro Tsukishima sat at the head of the long table in the meeting room.
"We believe that Aizen will use the Carson Line and attack from the north," one of the Pinkerton officers said. "We can build makeshift barricades in between the buildings and use them as a choke point."
"Yes, but what if he attacks from the east?" another officer asked. "He doesn't have to come all the way to Karakura Town to attack us. He can stop the trains a few miles outside of town and attack us that way."
Tsukishima frowned. Aizen had never specified what direction he would be attacking from and now he understood why.
He figured I might try to do something about him, Tsukishima thought. He remembered how surprised Tosen had been when he heard that he was to die that day in the Central 46 Rotunda. Tosen did not know about that part of the plan because Aizen had only told Tsukishima. He only gave us bits and pieces because he didn't trust us with all of the details. That clever bastard.
"Sir, what do you think?" another officer asked.
Tsukishima looked at the map and frowned.
"It's safe to assume that Aizen will use the Arrancar attack from the west to keep us occupied. I think that Aizen knows that he can attack us from any direction. He can go north or south until he reaches the Karakura River and travel south or north on the river boats, but that's unlikely. He'll most likely want to launch a synchronized assault and going that far out of his way will hinder that. Our safest option is to sacrifice most of the town and secure only a small area."
"What do you mean, sir?" another officer asked.
Tsukishima smiled and tapped on the line marking the Karakura River that divided Karakura Town from east and west.
"We blow the bridges. Well, all but central bridge that we can use to launch an assault against Aizen when we can. We stay on the western side so that way we can deal with the Arrancar threat first. Aizen will need to cross the river to get to us and that will take time for him. We can deal with one threat first and then deal with Aizen afterwards. The one bridge we'll leave intact we'll barricade on both ends. A small force can easily defend it with some of the Cero and Bala shooters in the Gotei storehouse."
"And how many men do you think we'll need to defend the bridge?" one of the officer's asked.
"I would say about thirty. Officer Opie, I'm putting you in charge of that operation."
Officer Kirge Opie, a rather thin man with greasy black hair parted at the left and dark glasses saluted.
"As you command, Kommandant," he said.
"Officer Doyle and Officer Farson, I'm putting you two in seeing to it that everyone on the eastern side of the Karakura River is brought to the western side safely. Take as many men as you need to ensure this."
"As you command," Officer Doyle, a rather short and fat man with a large bald spot at the back of his head said.
Officer Farson, a gaunt and pale-faced man dressed completely in black only nodded his head.
"Gentlemen, if that is all then you may leave. Officers Opie and Farson, please remain behind. I need to give you further instructions."
The other officers stood and filed out of the room until only the three men were left.
"So, Kommandant, what other orders do you have for us?" Kirge Opie asked.
"I need you two to get word to the others who are aware of the overall plan. I want to make sure that Aizen will not get here until he's too weak to do anything. I have a feeling that he may split his forces and use two lines for the Senkaimon Express."
"Which two lines?" Farson asked in his smooth and silky voice.
"The Tywin Line and the Shihoin Line," Tsukishima said. "Those are the only two lines that will deliver him close enough to Karakura Town to where he can attack at the same time as the Arrancar forces. The closest that the other lines come to Karakura Town is at least ten miles, but those two bring him right into Karakura Town. I want you to send a group of agents four miles out along those tracks and prepare a trap for him."
"I know just the men," Kirge Opie said and smiled his tight-lipped smile. "I can easily get Bolton and his division to take care of the Shihoin line. I may have to send Royce to deal with the Tywin line."
"Good," Tsukishima said.
"What about the other problem?" Farson asked. "The Kurosaki brat is still active along with those Espada."
"True," Tsukishima said. "And it seems as though Urahara got them hidden somewhere along with the rest of the Xcution and Visored Squads. However, I don't think we need to worry about them…at least not right now. We can deal with them afterwards."
"Are you sure that's wise?" Farson asked, narrowing his eyes.
"Farson, I'll answer you with a question. Which is the bigger threat: twenty or four hundred?"
Sergio Leone Ranch
"So…what are we going to do?" Ukitake asked.
Starrk sighed as he leaned back in his chair.
"I'm out of ideas," he said. "I don't even know this town that well."
"Well, we can't exactly do much," Urahara said. "I mean we're not exactly an army here."
"That's for sure," Kugo Ginjo said as he leaned forward. "What kind of plan do you think Tsukishima will use? If we knew that then we can simply build our plan off of his."
Ichigo frowned and then his eyes widened.
"The bridges," he whispered.
"Huh?" Shinji asked.
"If I was planning a defensive strategy then I would make sure that I would only have to deal with one problem at a time. What better way to do that then to use the Karakura River to separate the two problems?"
"That makes sense," Harribel said. "And I would leave one bridge intact to use to launch a counter-attack once one problem has been taken care of."
"Yes, and I would also send out a small force to whittle down the other opposition," Kugo said.
"That sounds all well-and-good," Shunsui said. "However, you seem to have forgotten one problem. Numbers. We don't exactly have the numbers on our side."
"No, but Tsukishima will," Shinji said. "He pretty much has all of Karakura Town in his back pocket. All he has to do is recruit anyone with a gun and he has an army."
"Are you suggesting that we let him do all of the dirty work while we just clean-up?" Ukitake asked.
"No," Ichigo said. "There's no way I'm going to allow him to use innocent civilians in such a way. And I will not just stand by while many of them die as a result. I'm their sheriff."
"You were their sherrif," Uryu said. "Have you forgotten how they instantly disowned you when they thought you were 'Shadow-Lurker'? Why should you care about them?"
"It's because I took an oath. And I keep my oaths," Ichigo said.
"Yeah, and guess how that turned out," Uryu snapped. "Listen, Ichigo. You wanted me to be honest with you and I am. You're naïve if you think that you can keep every oath. You can't protect everyone."
"I KNOW THAT!" Ichigo shouted. "I know that better than you ever could. I saw one of my best friends and my own father killed right in front of me. I promised to protect Rukia and I saw her get infected with one of Zommari's drugs. So don't give me any more shit, Uryu. I may be naïve about some things, but I know what's at stake. I know that I can't save everyone. I know that some of us here may die when the battle comes. But I'm not going to stand by and do nothing."
Uryu was silent for a moment and then smiled.
"It's good to know that you're back," he said. "I had to make sure that you were serious about this."
"I am," Ichigo said. He turned to Starrk who only looked at him with his regular tired expression. "What about you?"
"You know where I stand," Starrk said. "Aizen betrayed those who I consider my friends. I want to make sure that he pays. One doesn't mess with a wolf and expect not to get bitten."
"Well said," Shunsui said as he took another swig of beer. "Even though I don't know what the Hell we're doing, you can count me in."
"That's good to know," Byakuya said. "However, if we're to succeed then we have to make sure that we're all in on this together. Whatever we decide for our strategy, it won't work unless everyone involved understands the risks and is willing to go through with it."
"I think we all know what's at stake," Davis Murphy said. "I may be just a banker, but the Gensei Provinces have always been my home. If I must sacrifice something to save it then I will."
"Good, we need everyone we can get," Starrk said. "We've already been dealt some serious blows. We don't know if Grimmjow's prepared something on his end. We don't know if Ulquiorra will be up and ready by the time the battle comes. We've lost two fighters already."
Shinji lowered his head at that and bit his lower lip.
"And we can't exactly call Fort Seireitei for reinforcements anymore," Shunsui said.
"No, we can't," Unohana said. "I suggest that we take a couple of hours break to think things through. Fresh air always helps in getting the mind moving on serious topics."
"And sleep," Starrk said as he stifled a yawn.
"Couldn't agree with you more," Shunsui said and held out his beer bottle to Starrk. Starrk accepted it willingly.
"I suppose since by this time tomorrow we may all be dead there's no need to worry about hygiene," Uryu said.
"This is a fine mess we're in. Most of us here have a reward on their heads or are being declared traitors. If we just rush into battle, the fine folk of Karakura Town could very well just shoot us down before we even get a chance to say, 'Hi,'" Shinji said. "In other words, we have to worry about three enemy forces and they all outnumber us. I would say that our odds are looking very good."
"Only if the odds concern all of us winding up in a pine box," Kugo said. "That is unless some miracle occurs."
Four is not necessarily the most significant number in history. But if one were to include the two fat horses and the fat boar pulling the loaded cart along one of the old mountain roads, then one did get a significant number, a lucky number. But Szayel Aporro Granz was not feeling lucky at all.
"Why me?" Szayel Aporro moaned.
"What was that?" Kukaku Shiba asked from where she sat at the front of the cart.
"Nothing," Szayel Aporro said.
"I thought not. Ganju, Jidanbo, how are you two doing?"
"Just…huff…huff…just fine, Sis," Ganju huffed from the back of the cart.
"Doing good, Miss Shiba," Jidanbo said from where he was pushing the cart up the slope. "But I think Ganju might be ready to faint."
Kukaku sighed and shook her head.
"I knew I should have forced him to get more exercise. HEY PINKY, GET OUT AND HELP PUSH!"
"Uh…I'm fine…thank you."
"I wasn't asking you, Pinky," Kukaku said and turned to glare at him.
"Well…I don't know. I'm not good at…" Szayel Aporro stopped when he saw the gun aimed right at him.
"I said, 'I wasn't asking you, Pinky.' Now, if you value your manhood, get out and help push."
Szayel Aporro moaned as he got off the cart's sitting area and made his way over the crates strapped in the back. There was no way he was going to risk falling to the canyon floor 200 feet below, even though he knew that it would cause the insane woman to have to give up harping on him every opportunity she got.
He liked living and he intended to stay that way thank you very much.
"WHAT'S THE HOLD UP, PINKY?" Kukaku shouted. "DO YOU NEED A LITTLE ENCOURAGEMENT TO GET MOVING?"
"No…I do not need encouragement of any kind. I especially don't need it from you," he snarled as he lowered himself to the path floor. He saw Ganju practically having to use the back of the cart to prop himself up. Jidanbo, however, looked as if he could push the cart uphill for five days if he had to.
"AND STOP COMPLAINING, PINKY! WE'RE BEHIND SCHEDULE ENOUGH AS IT IS WITHOUT YOU SLOWING US DOWN WITH YOUR WHINING!"
"But Sis, we're…huff…going as fast…huff…huff…as fast as we can," Ganju panted.
"Same goes for you, Idiot," Kukaku said as she towered over them from the back of the cart. "Now be good little boys, like Jidanbo. Be quiet… AND PUSH!"
Szayel Aporro grimaced as he put his hands on the back of the cart. He could feel Kukaku's fiery glare on him and he pushed…if one could call it "pushing."
"What are you doing?" Nel asked.
"What does it look like?" Grimmjow asked as he tried to mount Dondochakka's horse, Bawabawa. "I'm going to ride on ahead and make…GYAAH! MOTHER FUCKER!" He nearly collapsed and clutched at his sides.
"Hey, watch your mouth," Dondochakka said and hugged Bawabawa's neck. "Bawabawa doesn't like foul language in his presence."
"Yeah…whatever," Grimmjow snarled.
"Grimmjow, I thought we went over this before," Nel said as she rubbed Grimmjow's back. "You'll only reopen those wounds if you keep pushing it."
"You don't understand. I have to…"
"I know you want to help Starrk, but what good can you be if you're too hurt to even mount a horse?"
"I can still hold a gun. That's all I need."
"And how are you thinking of getting to Karakura Town?" Nel asked. "You can't even mount a horse and you can forget walking."
"No buts, Grimm-kitty," Nel said as she helped to sit him on a large boulder. She began to unbutton his shirt. Grimmjow reached up to unbutton her own shirt, but she slapped his hand away. "Down Kitty. I'm just checking your wounds."
"Damn, and here I thought you were getting hot."
"Maybe a little," Nel said, "but now's not the time."
Grimmjow let out a slight hiss as she removed his shirt. She checked the bandages and wasn't surprised to see that some of them were stained through with red. She turned to where Pesche and Dondochakka were sitting around the small fire getting their meal ready.
"Pesche, I need you to get the bandages. Dondochakka, bring some of that whisky over here."
"Sure thing, Nel," Pesche said as he and Dondochakka got up.
"Gee, that's thoughtful," Grimmjow said. "I could use a drink."
"It's for the bandages," Nel said.
"Sheesh, talk about a waste," Grimmjow muttered.
"Well, we have to make sure that your wounds don't get infected. And alcohol is a good way of keeping infection at bay. That's why it hurts when you pour it on an open wound."
"Tell me about it."
When Pesche and Dondochakka brought the bandages and whiskey to Nel, she started working. She un-wrapped the bandages around his abdomen and was relieved to see that the wounds there were healing nicely and were starting to scab over, but a couple were seeping blood but not pus, which was good. If any of the wounds had been seeping pus, then it would have indicated that the wound was becoming infected.
He'll have some sexy scars there, she thought with a slight smile. She put some alcohol on a clean strip of bandage.
"Grimm, I can understand that you want to help the others," Nel said. "But you need to learn your limits."
"I can't afford to do that now," Grimmjow said. He hissed when the bandage touched one of his open wounds.
"Relax, it's just alcohol."
"But it hurts."
"That means it's good for you. Healing doesn't come without pain. And whether you like it or not it takes time."
"I don't know. You heal when you heal. You just need to be patient."
"I promised Ulquiorra that I would do what I can to stop Aizen. Plus, I owe some lead to that Luppi bastard."
"I don't think that your gang would appreciate it if you died trying to avenge them," Nel said as she finished wrapping the fresh bandage around his abdomen. "They would want you to live your life to the fullest; without regret."
"I would regret not avenging them," Grimmjow said. "It's my fault that they died and it's my responsibility to make sure that they're avenged."
"Well…just don't include yourself on your kill-list, and don't get yourself killed," Nel said. "That wouldn't do any good for anyone."
"Don't worry. I have no intention of dying any time soon," Grimmjow said. "Now…how about you unbutton that shirt?"
"Later," Nel said as she poured some of the whiskey on one of his shoulder wounds.
Sabaku Desert—The Arrancar Army
The line of Arrancars and the supply carts stretched out for about three hundred feet. Parts of the Arrancar forces were clustered together and others were stretched thin, especially near the rear where the weaker horses were plodding along at a slow pace.
Baraggan Luisenbarn looked at how stretched thin the line had become and sighed.
"At this rate, some of the horses will be too weak to enter battle," he glowered.
"I wouldn't worry sir," Ggio said from beside him. "The raids that the Exequias Army is doing throughout the Borderlands will bring in fresh horses that we can use."
"What if the Exequias do not come when they're scheduled to?" Baraggan asked. "You know that Karakura Town will have enough Bala Shooters and Cero Cannons to decimate our forces without the speed that horses give."
"Aizen told us not to worry about them. He told us that Tsukishima will take care of them."
"Yes, but how do we know we can trust either?" Baraggan asked.
Ggio remained silent for a moment and nodded.
"Why wouldn't we?" Ggio asked. "You trusted him enough to follow him."
"Yes, but I only made that choice because I saw an opportunity to reclaim my former glory. And Aizen isn't here."
"Are you saying that we should disobey his instructions and attack shortly after dawn?"
"I do," Baraggan said. "No one would expect it. The downside is that if we do attack before dawn then we will be just as exhausted as our enemies."
"Yet the element of surprise would give us the advantage. We would be ready and they would not," Ggio said.
"Yes," Baraggan said. "I suppose it would."
Ggio only nodded. He listened to the sounds of the horses' hooves striking the rocky ground and the constant rumble of the cart wheels. He could hear some of the Arrancars behind them muttering or coughing.
Baraggan turned his head to look at Ggio.
"How is the prisoner?" he asked.
"The prisoner is resigned," Ggio replied. "She understands that she can't do anything."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Tch…I highly doubt that. The Gotei Captains are wily foxes. She may look resigned, Ggio, but she's plotting something."
"But what can she do, sir? She's being watched. Avirama has guard duty on her right now."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean she isn't plotting something. Poww has informed me that she still has some fire left in her. I want that fire to be extinguished before I execute her."
Ggio looked at him.
"You intend to execute her? Why not just do the worse thing and let her live?"
"She doesn't have enough blood on her hands for that," Baraggan said. "Should it turn out that she has spilt more blood than I have then I will deny her the mercy of death. I may be cruel, but I'm not cruel to allow a young woman who no longer has any sense of purpose to continue living."
"But…she might…find some purpose," Ggio protested. "If that's the greater mercy then why not give that?"
Baraggan looked at Ggio and frowned.
"First you tell me to let her live out of cruelty and then you tell me to let her live out of mercy. If I didn't know better, Ggio Vega, I would say that there is a more selfish motive behind your plea for me to stay my hand."
Ggio swallowed and then looked at the ground in front of them.
"I…I don't deny it, sir. I…I have become quite fond of her."
"Perhaps…or perhaps you're only fond of the idea of getting a hold of her charms. I was young once and I still remember what it was like when my blood was hot. I suppose it was my mistake to not let you break her."
"And…how would I do that?" Ggio asked, even though he already suspected the answer.
"It's no different than taming a wild bronco: ride her until she can no longer protest."
"I…I wouldn't feel comfortable with that," Ggio said blushing. "That is…I…it just wouldn't feel right."
"I suppose not. I suppose that I've become too bitter over the years to remember that being young also means having a clearer conscience. You know by instinct what's right and what's wrong, but the years tear that away. When you see the things that I've seen…you can do nothing but become hard."
Baraggan looked at him and Ggio was surprised and troubled to see sorrow fill his eyes.
"The types of things that would make a lesser man tie the noose himself and put the rope around his own neck. The type of things that would make a lesser man to just give up and lie in bed and wait to die in his own filth. The type of things that make you age too quickly and come to hate the world and whatever sadistic god, if any, is in control for it.
"It's a seed that becomes bitter fruit."
Ggio looked at Baraggan and was becoming worried. He had heard old men talk like this before. It was as though his leader and icon was feeling a great weight on him. It was a weight that he couldn't fully understand.
"Forgive me, Ggio," Baraggan said and chuckled. "I suppose I must have come to realize that this is my last war."
"Nonsense, sir, you'll be around for a few more years and you'll have a few more battles ahead of you."
Baraggan shook his head.
"I'm afraid not. Ggio, the greatest curse of old age is that it slows your thinking and your reflexes. If we had done this even two years ago, I would have done more than just marching and not merely rely on Aizen's plans. But now…now I can barely think of what to do next. Thinking has become like marching across soft sand or through the swamp lands.
"Damn you, Senescence. You dull our minds and you take away our ability," Baraggan said. "And in the end, we all turn to ashes to be blown in the wind. And before we become a dull blade, we do what we can in order to ensure our name lives on.
"This is what you have to look forward to, Ggio, should you survive this. Your youth will fade away and your bones will become weak. Your muscles will ache and your mind will become slow. Just as time dulls a blade, so too does time dull a man."
"But, a blade can be made sharp again," Ggio said.
"A blade can, but a man can't. Flesh and bone cannot become sharp again. The best way to live is to live without regret. Do you understand Ggio?"
Ggio didn't, but he felt that it was best to give the answer he was expected to give.
"No, you don't," Baraggan said. He looked at Ggio and his frown deepened. "Do not think about finding a way to enable the prisoner to survive. I have no intention of allowing her to do so. If you want to ride her, then I suggest you do so tonight because for better or worse, I will see her dead. And the reason is that she is Gotei. The Gotei may have fallen, but she is still Gotei."
Sergio Leone Ranch
Harribel was not surprised to see Starrk napping in the shade of one of the oak trees. His eyes were closed and his hands were folded across his chest. She gave a little smile and shook her head.
"Since you're here, you might as well join me," Starrk said. He unfolded his hands and opened his eyes a little.
"I might take you up on that offer. Where's Lilynette?"
"She's helping prepare the dynamite," Starrk said. "And she's teaching that blonde kid the best way to prepare them. Although, I think he already has a good idea on how to prepare explosives."
"Something tells me that she wants to go with them."
"Of course she does."
Harribel sat next to Starrk and leaned against the tree. Her green eyes looked into Starrk's blue-grey.
"They're really going through with it," she said.
"Yes. The plan is in place and when they leave the rest of us will head to Karakura Town."
"They'll be looking out for us," Harribel said.
"The townsfolk, Tsukishima, Aizen's men…" Harribel said. "Well, who isn't?"
"They won't expect us coming into town and they'll be too busy setting up the defenses for the part of town on the west side of the Karakura River. We'll sneak into the eastern side and then use the crowds to make sure we're in place."
"And where will Lilynette and the Kurosaki sisters be?"
"The Kurosaki sisters will be hidden someplace safe. I don't know where, but Hachi and Hanataro will be with them. If it was up to me, Lilynette would go with them, but…"
"Let me guess. Lilynette threatened to run at the first chance she got and rush into battle," Harribel said. Starrk nodded. "Well, that shouldn't come as a surprise. She was never one who could just sit and wait. So, what did you promise her?"
Harribel looked at Starrk. She could tell that he wasn't pleased with whatever compromise he had to make to appease Lilynette. Starrk sighed and sat up straight and ran a hand through his hair.
"I had to promise her that she could come with us to Karakura Town and allow her to set up her little traps. I agreed, but only as long as she doesn't leave my sight."
"Yet you still don't like it," Harribel said and put a hand on his arm. "You worry that things might get too far out of hand."
"I know things will get out of hand. There's no such thing as a clean battle. I just hope that none of that blood will be hers."
"There would be no point," Starrk said. "She knows how to set-up explosives better than anyone else here, including Sung-Sun. When we argued…she was much more persuasive than I was. She knows the risks and she's willing to take them to help us.
"I took her into the storm once before, and I don't think I can do that again."
"Yet, she's left us with little choice," Harribel said. "Whether we like it or not, we need her expertise. Her explosives could mean the difference between victory and defeat."
"That's what I hate about it," Starrk said. "I try to find a way around her entering the arena, and there's no way I can see that doesn't require me hurting her or risking absolute defeat. Whether I like it or not, Lilynette will have to enter the storm again. I'm not sure if she'll be as lucky as she was before."
"She will be," Harribel said. "I can have Sung-Sun or Apacci keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't get into the thick of things."
"Yes, but…will there be a safe place?"
Harribel thought about it and sighed.
"I don't know," she said. "I just don't know."
Hogyoku United Bank, Karakura Town
Gin Ichimaru was not surprised to see that many of the bank patrons were rushing to get their money and valuables out of the bank while they could. The message concerning the evacuation had caused a mass panic as Gin knew it would.
Tsukishima will try to use the chaos to his advantage, Gin thought. What is he up to?
Gin closed the door to his office, quieting the noise of the panic a little. He locked the door to ensure that he would not be disturbed and went back to his desk. He tried to think of ways that he could use the chaos to his own advantage, but couldn't.
We came together for different reasons, he thought. Tosen agreed to plan with Aizen for justice, or at least what he thought was justice. Tsukishima agreed for personal gain. I…
He opened the desk drawer and took out the photo. He looked at the picture of the young blonde girl with her arms around a shy-looking silver-haired boy. He ran the tips of his fingers over the girl's face and closed his eyes.
I'm doing it for you, he thought. He reached into the drawer again and took out the gun he kept under the photo. I'm doing this for you, Rangiku.
"That's a lovely photo."
Gin bolted upright and turned around. His mouth gaped when he saw Tsukishima leaning against the wall.
"How did you get in here?" Gin asked.
"The window," Tsukishima said and gestured to the open window. "I thought that we should talk in private."
"Don't you think it's a little late for that?"
"I've found that it's never too late to talk to a fellow conspirator. So…who's the girl?"
"She's an old friend," Gin said and put the photo on his desk, but kept the revolver in his hand.
"She has lovely hair. Is it that big-breasted blonde who came in with the child-Captain?"
Gin didn't say anything. Instead, he kept the revolver aimed at Tsukishima.
"It is," Tsukishima said and chuckled. "Well, ain't that nice? You're reason for joining our little conspiracy was for the sake of a girl. Why?"
"Aizen hurt her when she was a child," Gin said.
"Aizen hurt a lot of families," Tsukishima said. "I was with him a couple of times and other times I did his work for him. Her last name is Matsumoto, right?"
Gin didn't say anything. He knew that Tsukishima knew the answer.
"Well, it just so happens that I can help you," Tsukishima said. "I know you want to kill Aizen for making your precious Rangiku an orphan. You two were in the same orphanage if I'm not mistaken. She viewed you as a little brother and as the years went by, she began to see you as a man and you started seeing her as a lovely young lady."
"I see that your sources are still as reliable as ever," Gin said.
"Naturally," Tsukishima said. "Now, back to what I was saying. I have my own plan in motion to destroy Aizen. If you want, you can play a part in it as well."
"What do you have planned?"
"Oh…just to make sure that Aizen falls and I am hailed as a hero."
"And how will you do that? Those who know, or at least suspect, that you're a member of Aizen's conspiracy are still out there."
"Ah…Kurosaki and Starrk and their little band of brothers," Tsukishima said and chuckled again. "Who will believe them? The Gensei Provinces are not exactly Arrancar-friendly, and as for those who sympathize with the Arrancars… Well, let's just say that the officials hardly ever compromise. They see things in black-and-white and that naïve worldview is so easy to manipulate."
"I know," Gin said. "I've manipulated people by manipulating their worldview as well. So, back to what you were saying."
"Ah yes, my plan," Tsukishima said. "We both know that Aizen will use the Senkaimon rails to get his men from Fort Seireitei to here. First stage of the plan: stop the trains by blowing up the tracks and have a small group pick off as many of his fighters as they can as they get off the trains. Second stage: cut-off his ability to cross the Karakura River until the Arrancar Army is taken care of. Third stage: kill Aizen. Fourth stage: be the hero and use that to gain influence. So…what do you think?"
"That's the overview?"
"That's right. As for the specifics…well, I won't go into those. Now, for my plan to succeed, Aizen must die. Would you like to pull the trigger?"
Gin looked at his revolver and then at Tsukishima.
"I would. However, how do I know that you won't shoot me in the back?"
"That's completely up to you," Tsukishima said. "However, if you want to kill Aizen, then you'll need help. He will not allow you to get close enough to do the job, but…if you had someone to help keep him occupied…"
"Are you saying that you're going to…to betray Aizen?"
"You knew that I would. Aizen's little assault will provide me the perfect opportunity to play the hero. I've always dreamed of being the hero."
"Yet you helped plot with us and you killed Tosen."
"That's true. However, isn't it true that all heroes are made by taking advantage of a situation? When you get down to it, all heroes are nothing more than thugs who appear to be good. Heroes and villains are entirely based on perspective."
"Then what's the point of heroes of villains?"
"They give a society someone to love and someone to hate. However, as any ruler can tell you, it is better to be loved than hated, but it is better to be feared than loved. The man who crushes Aizen will be loved for saving them from the monster and be feared because he defeated a very powerful monster."
"You mean to get a political career out of this," Gin said smiling.
"Why else would I be doing this? However, a political career is expensive and so many politicians sell themselves to the major corporations or the old families. In public they stand tall and proud but in secret they're on their knees and kissing rich asses. It's Oligarchy disguised as Democracy, and I don't like the idea of kneeling or being some rich man's puppet with his hand shoved up my ass."
"You want to know what I did with the gold," Gin said.
"No, I want you to give me the gold in exchange for allowing you to fulfill your desire to kill Aizen. However, I'm surprised that you didn't try it sooner. Why wait?"
Gin remained silent. He didn't know why he had always stayed his hand whenever the opportunity came. He always came up with an excuse for it, but excuses were not real reasons. Excuses were surface, but reasons were the roots of actions and were thus often times unknown until a person truly examined themselves.
"So, what do you say, Gin? Are you going to try to rectify your situation and join me?" Tsukishima asked. "You can still get the revenge you seek, but it won't be as satisfying as you'd like it to be."
Gin thought about it. He looked at the photo of him and Rangiku at the orphanage. He could remember seeing her cry when she first arrived after her parents had been killed by a group of Arrancars as she watched from under their farmhouse porch where she had been playing with her dolls. He didn't like seeing her cry and had sworn that he would make sure that whoever was responsible would pay dearly in order to get her to stop crying.
That was one reason he had no doubt about.
And I always keep my promises, he thought as he looked at the photo.
"Alright, I'll join you," Gin said. He turned to face Tsukishima and put his revolver down. "What do I have to do?"
Sergio Leone Ranch
Apacci was where she expected her to be. When Harribel heard the plan, she knew that Sung-Sun would have to get involved, and she knew that Apacci would be torn between keeping her safe and the risk of not seeing the only other remaining Diamond Sister again. Harribel knew that to make Apacci's decision easier she would have to get involved.
As Harribel got closer to the grave side, Apacci stiffened and jumped onto her feet.
"Mistress Harribel," Apacci said. "I…I…"
"It's alright, Apacci. I only came to talk to you."
Apacci seemed to become more nervous at that. Harribel had to suppress a sigh. The last thing she wanted was to make one of her closest friends uneasy.
"Mistress Harribel, I…I just…I…"
"Apacci, I'm not mad at you."
"Her death is not your fault, and I think she would be disappointed if she ever found out that you're blaming yourself for her death."
"She would probably kick my ass," Apacci said.
"Yes, she would. And she would be right to kick your ass because you blame yourself for something you had absolutely no control over. Believe me. I know what it's like to blame yourself for something that wasn't your fault. When my parents and my brothers and sisters died from the Bloody Cough, I blamed myself because I survived and they did not. Why should I still be alive while everyone else around me was dead?
"I still don't know how to answer that, but I have a better idea. I survived because it wasn't my time. It was as though their deaths were preparing me for the suffering that I had to endure before…before Starrk came into my life. Every hardship helped me to become stronger. Mila Rose would want her death to help you to be able to endure and become stronger."
Harribel looked at Apacci. She had told the Diamond Sisters about her life so many times, but now it was becoming real for Apacci.
"Mistress Harribel, I…I want to become stronger. I don't want Mila Rose's death to be in vain, but…I just don't know how."
"Well, that's why I came to talk to you," Harribel said. "We need ten of our people to go out for the first phase of our plan. It will require us to derail a couple of trains and shoot down as many of Aizen's men as possible. The rest of us will head to Karakura Town tonight so that way we can get things ready there."
Apacci thought about what Harribel said and then she understood.
"To derail the trains…it will require someone who's an expert in explosives. There are only two people who I know who are like that: Lilynette and Sung-Sun. There's no way that they'll let Lilynette go on a mission like that and so…so…" Apacci fell silent.
"Yes, Sung-Sun has agreed to go with them."
"I'll be heading to Karakura Town with the others. We agreed that the Espada and Captains who can fight will head towards Karakura Town. Yoruichi, who came up with this part of the plan, asked us if we knew of anyone who may be interested and I put your name forward."
"You can refuse if you wish, but I trust you to do what needs to be done. Sung-Sun may need you to be there to help get her out alive in case things go sour."
"Well…she usually does," Apacci said. "But, Mistress Harribel, what about you?"
"I'll be fine. I lived most of my life alone in the Hueco Mundo Wastes and I'm still here. I can take care of myself. Besides, I also have Starrk and Lilynette to help."
"Are you sure that you trust me with this?" Apacci asked.
Silence fell between them, broken only by the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves and through the dry grass. Harribel knew that Apacci had to decide for herself what she was to do. It was the first step for her to use Mila Rose's death to fuel her resolve instead of dragging her down with guilt. She was relieved when Apacci gave a small nod.
"I'll do it," Apacci said in a whisper. She looked up and looked Harribel in the eyes. Harribel was glad to see that the fire that always seemed to roar in Apacci was back. "I'll do it," Apacci said again.
The warrior's back, Harribel thought.
"There it is," Alejo said.
Rudobon smiled and brushed the bone-mask hanging from the pommel of his saddle. In the distance, he could make out the opening to the Garganta Pass. The pass was wide enough to allow wagon trains to pass through, but was too narrow to accommodate the Senkaimon rail lines. The valley floor was littered with boulders that had been pushed to the side to keep the path clear and thus offered good protection for anyone waiting in ambush.
I wouldn't put it past Aizen to lay an ambush against us to make him look like a hero, Rudobon thought. But what would be the point? What would he have to gain if he did that?
"We will proceed with caution," Rudobon said.
"Yes sir," Alejo said. He turned to go and then stopped. "Sir, they're coming," he said and pointed.
Rudobon looked in the direction that he was pointing and smiled.
"Skullak's ahead of schedule," he said. "Now, we wait for Baraggan."
Sergio Leone Ranch
Apacci made sure that the saddle was strapped on tight to Cierva.
"If we leave now, we can have everything set up for Aizen's welcome party," Jackie Tristan said. "But we can't if we're going to wait on you all day."
"Shut up, Dirty Boots," Apacci growled. "The last thing I need is you giving me shit."
"You've inspected that saddle fifteen times. There's no need for it to be pretty," Jackie said.
"I want to make sure that I don't end up riding sideways because the saddle wasn't put on properly," Apacci said.
"If you're afraid of that happening to you, then you might as well just put your saddle on sideways," Kensei said from his own mount.
"HEY! I'M NOT SCARED!" Apacci shouted.
"I didn't say you were," Kensei said and looked at Sung-Sun. "Is she always this wound-up?"
"Only when she's under a lot of stress," Sung-Sun said as she checked her bag of explosives. "So, who's going to do the explosives at the Tywin Line?"
"That'll be me," Yukio said.
"Here," Sung-Sun said and held out a small bag, "it's extra detonation wire in case you need it."
"Thanks," Yukio said as he took the bag.
"Alright," Yoruichi said from her mount, "here's the plan. Yukio, Kensei, Mashiro, Riruka, and Tatsuki will head to the Tywin line. Sung-Sun, Giriko, Apacci, Jackie, and I will head to the Shihoin line. We'll set up the explosives and when the trains come…we blow them up."
"Sounds simple enough," Riruka said.
"It's actually more difficult than it sounds," Sung-Sun said. "It requires perfect timing. We want to cause as much damage as we can to them and to do that we have to wait for the train's engine to be right on top of the explosives before we detonate them."
"We'll also have to make sure we're far enough away from the debris," Yukio said. "The last thing I want is to have a shard from the boiler cutting my head off."
"You're too short for that to happen," Riruka said. "If a shard of metal came flying at you, the most damage it would do is give you a nice haircut."
"Alright, after we hinder them by taking away the rail, we shoot them down," Yoruichi continued. "Those who survive the crash will be rushing to get as much of their equipment and horses unloaded. We'll use the chaos to cut them down. Make sure that you don't empty your revolvers at the same time. We need to maintain a steady stream of bullets to prevent them from organizing. When you run out of bullets or if they've gotten the chance to organize, run. We can't afford to take any more losses."
Apacci looked at the nine others who would be sent out while the others would make their way to Karakura Town. She began to wonder how many of them would still be alive when it was all over.
"Apacci, how are you holding up?" Sung-Sun asked.
"I'm holding up just fine," Apacci said, but the slight tremor in her hand betrayed her.
"Are you sure?"
"Damn it, Sung-Sun. Why do you always stick your nose where it isn't welcomed?"
"It's because I care about you," Sung-Sun replied. "You and Mila Rose were always hot-headed. You needed me to keep you from doing something crazy. And with Mila Rose gone, I need to keep you in line more than ever. Your arguments with her were one of the few things that prevented you from just charging into a dangerous situation."
"Yet we're going into a dangerous situation."
"Well…this is one of those times that need to be done."
"Yeah, well…promise me that you won't go dying on me or anything," Apacci said. "I don't think I can stand losing another sister."
"I'll promise only if you make the same promise."
Apacci smiled and nodded.
"I have no intention of dying just yet. I made a promise to Mila Rose to keep Mistress Harribel safe. I don't know about you, but I would rather not have her ghost haunting my ass."
"I know what you mean."
Apacci and Sung-Sun watched as the others finished preparing their horses for the ride. Neither were surprised to see that those who hadn't left to return to Karakura Town were saying their goodbyes. Kugo Ginjo and Shinji Hirako were shaking hands or even hugging the members of their individual squads who were about to head out. Kisuke and Yoruichi stood apart from everyone else, their foreheads touching.
"How many of us will return?" Sung-Sun asked.
"I don't know," Apacci said. "I just wish that Mistress Harribel was here."
"Who's to say that I wouldn't?"
They turned and saw Harribel and Lilynette walking towards them.
"Where's Starrk?" Sung-Sun asked.
"That lazy bum's sleeping again," Lilynette said. "Harribel didn't want me to wake him up."
"HA! Why am I not surprised?" Apacci asked.
"Anyways, we wanted to come and see you off," Lilynette said. She looked to Sung-Sun. "Be sure that you remember to wind the timing device before you insert the detonation fuse. If you wind up the timer after inserting the fuse, you could blow up the whole plan and yourself."
"I'll be sure to remember," Sung-Sun said as she rolled her eyes.
Lilynette gave a swift kick to her shin.
"AND DON'T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME!" Lilynette shouted.
Apacci burst out laughing. Sung-Sun only sighed as she rubbed her shin.
"Fine, I'll be careful," Sung-Sun said.
Lilynette gave a sharp nod of her head and then hugged Sung-Sun.
"Just don't get yourself killed, Aunt Sung-Sun," she said. She went to Apacci and hugged her as well. "The same goes for you, Aunt Apacci."
"Well, I'll do my best to get us both back alive and in one piece," Apacci said as she rubbed Lilynette's head. "Please tell Starrk that he better take good care of Mistress Harribel or else I might have to castrate him."
Lilynette nodded and let go of Apacci. She rubbed the tears from her eyes and nodded.
"I'll be sure to give him a nice hard kick to get things started," she said.
"Apacci, Sung-Sun," Harribel said. "Good luck, and…and come back safe."
"We'll try," Sung-Sun said. "And hopefully we'll do a lot of damage to them before we got to Karakura Town."
Harribel nodded and enfolded both of them in an embrace.
"Make sure that you fight hard enough for three warriors instead of two," she whispered. "Make Mila Rose proud."
"We will," Apacci whispered.
"ALRIGHT!" Yoruichi shouted. "LET'S MOVE OUT! WE HAVE SOME MEN TO KILL!"
Apacci mounted Cierva while Sung-Sun mounted Anaconda. Yoruichi led the way with Tatsuki just behind her. Apacci looked to Sung-Sun and then to the others who were coming with them. Yukio, Riruka, and Jackie traveled together with Giriko just behind them. Kensei and Mashiro were a little ways apart from the group and Apacci saw that Mashiro was trying to gallop away while Kensei was kept a hold on the reigns of her horse.
She had a feeling that not all of them would survive.
The mass exodus from Karakura Town was relatively organized. Pinkerton agents made their way through the crowds to maintain order. Those who could shoot a rifle or a gun or even a slingshot were divided into two main groups. One group would stay behind to help with the defenses and the other group would help protect the refugees.
The barricades were, for the most part, made of old buildings that had been torn down or left to ruin. Bricks, wooden planks, carts, sacks of grain, and whatever else could be found were being piled up between buildings. When one street was blocked off, the flood of escapees were sent elsewhere to make their escape.
Yasutora Sado was helping to load one of the many carts being used to transfer supplies from the old parts of Karakura Town to wherever the barricades were being built. He looked at the crew commander, a large man with broad shoulders and long black hair hung loosely about the shoulders and black stubble covering his face. A hastily made cigarillo hung from one corner of his mouth, which he chewed on like a cow chewing cud.
"COME ON YA SONS-A-WHORES!" he roared. "HURRY IT UP! THERE ARE ARRANCARS OUT THERE THAT WANNA FUCK YAR CORPSES! BUT IF YA DON'T HURRY IT UP, THEN I SWEAR TA GOD THAT I'LL BE THE ONE RAPIN' YAR CORPSES!"
That's a pleasant thought, Chad thought. He wondered how Ichigo and the others were doing. He and Uryu had come back to Karakura Town in hopes of finding any sign of Rukia or the Arrancars already inside Karakura Town. However, they had been pressed into service almost immediately. Uryu was sent to help prepare the infirmaries that were sure to be filled up when the fighting started while Chad had been pressed into helping set up the defenses.
"Hey, Giant," the young man next to him said. "Do you think these will hold?"
Chad looked at the wall they were making and shook his head.
"I thought so," the man said. "I don't see what the point is. These defenses won't last long, so why bother making them? Wouldn't the debris just get more of the defenders killed?"
"I suppose," Chad said.
"Yeah, but try telling that to old Yoren, and he'll just tell ya to shut your fucking mouth before he decides to nail it shut." He shook his head as he looked at the wall. "Well…just by looking at what we're building, I can tell ya this much, Giant: we're as good as dead. I just hope that no one comes up to my corpse and put a gun in my hand and say, 'Alright, Ed, enough lyin' down on the job. Ya don't want to be corpse-raped do ya? No? Good. Then take this gun and start shootin'.'"
Chad didn't say anything. He went back to work while Yoren continued to yell out his own version of encouragement, which mostly had to do with their corpses being raped while their heads were being kicked around with the occasional reminder that they were "sons-a-whores."
He just hoped that their efforts would be enough to repel the invaders.
Arturo Plateado looked at the map spread out on the table. Aizen traced his finger along the Shihoin line.
"Arturo, you will be in charge of the lead train, which will depart fifteen minutes after your uncle's train has left to travel along the Tywin line."
Arturo nodded. He thought that Aizen's plan was a sound one. There would be four trains total, each one would be leaving fifteen minutes apart of each other, but would alternate between lines.
"I take it my brother will be in charge of the second train for the Tywin line and you'll be in charge of the second for the Shihoin line."
"That's correct," Aizen said. "If they decide to lay a trap for us, then we can respond."
"So that's why you decided on having each train for each line leave thirty minutes apart from each other. The land is flat for the most part and so it will be easier for the rear train to keep an eye on the lead," Arturo said.
"That's right," Aizen said. "I have already gone over parts of the plan with your brother and uncle. However, I did not share all of it with them."
Arturo looked at Aizen, somewhat confused.
"What do you mean?"
"I left part of the plan out, because it will only have to do with your train."
"Your train will not stop at the intended spot four miles outside of town. It will keep going and pull into the Karakura Station. When you have pulled into the station, you will unload the nitroglycerin and use it to destroy their defenses on the west side of the Karakura River, starting with their cannons and rapid-fire shooters."
"I will stop my train four miles outside of Karakura Town and wait another fifteen minutes before riding out. That will give your brother and uncle's forces enough time to weaken the defenses severely."
"I see. But wouldn't they put a small force at the station?"
"They would think that we wouldn't take the risk of pulling right into their front door. The Arrancar Army will attack from the west and they'll expect an attack from the east. The Karakura Station will probably have a small token force, but nothing to worry about. Their main forces will be concentrated at the west."
Arturo nodded. Then he thought of something.
"What if they prepare a trap for the trains? Wouldn't that ruin the plan?"
Aizen smiled and shook his head.
"It wouldn't do them any good," Aizen said. "They don't nearly have enough manpower to take out the rails."
"What about explosives?"
"I ordered Zommari to render them useless."
"And what if he didn't?"
"Zommari is obedient to my every command. He would not fail me in that regard."
"If you say so," Arturo said.
"So, how is the loading coming along?"
"The horses are being loaded even as we speak. It will be another hour before we can depart."
"Good," Aizen said. He looked out the window to the darkening sky. "Is Momo on my train right now?"
"Is she…still drugged?"
Aizen sighed and shook his head.
"I hate having to do that to her. If there was any way I could spare her then I would, but…she's close to Captain Hitsugaya."
"What about him?"
"His father escaped my vengeance by dying of pneumonia. He's the only Hitsugaya left and I have to make sure that all of those who were responsible for the Betrayal suffer. And if not the actual person, then their blood will have to pay." Aizen curled his fist.
"Even if that means making the innocent suffer?"
"There are no innocent. They're all guilty to some degree," Aizen snarled. "Do not mistake me, Arturo. I hate causing Momo to suffer. She was so trusting and so child-like. She was like…" He stopped and shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I will see Hitsugaya suffer. I will see Kuchiki suffer. I will see to it that the only ones left on my list of vengeance will suffer.
"And when I've done that, then I'll turn my vengeance against Stone Hill. Even as we speak, the President may have decided to send his armies against us, but I will make sure that he does not succeed. I will burn the farmlands. I will burn the cities. I will…"
"Then why not do that now? Why destroy Karakura Town? It will only waste men and resources," Arturo said. "Have the trains go east."
"NO! I will see Karakura Town destroyed first. It is the secondary capital of the Gensei Provinces. It is the symbol of their westward expansion just as Fort Seireitei was the symbol of the military might of the Gotei. I want to make sure that they all suffer."
He's allowing his rage to blind him, Arturo thought. He realized that nothing would persuade Aizen from changing course. He was too focused on destroying Karakura Town to think of anything else. Besides, it's too late to change course now. We're in too deep.
"Is there anything else you need to go over with me, sir?" Arturo asked.
"There is nothing. You may go and get our forces divided between the trains and load them on board. When they're all on board then we will leave for Karakura Town."
Sergio Leone Ranch
Keigo Asano was loading the cart when Kisuke came out of the cabin.
"Have Hachi and Hanataro left with the Kurosaki girls?" he asked.
"Yeah," Keigo said. "Ichigo went with them to see them off."
"I figured he would. Are you ready to head back?"
"I don't like this," Keigo moaned. "I mean, I was hoping to be as far away from the battle as possible."
"I know, but we need to do this."
Kisuke hopped up into the cart.
"Come on, young man," Tessai said as he lifted Keigo off his feet. "It's time for you to do your part as well."
"They'll follow later tonight," Kisuke said. "It will be easier for us to sneak back into Karakura Town in small groups instead of one large group. Besides, they'll be busy with the evacuation procedures to pay us any heed."
"I hope you're right," Keigo moaned.
He saw that Kugo Ginjo and Davis Murphy were heading to the stables.
"So you're heading back as well?" Kisuke asked.
"We figured we should," Kugo said. "Shinji will be heading back with Captain Kyoraku in a couple of hours or so. We'll head south a little ways before heading west."
"Sounds good, we'll be coming from the north," Kisuke said. "We don't want anyone to know where we came from, if they're even paying attention to who's coming in or out."
"Yeah, well, they will for the west side of town, but I doubt they'll pay attention to the east until around dawn or so," Davis said. "At any rate, when this is done, I'll buy you a beer."
"Sounds good," Kisuke said. "Take care and make sure you don't die along the way."
"The same goes with you," Kugo said as he and made their way northwest.
"Shall we get started, boss?" Tessai asked.
"We might as well," Kisuke said.
"Alright," Tessai said. "Let's get moving."
Keigo lied back on the cart's bed and looked up at the darkening sky. He could see that the stars were starting to come out.
"Star light, star bright," he whispered, "first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, gaze upon you tomorrow night."
He closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep.
Ggio Vega saw Sui-Feng sitting on a boulder at the top of the ridge. The vanguard forces were busy placing the Cero cannons in range for the opening shots that would lay cover fire for the charging forces. However, she wasn't watching them. She was looking towards Karakura Town and the sky turning from red to indigo as the sun set behind them.
"It's so beautiful," she said.
"The sunset?" Ggio asked.
"That, and…" she turned and smiled at him, "and that the citizens of Karakura Town are preparing for the attack."
"It will only make things more fun," he said. "What's the point of crushing your foe if they're not going to put up a fight?"
"How do you know they won't crush you?" Sui-Feng asked.
Ggio smiled at that.
"May I?" he asked and gestured to the spot next to her.
"Go right ahead, Arrancar," Sui-Feng said with a slight hint of mockery in her voice.
"Are you sure that it's wise to mock me right now? We're not in the Wastes anymore."
"That's true. But you're still a scrawny little kid. Now, what do you want?"
"We want information," Ggio said.
"You won't get it."
"By hook or by crook, we will."
Sui-Feng burst out laughing at that and Ggio couldn't help but join her. He had never heard her laugh before and found that he liked hearing her laugh. He found it odd that even though tomorrow blood will flow, tonight they could laugh.
Ggio didn't want it to end, but, like everything else, times of laughter must come to an end.
Sui-Feng was the first to stop laughing and she looked at him. Ggio couldn't help but notice that her eyes were not as hard as before. They were filled with sorrow and resignation. He felt his heart break at seeing just how vulnerable she really was.
"But seriously, what do you want?"
"I…I merely came to see you," Ggio said. "I…I just…"
Damn it, he thought. Why can't I just come out and say what I want to say?
"You wanted to make sure that I was doing fine," Sui-Feng said. It wasn't a question.
Sui-Feng nodded and was silent for a moment. Ggio looked at her. He wanted to do something to comfort her. He wanted to put an arm about her shoulder. He wanted to run his hand through her raven black hair to see if it was as smooth as silk. He raised one hand and hesitated before slowly reaching out for her.
"Thank you," she said.
Ggio's hand stopped in mid-air. He looked at her in surprise.
"Thank you, for…for being a friend." She turned and looked at him. She grabbed his hand and brought it to one cheek. "It's alright," she said. "I know that I'm going to die tomorrow."
"You…don't have to," Ggio said. "You could run away tonight. You could hide and…"
She put her other hand over his mouth and shook her head.
"No," she said. "No one in my family has ever run away, even when death was staring them in the face. If I die tomorrow, then I die."
Ggio wanted to say so much to try to persuade her otherwise. She was young. She had her whole life in front of her. Why would she give it up?
Her hand lowered from his mouth. But before Ggio could say anything to protest her lips were on his.
She tastes like cherries, he thought. Then all thought fled his mind. The past did not matter. Tomorrow did not matter. All that mattered was now and her. He ran one hand through her hair while the other pushed her close to him.
In the distance, a wolf began to howl.
White sand gave way to white grass as Orihime Inoue walked. She could feel the cool grass kiss her feet and a gentle breeze brush her face.
Is this what death feels like? It doesn't feel so bad, she thought.
She heard a wolf howl somewhere behind her. She turned and saw a wolf looking at her with blue-grey eyes. The wolf approached her and she smiled. She knew that the wolf would not hurt her.
The wolf stopped and looked up at her. She reached down and stroked the soft fur on its head.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It looks like I won't be able to help after all."
The wolf turned and started to walk away. It stopped and turned to look at her. She understood and started to follow the wolf.
Why am I following the wolf? I should be following the bat, she thought as she walked.
The wolf stopped again and looked at her. It let out a quick bark.
"I do trust you," she said. "But shouldn't the bat be the one next to me?"
The wolf turned and continued on. Orihime sighed and followed. She looked up at the night sky above, hoping to see some glimpse of the bat.
"Ulquiorra, where are you?" she asked. "Why can't I see you?"
She bumped into something soft and was able to keep from falling. She looked and saw that the wolf had stopped. It was sitting on its hind haunches and was looking towards the crescent moon. It let out a long howl that filled the night.
Orihime could hear other wolves cry out in answer. She looked around and saw that she was surrounded by a ring of wolves. They were all on their hind haunches and they were all howling their response.
"Starrk, what is this?" Orihime asked.
The wolf close to her did not respond. Instead, it got back on all fours and leaped away.
"WAIT! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?" Orihime called out.
"I wouldn't worry about where he's going," a voice said behind her.
Orihime's eyes widened. She knew that voice, and the memory of the last time she heard it came to her.
"JUST GO! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!"
"I don't hate you. Orihime, you'll always be my Little Princess."
"Big…Brother," she whispered and turned.
Tears filled her eyes when she saw her brother dressed in his Gotei uniform. He smiled at her.
"My Little Princess," he said.
"Big…Brother," Orihime whispered. She rushed towards him and wrapped her arms around him. "I'm so sorry," she said as tears spilled from her eyes. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to say those mean things to you. I…I'm so sorry."
Sora rubbed the back of her head, smiling at her.
"I know," he said. "I know."
"Are…are you here to take me away?"
"That depends on you," Sora replied. "You may choose to come with me or you may choose to go with him." Sora pointed and Orihime looked. Her eyes brightened when she saw Ulquiorra.
"I…I can choose," she said.
"That's right. Life and death is a choice up to the moment when Fate decrees a person is to die."
"But…but I don't know…I want to go with Ulquiorra, but…"
"If it helps, know that I'll always be with you," Sora said and kissed her forehead. "You're my Little Princess."
Orihime smiled and hugged her brother.
"Will you wait for me?"
"Of course I will," Sora said. "When the time comes, I will be waiting for you."
"I promise. After all, you'll always be my Little Princess."
Orihime hugged her brother again and looked into his eyes.
"Sora, there's something I've always regretted never saying before you left. I don't know if it would have made any difference, but…but I've always regretted never saying it. I've always regretted having the last thing you've ever heard me tell you was something said out of anger."
"Orihime, what happened wasn't…"
"I know it wasn't my fault," Orihime said. "But that doesn't mean that I haven't felt guilty about it. So, I'm going to say what I need to say in order to help me let go." Orihime kissed her brother's cheek and brushed at his hair. "Have a nice day, Big Brother."
Sergio Leone Ranch
Orihime Inoue opened her eyes. At first her vision was blurred. It took a few seconds and a couple of blinks before her vision adjusted. She turned her head and saw Ulquiorra in the bed next to her sitting up, or at least doing his best to sit up.
He looked at her and a small smile came on his face.
"Are we…?" she asked weakly.
"CAPTAIN UNOHANA!" Isane shouted. "CAPTAIN UNOHANA! THEY'RE AWAKE! THEY'RE AWAKE!"
Tsukishima sat on his horse as he watched the makeshift barricade rise. The Cero cannons and Bala shooters from the armory were being rolled into place. The civilians who were drafted to help in the defense were being drilled by their squad commanders. He knew that the preparations would continue through the night and so he had made sure that each team would work in shifts with the best fighters having the most rest.
"Kommandant," Kirge Opie said, "Bolton and Royce have left to intercept the forces coming from Fort Seireitei."
"Good," Tsukishima said. "Has Farson set up the explosives at the bridges?"
"He has, but…"
"There may be a problem that the debris could dam the river and provide any enemy forces coming from the east a bridge."
Tsukishima frowned. He hadn't considered that possibility. It would be cumbersome, but crossing a river using debris stuck in the bed of a shallow river could be done.
"Have some of the defenders spread out to cover the river bank. They can use the buildings along the river bank for cover if they have to. The streets will provide good choke-points."
"Very well, Kommandant," Kirge said and gave a small salute before marching off.
Tsukishima looked at the Precipice Mountains on the other side of the flat plain.
"Two miles," he whispered. "There's two miles of open ground and no place for them to hide." He smiled. "They won't last a half-hour and then we can focus our attention on Aizen."
Karakura Town-Old Town
Zommari Rureaux looked out the window of one of the decaying buildings on the east side of the Karakura River. He was not surprised to see that the defenders were raiding the armories for weapons and ammunition and anything they could use to build their defenses.
"It would appear that Tsukishima is going to turn on us," Dorian Semental said from his chair.
"Yes, it's what Aizen said he would," Aaroniero rasped from behind his mask. "Is that why he sent us ahead?"
"It must be," Zommari said. "He wants us to ensure that the defenses will not succeed." He folded his hands together. "Dorian, I want you to send a group of men tonight to ensure that the defenses are properly weakened. Target their artillery. We must make sure that the Arrancar Army crushes the defenses before Lord Aizen comes."
"Fine," Dorian said as he got up. "You can leave that part to me."
Aaroniero got up.
"I'll see if my scouts have seen any sign of the traitors," he rasped. "If they have, I shall take care of them myself."
"They who stand against the Lord's chosen are fated to be destroyed," he said. "Those who serve the will of the Lord shall be victorious."
"Whatever you say," Aaroniero rasped and left the room.
Zommari looked out the window a little bit longer. He couldn't help but think that there was something he forgot to do.
But could I have missed? I did everything that Lord Aizen instructed. I withdrew Brujería from the Gotei to make the addicts weaken from withdrawal. I got the Kurosaki brat out of the way and Abarai is dead. Miss Kuchiki is under my control and soon we'll have control of the cannons and ammunition. What could I have forgotten?
He walked to the door that led to what had once been a bedroom. The two guards saluted before opening the door to grant him entry. He raised a hand to them in return.
"You may leave for the night. Be sure to get rest for the sacred battle will be tomorrow," Zommari said.
"Sure thing, sir," one of the guards said. The other only nodded before the two left.
Zommari entered the room and looked to the girl sitting in the chair set in the middle of the room. She was as docile as ever and her eyes were glazed over.
"Miss Kuchiki," Zommari said. "Do you hear me?"
"I hear," Rukia said in a monotonous voice.
"Good," Zommari said as he knelt in front of her. He put his hands on either side of her face and looked into her dull eyes. "Tomorrow, you will fulfill your purpose. Then, true Euforia Absoluta will be yours."
Sergio Leone Ranch
"Will you be able to fight?" Starrk asked.
"I can shoot a gun," Ulquiorra said as he leaned against the cabin wall. "I may not be able to move as swiftly as before, but I can still move."
"I suppose that's a good thing," Ichigo said. "Ulquiorra, I…I want to apologize. I didn't trust any of you and I allowed my prejudice to blind me."
"I should apologize to you as well," Ulquiorra said. "I caused you much pain and I caused Miss Inoue much pain as well. I cannot fault you for not trusting us. However, the past is the past and tomorrow has yet to be written."
"Alright," Starrk said. "Ulquiorra, do you think you can still move like a shadow?"
Ulquiorra thought about it and only shrugged.
"I'm afraid I do not know at this point in time. However, I will know for certain tomorrow."
"Alright," Starrk said. "Can you still ride?"
"Yes. I am adequately recovered to be able to ride."
"Alright then," Ichigo said and smiled. He looked at Starrk. "We have one more fighter."
Starrk nodded and rubbed his head.
But will it be enough? Starrk could only hope that it would.
The sound of the four trains heading to Karakura Town faded in the distance as night fell on Karakura Town.
Night fell over the necropolis. The only sounds were the blowing wind and the songs of the carrion birds feasting on the corpses left in the streets and the howling of wolves.
End of Chapter 17
A.N.: The end is nigh. The final confrontation is about to begin.
Anyways, sorry that it took me so long to get this written, but things have been extremely busy for me. From the way things are looking there are going to be four more chapters for this story and then it will be done.
I also had to get in a nod to "Game of Thrones". That series is one of my major addictions and fortunately I have the books to tide me over until Season 3.
Thank you for reading and please review.