The Devil's Vessel
Chapter 1: After The Fall
Byakuya knelt quietly on a small rise under his favorite sakura tree, looking down over the rushing waterfall, the gently rippling lake and waving grasses below him. As twilight approached and the air cooled around him, he breathed in slowly and deeply, grateful for the return of tranquility to the Seireitei. Although well aware that months, and perhaps years, would pass before the scars to the land and people of the three worlds would heal, it was pleasing to have returned out of the cold sands of that dead world and to again breathe the sweeter air, and to mark the passage of time by the slow crawl of the stars and moon across the midnight blue sky…to hear the sounds of birdsong and cicada, the splashing of koi, and soft swish of wind through the trees.
He still felt the nagging twinges of pain in his healing body, the reminders of his battles with the Espadas…then his unscripted, no-holds-barred exchange with the barbarian captain of the eleventh division. If he had to choose one that had brought him the closest to death, it had to have been the last. And sadly, they hadn't been able to take their fight all of the way to its natural conclusion. With Aizen's fall and the opening of the pathway back home, they had been forced to label the match a draw…because both were still standing…just barely, but standing.
He knew well that such a battle could never have occurred in the Seireitei or even in the living world, but in the vast, unmonitored, closed off world of Hueco Mundo, and with time on their hands after easily crushing the strongest remaining Espada, they had finally been able to loose their full fury upon each other as they had always longed to do. He had to admit that although it had been stopped too soon, it had cured him of much of the built up frustration he had carried in having to constantly deal with such an undignified colleague.
They hadn't even had to concern themselves with witnesses reporting their questionable duel, because they knew that Captain Kurotsuchi would show his appreciation for their silence on the matter of his looting Szayel Aporro's lab by saying nothing of the illegal battle he had carefully watched (waiting to see if one of them would provide him with a corpse to study…). Renji had been unconscious throughout the fight, Isane too busy healing him and most of the others too busy with their own problems to mind what they were doing. And if Rukia saw anything, she knew better than to breathe a word of it to anyone. While it was an annoyance to Byakuya to have been stopped prior to the death of one or the other, certainly the news of Aizen's fall made up for the inconvenience.
Because if Aizen had triumphed, he had promised to return to Hueco Mundo to deal with each of the trapped captains at his leisure. So considering death was a likely end anyway, they had figured there wasn't much reason to play it safe and get along.
"Lord Kuchiki?" his attendant's voice said quietly from somewhere behind him, "Your bathers are ready for you now."
Byakuya nodded and came to his feet, then turned back in the direction of the manor, his young cousin following in his wake. They passed almost silently through the quietly whispering trees, through the shadowed gardens and into the opulent bathing house near the end of the main building.
Inside, Torio undressed the clan leader and stood waiting as two additional male attendants appeared and followed Byakuya into the warm water. The noble sighed contentedly and let his eyes run around the calm, tranquil expanse of the room…the careful use of landscape and lighting used to create an indoor garden, bathing pool and waterfall. It was like still being out of doors, and it let him enjoy that same feeling even as the winter months made the outdoors too cold for such a thing. And as much as he felt at ease with bathing himself, this particular evening, it seemed a pleasant indulgence to feel the gentle caress and deeply massaging fingers of his bathers.
A hundred years before, during his days as a much less disciplined youth, he had felt such things too invasive (to the point where he had often avoided the bathing house during the day as much as possible, and sneaked out at night to attend to the task himself), now they soothed him into a calm, easy state.
"Arigato," he said quietly as his bathers bowed respectfully and left him.
He strayed out, then, under the warm waterfall and stood beneath it, looking up through the tempered glass ceiling at the blanket of stars and bright moon overhead. He remained there. letting the water run down his pale, slender form until his eyes began to droop sleepily. Then he turned and made his way back across the calm waters, where Torio dried his dripping hair and body, and dressed him in a soft, pale blue yukata. Torio followed him out of the bathing house, across the garden, and to the open doors of his bedroom.
"Good night, Brother," Rukia said from the entry to her own room, several doors down.
"Good night, Rukia," he replied softly, watching somewhat wistfully as she turned away and she looked so much like her late sister as she walked into her room and closed the door.
He stepped into his own room, letting the warm tones and the pleasant, light scent of sakura lull him as Torio pulled back the covers on his bed and stepped back, allowing him to climb into his bed and settle down.
"Good night, Lord Kuchiki," Torio said, bowing.
"Arigato, Torio," he answered placidly, "You are dismissed."
He listened to his attendant's retreating footsteps in the hallway and then the manor fell nearly silent. Byakuya closed his eyes, breathing slowly and letting himself drift slowly off to sleep.
Out in the gardens and around the perimeter of the huge estate, the nighttime guards stood solemnly at their posts, their eyes slowly scanning the shadowed trails and walkways, and their senses carefully extended, searching for any odd fluctuations in the reiatsu around the manor. Not that any was to be expected. In fact, there had been very breaches of the manor's considerable defenses over the years, and all of them during times of out and out war. There was even less expectation of it now that peace had fallen once more over the Seireitei. Add to that the overwhelming power of the Kuchiki clan leader and the need for concern nearly seemed to disappear. Yet the guards stood ready, as guards had stood prepared for hundreds of years, overseeing the safekeeping of the noble inhabitants there.
The head of house security, a small, deceptively slight looking man with quicksilver eyes and a reputation for his swift sword and attention to detail, Tsutomu Mori walked nightly from guard post to guard post, checking in on the night detail on a rotating schedule known only to him.
Yet for several weeks following the fall of Sousuke Aizen, a pair of dark, red eyes had followed the pathways, habits, schedules and protections around the Kuchiki clan leader. Skillfully masked reiatsu had hidden this one chosen to observe, to note and to carefully catalog. And when the time was right, to invade…
He approached the guard placed farthest out from the others, in the area near the waterfall and waited until his back was turned. On silent feet, the odd hollow, closed the distance, then focused for a moment and, let his body fade into a dark, menacing mist. He passed silently and unnoticed into the guard's body, making the man suddenly quiver and jerk somewhat fitfully. A moment later, the guard's mind was put to sleep and the hollow took over all of his functions.
He waited then, inside the possessed guard's body until footsteps sounded softly on the forest path and Tsutomu appeared on the trail.
"How goes the night?" the head of security asked.
"Quietly, sir," the hollow answered in the guard's voice, using the response he knew that Tsutomu expected, "All is well."
Even as well prepared as the hollow invader was, Tsutomu sensed that something was amiss and drew his zanpakutou. The invader almost didn't make it out of the possessed guard's body and into the head of security before Tsutomu's blade found its mark and the dead guard fell and faded away into nothing. Tsutomu managed a strangled cry and tried to turn his weapon on himself, but the invader's mist form swelled beneath his skin, quickly overwhelming his mind and taking control. Smiling, he turned the head of security's possessed body back in the direction of the manor. He continued Tsutomu's rounds, making sure that there was no reason for anyone to question his behavior. Reaching a break in the head of security's duties, he slipped into the main building of the manor and walked quietly down the hallway to the attendant, Torio's bedroom door. He tapped lightly on the door frame and met the sleepy eyes of Byakuya Kuchiki's young cousin. He wasn't expecting the second youth, who sat up next to Torio. The young man looked familiar, but had likely been someone beneath notice. Torio looked back at Tsutomu as the hollow made the head of security give the two a stern glare.
"What is the meaning of this, Torio?" he asked, "Guests are supposed to be approved by house security before…"
"It's just Rikichi, sir," Torio assured him, "He has been cleared for entry and overnight stays by Lord Kuchiki, himself. The master is aware of our association and has no objections to it."
"Of course," said the hollow, remembering then the quiet subordinate from the sixth division.
He imagined one more weakling would hardly make a difference in their plans.
"Is something wrong?" Torio asked, "Does Lord Kuchiki need me for something?"
"Hai," said the head of security, "He says he is feeling ill and needs some ginger tea. You can get it for him, and Rikichi, you will please come with me."
"Oh, yes sir," Rikichi said, rising and reaching for his shihakushou.
The hollow watched as Torio disappeared down the hallway, then motioned for Rikichi to walk ahead of him. A flash of kido rendered the sixth division subordinate unconscious. The hollow carried the youth into another bedroom and left him there, while he slipped into the kitchen, rendered Torio unconscious and placed him in the room with Rikichi. He moved on to the clan leader's bedroom and stepped inside, making his way noiselessly to Byakuya's bed and leaving Tsutomu's body lying on the floor. He turned himself into mist again and seeped out of Tsutomu, then rose over the bed and sank down into Byakuya's sleeping form.
The clan leader came awake almost immediately as the odd, cold feeling of invasion reached him and he fought to maintain control of himself as the hollow attacked his mind. He would have called for help, but the hollow was careful to first overcome his ability to do so, then to gain control of his body and finally to overwhelm his mind. As the noble finally fell under his spell, Byakuya's body quivered and fell to the floor. The hollow listened carefully for sounds of anyone being roused by the sound, but all remained silent. He settled then into Byakuya's body and stood, then dressed in his uniform and carried Tsutomu to his bedroom, undressed him and laid him in his own bed. Making his way back to the room where he had left the two youths, he roused them and told them to come immediately with him. He led the two out of the manor, through the gardens and up to the waterfall, then took his zanpakutou and slashed the sky.
"What? Sir!" Rikichi gasped.
"Do not worry," Byakuya assured his subordinate, "We are going on a secret mission into Hueco Mundo for the head captain. You two are to attend me while we are there. Come."
Not knowing what else to do, the two youths followed Byakuya through the garganta that had opened and into the underground cavern. They ran to keep up with him as the noble crossed over into the world of the hollows and turned towards the ruins of Las Noches. They balked at entering through the guarded gates of the fortress, but the guards allowed the noble to pass without challenge, so they felt they had no choice but to follow. Byakuya led them in through the large double entry doors, where they were met by a creature that looked to be some kind of horribly powerful demon. The creature smiled chillingly at them, then turned his attention to Byakuya.
"You may exit his body now, Kiri," the dark creature said, looking at Byakuya.
Torio and Rikichi gasped in dismay as a dark mist left Byakuya's body and the Kuchiki clan leader slumped to the floor, unconscious. Rikichi's hand went to his zanpakutou, but the demon in front of them glowed with intense spiritual pressure, leaving the two youths unable to move.
"We need to borrow your master," he told the two, "but you will care for him while he is with us."
Guards surrounded them and quickly fitted the two with reiatsu suppressing collars and confiscated their weapons. The guards lifted Byakuya and carried the noble into one of the bedrooms, where he was laid in bed and also fitted with a restraining collar.
"Your collars will allow you access to the hallways and kitchen areas, but you may not leave the fortress. Your master's collar will not allow him to leave the room he is in. You are to make him comfortable for the duration of his stay, but do not leave, and do not attempt to assist him in escaping…or we will not hesitate to kill you!"
Torio looked as though he wanted to respond, but Rikichi touched his arm and shook his head slightly. He stepped in front of Torio and looked the demon in the eye.
"We will do as you have commanded, because you have made no move to harm us or our master, but if you attempt to harm him, we will resist."
The demon laughed softly.
"You are a good and intelligent subordinate…"
"Rikichi," the young man said, stepping back, "and this is Torio, Captain Kuchiki's attendant."
"Very well," said the demon, "Rikichi and Torio. You have my word that I have no plans to harm you or your master. We simply require his services with a certain task. As soon as it is done, you will all be returned safely to the Seireitei. Now, I must leave you. I would suggest not straying as the guards may attack you."
The two youths watched silently as the demon left the room, then ran to the bed and immediately tried to rouse the noble. Byakuya did not respond for some time, but finally began to stir and slowly came awake.
"Lord Kuchiki!" said Torio worriedly, "are you all right?"
"Except for being taken from my bed and imprisoned here, I am fine," the noble assured them, "Are the two of you all right?"
"Yes, Captain," Rikichi assured him, "We were not harmed."
"Do you know how the manor was breached?" Byakuya asked, sitting up and shaking his head to clear it.
"It was a strange hollow," Rikichi went on, "It was able to turn its body to mist. I think it possessed Tsutomu, and then it went into your body and brought us all here."
"Ah, that is right. I remember it taking over my body and then I lost consciousness. Did they say what they wanted?"
"No sir," Torio said softly, "They only said that they had a task for you to do, and that the two of us were commanded to care for you during your stay here. We are able to move around within the fortress, but your collar confines you to this room."
"What should we do, Captain?" asked Rikichi.
"You should do as you have been told. Do not violate their orders or they will likely kill you. I will attempt to discover an escape route. I will tell you when I am ready for us to attempt escape. But while we are here, I want you to use your senses and learn all that you can. I want to know why I have been brought here. You have more mobility, more ability to seek that information than I do."
"Yes sir," the youths said together.
"Do you need anything now, sir?" asked Torio.
"The sooner you need something, the sooner we can start snooping for information," added Rikichi.
"Water, then…and something for a headache. That won't be likely to arouse suspicion after what we encountered in being brought here. Learn what you can and return quickly."
"Hai," the two youths said.
Rikichi glanced at Torio.
"You stay here with Captain Kuchiki and I will go and get the water and medicine and look around."
"Okay," said Torio, "I will look after Lord Kuchiki. Just…be careful, Rikichi, all right?"
Rikichi gave him a warm smile.
"I will be fine," he assured Torio, "Captain Kuchiki has had our entire squad trained for such things. I'll be back soon."
But even after Rikichi left, Torio's face registered concern for his lover. Byakuya's eyes softened slightly and he motioned for Torio to sit down next to him.
"Do not be concerned for Rikichi," he said bracingly, "He is well trained. I want you to focus on keeping yourself safe. We do not know why these hollows have brought us here and we need to watch out for each other. I do not know if they are aware you are a relative, Torio, but if they are, they could use that against us. Keep a guarded tongue and do not tell them anything you do not have to. Obey quietly and speak as little as possible. Let me do the talking for us."
"Hai," Torio said, nodding.
The two were quiet then and settled within the room to await Rikichi's return.
"You did well," the demon lord, Kurokasai said, his blazing red-gold eyes glittering softly as he gazed at Kiri, "We need only wait for your brother to finish his part of the mission and we can move forward."
"Do you think the shinigami lord has any inkling of why he has been brought here?" asked Kiri.
"I do not believe so," answered the demon lord, straightening his black, leonine form and looking out the window.
Outside, all of Aizen's false lighting and sky had been removed and now Las Noches existed in darkness, as Kurokasai imagined it always should have. It had been a mistake for the former Espadas to allow the shinigami traitor to change any part of their world. He had made the worst kinds of fools out of his followers. But it was a source of pleasure to the new demon lord to know that after they returned Sousuke Aizen to the fortress and used him for the Akuma-kokuou ritual, Aizen would be dead and the three worlds would fall under the control of a new hollow regime.
The only source of uncertainty was the Kuchiki lord's fitness for his part in the ritual. The demon lore had pointed to the strongest shinigami of the noble houses, but if Byakuya did not prove to be strong enough, the ritual would claim his life and destroy their chances of ever bringing the dark lord to power. And while Aizen was clearly the scion delineated in their prophecy, the identity of the Akuma-utsuwa, or "Devil's Vessel" was much more cryptic.
Kurokasai sighed softly and closed his eyes.
"I will be greatly relieved when the ritual is done," he said quietly.
"I will too," agreed Kiri, "As long as Hebi is not discovered, we should be able to move forward soon."
"Yes, well, infiltrating the shinigamis' Central 46 prisons is even more challenging than breaking into Kuchiki Manor was. Hebi has never failed yet, so I have confidence in him, but I will not rest easy until Aizen is back in our hands."
"He had just better be careful," said Kiri, frowning, "until the end of the ritual, Aizen will still be dangerous."
"Yes," agreed Kurokasai, "We must be extremely cautious…"