It took them three days to find the answer, and that was because of Gin.
The silver haired shinigami was badly wounded. They'd had to take him for organ regeneration, a desperate procedure but absolutely required to save his life. It was remarkable that he'd survived long enough to reach Unohana but Tosen and Barragan had both done their best to preserve him.
The regeneration took three days. Not to say he was completely healed at that point, but he was able to move around at a slow pace and do a bit of gentle exercise. So Gin was able to hear about what had happened to Aizen and all the complications surrounding it.
"Your brains are a bit stupid." The fox said, his voice a bit wheezy but his smile in place. Barragan just stared at him, his arms crossed. Tosen didn't even bother to muster up any caring. He was simply exhausted. The taichou in the room, Byakuya, had an even better stare than the Segunda Espada. "The answer's right in front o' your noses an' you can't see it."
"Spare us Gin. What have we missed?" Tosen sounded as exhausted as he looked and Gin started to laugh before stopping, a hand on his chest.
"Unf… yeah. It's Ichigo Kurosaki. Or maybe I should say… Shiba Ichigo." Gin's smile turned into a grin as Barragan tilted his head slightly. That name meant nothing to him. Tosen didn't react either but Byakuya twitched ever so slightly. "You remember that, don't you Bya-kun? Such a disgraceful event! The downfall of a great clan, all for love."
"Wait, you are saying that Ichigo is of the royal line?" Tosen interrupted and Gin nodded. "Impossible! Aizen would never have let him live."
"Oh, he didn't plan to. He figured Bya-kun here and Kenpachi would finish him and Shiro-chan off. And if they didn't, Aizen was gonna hunt them down later, after he got the throne. He only let them live to take on Yamamoto. He figured the royal power combined with the Cero's would be enough to beat the Soutaichou and woo, was he right about that!" Gin said cheerfully and it was Byakuya's turn to be shocked.
"That white hollow was the Cero?" No one had enlightened him about that. He frowned, ever so slightly and Gin smiled at that faint sign of temper. He knew that meant that Byakuya was furious.
"Yeah, but don't blame him too much. He was fighting for his mate an' his brother's baby. Did you know shinigami and arrancar can breed? Such an amazin' thing!" He said cheerfully as Tosen rubbed a hand over his face. "Beautiful baby boy, too. Aizen planned to kill him. Couldn't have any other claimants to the throne, hey?"
"Aizen…" Tosen stopped with a small sigh. "I… was wrong." The admission pained him deeply. "We must go to Hueco Mundo and secure the Shiba boy, bring him here."
"What you need to do is rest." Barragan interrupted. "You are exhausted to the point of making fatal mistakes and in Hueco Mundo, that is unacceptable." He added as the shinigami looked ready to protest. But then Tosen paused, evaluating himself. He finally nodded his acceptance. "Should this be a mixed group?" He glanced at Byakuya, who nodded.
"We have a stake in this as well." He said quietly although the look in his eyes was reserved. They all knew exactly why. With the knowledge that sooner or later they were going to be leaving, the Espada were trying to keep the arrancar army from abusing the population too much. But an invading army will loot and rape, it was the nature of war. There would certainly be hard feelings when all was said and done. Yet, the shinigami could likely be counted on to keep an oath when they gave it. Tosen said so and he would not lie. "Would Shunsui and Soi Fon be acceptable?" He asked and Barragan glanced at Tosen. He was just as much in charge as the elderly hollow, with his greater knowledge of the shinigami. Tosen nodded.
"Wish I could come, but…" Gin shrugged and Barragan shook his head.
"I wish you could as well but it will be at least a week before you are fully recovered." Barragan really didn't like that. Of all them, Gin was probably on the best terms with Shiro and his family. Tosen was close behind and the children adored him. But could they wait the night for him to be rested? "We should act now. Shiro will at least speak to us before attacking." Having so many children would incline the Cero towards caution. And once they had a chance to talk, all would be well. Barragan didn't know them too well but he could not believe any child of Vandular's would refuse to save the three worlds.
He always taught his children responsibility.
"It's alright, darling. Just take slow, deep breaths." Rin gently encouraged a struggling Violetta as Grimmjow wiped her forehead with a bit of cloth taken from her skirt. Their Espada uniforms would all be in tatters soon but none of the arrancar cared. Ichigo and Shiro watched, carefully staying out of the way. They both lacked any experience of this sort of thing although Shiro had at least witnessed Tigre's birth.
When Rin and Van had arrived, Violetta had been in the side cavern, sleeping. Her expression when she'd come out to find a strange vasto lorde there had been priceless. But she'd quickly become acclimatized to the idea, especially with the extra protection it offered her and her pup. Rin had been a bit bemused. This was not typical at all for vasto lorde… but then, they were arrancar. Who was to say that they would do things the same way?
No one, and this would be the first true offspring of the new hollow breed. Tigre didn't really count, being half-shinigami. As Violetta labored Ichigo frowned, looking towards the entrance to the nest. Then he glanced at Shiro, meeting his brother's eyes.
"You feel it." It wasn't a question and Shiro nodded.
"Somethin' big." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment before frowning. "Papi'll feel it too." Van was off gathering the vasto lorde and instructing them to return, but what would he do when he felt this new disturbance?
"There's nothing we can do. We can't possible move with Violetta like this." Ichigo said with cold practicality and Shiro nodded reluctantly.
"Not 'til the babies born. An' even then, if it's Aizen we might just want to lead 'em off." Shiro said and Ichigo grimaced, looking away. That was their greatest fear, that Aizen would come for them.
"Baby is almost here. I can see the head." Rin said encouragingly and both their attention was pulled back to the tiny woman on the floor. She was propped with her back against Grimmjow's chest, her legs spread wide. "Just a few more." Ichigo sighed to himself in relief and felt a matching relief in Shiro. It was rare, but vasto lorde could die in childbirth, particularly the first time after they gained a humanoid form. The greatest danger was that the child would not be able to pass through the hips, but if Rin could see the head then that was not a concern.
The baby slid free and Rin quickly sucked at the child's mouth and nose, freeing the airway. The little one gave an offended scream as Violetta gasped, exhausted. The afterbirth quickly followed and while they were desperate to see the little one, Ichigo and Shiro gave the small group a chance to clean everything up. Rin bit through the cord before passing the pup to Violetta. She immediately began licking the child off, cleaning it as any adjuchas or vasto lorde would. Grimmjow tidied up the afterbirth, eating it without any qualms.
"A girl. She's beautiful." Violetta sounded exhausted but very pleased. "Look, she has antenna!" They were white bone, and flat against the child's skull. Violetta tugged on one curiously. "I think they're stuck to her head."
"Likely so she could be born without damaging them." Rin said and Violetta nodded. "We should probably free those." Violetta nodded and began licking the child's hair, working off the gluey substance that was holding down the antenna as everyone clustered around, looking at the cub.
She resembled Yammy in a lot of ways. Where Violetta's skin was pale, the child was a warmer shade. She had the same blush-like markings on her cheeks and Ichigo smiled at that. He had a feeling they would look much better on a girl than they had on Yammy. Her hair was black, but that was no surprise. Violetta and Yammy both had black hair. The antenna might have come from either of them. Yammy's adjuchas form had been a centipede while Violetta had been a locust.
"That's a relief." Shiro muttered and Ichigo nodded. It was a relief that Violetta had survived but it was also a relief that she was so accepting of the child. They hadn't delved into the matter but Yammy's 'seduction' of her had been… forceful. Violetta hadn't shown much enthusiasm over the pregnancy, approaching it as more of a duty than anything. But now that she was holding the girl in her arms, her delight was obvious. "Still can't run though." He said and Ichigo nodded. Vasto lorde healed quickly but it would be at least a day before Violetta was in any condition to move. "We better start scouting."
"Right." While it was tempting to remain in the den, they just couldn't. "We need to catch them some food, too." Suisen and Bonito still didn't like the pills and a good kill would help Violetta get her strength back. "Let's go." Ichigo nodded and they quickly set off.
If whatever was causing the disturbance came to them, they would do their best to destroy it.
Barragan halted, scenting the wind before glancing at the shinigami beside him. Kuchiki Byakuya was tentatively in charge of the shinigami for now, although that would likely change after the arrancar left. From what he could tell, Kyoraku Shunsui was older and more powerful than the Kuchiki noble, but less inclined to be responsible.
The matter of who would succeed the late Soutaichou did not concern him, however. What claimed his attention and worry was the odd feeling he was getting… that they were being paced. Barragan reached up, stroking his mustache for a moment. Was he just being paranoid? It had been a very long time since he'd been to the mountains. Yet, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was watching them with an unfriendly regard.
"Is something wrong?" Halibel asked. In addition to the three shinigami, he'd taken her and Starrk. That left their forces in Soul Society rather weakened, but there wasn't much to do there. With the balance of the three worlds so perilous, it felt like everyone was holding their breath. Barragan grunted.
"It is nothing." Surely he was imagining things. No one vasto lorde would dare challenge them. Not even the dragon would dare take them on! They continued through the mountains, searching for any sign of the Cero. And when they came to one especially open clearing Barragan drew a very disagreeable conclusion.
We are surrounded. On the face of it, it was preposterous. Vasto lorde did not work well together. But his instincts said they were in deadly danger and he gripped the hilt of his axe before speaking very quietly to the others. Soi Fon already had her weapons ready. The woman was easily as alert as any hollow and had sensed the tension in the air.
"Ready yourselves. We are about to be – " Then he jerked up his axe, just in time to absorb a painful blast of lightning. The power of it knocked him back several feet and Barragan felt stunned as he tasted an all too familiar reiatsu. And it was not alone. The wind howled as other signatures abruptly revealed themselves. There was laughter, high pitched and girlish as well as dark and wicked as their opponents gave up all stealth.
There were five of them. Twin sisters erupted from hiding, long white horse tails and hair flying as they attacked Kyoraku, double teaming him with the ease of long practice. A female with long black hair and a faintly snake like aspect engaged Byakuya, her claws clashing against his sword. Soi Fon and Halibel faced a male that Barragan knew and detested. But he had no time for that. He and Starrk were left to face the greatest threat.
"Release your zanpakuto, you idiot!" He barked at the Primera. Lilynette had been riding on his shoulders and she could be easily hurt if he left her like that. "ARGH!" Wicked claws slashed through his side, penetrating his hierro. "Rot, Arrogante!"
Things got nasty after that. The only one really winning his battle was Shunsui, and even that was debatable. Byakuya had called his shikai and the snake woman was using a similar power, little silver globes that exploded in large bursts. The globes were dueling with sakura petals and no one was winning. Halibel and Soi Fon were suffering badly against their opponent. A male with a demonic aspect, he was clearly a goat type and his armor was decorated with jagged black marks. He was also a partial arrancar, self-made and self-taught. He released his zanpakuto with the word 'corrupt'. That was fitting because everything he touched became poisoned, diseased. He also spat streams of acid, one of which hit Soi Fon in the arm. She cried out in pain but recognized what she had to do. It was familiar, from her aborted battle with Barragan.
"Remove it!" She said to Halibel and the other woman acted, slashing down with Tiburon. The arm was neatly removed, halting the spread of the acid. Their enemy just laughed, enjoying the pain he had inflicted. Unlike the others, who were fighting for all they were worth, he was playing.
The ones who were suffering the most, though, were Starrk and Barragan. Starrk was bleeding heavily from a dozen cuts, firing off cero after cero in an effort to hit something that was simply too fast. Barragan was clashing his axe against claws and struggling to absorb and redirect the focused energy their opponent was turning on them. He had the knowledge and experience to do that, but it still wasn't easy.
"Vandular! Stop this madness!" He managed to say. Why… oh, of course. The other hollow probably thought they were here to kill his sons. "Aizen is dead! We've come to save the three worlds!" That made the dragon pause slightly, although only in his attacks. He still had to evade Starrk's efforts and the Primera was not letting up for a moment.
"And you would come to Hueco Mundo for that? Your words make no sense." He said before attacking again. Barragan grunted as he felt his axe creak. He didn't bother to use respire. Just as he could ground and redirect Vandular's lightnings, the other hollow would bleed off respire into the atmosphere. He would only be wasting his energy and he didn't have as much to spare as his opponent.
"Shiba Ichigo! Your adopted youngling is the heir to the Spirit Throne!" He managed to say and Vandular's attack truly halted. Then he was going after Starrk, backhanding the Primera and trying to snatch his guns away.
"Starrk!" Lilynette cried as Vandular managed to seize her. But he did nothing more, merely holding the weapons as Starrk ended up on one knee.
"You swear to me, on your own pride, that this is the truth?" He said and Barragan nodded, not surprised that the other would phrase it that way. They both knew he was very proud. "Everyone, stop!" He called, magnifying his voice. No one paid the least bit of attention. "Cover your ears." He instructed and Barragan winced to himself before following the instructions. It wouldn't really help much but it was all he had. Starrk didn't listen, starting forward with the intention of getting Lilynette back.
Then the Primera was knocked back, his eardrums nearly exploding as Vandular roared. The sound of a full grown vasto lorde was always impressive. The sound of a great old one, pumping his reiatsu into his voice, was awe inspiring. Around them the rocks trembled, little stones falling down the sides and threatening an avalanche. Everyone stopped fighting, stunned. Of the twin girls, one fell to the ground, twitching dramatically.
"I'm dead papi! You just killed me!" She called and Vandular ignored her. Barragan turned his head, regarding the two. Papi? He extended his senses and found they were indeed Vandular's pups although quite a bit below his power level. Also fairly young, only a few centuries if he was any judge. Their mother must have been considerably below Van's power level.
"The hell? I was enjoying myself." The demon complained and Barragan could see why. Halibel was shaking, her body covered in bite marks. He didn't even want to know how that had happened. Soi Fon was unconscious now, although she'd managed to stop the bleeding from her amputated arm.
"Barragan has told me something interesting. It seems I was a bit hasty in assuming these strangers were here for Aizen. Barragan, explain it to us all." He commanded and the old hollow did, giving them a longer account of what had come to pass. As he did Van went to Halibel's side, resting a hand on her shoulder and gently urging her to sit as he began to infuse her with reiatsu. He didn't bother to ask the demon to help, although he could have removed his own venoms easily. Barragan and Vandular both knew better.
"So you've completely wasted our time? Fuck! I want to kill something." The demon exclaimed and Vandular looked up, annoyed.
"Then go do so. You will pay for it, in the end." He said, his voice cold. The other vasto lorde sneered and spat out a line of acid, etching a line into a nearby cliff face.
"Shamanistic bullshit! Go fuck yourself." He said succinctly before vanishing in a burst of sonido. Vandular growled something incomprehensible but clearly not flattering as Barragan tilted his head to one side.
"Strange company you are keeping." He observed as Starrk finally managed to get his hands on his guns and began checking over his other half for any damage. Van just shrugged, his wings rattling.
"He sensed me gathering the vasto lorde and tagged along. I didn't have the time or inclination to drive him off." He said shortly and Barragan nodded. That sounded right. "…Girls, stop that!" He snapped and Barragan looked over to see the two young vasto lorde were circling Kyoraku in a way that he was clearly interpreting as threatening. However, to a hollow the body language told a completely different story. The stopped, swishing their tails and looking at him.
"But he's cute papi! And we don't have a mate." The one who had played dead said. Her voice was higher in pitch than her mostly silent sister, who chose that moment to speak.
"And we know shinigami and vasto lorde can breed. He would make good pups." Her voice was warm and purring, quite different form her sister. "I am Amargo." She told Shunsui, who was smiling in a way that seemed flattered to Barragan's jaundiced eye.
"I'm Dulce!" Her sister said, jumping up and down a little. "What's your name?" She asked as she sidled up, her tail twitching. Kyoraku didn't put his blades away but he did lower them.
"Kyoraku Shunsui. You know, for hollows, you're really quite adorable." He said and Barragan wondered what the shinigami was doing. This had to be against some kind of rule… although Ichigo had established that shinigami and vasto lorde could definitely breed. Grimmjow had been pregnant before his mask had been broken.
"Girls. Possible or not, this is really not appropriate." Van broke in firmly and there was a great deal of pouting. Barragan sighed to himself as he caught Shunsui's smile and made a mental note that the shinigami was more clever than he'd thought. He'd clearly calculated that Van wouldn't allow his daughters to fraternize with a shinigami so instead of disappointing them himself, he'd let the dragon do it.
"Am I needed here? I have no interest in making pups with a shinigami." The female snake said, her voice pleasant enough but a touch on the cool side. Vandular hesitated briefly.
"If you would be willing to travel with us I would greatly appreciate it." He said politely. He wasn't quite willing to place his trust in the shinigami and arrancar just yet. The snake woman tilted her head to one side before nodding. Barragan tried to sense her power and decided she was close to being a great old one, but not quite there yet. No doubt that was why he'd never met her. She was younger than himself and had likely come to prominence only after he'd left the mountains.
"Will she live?" He asked Vandular and he shrugged, drawing his hands away from Halibel. She was gasping, her head down.
"Uncertain. You know how his venom works." He said and Barragan nodded. Neither of them had been infected with it, but they'd tried to help a few adjuchas and vasto lorde who'd run afoul of the demon. Adjuchas were doomed but vasto lorde could recover, if they were strong enough. Halibel had been a newly evolved vasto lorde when her mask had been broken, but as an arrancar she was formidable. She might survive. "The other one is not infected." He nodded towards Soi Fon, which was a minor relief. "You will have to carry them both." He wasn't offering to do it himself. Trust was a precious commodity at the moment.
Finally, though, they managed to get everyone moving. And with Vandular to guide them they found the Cero's lair easily. Ichigo and Shiro were gone, however. Byakuya had seen the children before but Shunsui got to see hollow pups for the first time.
"How adorable!" He smiled at the little ones. They were hiding behind Rin. She had tried to shoo them more deeply into the den but Bonito and Suisen were simply too curious to stay back. Grimmjow was also peeking out suspiciously, Tigre in his arms. "And that must be the hybrid child. Why, he looks just like a shinigami." Shunsui tilted his head to one side, feeling out the little one's reiatsu. "He feels like both a hollow and a shinigami… intriguing." Tigre's reiatsu was powerful and very mixed. Grimmjow growled, backing up a bit.
"What th' hell's going on?" Shiro and Ichigo appeared a moment later, summoned by all the power at their den. "Papi! The hell?" He demanded and Vandular launched into an explanation. Barragan was mildly surprised to see that Shiro and Ichigo were not the least bit surprised at the revelation of his royal blood.
"See? I told you. A prince." Grimmjow said and Shiro sighed as Ichigo shrugged. He was frowning, though.
"I can't let the three worlds fall into ruin." He said in a low tone and everyone nodded. That was a given. "But what about Tigre? How will this affect him, papi?"
"I don't know Ichigo. But Rin and I will be there for you." He said in a gentle tone and Ichigo nodded, his brown eyes troubled. "And we must act now. Time is short." The wrongness was only increasing. Ichigo nodded again, firmly this time.
"Then I'll go. Thank you all for helping." He said to the three vasto lorde. Vandular's twins had accompanied them, too.
"It was nothing!" Dulce chirped as Amargo nodded. "We better be going! Need to grab a den and find a mate while there's room for pups!"
"Yes." Amargo agreed and they vanished in a burst of sonido. That left the snake female and Vandular nodded to her.
"I owe you a favor, Natwa." He said and she nodded back.
"You do." She agreed before vanishing in her own sonido. Vandular chuckled softly. He knew her reasonably well and she was a hollow of few words. There was a flurry of activity from the den. No one wanted to be left behind and moving so many children required a bit of effort. They all let the females and dams organize themselves and the children. Vandular gently took Halibel from Starrk, trying to infuse his reiatsu into her battered body. The demon's venom was actually more of an infection and the only way he knew to survive it was simply to ride it out. He could strengthen her, make her survival more likely, but that was all. Perhaps the shinigami could do more.
They would have to see.