The silence was deafening in its intensity, the only noise produced from the echoing of distant explosions and the careful footfalls of measured steps. Faces were kept forcibly neutral aside from Baraggan who could care less about civility. The quicker they reached their destination, the sooner he could put an end to the entire charade.
The entire group was moving forward at an almost sedate pace. Ichibei had grudgingly warned and advised them to repress their spiritual energy until necessary. It was likely that the Quincy were expecting them to take the conventional means to the Soul King's palace, but this was precisely what Ichibei was playing into.
The entrances and halls the Quincy would have guarded would become meaningless as they wouldn't even prove an obstruction any longer…granted this was only possible if no one used their spiritual energy and alerted the Quincy of their presence. Baraggan's presence only further exacerbated the method's effectiveness.
You see, Baraggan's ability was innate. There was no need to fluctuate his spiritual energy or make any real conscious effort. Everything he could touch would decay on his whims, and this included himself if he wasn't careful.
A distance of more than three meters separated the reluctant 'allies' into three groups, neither too far nor too close with Baraggan taking the lead. The members of the Zero Squad would point in specific directions, and Baraggan would grunt before extending a finger and rotting his way through whatever obstacle lay before them in a controlled manner.
Tiny sections or holes like a worm eating through an apple began to appear within the Soul King's Palace, and the groups used these paths to travel unhindered.
No one spoke as Baraggan once more continued to lead the way under the Zero Squad's instruction, visibly annoyed at the amicable smile plastered over Ichibei's face as they progressed faster and faster.
For Ichigo who was tagging along in a group with Nel, Harribel, Coyote, his mom, his sister, and father, he felt an inexplicable urge to smoothen tensions.
Now that Ichigo was close enough to reason with his mother, he found that he didn't have anything to say because he himself did not know what course of action to take. His features stiffened behind his hollow mask, the lingering chains wrapped around his arms and legs from his Bankai form clinking with each step.
What was he supposed to do? No, what did he want to do?
Glancing from his mom, the Zero Squad, then towards Nel who placed her faith in him again and again, he grew indecisive. Judging from the way Nel nodded at him discreetly, she most assuredly believed in him to help their side should conflicts escalate. Just recalling her face of betrayal towards him in the battle of the Fake Karakura town had him flinching. Of course, they were able to sort matters out, but that made it all the more difficult to not side with her this time.
If he did side with her, then it meant fighting the Shinigami, granted he didn't have the best impression of them after they tried to execute Rukia, but Karin and his father were both Shinigami.
Then there was his mother.
Ichigo's lips thinned, his hands clenching and unclenching repetitively.
He had no doubt that his mother would side with Nel and the others, and when he thought about it, he really couldn't blame her. If he'd met Nel and the Hollows before Rukia, then he may very well have been the same.
Nel was kind, protective of her own to a fault. She cared, and cherished her comrades. A valiant leader; a stalwart warrior; she had a personality and character better than even some Shinigami that he knew.
Then there was Harribel. She had always been cold towards him, but was neither rude nor confrontational. In fact, she was patient and never forceful in her means. If she could sacrifice herself for a cause or person she believed in, then Ichigo had no doubts that she wouldn't hesitate. Her devotion and conviction to fight for Shirou's sake would have made anyone jealous. Then again, it spoke volumes of Shirou's character which Ichigo had experienced first-hand in his stay in Hueco Mundo.
Coyote on the other hand was a different story altogether. He knew that Lilynette was part of Coyote which explained how she accepted Ichigo so readily, but Starrk and Coyote's own vigilance against Shinigami meant that she wouldn't hesitate to kill them with extreme prejudice. If Ichigo sided with the Zero Squad, Coyote would show no mercy, Lilynette's influence or not.
Everything Ichigo had both seen and experienced in Hueco Mundo came to mind, and Shirou, the person at the heart of it all, reminded Ichigo of himself. Shirou just wanted to protect and save those he cherished. This was all the reason one would need to fight.
Shirou had the admiration of the Hollows, even the prideful and haughty ones such as Apacci, Mila-Rose, and Sung Sun. Even Ichigo thought the three were a handful, but they were respectful to Shirou and Harribel.
In any case, the point of the matter was that his mother's faith in Shirou was the same as all the other hollows who followed him. Ichigo too thought the same.
Shirou's motives, his actions, none of them carried any vile intent.
Ichigo had no doubts that Shirou was a good man despite being a Hollow. His mother understood this, and he understood this, but what about everyone else? The Shinigami who viewed all hollows unfavourably, the Humans who feared them, and the Quincy who'd kill them without remorse?
The determined expression on Silent's features all but revealed her intentions.
There was simply no way for Ichigo to see an out in this scenario, nor could he convince her to stay put and leave the situation to the rest like he wanted.
He'd thought he'd lost her once, but this time he was strong enough to protect her and he would be damned if he lost her again.
Looking at his father and Karin, Ichigo found all of them in a similar dilemma, mouths opened, but words failing them.
Awkward was honestly the only way to describe the atmosphere between the Kurosaki family, but tense would be the more apt term overall for the situation as a group. Both Coyote and Harribel were staring coldly at Karin and Isshin as if they expected the two to stab them in the back, and would massacre them at the slightest sign of aggression.
Baraggan's additional looming threat of constant decay overbearingly surrounding their backs and pressuring them at all times wasn't helping in the slightest either, but if anything, Coyote, Harribel, and Nel's unconcerned attitudes gave Ichigo some confidence…Karin and Isshin, not so much.
Karin shivered, shifting to walk as far away from Baraggan as possible, but flinching under Harribel's frigidly stern gaze on the side. There were no safe zones here other than those she felt she could rely on.
She would never admit it, but she was glad that Goat-Face was next to her, and that Ichigo slowed down and blocked Harribel and Coyote's view of her.
"They won't do anything. I swear," Ichigo insisted stiffly, the gravely baritone of his hollow-voice unnerving Karin more than she was willing to admit.
Of course, Karin didn't miss Ichigo's nervous shudder wasn't missed when Harribel grunted and turned away. He was still trying to protect them even now, changed into some part hollow…he was still her big brother.
"I'll hold you to that," Coyote replied.
"There won't be any problems," Nel mediated. "I trust Ichigo just like Harribel trusts her followers. Put some faith in him, and you'll be surprised how strong he actually is. He may be stronger than even Harribel and I."
The pressure on Ichigo abruptly doubled at Nel's words, his features stiffening, but Harribel looked taken aback.
"You have such faith in him? Wasn't he just a new companion you found and took under your wing after the invasion of the Seireitei?"
Karin's lips pursed at the reminder of her and the other's failure in the invasion of the Soul Society. Scowling, a tick formed over her forehead before she butted herself to the side of Ichigo and tried to interject.
"Kidnapped you mea-!"
Karin barely got the words out before she grunted, Isshin elbowing her on the side. Her eyes widened in alarm, before even Ichigo ended up nudging her.
"Not one more word. Focus and stay vigilant," Isshin whispered solemnly.
Unseen to Karin, but Baraggan retracted a tendril of miasma exuding from his form moments away from touching Karin's shin.
Nel narrowed her eyes, her relationship with Baraggan similar to a grudging comradery. Yet, past grudges and preconceptions still existed. "Baraggan. Your intervention is unnecessary."
"I-Intervention?" Karin blinked before finally noticing the wisp of miasma dancing dangerously close to her. "Aaaa! G-Get it away!" She lurched to the side, pressing herself closer to Ichigo and Isshin who regarded Baraggan warily.
Karin gulped. She knew what Baraggan's ability could do. Even now, her eyes had been unable to peel themselves away from the sight of a nameless Quincy fading into dust as skin peeled, blackened, rotted, and then the bones ground down to ashes.
"Hmph," Baraggan clicked his tongue. "Very well. Handle it yourselves then. I merely saw an opportunity to act had the Shinigami erred. Pity."
Karin shivered from while looking at the soulless depths of Baraggan's eyes. One wrong move, and he really would have killed her and everyone knew it. Isshin tensed, while Ichigo grabbed onto the hilt of his sword. The most unexpected development however was Silent standing in front of all of them.
Nel sighed before looking to Harribel and Coyote. "See. Shirou trusts Silent and she trusts these Shinigami. The both of you shouldn't be so tense anymore."
Nel diffused the situation, and only then did they continue progressing as before. The Zero Squad had seen the interaction, but chose to remain quiet on the matter given that Karin and Isshin were the ones who chose to travel near the hollows.
As everything settled, only one thing changed.
Standing in front of Karin, Silent fretted over her daughter, checking her for injuries and worrying over the paleness of her complexion before hugging her.
"M-Mom," Karin choked out.
Silent merely shook her head at Karin in chastisement in an effort to warn her from taking any actions that could seem offensive. Coyote, Nel, and Harribel were one thing, but Silent knew Baraggan would immediately kill any unexpected variables.
"She means well, Karin. This isn't the time to be making enemies," Ichigo reasoned. "Nel and the others are good people, but even they are wary of Baraggan."
"Masaki," Isshin interjected at this point, staring at Silent with moist eyes. The sheer emotion in his features caused Silent's expression to soften.
Isshin could see the recognition in Silent's gaze, and the sanity in Ichigo's mental state despite hollowfication. The elation of it all nearly had him picking Silent up in a warm bear-hug, but all he earned was a rapped hit to the forehead and a pout.
Silent shook her head at Isshin. 'Now wasn't the time,' she mimed.
Isshin glanced from Silent still comforting Karin then to himself, but said nothing despite looking defeated. He sobered quickly though as the Zero Squad quickened the pace of the group.
"Masaki, listen to me. You shouldn't be here. None of us should be," Isshin stressed in barely a whisper, nearly pulling at his hair. "You can't compare to the strength of the people here. They're all leagues above any normal Hollow or Shinigami. You being here is practically just throwing yourself into a fire."
Isshin craned his neck sharply towards his eldest son. "Ichigo. I need you to take your mother and sister out of here back from where we came from. All of this is too far over our heads, but the Zanpakuto spirits the Vasto of White summoned will surely protect you on the way back. If Engetsu is out there too, then he'll surely guarantee it."
"Old man…" Ichigo discreetly stared at Nel who was giving him the privacy to speak with his family and not eavesdropping on them. As for Baraggan, Coyote, and Harribel, none of them were interested in the first place.
Nel's consideration and character were making things even more difficult for Ichigo. He couldn't see himself abandoning her, just as he couldn't see himself abandoning any of his friends.
"I can't. If Nel and the others are jumping into danger than I have to be there."
"They're Arrancar, Hollows."
"That doesn't mean they're monsters. I know now that if that old man leading the Seireitei were more open to peace talks, then Shirou wouldn't have resorted to violence."
"The Vasto of White," Ichigo clarified. "You should have an understanding about the type of person he is by now."
Isshin winced, but he still shook his head. His duties and philosophies as a Shinigami were long since ingrained in him, and besides, one thing Urahara had told him was correct.
"Ichigo, do you hear yourself? Regardless of the Vasto of White's character, he's someone who's going to uproot the balance of the world and that makes him no different from Yhwach!"
Isshin touched his cheek to see Silent glaring at him with a 'you're sleeping on the couch' expression. She'd long since let Karin to walk on her own, and was now shaking her head in disappointment.
Silent scowled and gave Isshin the cold shoulder, prompting Isshin to look lost at Ichigo who felt just as helpless. Karin hesitated as she saw everything transpire, but she rushed after Silent regardless, Isshin and Ichigo close behind.
The Soul King's Palace was a large and intricate structure only made more difficult to navigate through after Yhwach's transformation of it. However, the central parts were still roughly identical from what Ichibei and the others remembered. By this point, the central palace's amphitheatre where the Soul King's power resided embedded within a crystal was fast approaching.
Absently, Baraggan placed his hand against another wall that needed to be removed, and immediately, the pristine white faded into black. It was almost morbid how reinforced barriers and walls could melt away so easily.
"My goodness. I don't think I'm ever going to get used to this," Hikifune sucked in a cold breath when she considered the type of fortifications the Palace had been reduced to nothing.
"Time and age. Hardly anything can last forever. What a terrifying power," Nimaya said solemnly. "I've made a lot of Zanpakuto with various unique abilities and powers, but even then, not many could rival this sort of ability."
"Just be at ease that it's to our present benefit," Senjumaru said softly. Her black hair elegantly brushed and kept up by a golden halfmoon hair pin danced with each step. An air of nobility and grace exuded from her, but she gave nothing away as for what capabilities she possessed.
"Don't take it for granted," Tenjiro grimaced, spitting out the small stick he was chewing on and readying his blade. "Something tells me that it won't last for long, and there's only one wall left until we reach the amphitheatre of the Palace's audience hall."
Baraggan perked up at the words while everyone else tensed.
Ichibei was the only one who maintained an amicable smile. He could be quite shrewd if anything, but no one could really get an accurate read on him.
"Finally, let's get this farce over with," Baraggan no longer cared about subtlety and flared his spiritual energy out in front of him to impact the final wall.
Immediately, the nearby Quincy startled in alarm, but by then it was already too late.
With the gurgling sound of sloshing fluid and grating sand, the final wall broke free to reveal a room in which in-lied a grand podium suspending a crystal-like outline enveloped by twisting shadows. Interlocking blue spiritual chains spread in four directions suspended the crystal in the air.
There it was.
Ichibei and the members of the Zero Squad glanced at each other and nodded, slowing down their pace as Baraggan all but barged into the room where many Quincy lay stationed. There were several of them, but none were simple.
They were Yhwach's Sternritter, twenty-six members each designated with a letter from the alphabet. Several were missing from the original twenty-six, but the few remaining were the strongest in the force. Some who'd even perished prior were present at the expense of the weaker members who were killed in a ritual known as Quincy Holy Selection, Auswählen.
Leading them all was Yhwach's protective echelon, the Schutzstaffel: Lille Barro, Pernida Parnkgjas, Gerard Valkyrie, and Askin Nakk Le Vaar.
Each was said to be strong enough to rival the Zero Squad's members, and all stood opposed before them. All were startled at the sudden entry of intruders as there were no reports of anyone breaching the inner Palace through the only known entrance.
"Our lives for his Majesty!"
The Quincy only took an instant to mobilize, spreading out to form a perimeter around the podium as Nel and the rest arrived near Baraggan.
"How feeble," Baraggan muttered, uncaring for how the Quincy reacted, but clenching his jaw when he then glanced at Nel and the rest. His eyes narrowed, not seeing Ichibei and the others at all. "Impossible, how did they elude my Pesquisa?"
"Above us," Coyote snarled.
All gazes shifted including the Quincy's.
"Kneel, unworthy blasphemers of the sacred rite. Look not upon yourselves with honour nor redemption for this travesty! This rebellion! But with contempt of standing! The distance between us will never be crossed!"
The voices echoed and blended into a corporal form, black ink spilling out from Ichibei's fingertip and drawing a pentagram.
"Bakudo # 39," he intoned, black ink shining a fiery blue. "Kōtei no inshō! (Emperor's Seal.)"
Ichibei, Tenjiro, Senjumaru, Hikifune, and Nimaya stood in a pentagram formation, their index and middle fingers pointed up in Buddhist prayer. Suddenly, the Quincy who stood around the Soul King's podium were forced back as a spiritual art augmented by all five members of the Zero Squad formed a barrier around it which they easily passed through.
Almost simultaneously, a wave of purple miasma washed over it. Like waves ebbing upon the shore, the miasma convulsed and writhed encircling the entire barrier. Any and all who came into contact with the mist rotted away including the very bindings suspending the podium at the center of the room. However-
Barragan scowled in realization.
"I am the seer of True Names, and your power cannot break that which is eternal," Ichibei replied calmly from the other end of the barrier. "The Emperor's Seal can only be activated with the bodies of the Royal Guard acting as conduits. It's the final defence of the Soul King and repels all those not of Royal Blood. It's useless against Yhwach, but against all of you, this distance can't be crossed."
"Fool! The majesty's power runs through all Quincy!"
"Senjumaru," Ichibei replied evenly.
"Understood," Senjumaru revealed a veiled smile, the clothes on her person stretching and enveloping the barrier before separating from her. "My cloth is imbued with the Oken itself. Its defence is stronger than the Seventy-Two Barriers of the Palace combined."
"Those bastards," Nel grimaced, watching the situation devolve rapidly.
No one had any clue what the Zero Squad had in mind, yet Nel, Harribel, and the rest inherently felt a sense of foreboding.
"Coyote, can you destroy that barrier?" Harribel asked.
"It shouldn't be that easy. If it's really tied to the Soul King's energy then unless you can punch a hole through a dimension it's not possible to break," Isshin put in his analysis under Silent's hurried urging. "However, if the barrier is only sustaining itself through the Soul King's energy, then it means that it may have a limit to what it can absorb and store. You'd need an attack so strong that it shatters the entire barrier without giving it any time to recover."
"Hmph. Stand aside."
Coyote stepped forward while taking in a deep breath.
There weren't many things she cherished, but the fear of loneliness she held within her was reason enough. If she failed, then she'd lose it all…
'Cry out and howl at the moon.'
She couldn't let that happen. For the first time, she drew in at the entire wellspring that was her spiritual reserve.
Her nails pierced into the flesh of her palms, blood splattering over her drawn guns and shifting their colour a violent crimson in preparation. An explosion of spiritual pressure erupted with her at its base. It was overwhelming, the entire palace shaking to the point that all present even had the impression that it was comparable to Shirou and Yhwach's attacks.
Ichibei who'd focused his sole attention on Baraggan suddenly twisted his gaze sharply to Coyote.
The Quincy did their best to endure the pressure, but merely watched on.
For Ichigo, Isshin, and Karin, this was the first time they'd ever felt this sort of pressure. Karin let out a feeble whine of exertion.
Coyote focused. Failure was not an option.
She couldn't lose him again. Never again.
The revolver hummed, drawing in power to the muzzle.
Pink flames alighted over the socket of her skull cap covering her right eye.
The world was shaking.
It was an attack that could level the entirety of Los Nochas in Hueco Mundo in a single blow and more, and yet this time, it was performed in the hands of the strongest Vasto Lorde of the past. As the sole Vasto Lorde of her era, she who stood on the top possessed a spiritual reserve unimaginable, forcing her being to divide if only to stave off loneliness.
It happened simultaneously.
An arm pointed forward, blinding light flashing throughout the dimension in response. Like the ebbing of a tide of ocean water, the chaotic waves drew back, and then returned forth with the furor of an even greater wave.
Pulsating bands of light converged over the revolver's tip, a tumultuous storm of energy violently condensing into volatile levels until reaching an unfathomable head.
The sheer spiritual pressure exuding from her now crushed the ground of the palace, and produced violent buffeting winds sharp enough to cut, forcing even her own allies to shield their faces.
The Grand King's Zero.
"Gran Rey Cero…" She intoned, keeping the amalgamation of her strongest attack at the tip of her revolver's muzzle while staring right into Ichibei's eyes.
Coyote could see from the apathy of Ichibei's expression that he was confident. It made her uneasy, hesitant, doubtful. Even this wasn't sufficient?
The revolver in her hand thrummed, Starrk conveying a single thought in their shared mindscape.
Immediately Coyote made up her mind.
'That's right. Right now, she wasn't alone.'
She aimed. "Cero."
"That's not going to be enoug-"
Coyote abruptly pointed the direction of her revolver towards Nel, much to the stupor of those watching, but the understanding of Nel.
The attack was overwhelming and fast. There was hardly any time to react at all, but Nel wasn't a pushover. She didn't know if she could endure this much power, but she knew that her base form was far from enough. She needed greater power, greater control.
Immediately, she drew her sword.
"Declare: Gamuza." Green spiritual energy enveloped her before her Resurrección form manifested.
The Capricorn Knight.
She stood with the upper body of a woman and the lower half of horse. A mythical centaur. Flourishing the tip of her spear ahead of her, she placed both hands on her lance's hilt.
She thought of her motivations, her goals, her desires, and what most reflected her as a person. Resurrección was the return of an Arrancar to their Hollowistic nature. Gamuza was her form as a Vasto Lorde, but there was something even further beyond.
'Gallop and thrust.'
Her accomplishments would not have been for nothing.
"Segunda Etapa: Guerrera de Lanza Verde!"
Warrior of Green Lance.
A second welling of spiritual energy erupted from her, covering her form entirely in thick smoke blown away by the wind and Coyote's incoming attack.
All traces of Nel's Hollow mask had vanished, replaced by four curling black and white horns. The fur on her equine lower half was now darker in areas and extends to cover her upper body, arms and hands while glowing pink markings extend from her torso to her chest and shoulders. Pink spiritual energy wafted off in flames from her tail and hooves.
Almost instantly, Coyote's attack reached the tip of her lance where it inexplicable froze in place.
Opening her mouth, Nel began funnelling in the potent spiritual energy down her throat without restraint. This was her speciality; one of her strongest innate abilities as a Vasto Lorde.
A pregnant silence ensued as the sheer scale of Coyote's cero disappeared into Nel's stomach before a terrifying pressure a magnitude above Coyote's own attack swelled into existence. Space distorted and cracked, creating suction forces that pulled in the spirit particles of even the palace itself.
'Integrate, then assimilate.'
Any traces of calm fled Ichibei's features as he sensed the potency of this new attack. "No, don't! Stop!"
Unminding, Nel opened her mouth to reveal of pink sphere of spiritual energy creating a suction vortex at its origin. The power contained within it was enough to affect gravity and the laws of the world itself.
Nel could assimilate the power of another Hollow's cero and double its power by fusing her own Cero on top.
Without hesitation, the attack mercilessly launched forward, the Quincy fully intent on letting it hit, some even moving aside and bowing mockingly at Ichibei.
Ichibei's features twisted moments before the cero struck the barrier and shattered it into glass-like fragments that faded away into brittle shards. Holes mottled the ground as a shower of energy washed over all, leaving cracks and fissures into the once pristine tiles.
"Now everyone has an equal chance," Nel replied unperturbed, panting for breath, blood trickling down from ruptured veins.
Coyote's power really was just too much.
She collapsed onto her knees until Ichigo moved to support her.
"Hehehehahhahahahaha!" A cackling echoed at Ichibei and the Royal Guard's expense. "How fitting! How grand! This King is amused!"
"The fate of the realms hangs in the balance and you're amused?!"
"And that's where you're wrong," Baraggan chuckled. "The fate of your realm, your balance hangs in the thread. Whatever you or the bugs seek to do, none of it matters. Our goal is merely to destroy what's before us."
Baraggan stared at Nel with something akin to almost respect for what she enabled, something he only showed to Coyote and Shirou. Nel's capability of enduring Coyote's attack was worthy of regard. Now, the God King would take the stage as everything devolves into madness.
A massive and violent free-for-all fitting for any Hollows.
Survival of the fittest. The strong will reign over the weak.
Baraggan harnessed his spiritual energy and let it erupt around him.
With the Soul King's power eliminated, nothing stood to contest the Vasto of White.
An era of Hollows was guaranteed to be ushered.
The stage was set.
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