"There's no end to them!" Renji groaned as he wiped the sweat from his brow, glaring at the hollows surrounding him. He heard Chad grunt from nearby in agreement. Glancing up towards the tower, he saw Rukia making her way towards them, a pile of carcasses on the ledge behind her.
Renji sliced through another hollow as he peered at Rukia from the corner of his eye. She alighted near him with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes. "All of Rudobo's underlings have been defeated."
"Che." Renji smirked. "Chad and I were just letting you handle the weaklings while we dealt with these monsters."
Rukia silently jumped at Renji, her sword poised to strike.
Renji's hands shot up in front of himself defensively. "Wait! I was just kidding!"
Rukia leapt above his shoulder. A second later, the sound of steel cutting through a solid mass behind him made him blink. Turning around, he saw Rukia landing, the scattered remains of a hollow deteriorating into nothing.
"You were saying, Renji?"
"You're no fun."
Ichigo's eyes widened as his attack only sliced through thin air where Ulquiorra had been just seconds before. A sudden sense of a danger behind him allowed him barely enough notice to swing his sword around in time to meet Ulquiorra's. Ichigo felt himself pushed back, and found that he could not prevent Ulquiorra from using an opening to thrust his sword into his shoulder.
Grunting in pain, Ichigo saw no empathy in the pair of chilling green eyes that locked with his own before a pointed finger with a readied cero filled his vision.
The ensuing blast rattled the tower, causing gritty dust to swirl around the area.
Ulquiorra eyed the gasping shinigami from across the room as the boy tried to stand up straight, favoring his left shoulder. "…Oho…so you can withstand my cero without even your mask…? You've gotten stronger. Is it because you defeated Grimmjow? Or…is it because of her?" Ulquiorra inclined his eyes towards Inoue.
Seeing the shinigami only glare at him while swiping at a streak of blood on his cheek, Ulquiorra pressed further. "Or maybe it's because of your friends still fighting down below?"
Ichigo continued to glare, his breathing becoming less labored.
Ulquiorra studied the boy a moment. "…That girl is already one of us. Even if you manage to rescue her, that won't change. It would be meaningless."
Ichigo's eyes narrowed as he leaned into an offensive stance. "That's not up to you to decide."
"You're right. It was Aizen's decision." Ulquiorra stated evenly.
A large blast from the tower above the three nakama made them pause in their fighting. Rukia gazed up at the plume of smoke as debris rained down from the explosion. "…Ichigo…"
Renji caught her worried expression as he ran to the newest hollow that had appeared. "That idiot had better not get himself killed, or I'll…" Renji looked again towards the tower as he cut through the hollow's body. "…or I'll never forgive him."
Ichigo swiftly twisted his body one way and then another, dodging Ulquiorra's unrelenting rapid attacks, at times his sword slicing mere millimeters from Ichigo's head. As he deftly avoided each deadly stroke, an idea began to form in his mind. "I…I can do this! I can see him this time! I can react!" Another swipe came close to his head, catching him a bit off-guard. "Watch closely! Watch!" Ichigo saw his opportunity and grabbed hold of Ulquiorra's sword-arm by the wrist, while bringing his own sword up and across Ulquiorra's exposed chest.
Ulquiorra leapt backwards in surprise. He looked at his torn tunic, then raised his head to look at Ichigo.
Ichigo scowled as he saw only a shallow cut on the espada's now-exposed chest. "You're almost uncut…that "hierro" is really tough. But, it seems that I'm able to read your movements much better than I could before."
"What?" Ulquiorra's voice carried a dangerous edge.
"When I fought you before, I couldn't read your movements at all. Attacks, defense, reactions, speed, direction…it felt like I was fighting a machine or a statue. Maybe my gaining the ability to read them means that I've become more like a hollow. Or maybe…" Ichigo's serious eyes took on a look of vengeance. "…that you've become more like a human."
A loud crack snapped through the air as Ulquiorra struck his sword into the ground with force, causing the floor to rise and shatter around him. "I? I have become more like you humans?" Malice laced Ulquiorra's words. "I see. It seems that becoming able to keep up with this meager level feels rather good to you."
Ulquiorra disappeared. Ichigo was still staring at the spot Ulquiorra had been when he realized something was closing in on him. His body reacted on instinct as he slid backwards in the nick of time. Ulquiorra appeared right behind him. Ichigo wheeled around to meet his sword, only to see nothing. Too late, he sensed Ulquiorra directly behind him, and turned to see a sword coming at him that he could not deflect in time.
For one long second Ichigo watched Ulquiorra's sword bearing down on him, unchallenged, and braced for death. The next, the sword abruptly stopped in mid-air. Ichigo's mind raced to catch up with what his eyes were seeing; a yellow shield of light had appeared and blocked Ulquiorra's sword. Ichigo didn't waste the opportunity and jumped away from the espada. He glanced at Inoue, still poised with her arms outstretched from expelling the shield.
"What are you doing?" Ulquiorra looked intently at Inoue as the shield's fragments fell around him.
Inoue looked dumbfounded. "…eh?"
"I'm asking you why you helped him."
"Why…? That's because-"
"Because he's your nakama? In that case, why didn't you protect him from the first attack? What made you hesitate?"
Inoue took a step back. "I…That's not-"
"Don't you understand? I'll enlighten you. You're-"
"Shut up already, Ulquiorra. You just keep going on with your pointless chatter about her hesitating or whatever, but who cares?" Ichigo turned to look at Inoue. She hesitantly looked back at him. "Thanks for helping me, Inoue. But it's dangerous, so stay back."
Inoue's expression relaxed into relief. "Kurosaki-kun…"
Ichigo bent his head as a large black reiatsu flared around him. "Ulquiorra, you're surprisingly talkative. Here I thought you were more the quiet type."
Ulquiorra watched the growing attack with boredom. "Getsuga? Haven't you realized that won't work against me yet? How naïve."
Ichigo charged, Getsuga still wrapped around his sword as he brought it down upon a slightly surprised Ulquiorra.
"A new technique?" Ulquiorra deflected the attack with ease, sending Ichigo sliding back.
"So now the blows from your sword have the power of Getsuga behind them?" Ulquiorra mused aloud as he parried a few more sword swings from Ichigo. "You seem to think you've put what little cleverness you have to effective use, but have you forgotten? You couldn't defeat me with a Getsuga even when you had your mask on. No matter how you use it, an unmasked Getsuga is pointless."
"As if I'd give up so easily just because you tell me I can't!" Ichigo gave a yell as he charged Ulquiorra a third time.
Rukia sighed as she watched another hollow disintegrate in front of her. Renji was right that their numbers did not seem to be decreasing. She began to run to the next one that had appeared when a man flashed between her and the hollow, slaying it before she could reach it.
"Nii-sama!" She ran the rest of the way to him, bowing as he turned to look at her. "I am glad to see you're healed now."
Byakuya scanned the area, then the tower. "Did you not go to meet with Kurosaki Ichigo after you were treated?"
"I remained here to fight while Ichigo went to the tower to protect Inoue from an espada, Ulquiorra."
Byakuya kept his gaze on the tower. "Kurosaki is having difficulty in his fight, it seems."
Rukia lowered her eyes.
Byakuya observed Rukia from the corner of his eye. "He will always protect. It is why I could not let us stay when you and Yamada Hanataro were in need of healing. Though it was unnecessary with the presence of the fourth division's fukutaischou, he would have been obstinate and dissuaded Inoue Orihime from healing him until the two of you had been."
Rukia nodded in agreement. "You always do what is best, Nii-sama."
"However, I'm afraid Kenpachi has only allowed for my disdain of him to grow, as he allowed Inoue Orihime to be captured. I regret trusting him with the task."
Rukia felt taken aback at Byakuya's admission. "That wasn't…it was no one's…" All of the answers that came to her mind sounded awkward.
Byakuya focused his attention on the tower once again, causing Rukia to gratefully do the same. "As Kurosaki's actions in the past have proven, his strength and weakness is that he will see it through to the end to protect what is important to him." Byakuya regarded Rukia as she continued to watch the tower. "…and he protects what is important to me."
"Let us be rid of the hollows here so we may help Kurosaki protect your nakama."
Turning to Byakuya in surprise, Rukia's expression changed to that of hope. "…Hai!"
A loud crash from a wall in the tower's room interrupted Ulquiorra and Ichigo's battle, causing them to break and leap back from one another. Through the dust, a hole could slowly be discerned in the wall, and a large figure emerged from it.
"Ulquioooorraaaaa…" Yammy sang out in a gruff voice. "I came to give you a hand!"
Ichigo gaped at the towering man as he stomped his way towards them, the familiar face sending images through his mind of the beating he and his nakama had sustained the last time he'd beheld the behemoth. "That's the espada who came with Ulquiorra to Karakura…!"
Ulquiorra lowered his sword. "…and when did I tell you to interfere, Yammy?"
"Don't be such a party pooper. That shinigami kid looks like he's gotten pretty strong. Let me have a whack at him too."
"I see…it seems you have completely recovered." Ulquiorra turned to face Ichigo again, his back to Yammy. "But your job is not here. Go back to sleep or clean up the members of the captain class below."
Yammy scowled and swore under his breath. "…don't be stingy!"
"Your selfishness increases when you get like that. That's your flaw, Yammy."
"You're one to talk." Yammy angrily thrust his fist into the nearby wall, creating a large opening to the outside. Inoue jumped nervously with a gasp, clutching herself as she remembered the brutality of his strength from when she had last faced him.
Yammy turned to look in the direction of the gasp. "Huh? You're here?" A devious smile grew on his face as he took a few steps towards her. "Well I can still have some fun I guess."
Ichigo blanched. "Inoue!" He started off at a sprint towards her when Ulquiorra flashed in front of him.
"How irritating you are. Your fight is with me. If you'd like to fight an enemy other than myself, do so after you've killed me first."
Ichigo brought his sword up against Ulquiorra's. "Move it!"
"Yo, Ulquiorra, it's ok to kill this girl, right?" Yammy stood looking down at Inoue as she slowly backed away.
"Wait!" Ichigo unleashed a desperate foray of sword strikes. Ulquiorra blocked half-heartedly, as though he were bored.
"I thought I said "after you've killed me"".
Ichigo saw Yammy reaching down to grasp Inoue in his monstrous hand. "Get out of my way!" Roared Ichigo.
"Shut up! Getsuga-"
A patch of blue sky seen through the hole Yammy had created was suddenly partially blocked. A glint of light reflected off of something that fired into the room and flew into Yammy's back, sending him falling onto his hands and knees. A poised young man in white landed lithely nearby.
"Ishida!" Ichigo stopped in mid-attack from surprise.
Yammy carelessly yanked at the small arrow embedded in his shoulder blade as though it had stung only as much as a bee. "Who the hell are you! Where did you pop out of?"
"I shot that arrow with that much power and it didn't go through you? You're a tough one." Ishida faced Yammy with a hint of amusement in his face.
"Why you…!" Yammy advanced on Ishida.
"You should watch your step. I outfitted that arrow with an arrancar landmine that I got from a very shady scientist." His warning came markedly late, as Yammy became enveloped in a stream of white light that shot to the ceiling.
Ichigo brought an arm up to his face as the effects of the blast rippled through the room, Yammy's yells echoing. "What the…?"
The rumbling and light slowly dissipated, revealing a singed Yammy cursing as he hung precariously with one hand to the edge of a large hole now in the floor.
Ishida sighed as he approached Yammy. "I could hear you from even the floors below. You're the "Yammy" that Szayel-Aporro was talking about, right?"
"…and what if I am!"
A wry smile grew on Ishida's face. "I was thinking how sad it is that if I hadn't shown up here, you probably would have been able to rampage a little longer." Ishida's bow dissolved into his quincy bracelet. "Such bad luck. My heart goes out to you."
With a cry of rage Yammy fell, cursing the Quincy during the entirety of his descent.
Ishida turned and walked away from the hole, facing Ichigo. "On the way here, I broke a few pillars on all the floors below, so he should be able to fall right down to the ground."
Ichigo stared in amazement. "Ishida…"
"What's this? You have questions in the middle of a fight? You're such a slacker. What is it you want to ask? I received treatment from Kurotsuchi Mayuri. I'm late because he treated Abarai first. I was given these land mines by the same Kurotsuchi. They explode when an arrancar enters into the radius of their reiatsu sensor. I carved out the ceiling of the floor below and planted one there." Ishida paused. "Any other questions?"
Ichigo's face had deadpanned during the speech from Ishida, but turned to a slight smirk in the short silence that followed. "I didn't have a single question to begin with. You just started babbling on your own. You're such a pain." His smirk disappeared as Ichigo turned to face Ulquiorra. "I'm entrusting Inoue to you. If her "Rikka" becomes unable to block my reiatsu, protect her with your body."
Ishida's eyes flashed behind his glasses. "…I would even if you hadn't asked. I didn't need you to say anything."
"Sorry to make you wait, Ulquiorra. This is what you wanted to see." Ichigo raised a hand to cover his face. "…Hollowfication."
Black streaks of reiatsu flowed from Ichigo's hand as he slid it down his face in one motion, leaving a white mask with teeth and more red lines than when he'd previously donned it in front of Inoue.
Without speaking, Ichigo brought down his sword at Ulquiorra with a full Getsuga Tenshou attack. Ulquiorra leapt into the air to avoid it, then out the hole to the outside while aiming a cero at Ichigo. Ichigo pursued him and was met with a devastating cero blast outside the tower.
Ulquiorra waited, looking for a sign of the masked shinigami. The form of a man in black robes emerged from the blast, unscathed. Ulquiorra wore a look of contemplation for a moment before ascending further into the sky.
"Hold it!" Ichigo yelled. Following after him, Ichigo mumbled to himself. "Jeez, how far up does he plan on going…?"
Ichigo watched Ulquiorra break through what looked like the sky. He wasn't far behind, and soon found himself looking at a starless night sky. "This area…is above the dome of Las Noches…?"
Ichigo looked around for the source of the voice until his eyes landed at the top of a tower to see Ulquiorra on the peak, a crescent moon glowing in the sky behind him.
Ulquiorra gazed down at Ichigo. "Espada ranked four and above are forbidden to release beneath the dome, because it would be too powerful and could possibly destroy Las Noches itself. Now prepare yourself. Isolate…Murcielago."
With great dexterity, Rukia's feet slid through the hot sand as she steadied herself after dealing a felling strike on a hollow. Taking a moment to survey the number of hollows left, she saw they had quickly gained ground since Byakuya's arrival. Only a handful were left, and Byakuya seemed to be intent on finishing the rest off in a final blow from the look in his eyes. Renji and Chad had noticed this about the captain as well. Rukia chuckled at the sight of Renji and Chad exchanging uneasy glances between themselves and Byakuya's direction as they backed away.
Rukia's eyes drifted up to the hole in the sky she'd seen Ichigo fly through. "It's become harder to sense his reiatsu since he disappeared above the dome." Her eyes roved back down towards the tower, squinting as she caught sight of two people at one of the holes in the tower. A moment later Rukia recognized them to be Inoue and Ishida. She couldn't suppress the grin on her face as she saw that they were safe.
Ishida stood alongside Inoue at the opening in the tower wall, staring at the gaping hole in the sky above. "That sky…really was a fake then?" He turned towards Inoue, and noticed her gazing anxiously up at the sky.
Inoue turned to look at him, not bothering to hide the apprehension for Ichigo that showed on her face.
"I'm glad you're ok…no…I shouldn't say anything yet…" Ishida fished around for the right words to say, then gave her an encouraging smile. "It's ok. Kurosaki will win."
Inoue gave him a small smile and nodded.
Both Ishida and Inoue turned back to looking at the sky. Ishida mulled as he watched on. "You had better beat him, Kurosaki."
A heavy torrent of darkness rained down on Ichigo as he stood frozen. Even at the large distance he was from the espada, the foreboding feeling Ulquiorra's ominous transformation had released was not lost on him. Large black bat wings spread out from Ulquiorra's body, blocking the light of the moon behind him.
Ulquiorra grimly gazed down at him from the tower. "Do not lose your composure."
The stern words shook Ichigo out of his daze. He reacted immediately, positioning himself into a defensive stance, sword readied.
"Reach out your senses. Do not let your guard down for even a second."
Ichigo exhaled steadily, his eyes turning deadly as he watched a long blade form from inside Ulquiorra's hand.
The next instant, the blade was within inches and closing on his neck.