azi: Ulquiorra - under your command (Bleach - Ulquiorra - Bow)
Title: Chambers of the Mind
Writing Date: Mid 2011.
Rating: General.
Warnings: Medical procedure-related violence, needles, mindfuck, I suppose.
Fandom: AU: The Sky Tides.
Characters: Ulquiorra, Szayel, Murciélago.
Summary: After a battle loss, Ulquiorra goes to the city of Berum seeking strength in the form of a medical procedure that will give him the powers of a Hollow.

When he had entered the facility, he had done so without a trace of hesitation.

After too many months spent outdoors on reassuring stone and dirt trails, with the natural smells of grass and country air and the slightly more obnoxious but all-pervading scent of city pollution around him, the sterility of the laboratory complex had felt surreal and alien. The two men who had flanked him --scientists or guards, he wasn't sure-- seemed equally as stark and jarring in the typical uniforms of the ‘trade’. He had felt an uncomfortable pang of the woefully familiar as he walked and was reminded both happily and to his dismay of bygone days.

The too-clean air and caustic scent of various cleaning solutions had made his eyes water when he’d first entered the building, but that had quickly and mercifully faded. He didn’t feel comfortable there, but he had known better than to show even so much as a trace of apprehension. He was there for a reason and getting inside hadn’t been simple. The channels available for one to join the mysterious Arrancar Project didn’t make it easy.

He’d sought out the location because he’d heard rumours of the work they did and that it could make you stronger. His recent loss against a too-powerful monster had injured his pride as well as given him a rather painful broken arm and a lot of unpleasant flesh wounds. His demihuman status and ability to heal himself seamlessly and quickly had helped with the damage sustained, but simply surviving defeat wasn’t going to be enough. He wanted to go back and be able to win. That was why he’d joined up. He’d been briefed on what the procedure entailed, in a roundabout way and, as he understood it, he would be fused with a monster, a Hollow, whose power he could tap into. It seemed fairly straightforward.

Even the unsavoury aspects of the procedure had been explained to him.

“If this is successful,” the head of the Arrancar Project, Sousuke Aizen, had said, “your strength and speed will increase substantially.” Good. That was what he wanted. “If this fails,” he had continued, “you will die. The mortality rate currently stands at roughly ninety percent.” The odds were not good. “If you are fortunate enough to survive, your loyalty to me will be mandatory for as long as you are required. With that in mind, sign if you are still willing to go through with the procedure.”

A smile, both dangerous and falsely reassuring, had accompanied the offer of a pen.

It was a waiver and a contract. If it went well he would work for Sousuke Aizen for as long as necessary. That was fine. The procedure didn't cost him anything. Working for him would be seen as a repayment of debt. If anything happened to him, they, the scientists, couldn’t be held responsible for his death or whatever else might happen. He hadn’t hesitated before penning his name – what did it matter what happened to him if things went sour or who got the blame if he perished in the process? If there was anybody left to care about him, he doubted he would be signing up to put himself through something so dangerous.

He had nothing to lose but his life. If he couldn’t do his job and kill everything that he was contracted to kill, he had nothing left to live for anyway.

He had nodded stiffly at the explanation and skimmed the waiver. Without care for his own safety he took the pen in his hand and, in glistening black ink, wrote his name on the dotted line.

From then, Ulquiorra Schiffer belonged to him.

The weeks that followed were made uncomfortable by a course of injections. They burned in his veins and made him suffer nausea for hours after having them administered. Mana, they’d said. It will help you resist the effects of the Hollow, they reassured. In normal cases, it would have increased the patient’s strength and upped the effectiveness of their healing abilities. With Ulquiorra’s already being way above normal in at least the second category, they had high hopes for his survival.

When he wasn’t being taken to the infirmary for those, he was being psychologically evaluated. Those who had gone insane due to their Hollow, or been taken over by it, were not mentally equipped to handle such a thing. It was important that they noted everything. If certain factors repeated clearly in the failures and successes, they may, in the future, be able to tell which people were cut out for the procedure ahead of time. They seemed confident in him.

The days blurred. Every so often, while taking the injections, he saw other members of the project, both the sickly few who, like him, were undergoing the pre-procedure treatment and those who had already gone through it. He didn’t think about the survival rate. It was not important. For a full week prior to the procedure date, he was spared the shots. It was only a small mercy, but nonetheless appreciated. He ached from retching. He was not, however, given a break. While not being subjected to the mana treatment, he was expected to train and build up his fitness again in preparation for the procedure. For the entire night before it, he was ordered to take nil by mouth. He slept badly.

The following morning he was taken to a room to be weighed, measured and assessed. His tired, hungry state was taken into account as they hooked him up to various brass-coloured, whirring machines with straps and patches. It was to be expected, they said. The converted difference engine screens attached showed, in a series of monochrome lines and blips, his vital signs. All normal. All above what they had expected. Good.

He was given the go-ahead.

“Undress and sit down,” a scientist instructed him, indicating the chair-like bed in the centre of the room.

He complied. He sat down and, after the chair's position had been altered so he was lying back, he stared up at the ceiling. The light hurt his eyes.

“Well, well,” another said, gliding over to him. “I have so been looking forward to seeing you here.”

He had seen this one before. The pink hair and white-framed glasses set him apart from the rest. He disliked him. He disliked all of them, but this one most of all. He was lewd, too hands-on, took too much pleasure in his work and was, as far as Ulquiorra was concerned, trash.

“We are going to put you out so that we can implant the Hollow,” he purred, pushing his glasses up his nose. “One way or another, this will be over before you know it.”

Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes. That wasn’t particularly reassuring. He inhaled deeply as he came nearer, brandishing yet another syringe. Apprehension welled up in the pit of his stomach. It was too late to back out of the agreement now. The preparatory medication had been administered, the waiver had been signed and, as a different scientist slid a strap across his chest to hold him to the chair, he was fully aware that he was stuck with his decision, for better or for worse.

He didn't react as he felt the needle slide into the top of his arm. As consciousness deserted him and the emptiness of sleep set in, he felt the cold pads of patches being placed on his skin and, distantly, heard the beeping of the instruments he’d grown familiar with.

He went under.

When he opened his eyes, he was standing in a lit room. Square. Deep red. A dark wooden floor draped with an ornate rug that spanned the length. It was sparsely decorated, with little more than a sideboard holding a clock on the left and a picture on the right wall. It was a drawing. Everything felt safe and achingly, comfortingly familiar, but Ulquiorra couldn’t recall ever being there before. Not really. He faltered, unsure. Had he? He closed his eyes, trying to hold on to the memory as it slid away from him, like a dream in the moments after waking.

A dream.

It was like being in a dream.

He took a tentative step and it sounded loud in his ears.

There was only one door, at the far end. Dark like the floor, it stood out from the red of the walls. He approached it and wrapped his pale fingers around the brass handle. It turned easily. Before he had even opened it he knew what lay beyond. A second room. Red again. Longer. Four doors in total, including the one he had come through. Clock and picture, both in place. He tried the doors. The rightmost was locked. He knew he held the key -- he held all of the keys -- but he did not open it. He did not want it opened. What was inside whispered and hissed and the sounds raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He’d shut away what was in that room a long time ago. He didn’t want to let it out. He didn't need what foolishness was in there. He walked away and tried another. The one on the left.

Deep green this time. Another hallway, the doors arranged so it led him in the same direction as the straight route and ran parallel to it. Further in, further down. The rooms he passed through held different things in addition to the staple items. A pot of red flowers. A window through which wintry sunlight trickled in past leafless trees. A rocking horse that squeaked when he set it in motion. Beyond those was a library. Bookshelves, not all of them full, lined the walls. Some stood freely. There was a chair. A picture hung on a wall and a clock sat as it should, on a sideboard. Good. That felt right. He backed out, all the way out, until he was back in the room with four doors.

The last door, at the very end, opened easily. The walls were black. It felt bleak and cheerless. The floor slanted downwards. It would take him deeper. It would take him towards things he was loath to probe into. He didn’t like it. It stirred things in him that he didn't want to think about. He hesitated and then took a step. Just one.

Wait.

Something was wrong.

Silence.

Silence.

The clock in that room did not tick. He turned to the wall. The picture was slanted. He reached up to straighten it. It made a noise as it brushed the wall but, when he took away his hand, it slanted once more.

He narrowed his eyes. Something about those two things made him feel deeply uneasy. It wasn't right. Not safe. He backed out slowly, unconsciously trying to quieten his footsteps on the carpet. In the next room, silence had also fallen. The picture, straight a moment ago, was now askew. His heart beat quickly as panic rose. This was wrong. Things were not as they should be and it frightened him. How could something comfortable and familiar change in an instant to something so frightening? He went back to the first room, quickly, closing the doors behind him.

Tick.

Tock.

Tick.

The clock stopped. The picture slanted. The lights went out.

He inhaled sharply. Cold fear gripped him in the darkness, the tangible, heavy darkness and he spun around, looking for something reassuring and normal, something he knew. He wasn’t used to the dark. His eyes could penetrate any depth of shadow and see through any lie. This darkness was truth, cold truth, and it terrified him. It seemed to soak him, like cold, driving rain. No, not like rain. Like an ocean falling all at once. It wasn’t possible, it couldn’t have been possible. He stood in place, not daring to move an inch. Perhaps he was waking up, he thought. Maybe this is what waking up feels like.

“Do not be so sure.”

Ulquiorra’s eyes widened in the black. It was a voice, rasping and eldritch. It sounded ancient. Not in the same way that people sound old, but in the fashion of stories, of history, of things immeasurable by conventional time.

The Hollow.

“Who are you?” Ulquiorra asked, searching the room for any sign of where the source might be. The sound seemed to come from everywhere.

“You are not worthy of my name, boy.” The voice replied.

Light flickered.

Directly in front of him, a huge shape, black as oil, stood like something straight from the recesses of every nightmare.

The light died.

Ulquiorra stepped back.

The light flickered.

It was closer.

The light died.

Darkness enveloped all.

Flickered.

Closer.

And died.

Darkness.

Flickered.

Closer still.

And died.

Darkness.

Flickered.

Inches away—

And died.

He felt breath on him.

The lights flickered.

Gold eyes bored into his. Long teeth gleamed in its mouth. It had fur, claws, horns, wings, a hole straight through the chest...

The lights didn’t die that time. They stayed on and, for a moment, deep in his heart, Ulquiorra wished they hadn’t.

“I suspect this will not be difficult,” it said. “You are weak. I am insulted that they thought you capable of beating me.”

Ulquiorra could feel his heart hammering against his ribs like a caged bird. Of all the monsters he had ever seen, of all the nightmares he had ever suffered, nothing could even compare to this. He needed to defend himself. He could do nothing without a weapon, he knew that. He considered what to do. He tore his eyes away from those of the Hollow and bolted past it. The door opened without him touching it.

The lights died, then came back on. It was in front of him again.

“I could tear you open without effort.” It turned towards the room with the whispers. “I would not even need to touch you.”

It knew. It knew he was afraid of what was contained within that locked room, what he had pushed away, out of his mind, out of his thoughts. It had violated his mind. Tested boundaries. Assessed him. That was why the pictures were askew and the clocks had stopped. Memories, weaknesses... nothing was safe. He needed to beat it to fix everything, to stay alive. It would kill him if he didn't, he knew that. They had told him that. He ignored his fear. It wouldn't get him anywhere. Fear was to be abandoned.

Now.

A sword. He needed one. He had one. He remembered his first. It would be deeper, deeper than this. Through the black rooms where he didn't want to go.

He ran again. The door opened like the first, as did the next, and the next. They slammed behind him to slow the Hollow down. He fled deeper and deeper until he found what he needed. In a room full of everything he had ever been afraid of, nothing of which seemed to come close to comparing to the Hollow, was a weapon like his very first – a simple sword. Wide-blade. Two handed. Too heavy. Sharp nonetheless. He'd cut himself on it the first time he'd picked it up, a long time ago. He had mastered it since.

He turned to see if it had caught up.

“You cannot escape.”

It had. It was close – right behind him.

He steeled himself. He had to defeat it, there was no other option. It was win or die. He realised, in that instant, that he had no great desire to die.

He attacked.

Its skin deflected the blow from his blade with ease and he leapt back, dodging the retaliatory swipe of claws. He was fast, but the Hollow was faster. It anticipated almost every slash and stab and the ones it couldn’t avoid made no difference. It was difficult to cut.

“Give up,” it said, cruel lips curling into a vicious, jagged smile.

“No,” Ulquiorra replied, striking out once more.

The battle between them became heated. Contact with their surroundings wasn’t needed to cause damage -- Ulquiorra's cracking psyche was enough. The presence of another conscious entity in his head was enough to throw everything into a state of chaos. Before too long, they were both standing in a broken room. Doors hung off their hinges. Black and white plaster littered the floor. The items within were strewn about. Living things squirmed in the rubble. He tried to hold it together, but everything fell back into a state of disarray. Ulquiorra’s breath came fast and he knew that he was bleeding. He didn’t care -- so was the hollow, albeit not as much as him. He gritted his teeth as the Hollow approached, its clawed feet smashing the front of a floored photo frame. The crunching of glass cut through all other noise.

That wasn't supposed to happen.

He ran at it, sword flashing. The Hollow stepped aside and smirked, wrapping a long, whiplike tail about his throat. It lifted him up and he gasped, fighting to draw breath. He struggled, his feet searching for purchase where there was none. His free hand clawed at the length of furred muscle holding him up and the other gripped the hilt of his sword like a vice. He fought to stay conscious. He felt himself slipping, falling, the darkness closing in like a sea above him...

His eyes opened.

White light flooded his vision. He heard a faint noise sounding like it was coming from very far away. Then he became aware of all encompassing pain.

Everything hurt. Everything.

He struggled, unable to keep himself still. He could feel his skin tearing and repairing at the joints, muscles pulling themselves apart, bones snapping and re-forming. His teeth ached as his canines lengthened and his face felt warm, but it was only due to the blood from his mouth and the tears running from his eyes. Every finger grew longer at once and then they dislocated, tendons snapping, unable to compensate for the sudden increase in length. He became acutely aware of pain in his fingertips as his nails grew too fast and curled into claws. His toes broke and his feet shattered only repair themselves in an unnatural position. He itched all over as fur broke through his skin.

He realised that the noise, that distant noise, was the sound of himself screaming. It finally registered over everything else, followed by other noises, other voices.

“Strap him down!”

Urgent.

“Sedate him, sedate him!

There was a pause. A rustle of movement. A hissed expletive.

“We can’t, the needle won’t break the skin! The damn thing's taking over!”

He felt himself pushed upwards in time with a searing pain in his back. His skin felt stretched, too tight, like there was something wrong, something trying to get out. His eyes searched the room for some form of relief, some help. Somebody had to do something. Shadowy figures moved around in the haze of white. One of them had to help him. His shoulder dislocated. He struck out an arm.

The smell of blood assailed his senses. One of them screamed. He could hear their heartbeats. Smell their fear.

I said strap him down!

Bindings. Tight. Around his wrists, arms, legs. He was still screaming. He wanted to get up, to run away from it all. To escape the pain. His throat hurt and his lungs burned. His chest hurt. Everything seemed distant again. Far away. The voices went dim.

“He’s going into cardiac arrest, do something! We can’t afford to lose this one!”

His screams stopped as his vocal cords tore. He still tried. The machines beeped faster, louder in the void left by his sudden quiet. He couldn’t move. He wanted it to end. It hurt. Everything hurt. So much.

“We’re losing him!”

It all stopped.

Silence descended.

His grip on the tail around his throat went loose. He couldn’t draw breath. He didn’t want to die. His head felt fuzzy and his eyes hurt. He forced them open. The Hollow smirked at him around its teeth. Wings unfolded. His vision blurred.

“You are going to die.”

No.

“You never stood a chance.”

I will not lose.

“You cannot win.”

I did not do this only to give up.

“You wish to become stronger?”

I will become stronger.

“Hah! You have already lost. You are weak. Useless.”

A memory flashed up. A blond man looked down at him, an unpleasant look on his face. His white coat was pristine. He wore glasses. He did not look pleased to see him. A recollection of hurt, of sadness came back to him as he recalled reaching out, only to be brushed off as though he was unclean. He remembered shrinking back, tears welling up in his eyes. "Go to your room," the man had said. "Useless boy. Waste of time." He'd cried. He'd told himself he wasn't useless, no matter what the man said. He would be useful. He would, one day. To someone. He would.

“I...” Talking was difficult. His hand gripped his sword more tightly. “Will... not. Lose to you.”

He struck at him. It was all he could manage, the last of his strength. A last stand. He expected his sword to meet the same resistance as before, the same wall of near-impenetrable flesh. His hand went warm. His fingers slipped on the hilt. He let go and the sword didn’t fall. The tightness at his throat slackened.

He hit the floor.

He gasped. The Hollow stumbled back. He looked at his hand through blurred eyes. Ink. No, blood. Black. Wet. He’d cut it. He’d hurt it. His pupils contracted. He set his features and pushed himself to his feet. His neck hurt, but it didn’t matter. He strode forward and gripped the hilt of the sword. He gritted his teeth behind his lips and pushed.

“You are mine,” he said, his deep voice resonating in silence of the room.

“I will never yield to yo-”

A chain sprang from the floor and arced over the Hollow, chaining it down. It pulled against it and came up against another, second restraint. They forced it still.

“You have no choice.”

A third.

“Tell me your name.” It wasn’t a request. It was a command.

“I will fight you. When you let your guard down, I will over throw you. I will not be subjugat--”

A fourth.

The Hollow turned its eyes on the boy with unreserved contempt. Its wings were folded beneath the chains. Its claws curled in the detritus of the room and tore the carpet beneath. Its lips curled in a snarl. Ulquiorra didn’t speak. He looked on dispassionately. The bonds tightened.

“Murciélago.” It spat the word.

“You will give me your power when I call upon it. I will bind you, and use you.”

And Ulquiorra walked away. He left the Hollow deep in that room and locked the door. His legs gave way.

He collapsed.

He awoke in the recovery room. He had woken there many times, after his injections. The restraints were gone, but he felt sore where they had been. Everything ached. His skin was lined with the raw, pink evidence of recently healed skin. He moves his toes. His feet were back to normal. The fur and claws had gone. He felt weak. His chest and head hurt. Every time he closed his eyes he could see the face of the Hollow. He didn’t want to blink. There was a sword beside him, he could feel it in his fingers. He glanced -- a green scabbard.

“Well now,” a silky voice said from behind him. It belonged to the pink-haired scientist. “It looks like you survived. Well done.”

Ulquiorra couldn’t summon up the energy to comment. He wasn't sure what he would say. He felt off. Thinking was difficult. Healing was draining him of energy.

“Get some rest.” The doctor said, smirking. “You will be briefed in the morning if you make it through the night.”

Ulquiorra listened as the footsteps got further and further away. He forced his eyes closed and calmed his breathing. He needed to go back into his mind. Deep. He needed to repair what had been broken. He needed to fix the damage that had been caused. He could feel himself slipping. If he didn't do it now, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to repair it at all.

He opened them again in the red hallway, the first room. It was ruined.

He decided to start from the epicentre and picked his way through the trashed rooms until he reached the one that contained his Hollow. He didn't go in.

White cracks marked the black walls like a spider's web. They were visible even from the outside. He knew that would have to keep a careful eye on the chains that bound it. He tried to fix the room he stood in, but everything collapsed after mere moments -- Murciélago's influence was too great. He locked the door. It didn't matter. Fear was to be locked away. Unimportant. He backed out.

He stepped through the rest of the rooms. He concentrated on getting them all straightened out. All items back in their places. The ones closest to Murciélago’s prison could not be fully repaired. He tried and they fell apart in seconds. There were broken clocks and smashed pictures that could not be fixed. There was less damage as he got further towards the surface. Further away from the Hollow. It became easier.

The library was not easy to reconstruct. Putting each book in place took time, but it had to be done. It was important. He knew it was. Nothing fell after he replaced it. It made him feel easier. Things stayed as they should be. Good.

Some rooms looked normal enough, but the clocks ticked an irregular rhythm. Not ideal. Not impossible to repair. They would right themselves in time.

The red room with four doors had a skewed picture, but the clock, when he had finished, ticked properly. He turned his attention to the locked room, the one filled with whispers, and put more locks in place, making it more difficult to get from the hall to its contents. It was not safe to have it where Murciélago could hope to access it, or anything within it. If it got out, given enough time, it would be able to break down his locks, but the more he put in place, the more difficult it would be. He pushed it back and partitioned it off. Barred it closed. It didn't matter. The room was unimportant. He didn't need it. It was a weakness. A liability. Dangerous.

The last room, the entrance hall, looked neat once he had finished. The clock ticked. He pushed the picture level.

It stayed there.

At least for the time being.
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Several days after the Archadian invasion, a terrible explosion reduced the once proud city of Nabudis to naught but rubble. Though the city fell in the space of a night, the Mist that now swirls where it once stood has transformed the land into a barren waste for eternity. Even now, the cause of this cataclysm is not fully understood.

-Sage Knowledge 03

March 2012

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