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Chapter 31

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Meryl was woken by Wolfwood at dawn. He looked as though he hadn't slept a wink the whole night, an observation she didn't doubt. Milly was rubbing sleep from her eyes as Meryl stumbled to her feet and stretched. She felt like Wolfwood looked, though she recalled falling asleep almost immediately and hadn't woken once during the night.

It was that dark and dreary time before dawn - the forest was a large dark cage closing in around them. They felt permanently damp despite being dry. Restlessly and in relative silence and whispers, they finished off the last of their food, an act that seemed significantly ominous to Meryl because she was questioning the probability of her and Vash making it out of the castle alive.

She had always proclaimed herself smart, but now she was questioning her sanity.

Just as light began to streak across the clouded sky above them, the four of them crept from the suffocating shelter of the trees and ventured to face the imposing visage of the cliff. The entrance was opened and painful task of goodbyes and well wishes began.

Milly latched onto Vash first, tears in her eyes.

"You have to promise to be careful, Mr. Vash!" her loud voice seemed to startle them out of the dream they'd been walking in.

Meryl caught sight of the half blood's own teary eyes before facing Wolfwood with a solemn look. They regarded each other a moment, a smile slowly appearing on the priest's scruffy face.

"What's so funny?" she demanded, somewhat indignantly.

"You just look so damn serious, shorty," he told her with a grin.

Trust Wolfwood to make light of the situation, Meryl thought.

"Well, don't you think that under the circumstances it's warranted, priest?"

He looked at her with a funny expression on his face. "Actually, I was thinking that under the circumstances you might try being a little more light-hearted. Acting like you're about to enter into the gates of Hell isn't going to help you one bit."

Meryl frowned deeply. "As I recall, Nicholas, you were telling me just the other day that if I did this I wouldn't make it out alive," she reminded him harshly.

Wolfwood, cool as always, merely shrugged. "My plans to dissuade you didn't work, so now I figure I might as well encourage you," he told her, a hint of a smile on his lips that told her he wasn't completely serious.

Meryl wanted to say something smart back, snap out a retort that her irritable mood matched, but she closed her mouth and pursed her lips. She let his words sink in, instead.

"Alright," she sighed out. "Have it your way, then." And she stepped forward, somewhat hesitantly because she wasn't sure of herself. But Wolfwood opened his arms and she stepped into them, grasping his coat with her hands and pressing her cheek into the damp fabric. The lingering smell of cigarettes suddenly seemed to comfort her.

"I'll see you around suppertime, then," she told him quietly, and pulled back.

Wolfwood only grinned, and moments later Milly had descended upon her.

"Oh, sempai!" she cried, lifting the smaller woman boldly into the hair and squeezing her for all she was worth. For once, Meryl held onto her partner with equal enthusiasm, squeezing her eyes shut to fend off the tears that sprung upon her quite suddenly.

"I've made Mr Vash promise to take care of you and himself, now you have to do the same," the taller woman choked out.

Meryl swallowed thickly. "I promise, Milly."

"Good," was the reply, and Meryl was returned to her feet.

She stepped back and was aware that both Nicholas and Vash were watching her closely. She swallowed again, clearing her throat.

"Should we get going?" she directed the question to Vash.

He regarded her a moment, his aqua eyes still somewhat hazy, before he nodded quickly.

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess we should."

Above them, dawn was in full swing and they were guaranteed that any purebloods in the castle were now deep within a slumber that they wouldn't awaken from until dusk.

None of them seemed to want to move for a long moment. Finally, it was Vash who moved, turning without a word, catching Meryl's gaze; he stepped into the darkness of the tunnel and disappeared. Then Meryl moved, drawn away by some invisible force, casting a somewhat fearful gaze upon both her remaining friends, before turning and walking into the side of the cliff.

Her eyes adjusted quickly, and she caught sight of Vash just a few feet ahead waiting for her. It was the strangest thing, but Meryl reached out almost blindly towards him and he took her hand quickly in his. The action was completed without a word, almost without acknowledgement. But warmth seemed to spread from their clasped hands, up Meryl's arm and into her body.

They made their way up the tunnel in silence, save for their footsteps. The darkness was oppressive, and soon Meryl could see nothing. She was allowing Vash to lead her blindly into the depths of castle Purebrood and didn't mind in the least. She felt numb and trapped in a false state of security. The darkness could not harm her if Vash was there. In fact, without Vash's contact Meryl was sure she would have turned back ages ago.

Vash halted suddenly, shushing the question on her lips before it passed through them. He slipped his hand from hers, and Meryl was left alone to grapple with the darkness pressing in around her. There was shuffling, but the pounding of Meryl's heart nearly eclipsed the sound.

Suddenly, however, light burst forth in the darkness and she was nearly blinded. Meryl flinched away from the light, nearly stumbling backwards if not for Vash's steadying hand on her shoulder. Contact was restored, and the blinding light turned out to be a very dusty and ancient looking torch.

Meryl let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding.

Vash let out a sort laugh. "I feel a little safer talking now that I can see what's around me," he informed her, too cheerfully.

Meryl arched a brow in disbelief. "Well at least that's one of us."

Smiling, he took her hand again and started down the tunnel. It turned out to be a well-crafted corridor of unknown age, but by the amount of dust that their boots seemed to be stirring up, Meryl could guess that it was much, much older than her.

"This tunnel only goes up for a ways before linking into the lowest part of the castle," Vash told her.

Meryl was amazed. "You're telling me that we're going up?" It seemed as though they had been walking parallel to the ground below the cliff.

"Yeah, but not much. The lowest part of the castle is the dungeons, you know." He paused. "Thankfully, no one really goes down there."

"Why not?"

Vash glanced back at her. "It's infested with rats." He looked forward again before he could see Meryl's disgusted look.

She swallowed thickly, her eyes suddenly darting around her feet. "Where do we go from there?" she asked nervously.

"Up," came the short reply.

Meryl glanced at his back. "You do know where Knives keeps this serum, right?" she beseeched, feeling unease crawling up her back.

"Of course!" he called back, and then added more quietly. "I'm sure, anyway…"

"Vash!" she cried out accusingly while attempting to crush his fingers in her grasp.

But he whirled around suddenly, pulling his hand from hers to press his forefinger to her lips.

"Shhhh!" His eyes pleaded with her, and Meryl looked to where he was holding the torch.

It was a large wooden door with a rusted metal doorknob and cobwebs stringing around its corners. Meryl's heart responded to this sudden surprise with a near painful thump. Slowly, Vash moved his hand away and turned towards the door and she felt her whole body tense up. With one shove of his shoulder that was not in the least bit quiet, Vash forced the old door open. The momentum sent it flying into the wall with a bang so resounding that Meryl looked back down the tunnel as it echoed and bounced its way down, sure that someone had heard it.

But the room that was revealed to them was just as dark as the corridor they'd come out of.

Torch in hand, Vash turned and ushered her into the room before closing the door firmly behind them. It was forced back into place with a screech that made her shudder. Then she remembered the rats and looked down to her feet in disgust.

"Hey," Vash said in a hushed whisper to get her attention.

Her head snapped up and she noticed that he had offered her his hand once again. She took it as her eyes took in the room they had entered.

"This is a dungeon?" she asked, questioning the piles of crates and barrels littering the space, stacked up sometimes to the ceiling, which she noticed was quite low.

"No," Vash tugged her forward. "We're headed towards the dungeon. This is just a storage room."

"I guess you were right about them not knowing about the tunnel," Meryl remarked.

Ignoring her words, Vash went on. "Stay behind me and try not to make any noise. Any purebloods may be sleeping but half-bloods will be all over this place."

Meryl wanted to inform him that she was well aware of this fact, but decided not to make a scene. Instead, she nodded – and action that went unnoticed by Vash.

--

Back at the camp the sun had risen – if you could call it that. The small clearing that the trees provided revealed a dark and cloudy sky above them.

It would be another day of rain.

Milly was trying to keep herself busy by brushing down the horses – and donkey – but was failing miserably because her thoughts kept going to Meryl and Vash and she would halt her actions. The horse would then nudge her back into action, and she would apologize…and the cycle continued.

Sitting on a dry patch under a tree, Wolfwood was doing his best to chain-smoke himself to death, continually puffing until the whole clearing seemed to be blanketed in a haze of cigarette smoke.

Finally, however, when the horse got too fed up with Milly's inattention and walked away – and Milly threw her hands up in exasperation as if it was all the horse's fault - and when Wolfwood himself was beginning to feel sick from the smoke hovering around him – the perpetual silence was broken.

"Milly," he said suddenly, as she actually threw down the brush in frustration.

The tall woman regarded him with such a look of defeat in her eyes that he felt his heart clench.

"I need to tell you something," he said, stubbing out his last cigarette in the damp earth and getting up.

Milly ran her hands through her hair in frustration. "Yes?" she asked, ever polite.

"Follow me," he beckoned, holding his hand out to her.

Wordlessly, thought clearly confused, Milly took the proffered hand and immediately found a sense of calm wash over her.

"I need to show you, as well, for it to make sense," he told her. "We need to go back to the tunnel."

Milly's brow furrowed. "What's there?"

Wolfwood smiled crookedly, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Our part in this twisted little play."

Mystified, Milly allowed the priest to lead her away from the camp and through the woods. They hung back at the edge of the woods, in view of the entrance to the tunnel. There, Wolfwood turned to Milly, and in a surprising move, grasped both her hands in his.

"I'm going to tell you something you're not going to like, but it's something I can't change," he began slowly.

Immediately, Milly began feeling sick. "What is it?" she asked, almost miserably, immediately dreading the answer.

Wolfwood seemed to gather himself together and stood a bit straighter. "Last night, after you and Meryl were asleep, Vash woke me…" he paused. "There was something on his mind that was clearly bothering him. He told me…that if he and Meryl aren't out of that castle by sundown, they can be presumed dead and drastic measures can be taken."

As soon as those words passed his lips, Milly attempted to pull her hands away. Wolfwood held them tight.

"What drastic measures?" she demanded, blue eyes wide with fear and confusion.

Wolfwood didn't answer right away, but gently tugged Milly from their cover and into the shadow of the sheer rock face. He led her right up to the tunnel entrance, and beckoned her inside.

"Where are we going?" Milly asked, her voice somewhat hushed as they plunged into the darkness.

She felt him stop, and then an odd scraping noise. The next moment, something was pushed into her hands. It felt like a long stick, and she could feel the clinging dust beneath her fingertips.

"What—"

The sudden strike of a match and subsequent flicker of light silenced Milly. She saw what was in her hands – it was a dusty old torch.

Wolfwood took it from her and carefully lit it. They watched as the small flame ate away at it, growing in size until the tunnel was illuminated several feet each way.

"He led me in here," he continued finally. "Lit a torch…led me up this tunnel a ways…" He held his hand out to Milly once more.

She took it after a moment's hesitation, the flicker of fire in her eyes only serving to make her look more uncertain.

"The same thoughts that are going through your head right now were going through mine," Wolfwood told her, "I wondered what was going on in his mind that would make him lead me here…"

He seemed to have found his destination; an old door along the side of the tunnel, so cracked and covered with cobwebs as the rest of the tunnel that one could have mistaken it for stonework. He turned to Milly and handed her the torch.

"Then, we came upon this door." Wolfwood took hold of the rusted old doorknob and instead of turning it, tried to pull the door open. "Vash explained that right now, we are directly below the main hall in the castle…" The door gave way with a grinding screech, and they were showered with a wave of dust.

Turning back to Milly, Wolfwood took the torch again and stepped through the doorway. Milly followed hesitantly, her heart suddenly racing. What could possibly be inside this room that was so important?

It was a fairly large chamber, she could tell from the meagre light provided, but it looked smaller due to the barrels upon barrels stacked high up to the ceiling. They should have looked innocent, but for some reason Milly's stomach churned with unease. Maybe it was the somewhat familiar smell that seemed to permeate the entire room.

"What is it?" she questioned, but wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

Wolfwood gave a chuckle that was completely devoid of humour. "Let's just say you wouldn't want to drop this torch in this room…"

Milly whirled on him, her eyes wide. "Mr. Priest! Don't tell me that—that--!" Milly cried, but her tongue suddenly didn't want to work.

Wolfwood cast her a sideways glance and then sighed. He regarded the room with a defeated look. "Each one of these barrels it packed to the brim with gunpowder. Vash explained that no one has visited this room in years…so it simply ceased to exist. No one knows about it except for us." He paused, almost seemed to gather his composure before facing Milly. "This is our role, Milly. If Vash and Meryl aren't out of the castle by nightfall, we light a trail of gunpowder and blow this castle to kingdom come."

Stunned, Milly took a step back; her feet bumped into a barrel behind her. Defeated, Milly sat down with a cry, tears already leaking from her tightly closed eyes.

Carefully, Wolfwood took a seat beside her and almost hesitantly wrapped an arm around Milly's shoulders.

--

Meryl was convinced that she could hear dripping, but the corridors of the castle remained devoid of water. Devoid of life. They were dank and dark; the only warmth and comfort she could gather was from the torch and the touch of the half-blood leading her into the den of wolves. He was leading them both.

Meryl couldn't see his face. They hadn't spoken in a while. To her, it seemed they were wandering in a never-ending maze, ascending a set of stairs and hoping to be faced with something different but only find another corridor leading them into darkness. There were no windows. Meryl was beginning to feel claustrophobic, and an ache that had more or less eluded her most of the morning had returned as the minutes passed.

They stopped suddenly, Vash standing rigidly in front of her. Meryl bit her lip and slowly crept forward until she was by his side.

Two choices lay before them. Go right and venture down another dark corridor, or go left and climb a winding staircase that was, oddly enough, lit with several torches. It was the first sign of inhabitants in the castle and it send a chill through Meryl. Vash deposited his torch in an empty mount on the wall.

"Which way?" she asked quietly.

Slowly held up a finger. "Wait a second…"

"What is it?" Meryl asked suddenly alert. She looked over to Vash, who had a thoughtful express on his face.

"It's been a while since I've been here, so I'm just trying to remember where we are…" he explained.

Meryl heaved a sigh and crossed her arms, yet refrained from saying anything nasty.

After a moment Vash seemed to nod to himself and then pointed left. "Up the staircase."

"And where does that lead?" Meryl sniped.

Vash flashed her a smile, unaffected by her doubt. "I'll know when we get there." He started towards the stairs, leaving Meryl to catch up.

Sighing, Meryl jogged slightly to keep up. As they ascended, she was aware of the sudden light – it seemed to guide them – but it did nothing to staunch the sudden chill that had entered her body. She was distinctly aware of the absence of Vash's hand, and she wanted to curse herself for acting like a child. Dependant and needy.

The stairs seemed to go on forever. Meryl glanced back several times, just to make sure nothing was following them, and then had to rush to keep up with Vash because she was afraid of falling behind. It seemed as though this castle seemed to tear down the strengths she had perfected over the years, leaving her nerves in shambles. She was almost convinced it was a living, breathing thing that was feeding off her. She felt weak as a babe.

When they reached the top, Meryl sighed with relief. Two doors lined each side of the corridor, and a window sat at the very end. Grey light poured through the dirty pane of glass, providing some relief for Meryl.

"This way," Vash said to her, already starting towards the window.

Meryl followed, seeing that there was a corridor to the right and one to the left. Yet another decision, but Meryl was drawn to the window. Leaning on the ledge, she peered at the view outside. Amazingly, the ground below seemed miles away – a green and grey stretch of rolling land fading off into the distance where dark clouds seemed to eat up the horizon.

"Meryl!" Vash shouted suddenly.

She was almost too shocked by the sound of her name on his lips to notice the hairs on her neck standing on end. Rigidly, she whirled around, her legs nearly tangling in her cloak.

The sight before her nearly made her stumble. Vash, the colour of a ghost, paler than she'd ever seen him and looking like a feral animal ready to pounce. Or run.

The beast that haunted Meryl's dreams faced them at the top of the stairs from whence they'd just come. Tall, immovable, imposing. Her first instinct was to run, to hide, but she knew that it was impossible. She couldn't escape.

Trapped.

Knives' icy eyes moved over his brother's stiff form before settling on her.

Meryl gasped, stumbling back into the window, feeling as though she'd just been stabbed. Fiery pain gripped her body and nearly rendered her immobile. The pulse in her neck throbbed, and she clapped a hand to her neck and collapsed, her legs tingling and shaky. But hands pulled her back up, and though her eyes were unfocused she knew it was Vash.

He was breathing hard, as if he'd run a marathon, and she thought she felt a shudder run through his body.

"Knives," he ground out, a greeting from one brother to another.

Several more vampires had come to stand beside and behind Knives. Their dead eyes were flat and flickered with something akin to boredom. Meryl struggled to stand on her own, pulling herself from Vash's arms, not wanting to show any weakness.

She thought she heard Knives chuckle, but her focus was on the vampire accompanying him. She recognized Legato right away, but there was also a woman who wore an eye patch standing just behind them. On Knives' other side stood a dark-haired half-blood with a height that nearly matched Knives', and behind him was a man who looked rather foreign; he had a blade at his side.

What shocked Meryl most, however, was the fact that there was a small child in their midst, standing with his arms crossed and looking quite bored with the whole affair. It was the first time she had seen a vampire child and it caught her somewhere in the chest – a sharp stab of pain that was purely emotional.

Knives tilted his head slightly. "Vash," he said almost pleasantly. "I've been waiting for you."

A cold feeling settled in Meryl's stomach, and she took a step back, nearly touching the wall behind her. Had he known that they were there all along? Had he allowed them to break into his castle? How? How?

Knives' eyes snapped to her once more. The sneer on his lips gave away his act of indifference.

"You're bleeding, human," he told her disdainfully, yet she caught a warning in his voice.

Unnerved, Meryl clapped a hand to her neck and felt the sticky blood seeping from her wound. Her brand.

She hadn't even noticed.

"Leave her, Knives," Vash's voice broke the silence, sounding unusually harsh.

His twin's eyes flickered away from Meryl. "Why? Is she not an accomplice of yours? Has she not trespassed in my castle, same as you, dear brother?" He took a slow step forward, and Meryl reached discreetly into the folds of her cloak. "Why should I not punish the spider?"

Meryl's fingers touched cold metal, and she waited a moment. Her hands trembled as she grasped the small derringer. She readied her finger on the trigger. She prayed.

Knives continued, taking another slow step forward, as if approaching a rabbit that might bolt at any sudden movement. "You're far too soft, Vash – something I plan on remedying as soon as I can…"

Her whole body tensing, Meryl whipped her hand from her clock, gun already cocked and loaded, and set her sights on Knives' head. No one had time to react before she pulled the trigger. Two shots, and from the corner of her eyes she saw Vash flinch.

Meryl was shaking like a leaf in a breeze as she regarded Knives. He'd moved – she hadn't seen him move, but he had. And his hand – his closed fist rested just in front of his forehead.

Without any bravado, he opened his hand and two bullets fell to the floor.

No, no, no…

Meryl stared in horror at the bullets. No. Legato had been impressive, not even flinching when she'd driven a stake into his chest – but Knives…Knives had dodged two bullets. He'd caught them in his hand and let them drop to the floor. She knew they must still be hot after their departure from the barrel of her derringer.

She noticed that his followers were very amused by his actions.

Once glance at Vash told her he was even paler. She told herself that she imagined the tremble that ran through his body.

Knives gave a small chuckle. "Tell me, did you really think you could get in and out of this castle without me knowing?" The question could have been directed at either of them, but both stayed silent.

Knives surveyed his brother with a barely concealed look of disgust. "You're a disgrace, Vash," he spat, plain and simply.

Meryl expected Vash to reply, but nothing was said. She wanted to shout at him to do something – say something! But only because of her own fears. Weak, she told herself.

"You'll be joining us soon," Knives spoke again, and took Meryl a moment to realize he was talking to her.

Joining them, Meryl thought to herself numbly. Yes, she supposed she would. Soon now, very soon.

Knives glanced back at his followers, a sickening smile on his lips. "And then I'll have the infinite pleasure of driving one of your own stakes through your heart – you've caused me too much trouble already."

Meryl fell back against the wall, feeling sick to her stomach.

Vash finally stepped up. "Don't touch her, Knives." The distance between the two of them was getting smaller, now.

Meryl pondered vaguely what would happen when the two titans finally clashed. She wasn't so sure they would.

"Don't defend her, Vash," Knives retorted. "The spider has earned her death."

Vash stepped forward again, looking like a feral, wild animal faced with death. "I won't let you."

"You won't let me!" Knives repeated, laughing. His face swiftly turned cruel. "You don't have a choice," he snarled, and lifted his hand in a vague gesture that Meryl didn't understand until Vash keeled over suddenly, clutching his stomach with a howl of pain.

"Thank you, Legato," Knives murmured politely as Vash's knees hit the floor.

Meryl's eyes darted to Legato. He stood motionless several feet behind Knives. She hated his apathy.

Meryl wanted to push herself away from the wall and go to him, to defend him in the same way he had her, but she felt feeble and sluggish. She felt as though her energy was being drained from her very bones.

Knives finally came to stand before his kneeling brother. His five followers had advanced wordlessly and as quietly as shadows.

"Where are the other two, Vash?" he asked sternly.

When Vash refused to answer, another gesture to Legato sent Vash to his hands, unable to contain the scream that passes through his lips. Meryl watched, sick, as blood dripped from his open mouth onto the cold stone floor.

"I know there are four of you, Vash! Tell me where the other two are!" Knives shouted, bending over as if it would help Vash hear him better.

Meryl couldn't take it. "We left them behind!" she shouted weakly.

Knives' attention snapped to her. "Where?" he growled.

"London," she replied weakly. "Leave Vash alone."

A genuine smile touched his lips, and he looked almost pleased. Then, to Meryl's horror, Knives aimed a powerful kick to his brother's head that sent him sprawling on his back. He was still, and Meryl was too shocked to move.

Knives' voice seemed to echo strangely in her head.

"She's lying."

Meryl thought that perhaps someone had snuck up on her because pain blossomed in her head quite suddenly. Fire in her veins. Ice in her bones. It felt like a thousand splinters piercing her body. She twisted and felt herself falling.

She fell into darkness and knew no more.

-

Author's Notes: I bet you thought this one wasn't coming back, huh?

I want to thank everyone who has reviewed in the 'almost-two-years' that this story was on hiatus. I know you may think it doesn't make a difference because it took me so long to update, but if no one bothered me to keep going I doubt I would have acted on any urges to finish this story. So thank you and I'm sorry for keeping everyone waiting for so long.

I can't tell you when the next update will be, but I have a good feeling it won't be in two years. ;) As well, I estimate that there are only about four chapters left, so it should only take me about eight more years to finish this fic…

I'm joking!

Sorry.

XD

Anyway, I hope everyone can get back into this story, because I certainly have. I'm looking forward to writing the next chapter because it contains some scenes that I've envisioned since starting this fic. Be excited! Haha.

As well, I hope to go over the whole story and edit each chapter – fix spelling errors, improve my writing and such. I feel I've evolved a bit writing-wise since I started this story, so I want everything to be up to par.

So, that's the news.

Oh, and you can check out my livejournal cayennepeppers. for information regarding the updating of my stories. I posted a sneak peek of this chapter there a while ago, and I may offer more for my next chapters. ;)

It feels good to be back.

I hope everyone is still interested.

If you are, leave me a review!

--Cayenne Pepper Powder