A/N: hi there to all readers! I'm here once again to update this pretty long story… I apologize for taking a very long time to post this new chapter since I've been paying attention to my other stories as of late and I had no idea how I would write down what I was thinking. I had the ideas in my head but I didn't know how to put it into words. Anyway, I've left you guys with a cliffhanger last time and I'm sure some of you are guessing as to what Yuki saw inside the room… I hope you guys liked the last chapter's surprise and maybe you might like this one as well. Time to move on with the plot of the story… I've been keeping you guys waiting so here's night 20… ^_^

By the way, thanks for the reviews… it really means a lot to me to know that you guys loved the way the story is going otherwise I would've stopped a long time ago… there's still a number of arcs left after all…

Please Read and Review… ^_^


Night 20 – Connected by the Chains of Time

Total and absolute pandemonium reined inside the ballroom where only a few heartbeats before was a night filled with laughter and peace. Abject horrors treaded to Yuki's eyes as she watched a couple of level ends descend upon the place. Wasn't this supposed to be an evening for all of them to forget all of their troubles?

Apparently, she had been mistaken in that notion as she watched the terrible scene in front of her eyes. She held onto Zero's hands tightly as much as for comfort and support. She struggled with the idea that everything was starting to go downhill in just a few seconds. How could things end up this way? Right when she was already on the verge of baring her feelings to the one person whose life mattered most to her.

At that moment, something large and black came falling through the ceiling over the dance floor. Rough and frightening, the level end landed lightly in the middle of the astonished dancers. Heads turned, as those nearest it froze absurdly in mid-dance.

Then a voice spoke in a soft, venomous, slow voice that Zero knew all to well.

"Well, let's begin this party shall we?"

Everything seemed fuzzy, slow. Zero and Yuki jumped to their feet as they hurriedly tried to find their companions. Many people were only just realizing that something strange had happened; heads were still turned toward the level end as it finally vanished and leapt away. Silence spread outward in cold ripples from the place where it landed.

Then somebody screamed again.

Zero and Yuki threw themselves into the panicking crowd. Students and faculty alike were sprinting in all directions, hoping to escape the horrors that began to take place in Cross Academy. Many were heading out the front doors as they tried to get away from this place.

As they pushed their way across the dance floor, Zero saw more level ends appearing in the crowd; then he saw Kaname and the others, being surrounded by those new arrivals. Everyone's eyes met for an instant and they all thought of one thing: kill the enemies who attacked the school.

There was no need to hesitate and despite the fact that many would see their true natures, they could always do some memory alteration later on. What was important now was to prevent any casualties as much as possible.

"Zero!" Yuki shouted as she was wrapped around in Zero's warm embrace all of a sudden. When she looked up again, she was shocked to find a bullet hole lodged in the glass door directly in front of her. Zero too stared at it in horror, realizing the implication it meant, then in the next moment all hell broke loose once more when another shot fired and shattered the glass doors behind them.

Seeing that the bullets were coming from one of the building outside the hall, Zero lunged forward with Yuki in his arms, covering her ears as five consecutive shots were fired. Inside, people were still screaming and running around in shock, trying to get out of the building.

"You okay?" Zero looked down at Yuki who had her eyes wide open. Looking up, he saw that Shielle and the others were currently fighting the level ends. They still were unaware that there were some hunters involved in this mess.

"What's going on?" Yuki cried, grabbing Zero's forearm. "What the hell happened?"

"It's a sniper," Zero said breathlessly, pulling her up by the arm. "Let's go." They stepped over the shattered glass and Zero pulled her away from the glass doors, away from that unknown sniper. "We have to get you out of here, we – look out!" Zero pushed Yuki down as another shot was fired, barely missing them and shattered one of the ornaments on the wall.

"Zero!" Takuma shouted from the halls, sword in his hand. "Get over here fast!" He quickly something long and silver in Zero's direction that caught it instantly.

Pulling Yuki by the hand, Zero made a move to pull Yuki up to her feet again but she didn't budge. "Yuki! Get going!"

"Wait," Yuki stared up at the hall's dark indoor balconies, squinting her eyes at one with the curtains closed. Widening her eyes, she grabbed the gun she hid under her dress, the one given to her by Zero, pointed it at that balcony just as an elongated claw appeared through the closed curtains, and without hesitation… pulled the trigger.

Time stopped as the others who'd been fighting the other enemies glanced at her for a second. Zero, too, stared at her for a while and he also had his Bloody Rose pointed at the enemy from before. A figure dressed in black fell from the closed curtains, its head banging on the railing before sliding down to the floor. Yuki sighed in relief as she managed to shoot the level end before it hurt anyone.

She knew that there was really no choice now. She had to do something and ensure that everyone was safe. Yuki thought that it was her duty now as an individual entrusted with the truth of the other world. If she wanted to be with Zero, she knew that she had to at least be able to support him and fight for him. This was her resolution and she would be damned if she let that woman do whatever she wants with the person she loved.

She followed close behind as Zero stared at the others and from what they could both see, they were able to repel the level ends. All of was quiet now and Yuki found it eerie that their footsteps seemed to echo so loudly. The lack of other noises made her feel insecure. It was as if they could be ambushed at any moment. She took out and gripped a small metal cylinder in one of her hands. It was pure silver and there were various markings in its surface.

This was her prized possession. The Artemis Rod.

As they passed by the buffet table, Yuki's attention was drawn to the weapon Zero was now carrying and she knew that it was the thing that Takuma threw a few minutes earlier. It was a sword. Or a katana to be exact. It was the first time she saw a weapon like that in her life. It was quite different from the one Takuma was using and there was something different about that sword that took most of her attention.

Most of the vampire hunters she met since being acquainted with this world seemed to use guns or rifles. It seemed that they preferred long distance combat instead of close quarter's combat.

She admittedly liked the scabbard's smooth surface and seeing it, she knew that the sword would be the same. She never had much fascination with weapons but she really found that Zero's weapon was quite beautiful. Another thought crossed her mind. Does it mean he usually engaged the enemies in close quarter combat instead using guns?

An image flashed in her mind, it was the time when Zero first appeared to save from that insane vampire. She remembered seeing a sword that time, a bright silver sword coated with blood. She even thought that the blade was just as red as the crimson moon on the sky that fateful night. She realized that despite all she found out about him, Zero still had a lot of secrets hidden.

Zero walked steadily on; aware of the number of presences that was heading their way. From what he felt, there were a couple of level ends. He knew that they must've been attracted by the power his sister possessed and chose to succumb to her control. Was Shizuka really this desperate? He thought as he tried to find any trace of her presence but found none.

He motioned for Yuki to stop as he closed his eyes in concentration and expanded his senses. There was the scent of fresh human blood thought it was only little in the air and Zero instantly knew that the scene they would witness would be like the ones he saw many times before. But Yuki had never seen one and he wanted to spare her that kind of thing for this unexpected incident.

Still, it couldn't be helped. Things were already far beyond his control. He opened his eyes and turned to look at Yuki.

"Leave this to me for a while. It is better for you to reserve your strength for a while," Zero said tonelessly as he brought his attention to her. He noticed the cylindrical item she was carrying and he knew that it was her weapon.

Close quarter's type? Maybe it would better to let her get the feel of everything for a while and he realized that using the sword was a good idea on his part. Yuki nodded her response and walked a few yards away from him. Zero turned his attention back to the corridor in front of him. He controlled his emotions and forced himself to prepare for combat.

Yuki watched in the distance as Zero stood there with his back to her. A few seconds later, she noticed the animalistic growls coming from the corridor ahead of them. There was a noise like claws scraping the ground as the level ends seemed to charge at full speed. She noticed that the others also braced themselves for the arrival of more enemies.

Her heart was hammering wildly as she prayed that Zero would definitely be alright. She then noticed that he was pulling the blade from its scabbard. The bright flash of silver was striking in her eyes and she found herself drawn to the sight. Just as she expected, the katana was very impressive and she noticed that there were some symbols etched on its surface.

Suddenly…

There was a sound of bells echoing in the corridor…

Yuki's eyes widened in surprise as Zero swung the blade diagonally in the blink of an eye and there was a faint thump as the body of a level end descended to the ground. Blood oozing from its torn form and staining the ground crimson. There were splatters of blood on the walls and ceilings from the force of the swing. She watched as he shifted the direction of the sword horizontally and sent another level end to its demise.

It continued on until she couldn't even tell the direction of his attacks. She was both frightened and amazed at the way he handled those numbers easily. His skill with the sword was great and his speed was something she couldn't quite keep up.

He's strong… no. He's terrifying… no. He's awesome! I knew he was strong, but I had no idea he was this strong.

She felt both anxious and insecure with herself. There was no way she could compete in that level and she realized from the looks of things that everyone else was like this. They were truly professional and masters at their job. Is this the reason why everyone else doubted she could make it? Why her father hid this truth all these years? As she watched the battle in front of her, all she could think about then was how strong and amazing Zero was. He showed no emotion in his face and she could easily see how focused he truly was. How could she even hope to protect him?

Yet, she realized too that if Zero was showing this to her, it also meant that he felt that she was worthy of being by his side. He was trying to help her get ready to face what lay ahead in this path she chose for herself. She knew it since long ago that she had to spill the blood of the monsters called level ends to protect the civilians and she felt that she had to accept it to be able to move forward. That hasn't changed even now. She really wanted to use her abilities to protect other people especially Zero.

She breathed deeply to pull herself together and gripped her weapon tightly. This is not the time to be sidetracked.

She walked over to Zero who sheathed his sword back to its scabbard. Blood was everywhere but the bodies of the level ends were nowhere to be seen and in its place were piles of ashes. She stopped in front of him, uncaring if her shoes were going to be soaked in blood. She wondered if he felt something after doing this. She could never believe that he didn't feel anything at all. No one should be okay with doing something like this.

Once again, blood has been spilled for insignificant reasons…

Zero looked down upon the puddle of blood that gathered around him.

How many times had he been doing this? He knew that Yuki finally saw how everyone else including him executed the missions. They couldn't show mercy to the enemy and the only thing they could do was give those level ends peace through their deaths.

He heard Yuki approaching him and he knew that she was finally prepared to face the other level ends. He could feel only a few more but something bothered him. There was something different in the aura of one of the vampire hiding from their sight. He could only hope that what he felt was a mistake.

He realized that he took too much time in eliminating those level E's and no doubt that the main enemy would be making her move. He knew that the reason was the lack of his vampire nature. Without it, he couldn't synchronize well with his blade. After all, this blade was made for the head of the Hiou family. He remembered that fact since he recovered some of his memories.

Because of that, he couldn't unlock its full capabilities. Right now, he was relying only on the sword techniques taught to him by Yagari and something he learned on his own. He wondered if he would be able to keep this up even with a higher level vampire they would soon face. He sighed as he turned his attention to Yuki who was quietly standing in front of him.

"This is who we truly are. It's true that this organization we have has been killing level ends without any regret or complaint… all this time… but… in our hearts; I guess we're always sad. We're always thinking about how we really don't want to do that. Even so, if this power can protect people and there are those who believe this power is needed…" Zero trailed off as he gazed at Yuki with his piercing lavender eyes. Somehow, he wanted her to understand that he didn't enjoy this like some individuals from other organizations. He didn't want her to think of him as some sort of monster who enjoyed all this bloodshed. He also wanted to prove to himself that he wasn't like the others of his kind.

"I understand, Zero. I'm just like you guys I guess. Because if there's someone extending their hand to me… if there's someone who needs me… I'll find something I can do even fighting. Right now, I can only move forward with you," Yuki said gently as she also kept her gaze to him. She was glad that she was right in thinking that Zero wasn't truly emotionless and he didn't enjoy doing things like this.

With those said the two of them returned their attention to the ongoing battles. A few seconds later, he saw that the cylinder she was holding extended into a rod. It was silver with markings that activate a charm to repel the ends. Zero remembered that it was called the Artemis Rod. He heard it some time ago from Kaien Cross himself. A weapon that had been passed down from their family.

He held the handle of his blade, ready to draw it in a moment's notice. There was huge chance that the enemies would try to ambush them in the confusion. Fierce growls sounded and in a split second, a level end lunged at him. Before the claws could hit him, he sliced through it with his blade. He could hear Yuki fighting and he knew that she could handle things by herself for a while. He leveled his blade and prepared himself for his attack.

Meanwhile, Yuki deflected an attack heading straight for her with her rod and invoked the charm of the rod. The level end was hit by her weapon and in a few seconds, its body froze as though paralyzed before falling to the ground. She pulled the trigger of the anti-vampire gun and used it to finish off the enemy.

She kept up with her pattern of defend and attack then back again. She noticed that somehow she was handling the job easier than she thought of. Was this because of Zero? She felt so reassured to have him with her that she felt that she was becoming far too dependent on him. And it was too dangerous and risky. She had to learn to act on her own somehow.

Zero was still having that sinking feeling that something bad was going to happen as he sliced through the last of the level end. He couldn't explain it but it felt like a terrible thing would befall them if they didn't leave immediately.

He could see Yuki living up to the expectation of those around her. She truly was fit to this job if she could keep up like this but… he knew she wasn't ready to face the real enemy. Suddenly, his senses screamed that something was coming from up above and it was heading straight for them.

The ceiling crashed down on all of the occupants of the room but they evaded easily unlike the level ends that were caught up in that as well. They looked at the rubble and saw someone standing there.

Zero knew that it was the level end they were supposed to kill to end this madness; Shizuka must've hidden somewhere far away. As the enemy appeared before them, he finally understood what it was he felt. This level end wasn't a normal vampire anymore, it was a human once. A human who surrendered her soul to the darkness. He muttered a curse under his breath as he came to that realization. He felt sorry that Yuki would have to do something like this but there was no choice. A mission is a mission. Even if it meant killing your own kind without mercy.

Shielle gazed at the level end with sadness in her eyes. This person was too far gone to be saved now and the only means to stop her is to kill her.

"Why is that person…?" Yuki asked uncertainly as she tried to approach the woman who had her back to them as soon as the rubble had cleared. She stared at that person with long golden hair and knew that she was no older than her. Her white dress fluttered wildly and she noticed that they were stained red with blood. Was that girl badly injured?

"Wait, Yuki," Zero ordered firmly as he saw that Yuki was trying to approach that woman. He turned his attention back to the person in front of them and he knew that she was too far gone to be saved. The aura that person was emitting was vile and monstrous. "She's a dangerous level end now. Like a human spirit which became an evil spirit and turned into a monster," he continued in a serious tone.

"So that means… the woman is already…" Yuki whispered disbelievingly as she gazed back at the beautiful girl in front of them. Humans can become level ends like this. Is this what Zero meant some time ago in one of their conversations?

She couldn't quite believe that fact even if she was seeing it now. How could such a thing happen? "Zero!" She shouted as she turned her attention to him, not knowing what to do anymore.

"Cut her down!" Zero answered back as he gripped the handle of his sword once more. He could see that Yuki was starting to hesitate and he truly sympathized with what she felt at this moment. Yet he also knew that it wasn't the time to do those things, they were facing a powerful level end after all.

"But…" Yuki began to say as she looked at Zero, not understanding his orders.

"She's not a human anymore," Zero cut her off coldly as he stared at her with his almost silver gaze. Yuki faltered for a moment at the steely gaze directed at her and Zero knew that he was being harsh when he told her that.

There was no choice left. It was either kill or be killed in this situation. And this was reality; she had to accept this eventually.

"But didn't she used to be human?" Yuki asked pleadingly as she heard the coldness in his tone. She couldn't do something like this, it was just too cruel.

"We have no choice but to remove those that become vengeful level ends!" Zero said as he still saw the hesitation in Yuki's eyes. He didn't want her to do this but if she kept this up, she may get killed.

"Even so…"

"She died long ago. Hurry up and do something, Yuki. Destroying the level ends that bring death and filth to the living world, that's our mission as members of Judgment!" Shielle told her sternly as she stared at the woman in front of them.

The level end was starting to move and Zero knew that he had to be prepared for whatever it is.

"I know that! But…" Yuki answered back as she turned her attention back to the level end that suddenly moved in a blink of an eye. She heard Zero shouting her name as the woman descended on her with talons intent on ripping her apart. She closed her eyes as she realized her mistake and waited for the blow to fall.

Zero moved with vampire speed as the insane vampire intended to cut through Yuki with her elongated talons. He knew that she wouldn't have time to defend with her rod as that woman descended on her like a predator. He didn't have time to be concerned whether or not he was doing things right. Everything just happened in a split second that his body moved in its own accord. He didn't even have time to think about the repercussions of his own actions.

Yuki waited for the blow to descend on her and expected pain to rip through her body in that instant. But it never came. She felt herself being pulled backwards into a warm chest and an arm with a sword draped on her waist. At first, she wondered what happened. She was terribly confused and she realized something because of the presence of that weapon.

Zero?

She opened her eyes and they widened in horror when saw something that also brought her shamefully to tears. This was her fault. Zero was right behind her and cradling her close and she knew that he protected her from the enemy. But…

Blood was dripping mercilessly through the floor. Staining it red with… his blood…

She saw that the talons punctured through his forearm as he attempted to shield her from the attack. Blood was pooling from under them since the injury was pretty deep. The woman laughed at the sight and stared at them with her deep black orbs. So dark that it was almost frightening.

Yuki felt Zero wince in pain as the talons were forcefully pulled back from his arm. His arm fell to his side as the woman backed away, staring at the blood fixedly. She felt so guilty at what she had done. This was truly her fault. She saw that he was losing a lot of blood and it worried her deeply.

He heard the sound of footsteps and saw that the woman was approaching them. Both of them stared at her as she stopped a few feet away. She was smiling at them gently with her bloodstained clothes. But her eyes still registered that same madness they saw with the other level ends.

"Look at this bloodbath. You should understand that's wrong," Shielle said as she stared at the woman. She couldn't believe that she used to be a human like Yuki and the other students of the academy.

Yuki suddenly understood what the others meant. Zero was right before; this woman had no shred of life left in her.

"What's wrong? This feels good! It's the greatest feeling ever! Why was I preventing myself from having this feeling! After a taste of this, no one can go back to the way they were! As if I ever wanted to!" the woman said gleefully as she licked the blood on her fingers. Her long fangs peeking through her mouth as she savored the taste of this unique blood.

"Don't show your fangs so thoughtlessly. You'll rot my eyes," Kaname said coldly as he watched the woman's sick actions. The woman must've already been drawn to the taste of blood. No doubt that it would go after Zero first because of the taste of his blood.

The woman snarled at the insult and her form shifted to something monstrous. The body changed in a matter of seconds and instead of a woman in front of them, a bat-like creature was in front of them. It was shrieking madly as it charged full speed at Zero who avoided it easily.

Yuki rushed towards them and extended the Artemis Rod. She swung it in an arc and jabbed the monster in its right wing as it tried to attack her. The sound of electricity came as the weapon made contact with the level end's flesh. She jumped away as left wing tried to fling her to the nearest wall. Without delay, she landed easily on her feet and fired her gun at the enemy. A high-pitched shriek sounded as the bat-like enemy trashed all over the place.

Shielle struck back with her own weapon, a pole like weapon with a blade attached to the end. A naginata? Yuki thought as she tried to find a name for that weapon. This time the enemy evaded before countering. Shielle saw it coming and brought weapon to her side to block the fatal blow. She was pushed back a couple of steps by the strength of the attack. But other than that, she held her place firmly. She watched as the enemy attempted to attack her on her unguarded side but a sword slice through it easily, sending the limb flying.

Takuma stood in front of Shielle as he raised his sword in front of the enemy. He realized that his movement was slower than usual. But, it was okay. He could still keep up with the battle. He and Shielle jumped to the side as the enemy attempted to deliver a punch in their direction. The ground shattered upon contact, sending dust all over the place.

Yuki and the others were momentarily winded as she coughed and attempted to find the level end through the mess.

The level end saw the human girl looking around wildly and decided to attack the unsuspecting girl. Otherwise, those other dangerous individuals would attack again. Her remaining limb elongated into a sword like form before she rushed at the girl. With all this dust, that girl wouldn't even feel her coming until it was too late.

A noise sounded nearby and the level end turned back to see a flash of silver.

"The price for baring your fangs at me, your death is assured!" Zero said coldly as he swung his blade horizontally with one of his hands, decapitating the level end. The body fell to the ground in a heap, blood once again staining the ground red. Its torn head registered surprise as Zero flicked the blade to rid itself of blood. He quickly sheathed it and stared at Yuki's bewildered features.

Unlike Yuki, he had the advantage of having more advanced senses and he used it to find the enemy easily even with all the impediments. He watched as it tried to take down Yuki and he moved with vampire speed to reach its location. He knew that with the dust flying all over the place, none of the others would notice him using his powers. He drew his sword in a split second before the enemy recognized his presence. Killing it instantly as the dust finally settled.

Yuki didn't see what happened and as the dust settled, she saw Zero sheathing the blade. She looked at the ground and her eyes widened in surprise to see the level end's body. As much as it frightened her, she knew that it was finally over. The enemy was finally dead. She knew that Zero finished the vampire off for her and she wondered how Zero could endure the pain of doing these kinds of things.

She saw him approaching her and she took her eyes off from the horrid sight of the level end's corpse. Her Artemis Rod reverted back to its original form.

"What's at the end of darkness is most likely a cruel truth to anyone. And if you still want to know, you'll have to face the end of hell," Zero said as he continued walking and he passed her by. He turned his head to her and stared at her with his lavender eyes. "Are you prepared to accompany me even to the depths of hell?" he asked seriously.

She uttered a yes as she quickly followed him. She saw once again a small smile on his features and Yuki felt glad to see it once more. She also realized that this wasn't over yet. She wasn't giving up on being together with him. Everything would only begin now.

As she walked under the night sky, she felt that this wouldn't be the only thing she would experience. Pain, sadness, joy – all of it would happen as soon as she would take a step forward into the unknown.

If I don't want to follow him into hell, I only have to drag him back out of it! She thought as she prepared herself for the enemies.

All of them moved instantly as the level ends dove in their direction without any delay whatsoever. Shielle quickly handed a dagger as she went to join them in this battle. As the level ends closed in on them, Yuki knew that she had to steel herself for anything that would come. She won't hesitate. Not this time anymore. After all, she couldn't let Zero down for the second time.

She ducked as a level end tried to slash through her with its long talons. She pulled back her hand in preparation as she swiped the dagger horizontally and made contact as the level end howled in pain. A few seconds later, she drove the dagger straight to its heart. She sidestepped as another went for her back and she pivoted around using her heel to slash through its chest.

As she parried the enemy's assault, she watched from the corner of her eyes, how the others fought. Everyone was too good and she could see some vampires using their powers. She could see Shielle fighting a number of level ends from her left with a dagger on each hand. She slashed through a number of them with ease and in no time at all.

Then, there was Kaname who fought the level ends bare-handed. His eyes showed his irritation as he avoided each thrust of the talons that came his way and retaliated by breaking the neck of the ones he fought.

Finally, she noticed Zero whose face bore no hint of any emotion. Just like before, his movements were well-coordinated and he put an end to the level ends with a single shot straight through their hearts. All in all, everyone was doing quite a job well done.

"Ah, what a pain," Zero said indifferently as he brought his gun behind him and shot another level end cleanly in the heart. The enemies were fairly easy to handle but their numbers were quite annoying to start with.

"Really? I think it's quite fun," Takuma exclaimed as he fought against another level end.

"It's not fun!" Yuki remarked as she blocked an attack aimed for her head with the dagger she was using and kicked the level end on its gut. She rushed in quickly while it was winded and drove the dagger to its heart like she always practiced in the training rooms. She didn't like doing these things but she had resolved long ago to fight as long as it protected everyone. Zero was right in saying that she had to carry this sin if she wanted to keep on protecting others. I've come this far already. I've always wanted to help my father. That hasn't changed. But now, something else is also important to me, she thought as her gaze was drawn to Zero.

"But I wonder what kind of place hell actually is," Zero uttered as he delivered another shot from his Bloody Rose and sent a confused look in his eyes at Kaname who caught it instantly. From the way, they stared at each other; it looked as if they were silently reading each other's minds. Didn't they consider at some point in their lives already that the life they led years ago truly was a complete and utter hell? Or maybe in the near future they would undoubtedly face it again? Somehow, realizing that fact made the whole statement seem quite funny in their opinion.

Kaname smiled at the thought that he and Zero did have things in common. They could be polar opposites at times and argued like little kids. But Zero was the most trusted friend he had and someone who knew his terrible past like the back of his hand. "Thanks for the hospitality and invitation. Shall I bring along a lunchbox for a picnic?" he said politely as he avoided another attack from a level end. He felt his mood getting lighter with Zero's help. Really, I'm getting too stressed out from all of these issues popping all over the place, he thought suddenly.

"Make the omelets sweet and soft, those fluffy ones!" Takuma added as he noticed the lighter tone in Kaname's voice.

"No, thanks. Sweets omelets is a heresy," Shielle chipped in as she heard the exchange of her companions. It sounded really nice even if they were faced with a number of level ends. The tension from before seemed to disperse and right now, Zero and the others were talking normally. Even if the situation seemed weird enough as it is.

"Unfortunately, it looks like our departure to hell won't be for a while," Zero observed as he shot the last of the level ends.

The enemy is attacking us with unrelenting fury. The bonds between us will be tested. If we don't work together, it will mean our deaths, Zero thought deeply as he narrowed his eyes at the howling sounds that came from somewhere.

Everyone heard the dogs coming long before they saw them, and they knew these were no ordinary dogs. They were powerful familiars.

"There's dozens of them!" Aido guessed. Kain was checking the chamber of his own gun. Zero's vampire senses was growing in volume inside his head as the creatures approached.

They stood in that tall chamber, with high, red lacquer ribs reaching up to the sloped ceiling above them. Wooden benches and thick tables were arranged in rows, some were overturned in the fights earlier. There were two pointed archways in this hall – one they had entered from and one directly opposite – and two further small doors set in the other walls.

The sounds were coming from the large archway ahead of them, and coming fast.

"Turn over the tables!" Cross shouted. "Make barricades!"

They did so, hefting two of the great tables up against the archway where the dogs would come from. After that, they tipped the rest of the tables and benches, turning the hall into a broken maze of obstacles. It was all accomplished within a minute and they retreated, to wait. They had laid out three rough rows of the heavy tables, so they could fall back from each one to new cover if they were overwhelmed. Gaps had been left in the tables behind them, allowing them to dart through and then slide the tables together to form a strong barrier. Now they took position behind the foremost one, their eyes fixed on the gaping archway through which the baying of the hounds was approaching.

Shielle handed Yuki a short, narrow-bladed sword that had been hidden in her gown. "In case they get too close," she said. Yuki took it just like before and said nothing.

The first dogs reached them then, two of the creatures springing over the blockade in the archway and landing four-square on the flagstones. Zero swore under her breath at the sight of them. There was no question that they were familiars. They had the vague shape of dogs, but they seemed swollen and twisted from the inside. Barrel-chested, legs knotted with muscles so thick as to be grotesque, their teeth had overgrown their gums and splintered in their mouths, making their drool pink with blood. Their eyes were blank and dark, set within prominent ridges of bone that shadowed them. Their fur was a bristly black, but they were bathed in the red light that filled the room from the outside, making them seem hellish in aspect.

Zero was the first to fire, and the others followed a moment later. The first two dogs were shot to pieces by the initial salvo, but there were already more pouncing and scrabbling over the blockade, howling at the scent. Zero leveled and took the head off one of them as it tried to pull itself up and over the tables by its forepaws; Kaname and Takuma both discharged their weapons into the flank of another. Two more feel that way, picked off as they tried to clamber over the barricade, and then four of the dogs took the blockade at once, and the tables tipped forward and collapsed under their great weight.

The creatures burst in, pistols roared, and two of them fell dead. But the dogs would not be stopped, and they had numbers now. Racing across the room, they threw themselves at the overturned tables behind which the intruders hid. One of them scrambled over the top, only to find a pistol barrel in its mouth and its brains liberated from its skull.

Still, the tide could not be turned back, and another dog appeared from nowhere, squeezing through a gap between the tables and rushing at Yuki; but she lifted her blade two-handed like a dagger, and thrust it into the creature's side. It yowled in agony, skidding past her, and a moment later Takuma was there to finish it off with a bullet.

He pulled the blade from the dead thing's ribs and threw it back to Yuki, not able to spare another instant as the dogs were pouring into the room now. He shot at another dog that had got stuck wriggling through the tables, missed and hit wood, and Aido cried out as a thick, blunt splinter hit him just above the eyes. Zero killed the dog with his katana before it could free itself.

"Fall back!" Kaname cried, and they did so, ducking through the gaps between the next rows of tables and sliding them shut to block out the enemy.

Zero was frantically reloading as the second wave struck. Aido wiped the trickle of blood from his forehead and took aim again. The damned things were relentless, coming from all sides now. The brighter ones learned not to try and climb the tables or scramble through, but to run around the edge of the room and attack from the sides, slipping in behind the barricades.

Zero looked round and saw one such dog wrestling with Cross, scratching at him with vicious claws as he fought to keep its snapping teeth away from his face. He produced a dart, feathered with exotic colors, and stabbed it into the creature on top of him. As it struck, the dog shrieked and exploded into ochre flame. The creatures paused, taken aback by the sight of their kin writhing in agony as Cross threw it off.

Yuki was pulled up to her feet. It was Zero, firing over her shoulder at a dog that leapt to intercept.

And then something was arcing through the air, thrown by Yagari, rattling to a halt…

The air was torn with an ear-shattering explosion and a flash of light bright enough to dazzle. One of Yagari's flash bombs, with a little extra added for the noise.

"Zero!" Yuki shouted as she was suddenly enveloped by darkened winds that suddenly came from out of nowhere. It appeared with no warning and right now, she didn't know what to do. She watched as Zero's eyes widened in surprise and he was already running towards her.

The next second, he burst through the winds and held her close. Yuki felt as if she was being squeezed in the lungs. Yet she felt so reassured to have Zero this close to her. What was happening to her? She held onto him tightly as the winds seemed to pick up its pace.

"I'm making a deal," Zero said seriously as he held onto Yuki tightly. "I'm the one you're after, right? If you swear not to hurt anyone else and leave them all alone, I'll willingly go wherever you want me to," he finished and he fell silent afterwards, waiting to see what the response would be.

He heard Yagari and Takuma voice out their own opinions but Zero chose to ignore them. There was no way he would let anyone else get hurt because of him. It was time to settle matters with his sister. As one, the familiars vanished from sight, leaving everyone else standing in surprise. As the winds got stronger, Zero saw the others rushing towards him and Yuki. He closed his eyes as he knew that they were too late.

The deal had been taken.

I'm sorry, he thought as finally he and Yuki vanished from sight as though they were never there in the first place. Cross dropped to his knees as he realized what just happened and he heard Yagari swear at the top of his voice. It seemed that they just lost against Shizuka Hiou.

Takuma stared numbly at the scene and could not voice out what he wanted to say. Were they too late? No, it can't be. He promised Zero that he would protect him as well. As he turned away, something flashed in his mind. An image of something. It was as if there was a link… a thread…

Then, he realized. Zero was guiding him to their location. He wouldn't give up. There was still hope left.

"Yagari-san, I know where they were taken," Takuma told them seriously.