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Carrion Flowers

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They stop to rest and regroup just outside of the gathering of buildings—up close, Dante can see that they are a cluster of small stone structures, the tallest of which is only two stories high. They are nondescript in every way, as if they were built by someone who had seen buildings only at a distance, had learned their basic shape, but hadn’t bothered to figure out anything past the surface details.

White and red vines climb the walls like the veins in an arm, pulsing faintly with the same strange demonic energy that seems to live at the heart of everything around them. Aside from the usual scavengers they have grown accustomed to dealing with in the underworld—Empusa, mostly, with the odd lizard thrown in between—the area is largely deserted, which Dante points out to his twin with a touch of disappointment. Not much destruction to be had if there's nothing to destroy.

"We're close enough to the Qliphoth that most of the demons here either went to the surface or retreated," Vergil explains as he lowers himself beneath the tree they have selected for their temporary rest stop. They've no reason to sleep in hell, fueled as they are by the demonic energy surrounding them, but Dante has noticed their ability to focus is significantly impacted if they don't at least stop to rest from time to time. Between that and the effort it takes out of them to hold their full devil forms for any extended period of time, they’ve decided that it is a necessity.

It was a lesson hard learned: when they had first entered hell, they had dueled each other with such unwavering ferocity that rest hadn't crossed either of their minds until they had both collapsed to the ground. They'd been exposed to an attack for half a day after that, had been forced to drag themselves to a nearby cave to recuperate, alternating shifts as guard.

Now, they stop to rest at regular intervals, primarily due to Vergil's incessant reminder and often when Dante is feeling the least like resting. It is with no small measure of annoyance that Dante drops himself to the ground beside his brother now, back pressed to the smooth, bony tree behind them, his hands restless and unoccupied in his lap.

"Got any more details about this place before we head in there?" Dante asks, and Vergil doesn't respond, though he does feel him stiffen where their shoulders are touching. That and the sound of his fingers drumming on the scabbard of the Yamato are the only indication that he's even heard Dante and he’s two seconds away from telling Vergil it's rude to just ignore people when he finally speaks up.

"There are different hierarchies of demons in the underworld. Each resides in a somewhat central location in Mundus' domain," he says, voice quiet and measured, precise in a way that leads Dante to believe he's being extremely careful about what he says. He doesn't like it, but at least it's information, so he lets his brother continue uninterrupted: "And each is lead by something like a commander."

"Alright, hell commanders, got it. I take it one of those big nasties runs this place, then?" Dante says when his brother falls quiet, hoping to encourage some more details out of him. Clearly he’s going to have to teach his brother some devil hunting etiquette, because keeping details from your partner is about as dumb as it gets. There is a long moment where it's obvious Vergil is debating how much more to say before he sighs, his head dropping back against the tree with a quiet thump.

"No. Not anymore."

"Come on, humor me here, Vergil. Give me a history lesson. I know how much you like to talk about this kind of stuff," Dante says, trying to be persuasive. In the distance he can hear the faint buzzing of the insect-like Empusa, ever following in the brothers’ path of destruction to lap up the blood that they leave behind, the beat of their wings filling the silence between them. The structures behind them remain quiet and unoccupied—when Dante attempts to explore them with his other, more demonic senses, he feels only the dull and ever-present hum of the underworld. Sensing demons is proving a more difficult challenge when everything around them is inherently demonic.

None of it gives him a clue as to what to expect on this first leg of their journey, so he waits with a patience he does not really have for Vergil to speak again.

"Their commander is long dead. It won't be a problem to clean up what remains," Vergil intones, voice flat. Dante sighs and taps the side of his brother's thigh with his knuckles, reprimanding him.

"I get that you don’t want to talk about this, so I’m going to drop it, but you really need to learn how to communicate here, Verg." Vergil does not answer, but some of the tension eases out of his shoulders, and Dante decides that will have to be enough. In his years, he has learned that sometimes it’s better to just let things drop. He'll learn the truth for himself soon enough.

There’s a moment of silence between them and Dante can feel himself dozing off, warm against his brother’s side, before Vergil’s voice snaps him back into wakefulness: “How did you defeat him?”

The question catches Dante off guard and for a moment he’s confused, unable to parse exactly what Vergil is talking about, before it clicks that he’s probably asking about Mundus. It’s only practical that he ask—if their end goal is really to kill the bastard, then the knowledge will come in handy.

Returning to old rhythms has been so easy for them that, for a moment, he’d almost forgotten about the years that separate them. Maybe he needs to work on his communication, too.

“With the Sparda,” Dante responds, remembering the rush of power that had filled his body when he had first held their father’s sword, the way it had stirred within in him something he has never been able to recreate again. “I chased him into the underworld, I didn’t really think about it too hard. Not after… you. After Trish. I just knew I wanted him dead, no matter what it took.”

There had been a voice then, hadn’t there? A gentle probing in the back of his mind as with all of his other devil arms, quieter and weaker than Alastor or Ifrit, but warm. Familiar and encouraging.

“When I jumped into hell, it was like he was there, too. Dad,” he says and Vergil’s surprise is evident in the way his arm twitches against his, but he doesn’t interrupt. “I swear Verg it was like I was him for a moment there. I’ve never been able to do it again, not that I’ve really tried. It… I didn’t really want him in my head, too, you know? It’s why I gave that damn sword to Trish.”

It feels strange to talk about this so openly, making himself vulnerable to his brother by sharing these darker parts of himself. If there is anyone in this world he would want to discuss this with, it’s his twin, and yet two decades of separation and animosity have made this a complicated thing. Not to mention the fact he’s never talked about this before, not even to Trish, who had witnessed the last half of their battle in the crumbling ruins of Mallet. He reminds himself that it’s done out of a practical need for information—he is the one who challenged Mundus, in the end, so this only makes sense.

He recounts the details of the fight that he can remember—the voice, his transformation, the earth shattering size and intensity of him. Mundus had been an incomprehensible force even in the human world, something almost god-like during their fight in the underworld. To be honest, Dante's not even sure what happened to him during all of it; it is a blur of motion and noise and pure, unfiltered rage. He had been working entirely off of instincts.

Vergil listens to his retelling at rapt attention, expressionless aside from the slight crease of his brow and the way he watches Dante's face while he speaks, as if he's reading each word as it leaves his lips. It makes his skin itch, like he's being examined under a microscope. It's a reminder that Vergil hasn't been around another living soul in the last twenty years: it doesn’t occur to him that staring someone down unblinkingly is creepy. Dante can't help but poke him in the thigh to try to get him to stop staring.

The jab goes unnoticed, but his brother looks away anyway, humming a low acknowledgment and muttering “I see” to Dante's words. Silence falls between them and Dante fidgets, wishing Vergil would have something more to say in response. When it becomes apparent that he has no intention to speak, Dante decides to do what they set out to do by stopping in the first place: get some sleep.

Rest comes to him in fits and starts here, his demonic senses too on edge to truly allow him uninterrupted slumber. Each time he wakes he reaches for Vergil’s leg to feel the smooth leather against his knuckles, a confirmation that he remains at his side, and each time Vergil hums quietly in acknowledgement. This is their unspoken agreement, the gentle back and forth that reminds Dante that his brother is still here, that he is not alone.

When he deems himself sufficiently rested, he stands with a stretch and a sigh, restless and ready to fight. Vergil is lost in thought, arms crossed and the Yamato propped against his shoulder, pale eyes half closed. Dante nudges him with the toe of his boot and he looks up with a glare.

"You good?" He asks, and Vergil lets out a deep sigh before rising to his feet to take his place at Dante's side. Their arms brush against one another as he does—Vergil's doing, for once, and a spark passes between them like static at the touch. It's enough to drag him back into full alertness, the thrill of a fight boiling up beneath his skin, leaving him eager and anxious to actually do something.

"Good enough," and then, almost as an afterthought: “Be careful not to draw too much attention.”

That's all he needs to hear before he's off, blinking around the tree and toward their first destination at full speed. Despite the distance between them he swears he can hear Vergil sigh in that dramatic, exasperated older sibling sort of way of his, and Dante laughs at the absurdity of it. They are charging headfirst into the home of their lifetime enemy and he is treating it almost like a game they would play as kids, ambushing imagined fortresses and slaying invisible foes.

The cluster of buildings proves to be largely empty aside from the creeping and slithering scavengers of the underworld, and they split up after the first to expedite their extermination efforts. Dante blazes through the demons with ease, smashing their hives and breeding grounds with Balrog as he goes. There's a sense of delight in this sort of easy and fast destruction. As much as his demonic blood sings for a good fight, it also revels in the swift overpowering of lesser foes, the efficient way he can tear through handfuls of them with a single dash.

Nearby, he can sense his brother moving through the other buildings, brief flickers of his power as he manifests his demonic abilities. Dante tracks them, tries to anticipate what Vergil might be doing only through those demonic senses—there, a fan of summoned swords; a swift judgment cut to dispatch of a group; the bright flare of power as he summons his doppelgänger.

That last makes him shake his head. "Thought we were supposed to be careful," he mutters, shoving his fist through the pulsing hive of a lizard spawner, dispatching it with a quick yank of his arm that splits it clean in half. As it bursts into ash and crumbles around him, he wonders if that counts as one or, say, ten. Probably just one. He should've let it spit out a few more lizards before he destroyed it.

It doesn't take them long to finish their work and they reconvene on the other side of the small town-like gathering of buildings, sweat-slicked and covered in blood. Vergil is unsurprisingly tidy, hair still perfectly in place and largely free of grime, although there's a new tear in the back of his coat and an almost alarmingly large splatter of blood down his right arm.

"That's not yours, is it?" Dante says as he approaches his twin, pointing to the mess that stains his sleeve with one gauntlet clad hand.

"Of course not," Vergil spits in response, as if the very notion that he could have been injured during something so trivial is offensive. Dante just shrugs.

"Hey, just checking." With a shake of his fists he dismisses Balrog back into the sea of his soul—or wherever it is he keeps his devil arms, he's never really figured that out. Fighting hand to hand has left him considerably worse for wear, blood splattered and covered in bits of gore, his shirt and hair plastered to his skin with the mess. Vergil takes one look at him and rolls his eyes.

"You look disgusting," he says, and then he must decide he does not particularly care to follow that insult to its inevitable conclusion, because he clears his throat and moves on: "Eighty-two."

"Ah shit, you got me this round. Sixty-seven." Vergil's pleased grin at Dante's admission of defeat lights up his eyes in a way Dante hasn't seen yet, and he forgets to respond, any witty quip or mocking remark lost in the warm glow of his brother’s joy. Jesus, but it’s good to see him like this—he’d been getting a little worried earlier.

In the time they've been together, short as it may be, his brother has been equal parts sullen and distanced, but the change in his mood since he identified their location in Mundus’ domain is concerning. There is still something he isn’t saying, but his smile is genuine enough, and it makes the worry smooth out to a dull itch in the back of Dante’s mind.

Vergil catches him staring and raises an eyebrow at him, though he makes no move to act or respond outside of his inquisitive look. They turn away from each other after a moment, awkward silence tense and thick between them. Dante clears his throat to dispel it.

“Well, that was easy enough,” he says and Vergil nods in agreement. Dante busies himself with examining their surroundings now that they have wandered deeper into the heart of them. The buildings around them have become more structured as they progressed through the—city? Do they have cities in hell?—and that trend continues down the path they now walk. Almost like a road, in a way, though Dante’s certain no cars have ever driven down it.

Positioned on the horizon is a building larger than any of the others they have encountered so far, twice as broad and tall as those they are leaving behind. Dante points to it as they begin their trek down the street, dispatching any straggling demons as they go with summoned swords and swift shots from Ebony and Ivory.

“What do you think—gotta be something good in there, right?” Dante asks, and Vergil inclines his head to one side, examining the building which Dante has indicated to him with a clinical eye.

“It is certainly large enough,” he responds, sounding mildly amused with Dante’s unabashed enthusiasm for the task at hand. They walk the rest of the way in silence, dipping into buildings nearby to check for anything worthwhile as they go. There's something strangely human about them as they progress further—a few have identifiable rooms, floor plans that you might find in a standard house or shop, but it's like he's looking into a collage of time periods. Stone huts sit beside the same kind of white-picket-fence single family home you'd find in the suburbs near Red Grave.

"This place is pretty creepy," Dante says idly as he kicks at a collapsed wooden fence in front of one such home.

"The underworld has a tendency to react to human emotions and thoughts, changing over time to reflect them," Vergil states, running his hand along a low stone wall as he goes. The house next to him looks like something Dante would find in an ancient history text book—single room, made of cracking gray stone and covered in those same red and white fleshy vines from earlier—and it paints a shockingly disturbing picture next to the modern family home at his back.

Dante puts some distance between himself and the houses, sticking instead to the center of the road. It's embarrassing how much it unsettles him. And to think he'd been the one who had wanted a change of scenery. If this is the kind of shit he can expect, maybe he's changed his mind on that one.

"That would imply that humans have been here." Dante looks at Vergil while he says it, judging his reaction, the flicker of a frown across his lips and the slight crease of his brow.

"Is that such a strange thought?" He asks, pausing for a moment to see if Dante will respond, and when he doesn’t, he continues: "Humans are a source of power to demons, as you've learned."

The Qliphoth, rivers of blood running through Red Grave. Yeah, he's learned.

He doesn't ask any more questions, decides he doesn't really want the answer, and Vergil provides no further details without his prompting. They fall into another uneasy silence as they walk, and he's thankful for the distraction when they are set upon by a pack of furies and blades who have been feasting on... something in a nearby building.

He tries not to look too hard at the remains of whatever it is while he dispatches of them.

The larger building looms over them as they slowly approach, and up close, Dante's able to get a good look at the thing. Two stories, maybe, based on the size, although there are no windows for him to properly gauge if he's right. There's a double wide door at the front, one side of which is hanging from its hinges, although he can't see inside from where they're currently standing, too far off at an angle.

More interesting than the building itself are the traces of the demons that once likely resided here—footprints in the dirt, lined up perfectly in sync in neat rows, almost like a marching army. The familiar scours in the earth left behind by the drag of over-sized swords. A silver shield, discarded off to the side and leaning against the mostly destroyed remains of a house.

Well, that would explain why so many of those damn knights had shown up in Red Grave.

There's something he's not quite getting about all of this, some piece he's not putting together between their surroundings and the knights, his brother's strange, standoffish responses and the houses near them. It's at the tip of his tongue, but he can't really figure out what it is about it that makes him so uncomfortable.

"Hey, Vergil—" He turns around to ask his brother about it and finds that he's gone, and fear spikes through his chest with a hard pulse of his heart. It's the first time he's turned to find him and he hasn't been there. All of the fears, all of the worries that have been sitting in the back of his mind crash into him as he spins on his heel, trying to find where Vergil's gone. A little voice in the back of his mind says you knew this would happen before he's able to squash it down.

He spots him further down the road, already walking toward that strange building nearby with focused determination. Even from this distance Dante can see the tight line of his shoulders, the stiffness up his spine as he walks with purpose toward their current destination. Dante doesn't hesitate to dash after him, sprinting up the path just as Vergil disappears through the collapsed doorway and from his line of sight.

He curses under his breath, flickers forward with a shimmer of ruby red light to put himself in front of the doorway. Something like anticipation curls in his stomach, cold and quivering.

He has a bad feeling about this.