Too late, he realizes the trap for what it is, too caught up in the agony of a body that will no longer cooperate with his wishes. (V had thought he’d known what weakness felt like, had thought himself familiar with the frailty and humanity of his new shape, but he should have known that his condition would only worsen with time. The mere dregs of bottled up feelings were never meant to keep living, after all.)
There is no time to chastise himself, though. V is running desperately short on time, and if he cannot find a way out of this mess then he will be too late to stop Dante from landing the final blow. The implications of that thought spur him on, filling him with a burning conviction that forces his trembling limbs into action even as his knees threaten to buckle with every step. On his skin, the scar-white marks of his contracts throb in time to his frantically beating heart, and V cannot help the unconscious way he grasps uselessly for the power that once pooled in them. His first course of action needs to be retrieving his stolen familiars. Then he can ponder the nature of his trap, and how best to free himself from it.
Cane in hand, V sets out as quickly as he can manage, throwing aside caution in favour of swiftness. Despite the fact that he is most definitely in enemy territory, he doesn’t sense the presence of anything demonic — in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here but him. It is a strange cage, this alternate world. The air around him is thick with fog, the gloom making it difficult to see. Before him, tall spires of demonic rock rise out of the dark earth, with smaller fragments floating above in a sky as murky and unending as the depths of the ocean. As he moves, demonic magic laps at his ankles, like the gentle wash of the tide, suffusing him with fresh energy, a soothing balm spread across his cracking shell. V supposes that it must be a side-effect of the nature of the trap’s magic, or perhaps it is intended to convince him to linger, to rest in this safe haven to allow his body to recuperate.
Either way, he doesn’t intend to stay here any longer than he has to.
He feels the call of his familiars through the scars of their contract marks, seeks them out in the strange caverns of unearthly purple light that beckon to him. Shadow is first, and the panther’s challenging roar resonates with something dark and primal in the depths of V’s being when it is freed. He is not alone, and he is certainly not weak, and when the familiar, crystalline demon bearing a striking resemblance to the Goliath forms before him, V does not feel even the faintest flicker of fear. Such a creature poses no threat to the pair of them, and they finish it off without wasting any unnecessary energy.
Freeing Griffon is even easier, the talkative avian bursting forth in a shower of sizzling, electrical sparks. Though his voice is almost jarringly loud in the enforced silence of the trap, V somehow finds it comforting all the same, letting his taunts and ruckus laughter wash over him as they deal with the next summoned creature. This one, too, is an equally familiar foe, and he is not so far gone that he does not remember how to kill it. V doesn’t know if he is meant to be grateful or insulted that Malphas thought such things would prove to be challenging to him. (Perhaps being underestimated had its perks.)
“Mock on; 'tis all in vain. You throw the sand against the wind, and the wind blows it back again,” V muses quietly as he watches the last of their weakened enemy disappear into dust, vanishing into the gloom. On his shoulder, Griffon snorts softly, before he too vanishes into the lines of V’s tattoos.
With two of his familiars back at his side and their contracts renewed, black magic pouring like ink into the cracks and gorges in his skin where Malphas had ripped the binding magic out, there is only one more he must reclaim. Trepidation stirs beneath V’s skin, soft as the faintest wind through the trees, like the ghost of a warning, as he follows the phantom chain that binds them together. This last beast is his, certainly, but the memory of its taming still lingers behind his closed eyelids, a memory within a memory — a living nightmare. Though V has faced other foes of comparable size and strength, none can compare to the creature that feeds on his deepest, darkest fears.
In the strange light of the final room, V cannot make out anything but the glowing fragment of Nightmare’s core. While the rooms have all been virtually identical, there is something about this one that seems infinitely more menacing, like something lurks in every shadow, watching and waiting for V to make his move. Even Griffon is oddly silent beneath his skin, a feat he once thought to be impossible. Somewhere inside of him, a tiny part of V balks at the idea of walking into such an obvious trap, whispers that he would be better off not facing Nightmare for a second time. Before he had been stronger, his body’s reserves not quite so used up, and even then he had barely been able to tame the creature. What will it do to him now that he is weak? Should he not just make do with Shadow and Griffon and leave this creature to its slumber?
With the steely resolve that had forced him to his feet the day Vergil cast him aside, determined to live no matter what the cost, V fiercely smothers that soft, fearful voice inside that begs for an end to this, that pleads for it all to stop so he can wake up from this bad dream.
He can’t turn back now; he has no choice. He needs this power.
With careful fingers, V touches the strange metallic mechanism that binds the floating core, and it shatters beneath his fingers, as the others had done before. This time, however, he does not feel his familiar’s presence return to him, blanketing him in the creature’s foul and wicked power. Nightmare’s energy doesn’t seem to resonate within the core, or anywhere else either, and his absence makes the hairs on the back of V’s neck stand on end. If it is not here, then where is it? Has Malphas done something different to this familiar in the hopes of keeping him in her little pocket dimension for that much longer?
He does not have time to dwell on such thoughts, as Shadow rumbles with a warning growl that seems to reverberate through his entire body. Around him, the shadows ripple like water, and from the darkness, an armored creature cloaked in black metal rises. In one hand, it wields a monstrous broadsword, and when its eyes open beneath a horned helmet, they glow yellow with malicious intent. There is no mistaking the shape; never in a hundred years could he ever forget the silhouette of Mundus’ Black Knight.
His Nelo Angelo.
It hardly seems to matter that this is the second time he has come face-to-face with this particular nightmare. At the first step it takes towards him, V’s insides turns to ice, his stomach roiling, and he is frozen in place as his heart beats a frantic rhythm in his ears. Griffon and Shadow have no such reservations, however, and the sight of them launching themselves out of his body and towards this new enemy helps V shake himself free of the suffocating shackles of his fear. He stumbles backwards and away, keeping his distance while his familiars engage directly, his preferred tactic in any fight, and tells himself that the tremble in his hands is merely the first signs of exhaustion. He has nothing to be afraid of; not in this place. This creature is merely a conjured spectre, as the others had been; a creature built solely from his memories, limited by his recollection. Even so, somehow this one feels infinitely more menacing, like his chance of victory this time is as fleeting as a false hope.
But has he not survived thus far on that off-chance, that narrow margin made up of destiny and good luck?
A particularly well-placed shock of electricity from Griffon sends the knight staggering backwards, and in that moment, V knows he has been given his chance. He recalls his familiars, feels them sink into his skin as he charges forward on legs that feel as unsteady as a newborn foal’s. He ignores his body’s protests, ignores everything around him but the sight of the knight, off-balance and weak. It is dangerous to have such tunnel vision, to think of nothing but the kill when he has not yet assured it, but V does not care.
This time will be different. This time he will not allow the spectre of his brother to save him, even from the vision of his failures.
V thrusts his cane through the creature’s chest with more viciousness then perhaps the situation warrants, but anything less would be a testament to his own weakness, his own lack of resolve. He pulls his lips back in a snarl of blunt, human teeth, watching with a kind of twisted pleasure as his weapon pierces the knight’s chestpiece and forces itself out through his back. His foe staggers with a rattling breath, its sword falling to the ground with a heavy clank as it reaches up with both hands to grasp weakly at V’s makeshift blade. Its eyes stare at the blackened ichor that seeps from its wound with something akin to disbelief, and the open confusion in his expression makes V’s throat tighten in a spasm of emotion.
But he can feel no pity, not when something far more insidious coils hot and dark in his stomach.
What an eyesore.
He jams the cane even further into the creature when it doesn’t immediately burst into dust, determined to have his victory, and realises his mistake too late. The creature’s eyes flare bright as it howls, a broken, ghastly noise, and then its armor shatters with a near-deafening sound. As its pieces tumble to the ground they don’t dissolve like they should, instead liquifying and puddling around his feet, the volume growing at an alarming rate. V jerks his weapon away and stumbles back, sandaled feet splashing in puddles of dark ooze, but there is no escape. He hears Griffon’s panicked squawking before the inky blackness surges up, and he is swallowed inside the emptiness of the nightmare.
When the darkness finally settles around them like an impermeable blanket, V’s eyes are drawn to the only other being he can see, a pale humanoid that kneels before him, head bowed as if in supplication. Stripped of his armor, it is Mundus’ Black Knight no more; just a wretched creature who could not even strike down the demon that had torn its life apart.
A pitiable thing that lacked even the power to protect itself.
V swallows down the burning taste of bile as he digs his fingernails into the palms of his hands, fists clenched tight. A cursory look around this new cage confirms what he had suspected. Trapped in another of Nightmare’s dream realms, there is only him and the armorless knight, both of them bared to the skin, bereft of their respective powers. If he wants out of this place, he will have to confront this manifested creature, perhaps even kill it again. There will be no familiars and no weaponry to assist him this time — if he does end this creature, it will have to be with his bare hands.
Black liquid pools around his ankles, thick and viscous but, for the moment, apparently harmless. It sloshes when he takes a step towards the kneeling creature, and though V can see the way the water washes across the knight’s knees, it doesn’t look up. The lack of reaction stings, and V takes another step, the acerbity of his burgeoning anger making him foolishly brave.
(It is just anger. He feels nothing else, nothing but fury that he must face such a weak enemy after he has already proven himself. He is enough, even like this. He is more than this contemptible creature will ever be.)
“Why do you still appear before me?” V demands, hating the way his voice breaks, hating the way he feels so out of breath, heart pounding violently in his heaving chest. He can’t seem to get enough air, can’t seem to stop himself from panting, from trembling so fiercely his teeth chatter, and instead he forces himself to take another staggering step closer to his most reviled dream.
“What is it that you desire? Have I not already proven myself? Answer me!”
When the creature does not stir, does not even lift its head to look at its aggressor, V lashes out, grasping ahold of unkempt strands of white hair and jerking them back. It doesn’t resist him, despite the roughness, and when the creature tilts its head, V sees its face for the first time. He’s not sure what he expects — contempt, perhaps, or maybe even lingering ill-intent. The face of a sullen beast who knows better than to attack its betters, but still resents its submission.
What he sees is nothing of the sort.
His next inhale hurts everywhere, chest tight as if fighting the movement, and V lets the strands of the creature’s hair slip through his shaking fingers. It doesn’t look away, doesn’t even blink, just stares almost curiously at him as though waiting to see what V will do. In truth, V doesn’t even know what he wants to do, capable of doing little more than staring at the creature before him. Its face is his in all the ways that Vergil’s face was once his, with sharp features and startling eyes, though both of them no longer share their predecessor’s icy gaze. Despite bearing the marks of its corruption, branching rivers of deep blue ichor buried beneath pallid skin, there is nothing otherwise malicious in the lines of its face, just a kind of quiet solemness in its expression as it accepts the manhandling without complaint.
For all that this creature has been changed by its ordeals, it still looks so young, and V’s heart aches.
His fingers move almost without his permission, abandoning the creature’s hair to stroke down its cheek, tracing the lines of corruption with careful fingers. Truthfully, he can’t remember if they had hurt him, or merely been side effects of Mundus’ poison flowing through his veins. Even before Vergil had cut him and his nightmares out, his memories of that time had always been hazy, mired in self-loathing and flavoured by the agony of his defeat and subsequent torture. Being free of the armour had done nothing to improve his memory; if anything, it seemed to make it worse. Any time he was overcome with exhaustion his mind would show him things that were halfway between honest recollection and falsified manifestations of his own fears.
Perhaps this illusory creature before him is the same, made up of only partial truths and brought to life by the darkness of Nightmare’s powers. This version is certainly more docile than the last, though V supposes that its previous incarnation had not yet been bound by a contract. When it doesn’t flinch away from his touch, V cups its face with both hands, stroking over smooth cheeks with his thumbs. At this, it just blinks, slowly, trustingly, and V swallows around the sudden lump in his throat.
“Little Lamb who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee,” he whispers into the silence between them, his voice rough and too loud in the absence of any other sounds. His words seem to have no effect on the former knight, though truthfully V doesn’t even know if it can speak. So many things had been stolen from them; that he does not remember his voice being one of them simply means that he did not miss it.
He is so focused on the creature’s face that he doesn’t even notice that it’s moved until its hands have closed around his wrists, effectively trapping him. V’s first reaction is to try and jerk away, despite how firmly the creature has him in its grip, and for a split second he regrets getting close enough to touch it, to trust that it wouldn’t use his weakness against him. The fight leaves him almost as quickly as it comes, however, as the creature presses its cheek more solidly against V’s palm and closes its eyes, and oh—
How long has it been since this creature has been touched? How long since it has felt anything but the oppressive weight of its helmet, its heavy armor, cut off from all senses except sight? How long has it been since it has known anything but suffering and silence?
V trembles with the knowledge, clasps the creature’s face more tightly in his hands as he leans closer to it, so deeply and intimately unmoored that it takes everything he has to remain standing.
But it’s not a creature, is it? This being that he holds so closely is not some abomination, not something lesser or weak or vile, he’s just—
“Vergil,” V breathes against the kneeling man’s forehead, and V feels him shudder almost violently at the name. He says it again, and again, savouring any and every reaction it earns him, persisting until Vergil seems unable to bear it any longer. The hands gripping his wrists tighten and pull him closer, their bodies colliding as they collapse in an ungainly sprawl into the water. This ocean of his nightmares reacts to them now, rising up to cradle them as they fall, cushioning them against a surface that, for all intents and purposes, they should sink through. For something that behaves like liquid it is proving to be remarkably solid, though perhaps its nature simply bends to the whims of the dreamer.
He doesn’t have much time to dwell on such things, as Vergil had abandoned his wrists in favour of touching his face the same way V had touched his, like he’s trying to learn everything he can about V through his fingertips alone. His body, slick from their tumble, slides almost effortlessly against V’s, and it’s only then that V remembers that they are both without clothing, skin against bare skin. He shudders with it, and Vergil seems to take that as an invitation to touch him more, his hands unhindered in their search for more contact, trailing down the scar-lines of V’s contract marks.
V loses track of time, loses track of everything but Vergil’s hands stroking over his fragile skin. His body is as unprepared as Vergil’s is for this sudden onslaught of sensation, and he has no way to guard himself against it. Like this, his only option is to redirect the restless energy stirring in his veins, to return the touches being bestowed upon him, to dig his nails into pale flesh when it gets too much and then soothe the broken skin with gentle fingers. It’s a struggle to keep control when his emotions seethe and boil inside, untempered by demonic indifference and raucous in the face of a being that has haunted his dreams. Despite this, Vergil never voices any complaints, taking whatever he is given without protest, whether V’s touches are gentle or skirting the edge of violence. It is as satisfying as it is shameful — V has no real desire to hurt him, not anymore.
This piece of Vergil has been hurt enough.
He doesn’t remember which one of them is the first to solicit a kiss, to dare to press their lips together and deepen their embrace, but V cannot bring himself to care. Vergil’s mouth against his own is soft and grounding, keeps him from straying too far down the path paved with dark thoughts. He kisses V with meticulous efficiency, learning the shape and the taste of him like intends to commit everything to memory, and in this V meets this intensity with his own, if only because he fears if he does not he will be consumed.
When he can stand the burning heat under his skin no longer, V rolls them so Vergil is on his back, if only to give himself some sort of reprieve, to grant him some semblance of control. The position has the added benefit of sliding their cocks together at a more favourable angle, and V hears Vergil’s breath catch for the first time, mirroring his own sharp inhale as hot, silken flesh ruts against its twin. He hadn’t noticed his erection until he felt it against Vergil’s, but now that he knows he can no longer deny the need throbbing between his legs. Without hesitation he grinds himself down against Vergil, and is rewarded by firm hands grasping at his hips. V bares his teeth in the shape of a smile, an invitation as much as a dare, and he is rewarded for his brazenness.
Vergil’s hands move to his backside, clutching briefly at the muscle there, before V feels himself being spread. The press of slick fingers follows next, and V braces himself against Vergil’s chest as his body is coaxed to yield, Vergil’s fingers working inside of him with efficient, demanding strokes. A part of him is vaguely aware that he should feel more friction, that this shouldn’t be quite so easy, but it seems that the nature of the pseudo-dream grants them all the benefits of a false reality. V’s musings on the topic are almost immediately silenced when the blunt head of Vergil’s cock eagerly replaces his fingers, and V doesn’t shy away, lets it breach him in a slow, steady thrust that leaves him breathless with exhilaration. He feels greedy, and he revels in it, determined to take everything that is offered to him, to take this piece of Vergil inside and reclaim it for himself.
The weight of Vergil’s cock is a searing heat inside of him that temporarily quiets everything but his burning need, and for a long moment V just arches into it. Almost reflexively, he drags his fingers through his hair, flips the longer strands free from his face, an old habit slipping through as he savours the feeling of his body struggling to adjust. Vergil doesn’t push him, but he can feel the man’s impatience in the taut line of his body. V almost makes him wait, but thinks better of it. After all, why should he? Those who restrain their desires, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. With heavy-lidded eyes and a curling smile, he raises himself up off Vergil’s cock to begin the consummation of their carnal desires.
They say nothing; then again, there is nothing to be said. V chases pleasure wherever he can find it, pressed as close to Vergil as he can get, kissing him, touching him, as he is kissed and touched in return. Like this, he can barely tell where he ends and Vergil begins; like this, he is almost whole again. They both ride the cresting wave of pleasure until it breaks, V’s body seizing in a surge of molten heat as he feels Vergil’s hips press upwards, his cock throbbing deep inside of V. The feeling makes V’s knees tremble, his heart pounding fiercely in his chest, fear long replaced by the lingering tendrils of bliss and slowly creeping fatigue.
He braces his hands on Vergil’s chest in an effort to steady himself, struggling to catch his breath, and meets Vergil’s gaze as the man slowly opens his eyes. For the first time since he’d laid eyes on the man’s face, Vergil looks completely at peace, relaxed in a way that seems almost at odds with his corrupted appearance. It does something funny to V’s insides, to see him so vulnerable.
(So young. So ill-prepared; though what could have prepared anyone for this?)
Vergil must see something of his turmoil on his face, as his eyes focus more intently on V. His lips move, forming words that V cannot make sense of, but before V can ask him to repeat himself the shadows around them surge to life once more. They ripple around V’s knees, lapping at his body, and V knows without words that Nightmare’s power here is ending. Instinctively, he clutches at Vergil, tight enough to bruise, but he can already feel him slipping away. It’s illogical to cling to him like this, this vestige of a dream that has no more place in the living world that V does, but V cannot help himself. This is a piece of himself, a piece even more vilified than the humanity which burdened Vergil with emotions he deemed unnecessary.
He doesn’t want it to vanish.
He doesn’t want to lose anything else.
In the end, it hardly matters; his efforts are all for naught. As the dream collapses, Vergil disappears back into the darkness from whence he was born, slipping through V’s fingers like grains of sand. So too does the rest of the illusionary realm slip away, slowly, the wave of darkness cascading down upon him as the power of his final familiar slides over his skin and reluctantly settles. Even dormant, the weight of Nightmare is heavy on his brow, like a black helmet — the final piece of his own set of dark armour, slotted into place. How ironic, that he should take the pieces of Vergil that he had cast off and shape them into weapons to be used against him.
Speaking of which.
V brushes off Griffon’s nattering concern disguised as complaints and pulls himself to his feet, taking a moment to regain his balance. He feels both exhausted and invigorated, tired in mind but stronger in body, and he can do little but simply accept this as just another dichotomy of his existence. With Nightmare obtained, there is nothing for him here, and he gathers his familiars’ power tightly to him as he steps forward into the darkness, towards his freedom from this trap. But even as he does so he cannot resist one final glance over his shoulder, to the place where Vergil had lay before him. Predictably, there is nothing there, no trace that he had ever existed outside of V’s own mind, and the familiar, phantom-cold touch of remorse skates along his ribs. He brings his fingers absently up to his chest, strokes a place above his heart, and refuses to acknowledge the brief flicker of surprise when his fingers meet bare skin. With more effort than it should take, V makes himself look away and refocus on the path ahead.
He cannot afford to dally any longer. “Urizen” awaits.