A/N: Whew! Finally got this next part wrapped up. Again, I hope this next part ends up as more intriguing than boring for the wonderful readers who are still with me so far.
Special thanks for the continued feedback from IsaacSapphire and SirenaLoreley! I've noticed that they're good about not just reviewing my story, but many others in the DxN fandom as well, and so I think they deserve a LOT of credit. Thanks again, and I'm happy to hear that you two willing to give this next arc a chance! ^.^
"Great," Nero remarked as he came upon his first landmark--a pauper's graveyard. The unmarked, sunken tracts in the earth would have rendered the cemetery invisible to him, except that invading tree roots had upturned a number of plots and littered the of human remains. There was also a brick border that blocked off the ground, around which Nero passed by respectfully. The cemetery was his clue that people did live in the forest at one point, but he was not thrilled to have a place of death be the first thing to greet him.
Nero had charged into Galarea forest, determined to get as much of a head start on Dante as possible. Despite his haste, however, he was not foolish enough to disregard his surroundings, nor attune his senses to the sights, scents, and sounds of the environment.
"Pretty much your average demon's stomping ground," Nero observed aloud as he stepped over gnarled roots and debris. He instinctually kept his left hand on Red Queen's blade, but his heightened senses detected nothing as he came upon his next clue--a pair of shattered stone columns leading away from the cemetery. He examined them and their broken remains, then glanced around to see if there was more to investigate. Through the dim fog he spotted the next column pair, one that was in no better shape. This column pair led him to another, and to another, and he followed a number of them up and over a shallow incline. As the trail columns stopped short at the edge of the hill, so did he, for it led him to a large depression in the hillside. Below in the valley existed a cavernous stone entrance cut into the opposite bluff from where Nero stood. An intricate golden archway and jamb bordered the entrance, both sprouting golden waves that radiated outward. Contrasted with the blackness of the opening, the appearance was like that of a solar eclipse.
With feline grace, Nero leaped down into the pit. He found the alien design peculiar. Upon closer inspection, he noted that the jambs were also checkered with layered, square tiles that fanned up and outward like feathers, though many had chipped off. He guessed that whatever civilization had lived here had probably been extinct for a long time, for he had little to compare it to in the outside world.
He would save his speculations for later. His legs were galvanized by the hope that he the entrance would lead to a storehouse, and among the cache would be whatever object the mayor wanted. It occurred to him that Samler was not very specific about what exactly he was looking for, but presumed that if it were important enough, he would know it when he saw it. Nero also presumed that if Dante had heard of this thing, then he probably had a better idea of what to look for. He grit his teeth in irritation. That advantage did not rest well, and so Nero was eager to pick up the pace.
Nero was forced to stop, however. Wherever the passageway led, it was not any brighter than the outside. Nero refused to go on into the pitch black without a light. He racked his brain for a solution.
He looked down to his gloved demon arm when an idea struck him and forced out a humorless chuckle. "I can't believe this," Nero said with resignation. He peeled off Trish's glove from his right arm. To his shame, the hot blue glow of his Devil Bringer made a decent torch, especially when he concentrated his demonic energy into making it even brighter. He gazed down at his palm and sighed at the irony. His hated appendage had come through for him again, but it was better than nothing. He could live it down if he beat Dante at his own game. He had an upper hand, so to speak, and that brightened Nero's outlook considerably. He thus raised his right hand before him, and with cautious steps, led himself through the darkness.
He dashed through the entrance and down a long, dark passageway. The air was stale and cold, and his nose crumpled when he noted a vaguely rotten stench. From that clue, Nero figured was headed inside a catacomb rather than a storehouse. He continued anyway, figuring that even a tomb might still be worth investigating.
Eventually, the passageway expanded, and led himself into an open room. The light of his hand revealed the chipped painting of a golden floor design, much like the celestial design on the door, as well as the curvature of the walls that indicated the room's circular shape. With silent steps he advanced further into the room. Even with the light, he let his ears and his acute ability to sense evil energies scope out the room for him. With no disturbances detected, he continued on until the light of his hand illuminated the outline of a polished stone box elevated by a border of shallow marble steps.
"A mausoleum," Nero said, realizing the stone box was not a box, but a casket. Curious, Nero approached to view it, hovering his right hand above the lid. The lid was carved in the shape of a robed, bearded man lying in peaceful repose. That, however, did not catch his eye so much as what the man was holding in his hands--a stunning longsword of a peculiar shape. The main blade was pure white as if made from ivory, and dimpled as it grew from its golden hilt. The blade then tapered and expanded out again into a smooth spade.
"Is this it?" Nero wondered, placing his left hand on the handle so he could try to pry it loose.
He paused. While distracted by the sword, he hardly noticed that glowing red spikes had appeared from the sides of the coffin. The spikes slashed upwards in one split-second stroke, passing right through the stone in a deadly sweep.
The spikes were fast, but not fast enough. Nero just narrowly avoided being shredded, and landed on his feet a yard away to watch as his attacker revealed itself. Nero smiled, knowing those kinds of claws could belong to no other demon than a Faust. The Faust rose from the casket like a ghost with its deadly fingers folded against its cloak.
"It's about time," Nero said, revving up Red Queen. Though it was dark, the Faust's bright weapons in addition to the Devil Bringer's light nullified that advantage. Even as the Faust's naked and vulnerable form attempted to scurry away to the safety of the shadows, the grip of Devil Bringer never allowed it to get too far. In little time, Nero defeated it soundly.
He resheathed Red Queen and located the casket. He resumed his attempt to extract the sword. Using even greater caution, he put his left hand on the hilt and jerked it. He stumbled back a little as the sword snapped away with ease.
"Heh," he said, examining the weapon and feeling its remarkably light weight. "Looks like I've got this in the bag, you old bastard." He smiled and sheathed the sword under Red Queen for safekeeping. He fantasized the moment when he would gloat and rub it in Dante's smug face. "He'll be sorry."
He had little time to revel in his victory. A low growl entered his ears and he froze, now feeling the evil battle aura of a demon develop behind him. He spun around to see two glowing red eyes in the dark stalking toward him. The demon hissed and squealed with hostility.
From experience, Nero was quite familiar with such feral dialogue. "An Assault, huh?" he said. He brought his right hand out to light the ground between him and his enemy, and used his left to thrust down the point of Red Queen beside him. He revved its hilt once and said, "And no friends, either? That's pathetic."
The demon snarled, stopping just outside the light of Nero's palm.
"Come on, then!" Nero challenged. He dashed forward and swung Red Queen down hard upon the creature.
To his great surprise, Red Queen bounced off of the demon as if he had struck the side of a mountain. He stumbled backward. In the moment he was stunned, the demon snorted and brought its clawed hand across in a violent arc. The attack connected brutally with Nero's frame, sweeping the hunter clear off of his feet. He landed some feet away, feeling as though Berial had sat on his chest. He groaned and winced in pain.
His body was in shock, but he was immobilized with utter confusion as to what he was up against. Assaults were mean customers, but none ever had the power to knock him senseless with one blow. He also knew they carried bucklers, but he could have sworn he made a direct hit on an unarmored shoulder joint. He also swore he felt sand blast his face from the impact of his powerful yet ineffective blow.
He would have reflected further if he had not looked up to see those red eyes coming upon him again. He could just make out the demon raising its arm high above itself, and Nero instantly regained the presence of mind to leap off of his shoulders and onto his feet before the demon could crush him in a single devastating blow. The floor crumbled and caved like an eggshell with the impact, and it was then that Nero realized that its hand was not made of flesh, but of stone.
"What the hell," Nero breathed, wincing from the lingering ache in his right side. He gripped Red Queen's handle tightly. "At least this won't be so easy anymore."
The demon stalked toward him again. In a swift motion, Nero sheathed Red Queen and whipped out Blue Rose. He pegged the demon with a couple of rounds. The demon hardly stumbled, shrugging off the impact and maintaining its focus upon the hunter, its prey.
Seeing the effect of Blue Rose--or lack thereof--Nero clenched the last defense he had in his arsenal. The stone Assault lunged, and Nero simultaneously cast the ghostly projection of his hand. The demon slammed into his palm, and Nero curled the fingers around its shoulders. Nero then lifted the massive creature off of its feet.
Pain exploded from his side and shot through his limbs. The Devil Bringer fizzled, and Nero clutched his right side in agony as a stone projectile pierced him through like an arrow. He fell to one knee, and the demon in is hand slipped from his grip.
Nero groaned, fighting the urge to double over. He wrenched the talon from his side and looked to his right, seeing another pair of eyes. Nero cursed again, throwing the bloody spike away.
The former demon had already recovered. Nero watched as the Assault threw its head back and bark loudly, the sound fading into something like a cackle. An additional Assault, one that was clinging to the ceiling, tittered in response. The third Assault leapt down to ground level to join its comrades. "Like you need any backup," Nero growled.
He weighed his chances quickly and settled on a solution. He fled. He searched the rounded perimeter for the passageway that would lead him outside. He had to escape, and to find Dante. Dante. Instantly, the tears from his physical pain transformed into ones of inexplicable fury. He burned at the notion of seeing the senior hunter, yet he so desperately wanted to feel the elder's arms around him again. He breathed out a frustrated sob, for he hated having such a desire in a time of crisis.
Finally, the glow of his hand revealed the outline of a doorway and he rushed through it. He felt the ground shake, alerting him that the Assaults were in hot pursuit. He dared not to look behind him, and hoped to greet the light of the outside soon.
But the light never appeared. Fear and self-reproach invaded Nero's heart--he had chosen the wrong way. Following his heart, his mind gave into despair. He was now headed into the depths of some godforsaken dungeon, and there was a greater chance that he would be trapped by more stone demons. Though his heart and mind were resigned, his feet kept moving, knowing it was the only thing he could do while the savage snarls and growls of his foes resonated behind him.
He was relieved to see the corridor finally open up again. His sprint came to an abrupt halt, however, when his feet met the edge of a platform that dropped off into a black pit. He chose that moment to spin around, seeing the demons rushing toward him. With no better recourse, Nero held his breath and jumped. By pure luck, he felt only a few yards onto a marble floor. Instinctually, he darted from the spot and narrowly avoided being crushed under the Assaults that had followed him below.
He rolled away and onto his knees. The landing had exacerbated the throbbing in Nero's torso and he faltered. He gulped down air past the burning of his throat and lungs, trying to mentally suppress the agony as he made ready for another sprint. He was intent on making a beeline for the opposite end of the chamber where he hoped was an exit.
He was too late. The lead Assault bounded toward him, and he could only force himself from his knees in time to turn around defend himself. Nero steeled himself. With a defiant cry, Nero triggered. The enhanced strength allowed him to fully parry an incoming swipe with Red Queen, but as he deflected the blow, the brutal impact wrenched Red Queen's hilt from Nero's hand and flung the blade deep into the darkness. Having been so disarmed, Nero felt the tug of death in his mind--of finality--when the Assault thrust its stone paw forward in a mighty jab.
Nero brought his Devil Bringer across and shielded himself with Yamato. The sword and arm absorbed the deadly force of the impact with an ear-piercing clang. The power shuddered through him and knocked him backwards. His back collided roughly with what felt to be a wall. The shock jostled his internal injuries and he nearly wretched from the pain. His legs quaked and he gasped for a moment, but the warmth of Yamato's strength quickly revived him. The lead Assault attacked him again, and he dove out and under its next swing. He rolled away again when the second Assault attempted to trample him underfoot. Next, he just nearly avoided a peppering of thick spikes shot from the third Assault. Nero then rose to his feet and grunted in frustration. The exertion was unbearable. Even though Yamato was making it possible, he knew he was wasting his time. He rested on one knee, pressing the point of the sword into the ground to lean on it, but it was already starting to fizzle and fade. Nero wounds were quickly draining its rejuvenating light.
Nero then reached behind him and pulled out the ivory sword he had pilfered. He was not willing to use the weapon, and had nearly forgotten it was there because it was so light. From the blade's weight and form, he concluded that it was ornamental only and nowhere near the strength of an actual combat sword. Psychologically, however, it was the last thing that kept him from giving up completely. He rose to his feet, the red light of his eyes finally dying out.
An Assault squealed and lunged. It drew its claws across in a vicious sweep that would instantly disembowel any man. Nero cried out, holding out the blade of the sword to intercept it, knowing it would snap in half and that he would perish. He could not help but feel tremendous anguish as he realized his unforgivable failure. He wondered if Dante would find him, or if anyone would--it was such a cold and lonely place to die.
A moment passed, enough time for Nero to realize that he had shut his eyes. He opened them when he heard an agonizing screech, for the sound was decidedly not one of pleasure. He spotted the Assault in distress. The creature was clutching its arm where its hand had been severed at the wrist. Then, Nero realized that the white sword had cut through its stone exterior like it was butter. Sadistic amusement welled up within his breast, a side effect of the utter relief that swept over him.
"Well, look who's fucked now," Nero said scornfully. In one slice he dispatched the wounded Assault. The demon groaned and fell to the ground like a falling tree and disintegrated on impact. He next leapt toward the nearest pair of eyes. He beheaded the demon with a swift stroke. Seeing the fate of its comrades, the last Assault attempted to flee. "Oh, no you don't," Nero called, extending Devil Bringer. The projection found its tail and yanked it back, and Nero exacted merciless vengeance.
Now out of danger, Nero breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the adrenaline seep from his system. He winced and touched a hand to his side. Though Yamato had done a fair job when it had accelerated his healing factor, Nero was certain that a few ribs would remain broken until after this job was finished. He glanced down at the sword in his hand, no less grateful that his injuries were all that he would suffer. His most pressing desire now was to retrieve Red Queen.
But when Nero began to search, he was startled to look up and see the features of an enormous beast planted in the center of the room. Nero held out his Devil Bringer to examine it more closely. From his vantage point he saw that it was reptilian, but the way it was reared on its hind legs suggested a build like a lion's. As he circled around to its front he noted the layers of mottled fins and spikes that fanned out all over its head and neck. Its countenance was a ferocious, like that of a viper in midstrike.
Even more strange was that the beast was tightly wrapped in a net of roots, like those of the trees he saw on the surface. It occurred to him that he did not run into a wall earlier, but into the great flank of this monument.
"Did they worship this thing?" Nero asked, though it did not make sense to him if they did. He cared even less about the question when he then saw a crystal the size of a softball in the statue's dragonlike hand. The creature seemed to be offering it to him like a gift.
Cautiously, Nero hovered Devil Bringer next to the jewel, marveling that it was a perfect sphere. The blue light of his hand was fully absorbed by its blackened, dimly violet hue.
"Maybe this is what the mayor wanted?" Nero asked aloud. Seeing no harm in taking it anyway, Nero sheathed the white blade behind his back and placed his human hand on the jewel.
Suddenly, his hand felt magnetized to it, and his vision grew distorted. His pulse raced with fear, and he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. He looked up, and blanched when he saw that the beast's blank eyes had come to life, and twisted itself to stare at Nero directly. Nero met the narrow slits of its pupils, and he felt his devil trigger explode from his arm and fill him with a sense of anger and malice.
Nero shut his eyes and overcame his loss of control. He cried out and wrenched his human hand free of the jewel and stumbled backwards. His vision snapped back to normal, and he was confused to see that the statue had also reverted to its original, lifeless state in that instant. He was also no longer triggered. It occurred to him that he had hallucinated, but he could still feel the malevolence the beast had imparted to him.
His brow furrowed, however, when he felt his fingers grow stiff. He looked down. To his horror, both his human and demon hands transformed into stone, and the affliction continued to race up his arms.
"No!" Nero yelled. He felt as though he was being absorbed into the Savior once again. He tried to move, but he could hardly lift his feet--the bottom half of his legs were already turning to stone as well, and could do nothing as the curse immobilized him past his thighs and waist.
"Dante!" Nero shouted in vain. The shrill sound of his desperation reverberated throughout the cavernous chamber, but soon the air stilled, and all fell silent. The Devil Bringer's light dimmed and went out. The frozen hunter, appearing as though he were pleading for mercy, had been denied and punished for his defeat.