Chapter 1: Part One
Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then—
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy—and lived.
Zeldris is walking towards a building both familiar and terrifying. He is walking down a path that is as routine as the sunrise and as terrible as a storm. He is looking at the grass and the trees and clouds as he does every day, every afternoon, every evening as he travels along this path.
It is the path that leads him to his house. His home, she admonishes him. It is his home, her home, their home, the place where they are together in love and grace. It is filled with their things, the rug his mother wove, the pots she brought from her father's house, the blanket on the bed that she made herself when he had first sought her hand. It is filled with the smell of her rose water and the baking of bread and the wet clothes that hang in the kitchen. It is filled with the sound of his boots hitting the floor and her cursing at the bread and their lips pressing together in another wholly familiar way.
The life he walks towards is simple, natural, exquisite in its modesty. The monotony is a gift from the gods. They have no strife or want. They have all they need, no more, no less. It is a good life, a simple life, a happy life.
The path is long, longer than he remembers. The sun is going down so Zeldris hurries along. He is anxious to see the woman waiting for him, and something inside him spurs him on as a whiff of mendacity plays around his head. What is different today? What is strange about the path? It goes on and on, and Zeldris realizes he is dreaming.
With a jolt he awakes.
A hand weaves through his hair as he sits up in bed, tugging on the wild strands as the cobwebs of sleep lift away. It is not the first time he has slept since the Underworld was gifted a queen, but it is the first time he has dreamed this dream. Zeldris rarely sleeps, as the gods do not need such trivialities. But it is good to refresh, just as food and wine and the souls of the humans are necessary to feel rejuvenated.
When he used to sleep, it was always this dream; yet since Elizabeth had healed him in the forest, he had not had it again until now.
Elizabeth. She is arriving today, back from her months-long absence, and that means the king will be distracted. With a grunt he rises from his bed to prepare for the day. Meliodas will want to dispatch with the souls quickly so that he can be ready for the queen's arrival, and then they will disappear into their chambers to wrap around one another in a ridiculous state.
Zeldris knows it is nonsensical for the king to behave like… well, like a foolish human. Such base desires are beneath one such as he; the idea of falling in love and giving his body to another fills him with revulsion. He admires beauty and grace, and has experienced great pleasures in his past. Yet now as a god he has given up such things. It grates on his nerves to watch Meliodas with a woman, when he had sworn them off so many many years ago.
But who was he, but a servant to the king? So he had grit his teeth and set to his task of bringing justice.
Before the Underworld had a queen, the three demons worked together to bring justice to the souls of Britannia. They had their own powers over their own parts of the realm, bonded as brothers through their sacrifice and their oath. Each had a part to play, and Zeldris and Estarossa deferred to Meliodas because he was the king and the most powerful. Meliodas, after all, had made the greatest sacrifice.
But now? Zeldris huffs to himself as he straps on his weapon. Meliodas has found the heart he had given away. So what did that mean for the rest of them? The king was able to retain his power and his throne despite no longer living with his burden. Meliodas had given up his heart in order to rule the Underworld with precision and dispassion, two traits that are necessary to his station. But that goddess came and pulled his soul into the light. She was gifted a part of the Underworld, Purgatory, for her very own. Her influence on him is unmatched and unmeasured.
It is not jealousy the demon feels; it is a profound disgust for his brother's disregard for his oath.
Zeldris wonders what it would be like if he were to disregard his sacrifice. If he were to find his own woman and lose himself to pleasure, to ignore his brothers for soft curves and long hair, to scorn the vow he had made in exchange for power.
The idea churns his stomach. He is the demon of Piety; an oath to a god means more than any pleasures or indulgences. He is nothing without his word. A promise cannot be broken.
He thinks of the irony of the situation as he makes his way to his place in the hall. The Underworld is filling with souls ready for judgment: some smiling in relief, some weeping, some looking around bewildered at the others. They shy away from Zeldris as he moves past the crowd, instinctively curling inward from the darkness and promise of violence that accompanies the demon. Soon they will enter the hall to be judged by the king. Those who are found to have broken faith with the gods will then be delivered to Zeldris.
What would those souls think if they knew of his sacrifice? If they knew that it was a broken vow that brought him to this place? He glances at Meliodas who is sitting in his chair, gesturing for the accounting to begin. His face is stoic, but Zeldris can see the faint glimmer in the corner of his eyes. It is something he had never seen in his brother before he took Elizabeth, a reminder of how different things are now.
"Are we beginning?" Zeldris calls out after a stilted bow to the king.
Meliodas nods. "Estarossa is late, but no matter. He can do his own duties at his leisure. I want to be finished before I go to meet the queen."
The glimmer comes again, a small twitch in his lips, and Zeldris frowns. The lord of the Underworld, sitting on the dark throne to read the souls of the dead, now with a heart of his own. Years ago such a thing would have been unfathomable.
Instead of voicing his disgust, Zeldris says, "I hope Her Majesty pleases you with her presence, and her stay this time is welcome."
Meliodas eyes him curiously. "Elizabeth is always welcome, and is always a pleasure. The Underworld blooms with the presence of its queen. Paradise is practically trembling in anticipation of her return."
"As are we all," he responds dryly. He can see the king shoot him a look, but Zeldris quickly turns his attention back to the doors of the hall.
With a wave of his hand they open, and the souls begin to file in one after another. Meliodas is generous in his assessments, but still fair, although having watched this ritual countless times over countless years Zeldris can see the subtle changes to the way he works. There is more forgiveness, more understanding of the trials of the humans. Meliodas no longer expects rigid conformity to the longstanding rules. Now he listens to their pleas and their stories.
Zeldris presses his lips together as he listens to an old, fat man plea for his soul. He had been given many blessings in his life: a loving wife, many fine sons and daughters, a stable life as a merchant, even a peaceful passing to the next world. Yet he had failed to tithe on many occasions, often boasting his good fortune was his own doing without needing to pray to the gods.
As if the humans could accomplish anything without assistance.
"You failed to give praise where praise was due," Meliodas admonishes him as the man cowers and trembles.
"I see that now, Sire," he responds, bowing low. "All that I have is from the gods, and I am grateful to them."
Zeldris folds his arms. Remorse at the end is common for such as he; yet to his astonishment, Meliodas says, "The kindness you showed to your wife and your family was a testament to the gods. Your generosity to others was your prayer, your love was your offering. Therefore—"
"Love!" exclaims Zeldris.
All eyes turn to him. Meliodas' eyes are dark with furor, but Zeldris steps forward to challenge, the first time since they had entered the Underworld together. "You would forgive this man's sins because of love?" he cries.
The king slowly rises, and it is all within Zeldris not to shrink away from the looming threat. "I am king here," he says simply.
Zeldris swallows and nods. "Yes, Sire, but—"
"I am king!" Meliodas shouts. "My kingdom, my judgment."
"Our kingdom," Zeldris shoots back. "We three brothers each made a sacrifice. We each made an oath and gave up a piece of ourselves. Don't you remember, Your Grace?"
The meaning behind his words is clear, but Meliodas does not take the bait. He considers him coldly for a long moment, and then responds. "I know my place in the Underworld. I suggest you remember your own."
He turns back to the man now cowered in a ball on the floor. "Get yourself through that door," he says sharply, pointing to the left. "Before I change my mind."
Both demons watch as he stumbles through the door to Paradise, stuttered thanks spilling from him as he scrambles away. Zeldris shakes with anger, clenching the fist at his side slowly and tightening his jaw in silence.
When he is gone and the door is shut, Meliodas turns to look straight ahead, once more taking his seat on the throne. "You should be grateful, Zeldris," he says without looking at his brother. "If the queen were not arriving soon, I might have a mind to repay your outburst."
Grateful! The idea is like a blow. As if he should be grateful to such a creature as a goddess. "You wound me, brother," Zeldris says slowly.
"As do you to me with your talk of sacrifice," responds Meliodas, his gaze remaining forward and steady. "I know of my sacrifice, and I know what I must do. Now get to your own domain and out of my sight. I suggest you take the time to contemplate your own place in this kingdom."
The dismissal hangs heavily for a moment before Zeldris turns and storms into Tartarus. Behind him he can hear the doors opening for the next soul to enter as Meliodas bades them forward, but his fury overwhelms his senses within moments. That the king would dare speak to him about sacrifice, when he has betrayed his own. When he has betrayed them with his new alliance to Elizabeth. When he is the one who has allowed a lower creature to dull his senses and seize his power.
As he walks through the swirling darkness the dream comes unbidden to his mind. Zeldris is well versed in betrayal, and at once he is determined to expose the betrayal of the king. He will show Meliodas how the goddess has turned his affection into a disease that is affecting the Underworld. He will reveal the goddess' true intentions, will unmask her duplicitous nature.
Zeldris pauses to silently make his oath, and his temper settles when the task is done. He will see to the restoration of the Underworld and the deliverance of his brother from his madness. The oath of a god cannot be undone.
The Great Hall is empty. The souls of the dead had been gathered and sorted early in the day, to allow the king the freedom of the afternoon. He had shown a great deal of mercy, to the general amusement of Estarossa. Meliodas was in a good mood, because his queen was returning from Britannia that day.
With the emptiness comes a silence that bears heavily on the hall. Not that the kingdom of the dead is a particularly noisy place; once the souls are sent either to Paradise or Tartarus, the Hall often lays empty. The king would spend his days without Elizabeth gazing at Britannia through the view in the ceiling.
But now the king is otherwise occupied, and as Zeldris walks through the silent room he lets out a slightly annoyed huff. The last time the girl had returned, the king had not emerged for several days; the backup of souls to judge and sort had been a mess, which had set Estarossa on edge.
His boots make an echoing sound as he crosses the room as they tap against the stone floor. Zeldris heads towards the exit that leads to his own chambers, where he can clean and rest after a particularly grueling session with the faithless souls who are now in his charge. Now that Britannia is subject to four seasons instead of an eternal summer, those who are not prepared for the harsh days of winter turn to the gods for aid. Many of those fulfill their promises, but many still do not.
He pauses outside of the large door to the left of the king's throne. Zeldris has not been to Purgatory—now called Paradise—since the queen made changes to the place where souls go to rest. Before, when Meliodas had first created it, it was a place of quiet and peace, devoid of life and feeling, just like him. But Elizabeth had introduced life into the place of death, which brought happiness.
Zeldris wonders briefly what lay beyond. He had only heard strange rumors of the place, and for a moment his jaw tightens. Do the souls deserve such a blessed existence? Even those who lived good and wholesome lives are not without some sin. There is an itching under his skin as he thinks of how gray everything is now, when once it was black and white.
His eyes trace over the intricate carvings in the wood, the heavy brass handle. Perhaps he should take a look himself? He could step inside for a few minutes and see what it is the queen has done to the resting ground of the dead. Is it filled with color? Is there music, and feasting, and dancing? Is there love?
A pain twists in his stomach at the thought. Quickly he stalks to the door, still staring at the doorknob. Yet he hesitates: not of fear, or anger, or anxiety of what lays beyond.
No, it is who lay beyond.
A loud bang breaks him out of his imagining. Turning with a frown, he narrows his eyes as a presence enters the Great Hall. Zeldris strides away from the door and stands in the center of the room, his back to the throne, facing the entrance. It is impossible for a human to enter without being summoned; this must be one with the power of a god.
The woman who enters the hall is stunning. Her dark hair falls charmingly over piercing yellow eyes, the sly smile that graces her ruby lips magnetic enough to capture a passing glance. Her clothing covers only just enough of her body to keep her on this side of decent, the seductive curves sure to draw any man's attention.
Zeldris only smirks. He is no ordinary man; he is a god and a demon and cannot be so easily persuaded. "What do you want?" he barks impatiently.
"Is that a way to greet a guest?" she says, her voice pouring over him like syrup.
As she walks towards him, her cloak flows behind her, the front panels opened enough to show the bare skin of her body underneath. Without realizing it, Zeldris drags his eyes down the center of her exposed cleavage and the smooth flesh of her stomach. "I don't recall the king extending an invite," he responds evenly, his gaze returning to her face.
She throws her smile at him with a slow bat of her eyelashes, which aggravates him greatly. "I wouldn't come any closer, if I was you," he warns, his voice grating.
Halting, she pauses to slowly lick her lips, her own eyes traveling over him. "You are not the king, then? Where may I find him?"
"His Grace is occupied," answers Zeldris with a frown. "But I'll be glad to let him know you stopped by…"
He lifts his brows a bit, and she chuckles. "Merlin," she answers, "daughter of Belialuin."
Belialuin. The name is instantly familiar, and Zeldris lifts his head a bit to hear she is the daughter of such a powerful god. The scales of power have now tipped; but he remembers that this is his realm just as much as Meliodas', and she has no power here. "What is it your father wants with the king?" asks Zeldris.
Instead of answering, she walks around him, looking around to take in the architecture of the room, the patterned stone on the floor, before she stops to examine the door to Paradise. "There is a favor he wishes to ask of His Grace," Merlin replies. She draws closer to the door, one hand lifting to graze the pictures carved into the wood.
Zeldris watches her with folded arms, his lips pressing together when her hand jerks backwards as her skin makes contact with the door. Yet Merlin quickly composes herself and walks slowly to the other side, glancing at the throne. "As I said," he continues, watching her closely, "the king is otherwise occupied. Is there something that I can do to assist?"
Merlin does not respond, coming to stand before the door to Tartarus. The corners of her mouth lift a bit, and Zeldris is struck with the idea that her smile is now genuine. He observes the stiffness in her shoulders as she tightens them and the nearly imperceptible shake of her hand as she lifts it towards the wooden door. The demon takes a step closer to her, his hand moving to the curved sword hanging from his side. It is one thing for such a creature to enter the Underworld and seek an audience with the king; it is another to enter the hidden places of the realm.
"What is your name?" she asks suddenly, looking at him over her shoulder.
The way her eyes focus on him is incredibly enticing, and Zeldris can see the many years of practice she has had on others. "I am Zeldris," he replies. "I am the demon of Piety."
"Piety?" she repeats, her brows shooting up in surprise. Slowly she turns to face him, her head tilting a bit to the side. "Perhaps you can help me after all."
He does not respond, but simply watches her as she watches him. There is a long moment as each waits for the other to speak first, before finally she laughs. "All right then, Zeldris of Piety. I will ask you for your help."
"Why does one such as your father need assistance?" he asks when they are settled in his quarters. He has brought out wine and food, of which Merlin accepts graciously. She now lounges on a chaise, her arms against the back of the couch, her legs crossed. Merlin smiles at him, but Zeldris keeps his face impassive. This woman will not be intimidating him. He is above such things.
"My father made a deal with a king," she replies. "He promised my father an offering in exchange for power. My father gave him power. The king has not paid."
Zeldris frowns. "What does this have to do with Meliodas?"
Merlin traces a fingertip along her smile. "My father decided to send a monster to destroy the king. However, in his mercy he allowed the king to sacrifice himself and not reveal to the people why they were under attack. This way he can become a revered martyr to his pitiful kingdom."
"Very merciful," the demon snorts. "It sounds as though your father's bargain will be satisfied. He will pay with his life."
"It would seem that way," she replied, "however, he has decided to sacrifice his daughter instead. That will satisfy the conditions, but it leaves my father rather unsatisfied."
Zeldris stares at her for a moment. This is an unfortunate situation for the girl, assuredly; but what difference does it make? "Your father must be mistaken then," he says slowly. "His Grace does not interfere with the affairs of the living. His concern is only of that of the dead."
"I see." Coolly she takes a long sip from the glass of dark red wine held delicately in her fingers, and then her eyes return to his. "I would hope, however, that you would take a bit of interest. Isn't your trade that of getting justice for the gods, Zeldris of Piety?"
"It seems as though you are mistaken as well, lady," answers the demon. "For I do not interfere in the living, either."
Her smile returns as she leans forward. Merlin places the glass carefully on a table to the side before sliding to the edge of the chaise. She presses her hands on the edge of the cushion and arches her back a bit, the curve of her body sensual and titillating. Zeldris swallows thickly as he remains steady, refusing to lower his gaze from her face. "Even so," she says in a low voice, "perhaps I could offer you something to pique your interest?"
At this he laughs, shaking his head. "You are wrong again," he replies. "There is nothing you or any woman could offer me in that vein."
Merlin chuckles and drops her head in concession. "I was unaware, Your Highness," she says, smiling back at him. "Perhaps my father should have sent one of his sons instead?"
Zeldris laughs even harder, and the ice is broken now between the two. He takes up a goblet of his own, pouring himself some of the rich red wine, eyeing her over the top of his cup. "No, lady," says Zeldris. "Not even your finest young men would entice me either. I have no use for such things."
He does not miss the slight arch of her brow on the otherwise unruffled expression. "But I would barter for other such things," he continues.
Merlin nods and leans back once more, taking up her own wine. "What would you have from the lord of Belialuin?"
"A favor," he responds, watching her closely. "Something of my choosing, at the delivery of your wayward king."
There is a long silence as she stares at him, thinking. He watches her steadily, sipping his wine as he allows her to contemplate. "What sort of favor?" Merlin finally asks.
"The king has taken a wife," Zeldris replies. "He has captured himself a goddess who is now queen of the Underworld." Merlin looks surprised at that, and he nods. "She is harmless, but his attention on her is growing tiresome. The work of the king is being forgotten in favor of her bed."
Merlin tilts her head. "So you want her taken care of, is that it?" He does not respond, so she sighs. "My lord does not wish to start a war with the king of the Underworld. And killing such a creature would bring the wrath of Meliodas and Baltra."
"I am not asking your lord to kill her," Zeldris explains. "I wish for the means to do it myself."
He feels some satisfaction when her mouth pops open in surprise. "Do you have experience in doing away with young women?" she laughs.
"As a matter of fact, I do," he replies. "Now where can I find this faithless king?"
Merlin grins. "In the kingdom of Edinburgh."
Chapter 2: Part Two
In thrall of word-worlds
and too besotted
with myths to strive
even if it could
to reach beyond the barriers
of bone and blood
and brain into the clear unstifled air
which it has been assured is there
my mind seeking to escape
uncertainty presses itself
against the bars and stares.
The path is longer than he remembers, and Zeldris grins as he hurries towards home. She will be there, waiting for him, as she is every evening when he walks home from his day. The floor will be scrubbed and the bread will be slightly burnt and her hair will be braided over her shoulder. It is peace, it is love, it is life.
But something feels off, and he picks up the pace even more. The house is right there, every step taking him both forward and back. Why is he not there? What is taking so long? The clouds are gathering, pink and purple and orange in the setting sun. His wife is waiting. She is waiting, and he needs to speak with her, desperately…
The door is ajar when he reaches for it. He frowns, his hesitation and the unknown making the hair on his arms stand on end. Silently he pushes the door open to see the inside is dark. She has not lit the lamps, and when he steps inside the only light is from the slanted beams through the windows and the muted glow from the kitchen hearth. Everything is in place, however: the fresh linen on the table, the sewing stacked neatly next to her chair, the jar of rosewater sitting next to the window, the red and pink petals floating lazily.
Every nerve is on edge. Every cell in his body knows something is wrong. Could he be here? He had told Zeldris that he would have a day to decide… but the devil is a liar, isn't he?
He looks around, but nothing is out of place, except for her. She is nowhere to be seen, and he briefly wonders if he should be looking outside when a sound from the bedroom catches his attention.
The dream had returned again that night, leaving Zeldris gasping and shaking when he wakes. He waits for his breathing to calm before sitting up, then he shrugs away the blankets on the bed. Quickly he dresses for his task: dark clothes, heavy boots, the familiar scabbard and sword at his waist, a cloak over all. It is the clothing of one who does not wish to be seen, and for this task, Zeldris would not have such a thing happen. As he straps his weapon to his body, he wonders how quickly he can dispatch of the king before the monster arrives at the appointed time. If there is a delay, he will need to slay the beast first.
Without hesitation he heads out of his chambers and almost immediately runs into his brother Estarossa. "The king has not emerged," his brother says, eyeing his clothing with an obvious curiosity. "No need to rush off to Tartarus."
"I am going to Britannia," Zeldris answers, stepping around him.
But Estarossa does not let him go so easily, not that he expected him to do so. "Are you hunting, brother?" the tall demon asks. "Shall I go with you?"
"No," replies Zeldris. "I am not hunting, and my business is my own."
They stare at one another, the challenge now made, and he waits for it to be accepted or conceded. He waits for the strike to come, the blow either with fists or words. But to his satisfaction Estarossa steps aside. "I suppose the Underworld is now in my care," he sighs.
"I shall return," is all Zeldris responds.
Briskly he heads towards the opening of the kingdom, gathering his powers into himself to make ready for the journey upwards. He half expects Estarossa to appear, pleased when he does not, and takes off for Britannia.
It is still summer here, with Elizabeth only having been gone a few days; the trees and grass are vibrant and green and bend away as he skims the surface of the world. The humans enjoy the sun and the warmth while they can; briefly he wonders if they know the goddess has gone under the ground again. He scowls in derision at their delight, and thinks of how they should be cursing the gods for allowing the girl to steal from them.
And it is theft, he decides as he flies; Elizabeth is a thief.
She stole the easy life of the mortals, bringing them autumn and winter in her absence, the goddesses of life unable to maintain their magic with an incomplete clan. She stole the life of Meliodas, who now lives a tortured existence with half a heart. When she is there, he can barely look away from her, making a fool of himself between her legs. When she is gone, he is morose, barely able to continue his duties. Why did the three of them make their sacrifices and become bonded as brothers just for a woman to come between them so easily? What is the point of having power if it is dependent on the whims of one who does not belong?
Agitated now, Zeldris hurries towards his destination. It is not as if he hates Elizabeth. On the contrary, he finds her rather lovely, in an odd sort of way. He can see why Meliodas was so drawn to her, and still is, even after the decades have slipped by: she is beautiful, and kind, and brings a strange sort of light with her when she returns. Yet the king is no more than a moth to her flame, and that is not how it should be.
Edinburgh is on the horizon; a formidable castle standing next to a jagged cliff. How very mortal of this foolish king to want such an ugly thing. As if the crashing waves against the rocks and the pointed spires of the palace mean anything at all. He will end up in the ground and his soul will be judged just like those he wishes to crush beneath his boot.
What a fool.
But it is the lot of the mortals to want to fill their short lives with things, just like it is his own lot to serve judgment on them when they fail in their duties. Zeldris wonders what this king will look like, if he is fat and shiny and stuffed with ruffles and jewels, or tall and barbaric with a cold sneer and the choking air of war around him.
He leaps into the air, heading towards the castle, when a new energy catches his attention. Zeldris turns his head towards the sea, his eyes narrowing to slits as he tries to pinpoint what it could be. There, he sees it finally, a shape unlike any other, growing larger and larger with each league it covers as it swims across the sea. The head of the creature barely lifts out of the water, and when Zeldris drops down onto the rocky surface of the cliff, he tracks it with a bit of surprise. This must be the monster that Belialuin had promised would wreak havoc on Edinburgh.
Zeldris is well ahead of the appointed time, so what is it doing here already? The window of his task is now running short; Merlin had said he would sacrifice his daughter to the beast, but Zeldris must kill him first to fulfill the oath. But where? He turns and scans the area, his powers flooding outwards like mist along the ground, seeking a sign of the sacrifice in every crevice of every stone. Yet the king is not found; no living creature is awake on this deplorable realm.
Is this a trick? His eyes once more scan Edinburgh, his heart pounding as he tries to fit the pieces together. Would the king have run? There is no hope to escape the will of the gods, particularly one such as Belialuin; yet a coward would flee in terror, Zeldris supposes. Is that what this king did? Pack up his family and household and escape?
Without any more time, the demon stalks towards the cliff. It will take time to hunt down a duplicitous one as this king, so he will dispatch of the monster first. The creature is drawing closer, closer, and the clouds follow it in a dangerous swirl that whips the wind all around him. Zeldris draws his sword in anticipation. His powers snap electric beneath his palms. This fight will feel good.
But then, a cry on the wind, and his attention is split. There. Golden hair and white ribbons flash in the corner of his eye. With a curse he sprints forward. If the creature reaches her first and kills her, then this would all be for nothing, and he would not rescue his brother as he wished.
Like a bolt of lightning he flies towards the girl. When he lands Zeldris takes a moment to assess her: she is chained to the rock, her arms pinned to her sides, her skin rubbed raw from her struggling. The white that had caught his eye must have been the shredded remains of her dress. It flies out in strips between the links surrounding her, and he can see the pale skin beneath, the shape of her legs and hips and waist, the pink nipple on her exposed left breast. What happened to this girl?
Then his eyes travel up, and first he notices the graceful neck and shoulders. Her skin is smooth and flawless, ready for the soft caress of fingertips. Then the rounded shape of her face, the slightly pointed chin, the high cheekbones; his eyes drag over the stained lips, bruised from her teeth chewing he was sure, the flush of pink on her cheeks from her screaming. Her hair whips around her in the growing wind, long tresses the color of honey that fall around her shoulders and over her eyes.
Her eyes. They land on him and he is stunned. The almond shape and the piercing blue that widen when they see him make Zeldris' heart leap. He has seen these eyes before. Eyes that once looked at him longingly, teasingly, seductively, in laughter, with tears, wide with surprise, now look at him once again.
"Please," she gasps, her voice raw. "Please."
Gripping the hilt of his sword, he turns to face the creature. Now he can see it plainly: it is a dragon, and he smiles to himself as it rises out of the chopping waves. The wings extend to an extraordinary span, and it stretches its body out to its full length. Zeldris supposes it could be taller than the castle behind him, but that makes no difference to him in the end. He will slay this beast and guarantee his prize.
His magic swirls around him in a black strips. He feels it pulse once, twice, and then he is into the air with his sword drawn. The dragon roars on his approach, the teeth jagged in its mouth. But Zeldris only laughs, unafraid of his foe. Easily he slips by the swiping claws, his feet planting on the scaly side of the dragon to push off into the air again. The beast twists its body around and heaves a giant breath; Zeldris avoids the burst of flames just in time.
He begins to lose himself in the adrenaline and the rush of the battle. The slash of the great claws, the snap of teeth, the horned tail that sweeps towards him are no match for the speed and agility of the demon. Zeldris had been reborn from the darkness, and this darkness that now drips over his skin like ink the shade of night gives him power and strength against even this fearsome animal. Again and again they tumble together, swiping, slicing, blow met with blow, and Zeldris laughs.
Finally he takes an eye, and with a spray of blood and a roar from the beast it is free and thrown to the waves below. With his own veins filled with a welcome rush of ice he avoids the erratic flash of fire that erupts. But then the dragon turns and flies back towards the cliff with a piercing shriek.
Zeldris shouts and follows, taken aback by its sudden rally. He hurls himself in front of the dragon, whose jaws are open wide in anticipation of its meal. The demon lands on the ground in a roll and immediately is up and swinging the sword in his hand. He moves faster than any can see, and at once the dragon's other eye is removed.
Now the creature is writhing, screaming, and in its agony Zeldris approaches slowly. The dragon claws at the ground, trying to heave its heavy body over the cliff, and for a moment the demon watches his prey in its last moments. The surge of bloodlust is strong within him, an awakening of life that he has not felt in many, many years.
He raises his arm to strike the soft neck now exposed with the twisting and struggling of the dragon. Blood drips down his sword to splash on the back of his hand, and for a moment, he is gone. He is back on the path from his dream, approaching the house, and it will be filled with blood. His hands will be red with the rivers, his neck and clothes doused, his entire world now filled with blood.
A roar snaps him from his mind—what was that?—and with a steady hand he plunges the end of his sword into the neck, slicing a deep line across its throat. The dragon cannot even give a final scream before it slips down and crashes over the cliff. But instead of triumph, Zeldris is shaken, and with trepidation looks down at his trembling hand.
It is covered in blood, just as he feared, and he looks up expecting to see dull blue eyes, void of the spark of life. But instead he sees eyes that are bright with either fear or fever, as wide as they can go.
He swallows nervously and walks towards the girl. There are no screams, no tears, no signs of terror from her, and somewhere through the red haze Zeldris admires her steadiness. The only indication that she is not a statue, in fact, is the flashing in her eyes, and the steady rise and fall of her chest.
With his bare hands he pulls the chains free, grimacing at the blemishes on the perfect skin, examining the bruises and cuts closely. She does not shrink back in fear, but watches him, stunned. Finally the girl pushes against the rock to stand, but stumbles, and Zeldris catches her.
"You're all right now," he says, his voice strained from the fight. "I have slain the dragon."
He cradles her carefully against him, her hands pressing against his shoulder and his chest, and she looks up at him. Once more his eyes drag over her, and he is struck by how beautiful she is.
And that shakes him even more, because he does not want to find her beautiful. Yet he does want her, the knowledge hitting him hard in the chest. By the gods, he wants her.
"What have you done?" she gasps out, and then faints in his arms.
Chapter 3: Part Three
Now Time's Andromeda on this rock rude,
With not her either beauty's equal or
Her injury's, looks off by both horns of shore,
Her flower, her piece of being, doomed dragon's food.
Time past she has been attempted and pursued
By many blows and banes; but now hears roar
A wilder beast from West than all were, more
Rife in her wrongs, more lawless, and more lewd.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
"What have you done?"
The whispered question is his own voice, he realizes, as she pulls away from the kiss she just planted on his lips. "I'm in love with you, Zeldris," she breathes, her blue eyes laughing at him as his mouth drops open in shock.
"What have you done?"
She cries sitting on the kitchen floor, covered in flour. "I'll never be a good wife," she moans, and when he sits next to her in the broken egg, her blue eyes swim with tears.
"What have you done?"
The question echoes again, his voice mocking him, her blue eyes flashing as she points an accusing finger. "You did this, not me!" she shouts back. "Why can't you admit you were wrong?"
None of this is making sense, and he turns his head again, the images swirling uncomfortably. Where is Tartarus? Where are his brothers? These eyes are not here, they are from a time long gone.
"What have you done?"
They are wide in panic now, a shade he has never seen, a shade that dulls until the light inside is snuffed out.
Zeldris opens his eyes. He has been dreaming again, and for a long moment he waits. As unsettling as it had been, this part is familiar, falling back into consciousness as her whispers echo just beyond hearing. The nightmare fades away quickly as he blinks up at the dark sky, peppered with stars. His back is stiff and his limbs are sore, and carefully the demon begins to stretch when he discovers the girl he saved from the dragon draped across his lap.
Her golden hair lays like spun silk in an absolute mess on his legs, her rose-colored lips are parted slightly as she breathes. The blue eyes are closed, the dark lashes brushing pink cheeks, and he is glad that he cannot be ensnared by them again. Even the memory of the two jewels that looked at him, heavy with emotion, stirs his blood. His dream comes to him again in wisps, which he shakily brushes away from his mind.
Careful not to disturb her, he assesses himself. The injuries he sustained in the battle have closed, the burns have faded away. His clothes still bear tears and holes that show where he had been hurt, but the demon himself remains fully intact. Zeldris looks over the girl now, and is pleased to see that the only injuries she has sustained are sore spots from the chain links.
Now that the girl is saved, he must go and find the king and fulfill his part of the bargain. But it is both startling and familiar to be sitting against a tree with a young lovely in his lap, and he finds himself reluctant to move. For a while he simply watches her sleep, the rise and fall of her shoulders and the faint whisper of her breathing hypnotic. When he can stand no more he lifts a hand to barely caress her hair, tracing the outline of the locks along her back, before moving back up over the curve of her hip and the dip of her waist.
As he brushes his fingertips over her, something begins to swirl inside of his mind. Zeldris becomes mesmerized by the way her hair lays across her shoulder blades. It feels silky beneath his skin, despite the sweat and the dirt of the battle; the flesh of her arm is smooth and white, and he allows himself to rub his thumb along the supple shape. Swallowing thickly, he pulls his hand away. He stares at it, shocked to see it trembling.
He must go, he must go now, but instead he is gently turning her over to see her better. The girl murmurs something, so he slides quickly over her. Zeldris presses his face into her neck and breathes deeply, sighing against the scent of grass and the sea. When did he last smell something so keenly? Before he can think his tongue darts out to drag along her skin, and she shivers with the slow movement of him tasting her, stirring again with his groan.
She is delicious, heavenly, and he tastes her again, and again, moving over her shoulder, then down to the collarbone. His pulse is beginning to race, a swirling madness overtaking his mind. There is a memory that is thrashing inside of his head, fighting to the surface, but all thought is dulled by the way her body feels and tastes and moves. He had seen countless women in the Underworld, had devoured the souls of countless more in Britannia since becoming a demon. Not once had he ever wanted one.
Her dress is barely more than a few threads that are easily pulled to the side so he can continue tasting down the valley between her breasts. Hands go to his shoulders suddenly, a murmured question, but Zeldris ignores her. He grips her by the hips and arches her body slightly, wrapping his mouth around the tightly drawn nipple now tempting him like a berry on the vine.
Their moans melt together as he sucks on her body slowly and his hands begin to roam down her sides. The fabric falls away as he tugs it open, revealing supple thighs and a quivering stomach. The hands at his shoulders clutch his shirt tightly. Zeldris pulls away the fabric that covers the other breast before moving his mouth to roughly devour it next. The sound of her tight, wet gasp shoots through his veins like lava, and before he knows it, his hands are pressing her legs apart and his mouth is kissing over her pelvis.
Her hands slip into his hair, and he presses his cheek against her hip. The war inside of him is growing louder and louder by the second, his duty and his oath and the desire pulsing through him like a drum. The feeling is so sharp and real it feels as though it must be an enchantment. Has he ever, in this life or the other, wanted something as much as the feeling of this girl underneath him? Zeldris breathes in and out, clawing at his reason to return, but one more sample cannot hurt, can it?
The taste of her body is heaven. He thinks briefly to the meals he has taken over the years in the Underworld, the ability to call up any food or drink he desires, the rich dishes and perfumed sweets and cool fruits absolutely pale in comparison to the taste and scent of the girl. His mind stretches again as he recalls his last meal, the words he spoke as he drank wine with Merlin—I have no use for such things—and it sounds strange and hollow in his mind. How could he ever believe that?
After the battle, the raging adrenaline and bloodlust and the thirst to kill and slice and win, followed by the healing sleep, the demon decides it is only fitting that he finds pleasure in the slow lapping at her body and the rhythmic moans that slide over his skin.
The slender limbs in his hands are twitching, and hands slide into his hair. They tug and pull him from the heat of her opening, pressing his lips against the little bud at the top that trembles under his kiss. He smoothes his tongue over that spot again and again until he is rewarded with a cry and a rush of hot silk against his mouth.
Zeldris laps at her body, drinking her in, until she groans and tries to squeeze her thighs together. For several long moments he simply breathes deeply, tempering the raging emotions.
He is a lord of the Underworld, the demon of Piety. He is as steadfast as his commandment. Zeldris does not act on desire or lose himself to lust. He is a prince and a god and he is laying in the grass between a woman's legs, wanting to lose himself inside of her.
He snaps backwards as if burned from her body, immediately torn between wanting to push the girl away and draw her closer. How could he have done this? With shaking hands he fixes his clothing, feeling a hot sense of shame, his skin itching with the absurdity of what just happened. It was insanity to act such a way—for what? Blue eyes and rounded breasts? Zeldris closes his eyes and turns his head away, breathing slowly to calm his raging blood.
This is his sacrifice, his oath. It had been years, decades, centuries without feeling desire. Zeldris spent his life in stoic dispassion. Women, men, food, drink, power, riches, the adulation of others: none of it means a thing to him. All he wants is to do his duty. All he thinks about is the pleasure of fulfilling his tasks. But this girl overwhelmed him, the first time in an age. Humiliation rushes through him and turns his mouth sour. He is bloody from slaying a dragon, all because his brother has lost himself to the temptation of a woman… and now he has committed the same sin he once cursed Meliodas for.
A sin he wants to commit again when he hears her sigh.
Why her? The demon digs his hands into the grass, pulling up the blades in an attempt to stop his shaking. What has he done? What does he still want to do?
Zeldris breathes, focuses, determined not to give in to temptation again. Eventually his mind settles, his body stills. When the quiet, cold demeanor that is what he is now is set, he finally looks over at the girl.
She lays on the ground, her eyes closed as she breathes, her arms crossed over her chest, her knees pressed together. The sight of her tousled hair and flushed skin do nothing to his resolve, the glistening slickness on her thighs and the swollen lips cannot penetrate the armor of firm dispassion.
Slowly Zeldris stands and walks over to her. As if sensing him she bolts into a sitting position, gaping up at him with a mixture of surprised fear.
Those eyes again, the crystal blue, are almost his undoing. His nightmares from the past few days come back in a rush, and as she frowns a bit in surprise at him, he wonders what she thinks of his own, void of any color or warmth.
"Get up," he says coldly.
"You saved me," she whispers, her arms clutching her chest, a grin breaking over her face. "You saved me."
"Get up," he commands again, a bit of edge to his voice.
The girl looks startled, but obeys. "Where is your father?" he demands sharply.
Frowning, the girl shakes her head in confusion. "My father?"
"He is the king, isn't he?" She nods, blinking rapidly, and he continues, "So? Where is he?"
"I…" She shivers, pulling on the tattered remains of her dress, and looks over at the castle. Her eyes well with tears. "I don't know," she finally whispers.
Zeldris examines her closely. He notes the deepening of her blush and the way her gaze now traces the ground; he watches as she fidgets nervously with the cloth barely covering her body. "You are lying," says the demon quietly.
Her eyes snap to him as she gasps. "No! I—You saved me—"
"I have come to deliver justice to the king of Edinburgh." His voice is cold, the familiar air of authority settling over him, steadying his nerves that are on edge from his actions and the strange feelings that demand his attention. "It is my duty to give punishment to those who mock the gods. He owes a debt that must be paid in blood. It is my duty to—"
"Please," she begs, interrupting him, but Zedris only raises his voice to continue, "Tell me where I can find the king!"
She hesitates, and then answers, "I can't. I don't know where he is."
Stepping closer, he watches her shoulders stiffen. He is hit with a sudden wave of… something. His heart is beating way too quickly, and all Zeldris wants is to hold her again. But not to grab her or frighten her or wring the answers he wants from her tiny frame. No, he wants nothing more than to brush her hair aside and run his fingers along the curve of her neck, to press his lips on the white skin of her throat. He wants to kiss her forehead and soothe her fears. He wants… her.
But why? Why now? His aggravation with himself and her delaying him grows.
"You cannot save him," responds Zeldris simply. Suddenly realizing his hand had been reaching out to touch her, he quickly snatches it away. "Belialuin will have his sacrifice, with or without your information."
"Belialuin?" Her eyes lift to his face. "He sent the dragon? But why?"
Zeldris narrows his eyes at hers. This girl is too innocent, too perfect, as if she was made for him. He is drawn to the way her eyes harden in thought, the swipe of her tongue over the trembling lips. "Your father defied the gods," he answers simply.
"It can't be," she whimpers. The girl clutches her hands tighter to the shreds of dress, stepping away, shaking her head. "I thought you had come for me—I had chosen to go, I chose—"
"It doesn't matter what you chose," Zeldris says, resisting the urge to reach out for her. "You are not the one he wants."
Her eyes widen at this, and he frowns. "You're lying!" she cries, startling him. "You came for me, didn't you? I was told—I was told—" She looks around wildly, "My father didn't do anything wrong! The dragon couldn't have been from Belialuin, he—he—"
Her voice is rising with her hysterics, and he can she her body shaking. With a growl of frustration Zeldris steps towards her, snatching her arm and yanking her against him.
She will be no more use, not in this state anyway; but in her eyes he can see no lie. As the demon of Piety, he can read the truth in humans, and as they stare at one another, he can see that what the princess says is true.
But yet, there is something wrong, something nagging in his mind. The emptiness of Edinburgh causes him uneasiness. Where did Izraf go? If he sent out his daughter to face the creature, why run? Izraf knew it would settle accounts to give the princess' life. Wouldn't a man so willing to give away his own flesh and blood be there to see it fulfilled?
Or, and this thought makes his stomach churn: Merlin lied to him, and he is being made a fool.
With a growl his wings flare out from behind him, and takes to the air. The girl screams and clutches him desperately, but Zeldris pays her no mind, now bent on discovering the truth for himself.
Chapter 4: Part Four
Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughs and hardens evermore her heart.
What then can move her? if nor merth nor mone,
She is no woman, but a senceless stone.
Gelda is pale and trembling when they arrive in the Underworld. "Wait here," he says gruffly, leaving her to stand outside of large wooden doors.
"Where are we?" she cries after him, but he disappears. So Gelda waits, her arms wrapped around herself, taking in her surroundings.
The floor is cold tile, the walls stone and earth, with pillars carved with intricate decorations. Although she can see, Gelda has the sense she is surrounded by darkness. It appears in the corners of her vision and retreats into the shadows when she tries to focus on the blackness; it reminds her very much of the feeling that the one who saved her from the dragon emits.
She turns with shaking breath back to the door through which he disappeared. There is a feeling of foreboding that comes from behind that door, and Gelda shivers to imagine what it could be from, why he would choose to go inside. Who is he? What is he? Not a human, for sure—he must be a god. Another god, to use the people of Britannia for their games, she thinks bitterly. Gelda is so very tired of gods.
The truth as she understands it stings, because she had hoped beyond hope that he was the one to save her from her life. Her existence was cursed—the thousand temptations—the one to take on the sins of her parents and of Edinburgh. She had been kept away from the sun to live in the darkness gifted by Belialuin. Her life was a gift from the god, their entire existence and kingdom in honor of him.
At least, that's what she had been told.
The doors echo as they open, and Gelda jolts up stiffly. To her surprise, it is not the dark-haired one that emerges, but a beautiful woman with shining eyes and long silver hair. She closes the door quietly behind her and approaches Gelda slowly. "Hello," she says. "Can I help you?"
"I…" Gelda looks at the door, unable to speak.
The woman nods. "My name is Elizabeth. I am the queen here."
Gelda's eyes widen in fear. "I'm sorry!" she hisses. "I didn't know!" Quickly she tries to make a bow, impossible with the shredded dress and the soreness of her limbs, but Elizabeth catches her by the elbows and straightens her up.
"There is no need for such formality," she assures her sweetly. "Come, let me assist you."
The princess nods, and finds herself being led down a corridor, then another, before entering a room wholly different than what she has seen so far. The floor is a lush carpet, the room is lit with lamps and candles, and there is a simple elegance about the place. One side is filled with the largest bed Gelda has ever seen. It is covered with oversized pillows and thick, satiny blankets, the four posts of the bed carved with beautiful gilded patterns. There is a vanity covered in jewelry boxes, a chaise lounge, and a marbled fireplace.
Gelda catches a glimpse through a door that leads to racks of clothing, but instead Elizabeth leads her towards another that is revealed as a washroom. Moments later Gelda is sinking into a steaming bath, the warmest she has ever experienced, and despite the fear and anxiety that had taken root so deeply inside her, she cannot help but relax.
Elizabeth hums a bit as she dozes, and the princess murmurs when she feels her hair being shampooed. "Rest, my lovely," someone whispers, and Gelda sighs into the sensation.
She realizes at once she is dreaming, but that does not make it any easier to hear the harsh tones from her parents.
"Disgrace. Disappointment. Mistake."
"This daughter is a curse. Her life is a curse."
"We prayed to Belialuin for a son. Why have we been given a daughter?"
"She is a mistake."
Quiet obedience is her life. Her mother brushes her hair roughly, and Gelda must squeeze her eyes to hold back tears.
"You are only alive because you are a fulfillment of our oath to Belialuin," she reminds her daughter. "I would have thrown you from the cliff otherwise."
No questions, no requests, no comforts.
"Get away from there," her father barks as he yanks her arm, pulling her from the window. "I don't want the people to see one such as you. You are for a husband, and nothing else."
The sea outside her window provides relief. It is fierce, and moving, and stretches so far Gelda can only imagine what is behind it.
"A simple thing," her nurses cluck. "All she does is sit and stare. She won't speak at all."
Days stretch on, alone but for the servants. "Quite a shame," they repeat to one another. Gelda is dressed and perfumed to be presented. "She is a dullard," they remind each other as she stands before the king and queen at the appointed time. "Probably can't even understand us," they whisper as she is returned to her room to stay until she is summoned again.
Gelda watches the sea, and waits. For there is hope still inside of her, a tiny splinter that holds together a heart that threatens to shatter. Those that are obedient are rewarded, those that are loyal are forgiven. Not all gods are as cruel as Belialuin; some bring good to the humans in their care. So the princess had vowed in her heart to always adhere to the laws, that she would always fulfill her promises. Even when that promise was to save her people, to give her life over to the monster who would sweep in from the sky. She knew that if she obeyed, she would be saved.
And a monster had arrived, had he not?
Her eyes open. Gelda is lying back on the chaise she had spied earlier, wrapped in fabric that feels softer than clouds. Fingers are expertly weaving through her hair, and the sensation is so wonderful that for a moment, the princess simply sighs. There is a little giggle behind her that causes her to jump, and slowly she sits up to look behind her.
The queen is there, smiling as she braids the end of Gelda's hair. As she turns around the braid extends over her shoulder, and when she is finished Elizabeth carefully lays it against her chest. "There we are," she says quietly, lovingly.
Their eyes meet and Gelda gasps. Instead of a dark pupil in her blue eyes, there is a golden symbol instead. "You aren't human?" she asks without thinking, blushing furiously at her rudeness.
But Elizabeth only shakes her head and laugh. "I am a goddess of life."
Gelda is taken aback by the news. How could a goddess of life exist in this darkness? As if reading her thoughts, the goddess answers, "The king and I have shared an oath of love, and now we are wed. You have nothing to fear while you are with me." Her smile widens as her eyes crinkle a bit in delight. "But I still enjoy my duties as a goddess, so I thank you for letting me care for you."
"A goddess of life…" She looks around, thinking. "I have heard of your kind, although one such as I had never been visited for a blessing. It is—"
"No blessing!" The goddess is now leaning forward, her long silver hair falling over her chest and covering one eye. "How could that be?"
Shaking her head, she sits up the rest of the way, her bare feet sinking into the carpet. Gelda realizes her skin is damp but clean under the fabric, the scent of the soap filling her nose. "My clothes," she whispers, her cheeks going pink.
But Elizabeth is up and hurrying to the closet. "There is plenty here for you!" she calls out reassuringly. A moment later she emerges with several dresses, holding them up for Gelda to see. "Which would you prefer?"
Gelda frowns in confusion, shaking her head. "Is there something wrong?" Elizabeth asks. "You are a princess, so I thought…"
She opens her mouth to respond, but cannot bring herself to speak. The goddess is staring at her expectantly, but her kindness is so unexpected, so foreign, that it feels like an attack. Gelda looks around, anxiety rising like an old friend, wondering what to do, what the right answer is to avoid the scorn of the queen.
But then Elizabeth makes a soothing sound, holding out one of the dresses. "It's all right. Here, this one will suit you."
The goddess assists her with the dress, exclaiming how beautiful she looks once everything is set. The dress is comfortable, flowing around her body, but Gelda is still nothing but nerves.
"You look very beautiful," murmurs the queen. "Zeldris will be quite pleased I am sure."
Gelda feels her heart pick up its pace as she repeats the name. "Zeldris," she whispers. Her rescuer.
"You must be hungry," Elizabeth says, and she nods. "You cannot eat the food here, so I must warn you against that temptation. But we can find something to suit you in Paradise. Come with me."
She takes her hand, but Gelda hesitates. "Paradise?" she whispers. "What… is this place?"
Elizabeth turns and smiles reassuringly. "You are in the Underworld, my dearest."
"The Underworld?" More darkness, more captivity, and suddenly the walls are too close. Gelda pulls on the hand holding hers, when all at once a warm feeling begins to slide through her, easing her breathing and her heart.
"There we are," Elizabeth says, and now Gelda can follow her as she leads her to the door. "There is nothing to fear while you are with me," the queen reminds her again. "You are still alive. You are not here to be judged. Be calm."
Gelda is still afraid, but follows anyway, the warmth flowing from the hand that holds her enough for now. Obedient, quiet, chaste. The old lessons return to her mind as they walk together and approach the wooden doors. No talking. No crying. No sounds. Gelda bites her lip as Elizabeth pulls her towards the darkness she had tried so desperately to escape.
Zeldris enters the throne room, ignoring the call of the princess behind him, and is disgusted to see Elizabeth perched on the king's knee. The two are speaking quietly to one another, and all at once he was reminded why this entire thing had begun: it was the queen's fault, that goddess who had entered their realm and taken his brother's attention. Now she dares to sit on the throne, her fingers stroking his hair and her dress pooling around her thighs as she crosses delicate ankles.
He walks towards them slowly, his face a mask to hide his true feelings, when Meliodas looks up. "There you are," says the king. "I was wondering—" His eyes flicker from the approaching demon to the door at the other end of the hall. "Who is that?" demands Meliodas. "What have you done?"
Elizabeth slides to stand next to him, taking a few steps of her own to the bottom of the dais. "It's a girl," she says in surprise. "She's been hurt."
"She's fine," Zeldris insists, but the goddess shakes her head. "Not physically. Her heart is in pain."
The demon scoffs. "She is a princess, whom I just rescued from death. What has she to be in pain about?" Elizabeth does not answer, however. With a quick bow to the king, she hurries towards the door and disappears into the hall.
Both brothers watch her go, and when Zeldris turns back towards the throne Meliodas is staring at him coldly. "What have you done?" he repeats.
That question is haunting him today. "I will return her shortly," Zeldris answers quickly.
"Why would you bring a living human here?"
Zeldris breathes deeply, keeping his voice steady. "I was asked a favor by Belialuin, and in order to fulfill my part I needed to—"
"A favor? For Belialuin?" Meliodas chuckles, but the laugh is devoid of humor. "You are a fool to get involved with him. I hope you did not promise him or that daughter of his anything."
The demon bristles. "That is my business. I am looking for her father, but the king of Edinburgh has fled. I need her to find him."
Meliodas looks at him with deep concentration for a moment. "I do not know what business you would need with the god of shadows," the king says finally. "The fact that you kept this from me, and now have brought a living girl to this realm, only tells me that this is a fool's errand." Then his eyes go dark, losing the bit of light that had appeared with Elizabeth's arrival. "Or, you are trying to usurp my power."
"I'm trying to save your power," Zeldris hisses. He grits his teeth and flexes the muscles in his back, trying to hold back his fury.
They are interrupted as the door to Tartarus opens, but neither brother turns to watch as Estarossa approaches. "Am I interrupting?" he asks with obvious amusement, and that aggravates Zeldris even more.
"Our brother is making a play for the throne," Meliodas says with a bit of a sneer, but Zeldris shouts, "I am not! I am here to serve you and fulfill my duty!"
"By bringing a woman here?" the king snaps back, and Estarossa laughs.
"Another girl? Zeldris, I thought you were opposed to such things."
His eyes dart away from those of the king's, struggling to keep himself from running either of his brothers through with his sword. It is utterly infuriating how Meliodas cannot see his own betrayal, and how easily Estarossa can get under his skin. "We swore," he says quietly. "The three of us. We took an oath to become what we are, and to bind us as brothers. Part of that oath is to not speak of our sacrifices."
"Who is speaking of sacrifice?" Estarossa says lightly. "I was speaking of the queen."
Zeldris spins around, ready to pounce, but Meliodas is there between them. "Is this your game?" he asks in the cold voice of one who commands. "You are plotting against my Elizabeth?"
There is a choice to be made, at this moment. Zeldris chooses to lie. "No, Sire," he answers evenly. "I would do nothing to harm the queen."
"Swear it," demands Meliodas.
He swallows to keep himself from flinching. His stomach drops, knowing his choice is already made, and all this is now for nothing. "I swear it."
"Good." Meliodas gives a gesture of dismissal. "Now that that is done, get on with your business. The sooner we have your bargain completed, the better." He pauses for a moment and looks down at his brother. "She may stay one night, but that is all. Then you must return her to the living."
Between the king's glare and Estarossa's smirk, Zeldris is happy to take his leave. Meliodas is right about one thing, at least: the sooner this is completed and he can return the girl to Edinburgh, the sooner he can eliminate the goddess, the better.
Chapter 5: Part Five
I hold your shadow wanting release
for you are my midnight mistress
such complexity of vows
you are my majesty of grace
This night as you look down on me
with your silken veil across your face
have pity on my loneliness
I am desolated without your embrace
—Christos Andreas Kourtis
The princess is gone from the hall, but Zeldris is not surprised. The way the queen had hurried from the hall meant that she probably took the girl somewhere. After a quick check at his own quarters and finding them empty, he heads towards where the king rests.
His mood is dark since his discussion with his brothers. This was not how this was supposed to go. Meliodas had made him give an oath; now it will be impossible for him to destroy the goddess. Even if Estarossa agrees to aid him—and there is no guarantee, not with that one—he will not have the satisfaction of repaying Elizabeth and Meliodas for defiling the Underworld. It sets his nerves on edge and makes his skin crawl. Piety will not win the day.
He hesitates outside of the door, raising his hand to knock. This is the first time he has been here in the years since Meliodas and Elizabeth swore oaths to one another, and he wonders for a moment if he will find this place changed too. More than likely, he assumes, and with a grunt of annoyance he pounds on the door. Zeldris only waits a moment before he opens it and barrels inside.
The women are there, just as he expected, Elizabeth stopping short as she pulls the other behind her. He narrows his eyes at the queen before looking over at the princess. Her eyes go wide in surprise, and all at once he finds himself pulled by them. His heart stutters for a second as an unexpected heat flashes on the back of his neck. But when his mouth opens just slightly taking in the sight of her, washed and combed and dressed in fine material, that he truly chastises himself. Pull yourself together.
"Come," he barks at the girl. She is clearly startled, but starts forward anyway, much to his satisfaction.
But Elizabeth still holds her hand, and stops the girl from stepping any closer. "Zeldris," she says evenly, drawing her shoulders back.
Immediately he feels chastised to have spoken this way and not giving a proper greeting to the queen, particularly when even the girl's eyebrow raises slightly. But that's ridiculous—she may be queen of the Underworld, but she is not his queen.
Yet it would not do to raise Elizabeth's—and therefore Meliodas'—wrath, so he gives a quick bow. "Sorry for the intrusion. I will be collecting the girl now."
"Gelda is hungry," she responds, the same polite tone in her voice. "I was taking her to Paradise for some food and rest."
The idea of Paradise sends a shiver down his spine. "She is fine. I need to take her back and do what I set out to do."
His eyes go back to the princess, noticing her small wince. Gelda. Zeldris is again embarrassed, realizing he did not even bother to learn her name, not even after he—
"Gelda is in my care while she is here," the queen insists. "Can't you see she is weary and frightened?"
"With all due respect," he grinds out, "I didn't bring her here for relaxation. She has answers I need, to fulfill an oath I made."
Elizabeth shakes her head. "I'm sorry, Zeldris. But I must insist that her needs are met first. Besides, she will be of no help to you if she is sick from hunger and exhaustion."
He grumbles a bit, her logic grating his nerves. "Fine. Then I will take her myself."
The demon steps forward, reaching out to pull the princess away; he thinks better of it, and offers his arm instead. He watches as Gelda glances at the queen, and thankfully Elizabeth releases her hand with a smile. Then the girl steps towards him, her eyes down, leaving him able to breathe.
That is, until her delicate hands slides along his forearm, her fingers digging into the sleeve of his coat slightly. Her touch sends his pulse racing, and Zeldris must clear his throat to cover the little gasp of surprise that threatened to spill. Now that she is next to him, he can see the shimmer her hair now has, falling in soft waves down her back, reminding him of strands of silk. He resists the urge to brush it back, behind her shoulders, wanting to feel it slip through his fingers as he caresses the bare flesh of her arm.
There is more, too: the delicate fragrance of flowers that clings to her creamy skin, the faint blush of her cheeks, the beautiful plump shape of her lips. Then down, his eyes graze over the swell of her breasts, and he remembers immediately what it was like to feel her pressed underneath him. His palms itch to take her in his arms again, to press his face against that skin and breathe in that scent and taste those lips again and again. He nearly drowns in the sudden desire for this girl, who stands obediently next to him with her arm entwined with his.
Zeldris shakes himself and heads towards the door. Of course, leaving would not be this simple; Elizabeth calls his name before they exit, and he stops. "Wait outside," he says to Gelda. The girl nods and steps through the door, and then the god turns to face the goddess.
Her expression is kind, but serious, and Zeldris turns, folding his arms. "I will not take a lecture from you," he warns.
"You should be gentle with her," the queen admonishes.
"I don't need your help," replies the demon. "She is mine to deal with."
Elizabeth presses her lips together for a moment. "What happened to her?" she asks quietly.
His throat is uncomfortably tight as he answers, "She was left to die by her father. Belialuin sent a dragon to destroy Edinburgh, and the faithless king put her on a rock as an offering."
"Belialuin?" she echoes. Her brow draws down in thought. "What would the god of shadows want with a kingdom of humans?"
"I told you, their king was faithless. Belialuin is their god, and he did not fulfill a promise." Zeldris regards her coldly. "As you know, a promise to a god cannot be undone."
He means to shame her with that statement, and to his annoyance she only grins. "I remember well," she laughs. Then she takes a step forward, her hands folded in front of her. "You have never been to Paradise, have you? Are you sure you would not want me to accompany you as a guide? It is very different from—"
"I don't need your help!" he interrupts again. "I will get the girl something to eat, and then we are leaving."
To his horror, she steps closer, until they are right in front of one another. "Are you afraid?" she asks quietly.
"Don't be ridiculous," he hisses, but Elizabeth places her palm on his chest. At once the heat of her healing magic surges through him, making him catch his breath. Her fingers spread slightly as her palm presses against the place where his heart is beating in his chest.
Her brows are drawn again in deep concentration. "So much pain here, Zeldris, And yet nothing that I can heal. You are hurt by memories." The words slice through him, and are punctuated by the blue eyes that meet his dark ones. "You cannot be healed by the ordinary magic," she muses. Then her eyes widen as Elizabeth gives a little gasp. "Just like—"
"Take your hand from me," says Zeldris slowly.
The tension grows tight between them, and Elizabeth yanks her hand away suddenly, as if burned. "I'm sorry," she quietly answers, her cheeks glowing into a deep rose color.
He stares at her silently, feeling some satisfaction, until the queen finally says, "I wish I could help you, Zeldris. I wish we could…"
He grits his teeth as she trails off. "The girl is waiting," he interrupts, and then turns back to the door.
"Gelda." The queen's voice follows him as he leaves. "Her name is Gelda."
For a moment, Zeldris considers turning around and unleashing his own wrath on the queen. He will send his powers hurtling at her, the darkness that lives inside of him slicing through her pretty face and ending her finally. He will end this ridiculous existence, end his required supplication to the woman who stole his brother's faith in who they are. Meliodas will kill him, certainly; perhaps even Estarossa will continue the punishment in Tartarus. But anything would be better than to listen to the goddess reason with him again.
The idea fades when he sees Gelda on the other side of the door. None of that will be necessary once he learns where her father is. Zeldris is sure she is lying—all women lie—and all he needs is to pull the truth from her beautiful lips. Then he will have his revenge, and Elizabeth will face her own reckoning.
Gelda lifts her eyes, and he must turn quickly away before she ensnares him again. Why do all the women who come to this realm hold magic over the demons? This is twice now that he has felt desire well up like an unpleasant memory at the sight of her. "Let's go," he snaps, sweeping past her down the hallway, and he feels the girl fall in step behind him.
Ahead, he takes a turn, then another, approaching the throne room. To the right of the king's throne lies the door to his realm, Tartarus. To the left, the door to Paradise stands. Zeldris feels his nerves begin to grow erratic at the thought. He has never once gone to the place, even before when it stood as Purgatory. He had no interest in the souls behind that door, but that is not why he has avoided it all these ages upon ages.
Can he do this? Can he really step in there, knowing what is beyond? Foolishness, he reprimands himself, even as his stomach twists. Paradise is a vast land of pleasure, if the rumors from Estarossa are to be believed. The chances of seeing her there are practically nonexistent. Even if he does come across the one soul he dreads more than any other, there is nothing to fear. He is a god of the Underworld. Nothing can touch him in his realm.
As if on cue, something does touch his hand, and he jolts. He whirls to see Gelda shrink backwards a bit. "I'm sorry," she whispers, her cheeks flushed.
"What?" he snaps.
"Are you taking me… in there?" Her eyes look over his shoulder, and Zeldris realizes why she is hesitating. So deep inside his own thoughts, he had not realized he was travelling the familiar path to his own door. The darkness and violence that lay behind nearly pulse in anticipation of its lord stepping through. Gelda trembles and whispers, "I'm frightened."
"No, this isn't—" Zeldris pauses, thinking.
Why is he trying to reassure her? For a moment, he considers it: pulling the girl into Tartarus, using his long-practiced weapons to wrench the answers he wants. Zeldris turns to her, enjoying how she shrinks away a bit. This is what he was made for, all those years ago. This is the power that his sacrifice gave.
His sacrifice. He remembers now, however, how this girl made him betray his oath. Her transgression was against himself, a god, so he coulddo it. He could make the case that Gelda's soul belonged to him now. He could take her into the realm beyond the door and repay her for her sin.
Zeldris can see it clearly, a smile curling over his mouth. He will take her inside and chain her perhaps, just as he found her. It would be so easy to have her bound, not that he would really need to, more than likely. She is quiet and obedient and trusts him, although he does not know why. He could pull the lovely dress from her and take whatever part he wanted. Her cries would mingle with those of the other souls banished to their torment. Zeldris has never had a human there, but it cannot be that different. If anything, it will be clearer, sharper.
"My lord?" she whispers, and his eyes fixate on her mouth. Gelda licks her lips nervously, and he reacts.
Zeldris grabs her by the arms and yanks her forward, the hand that once laid on his arm now pressed against his chest. He dips his face down, drinking in her scent, sighing on her collarbone as she shivers against him. The images of their sin—her sin? his sin?—comes to mind. His desire for her then flares again, and he wants her now. There is a war inside of him as the need to see her broken beneath him battles the need to see her crying in pleasure beneath him. Which to choose? What should he do?
His appetite is only further whetted now. One hand moves into her hair, and he hums in appreciation when he discovers it feels as soft as he had imagined. His mouth waters as he pulls her head slowly backwards. His hunger, however, is not for food, his thirst nothing to do with cool water or rich wines. Instead, he wants to taste her again, run his mouth along every inch, feel her softness and her heat, watch the trembling of her limbs, hear her voice say his name.
His name echoes through his mind now drunk on lust and desire. Why had he given this up? His teeth catch the side of her neck, a quick bite. The taste of her skin is Paradise.
"Zeldris? My lord, please…"
Yes, her voice, this is what he wanted. "Say it again," he murmurs, and now the scent of her is his drug, heavy on his head with his nose grazing her neck.
She is trembling now, to his delight. How does she know what he desires so acutely? How can she respond so easily? All at once, this feels wrong somehow, but Zeldris cannot care. The hand not entwined in her hair runs down her side, tracing over the curve of her hip as a sound escapes her lips.
Her lips! That is what he needs the most. He had kissed her body again and again, all over her soft curves, tasting her, giving her pleasure. But he had never kissed her properly, he realizes. He had never tasted her mouth, and now that is what he wants. It is all he wants.
Through the haze he tilts her head. The hands on his chest squeeze into the coat, but whether they are pushing or pulling he cannot tell. His mouth seeks hers, dragging along her neck, her jaw, searching, until he reaches her lips. Now he will have what he wants, what he desires with every inch of his body. Zeldris has not desired a thing in millennia, until this woman. Her breath, warm and sweet, feathers against his mouth as his lips part, and the sensation gives him pause.
He opens his eyes and meets her blue ones. It is enough to snap him out of this fantasy, and roughly he releases his grip on her.
Zeldris heaves one deep breath after another, staring at her in shock. "How are you doing that?" he demands, wincing at how his voice rasps with the unfulfilled desires.
"I'm not," she whispers, eyes wide and pleading. "I haven't done anything, I swear to you."
The truth in her eye in plain, but it does nothing to soothe the uncomfortable rage of emotions. Zeldris considers taking her to Tartarus once more, making her pay for whatever this is that she has created inside of him. But the hour is drawing late as he plays at lover in the hallway. Belialuin is expecting the king's head, and Zeldris has one night to deliver. If he was this easily dragged under the veil of desire with just the thought of having her there, what would become of him if he actually took her inside?
You should be gentle with her. The queen's words come unbidden, accompanied by the sour taste of bitter realization that Elizabeth was right. Gelda is now visibly shaken, fear in her eyes behind the confusion, and as much as it would pleasure him greatly to have his way with the beautiful princess, it would not help him in his goal.
Desire is the enemy of one such as he; isn't that why he had given up all desire, in order to become a god?
"This way," he answers, stepping around her to stride to the other door. Without a thought he yanks it open, stepping aside almost gentlemanly for the princess to hurry inside. Once she clears the doorway, he follows, pulling shut the door on one nightmare in favor of another.
Chapter 6: Part Six
With the holiday next week, I will be updating quicker so this story can be finished before the new year. Please enjoy, and thank you for reading.
Be strange to yourself,
in your love, your grief.
Your wet eyelashes a black
fringe on brown pain
and your feet unbelievably
sure, somehow, surfing
your own shadow,
that too-large one cresting
just now, too soon for you
to get inside the curl:
the one place in the ocean
where it's safe.
"This isn't real?" Gelda asks. Her hands brush over the tops of the tall grass as they walk, her eyes open in wonder. "It seems so real."
"What is real, anyway?" scoffs Zeldris. "You can touch it, you can see it. Is it not real enough, just because this is not Britannia?"
The girl blushes a bit and drops her gaze to the ground, the small glimmer of something more than quiet obedience now snuffed out nearly as soon as it began. They had been walking together through Paradise for a short while—time was rather relative in the Underworld—and this is the first time she had spoken to him since the hall. The dazzling beauty of Paradise and the rich blend of warmth and light and the unmistakable peaceful energy had proven to be nearly overwhelming. For that he forgives himself of the harsh tone he used, even as he regrets it a bit.
To keep his head in such a place, Zeldris had watched the girl carefully as they walked. He had told himself he was studying her as a better way to gain the advantage, but it was obvious even to himself this was only a half-truth. He keeps his eyes averted from the souls that move around them and away, not wanting to come across a familiar set of blue eyes. Facing such a thing is unthinkable.
Thankfully, it is easy to focus on Gelda instead. Her sweet nature seemed to call out to his dark one, the light of her face and features something he had not seen in an age. Even her silence was companionable, and he found himself wanting to break it to ask her questions of herself, her life, her thoughts. But this was dangerous thinking that would lead down an even more dangerous path. Already twice he had forgotten himself in her presence; there would not be a third.
"Where are we heading?" asks Gelda.
He takes the moment to look around. Paradise seems to stretch out forever. Having never been inside before, Zeldris wonders for a moment where to go first, but then spies a gathering of souls a ways off, near what looks like a stream. "This way," he says, and takes off at a brisk pace.
The princess walks behind him, not speaking. Yet every cell in his body is attuned to her in this place. He can hear her breathing and sense the way her hair is flowing behind her. He knows how fast her heart is beating and when she runs her tongue over her lower lip and is there when she stumbles, his hand shooting out to stop her fall. Gelda looks at him in surprise, momentarily caught in his arms once again, those blue eyes piercing into him.
"Be careful," he snaps, setting her back on her feet. But this time, he urges her forward, keeping his hand steady on the small of her back. "This may be Paradise, but it is for the dead. You can still be harmed here."
Gelda nods, walking carefully as they head down a small rise. At the bottom, a stream the color of the sky glistens in the afternoon light. Many souls are gathered, bathing and lounging and laughing. The trees that come up to the edge are laden with fruit, and some walk through, picking off apples and olives and pears to eat.
However, as they draw closer, the souls take notice. Quickly they gather up their things and move away, a few furtive glances behind showing what could be called distress, even in this place. Zeldris can feel his own dark nature sitting muted under his skin, and it pulses a bit seeing them scatter. These humans may have been granted a peaceful afterlife, but none are without sin; he wonders if any would have ended up at the end of his knife, had the king not found love.
Those dark thoughts bring a chill to the air, and Gelda shivers. As they reach the bank of the stream Zeldris moves away, taking his hand away from her, feeling the cold himself once she is gone from his touch. He feels as though he should say something, but cannot find the words.
The princess glances at him for a moment before moving towards a tree. He tries not to watch as she reaches up to pluck an olive from a branch. She examines it for a moment, and then says, "I can really have this?"
Zeldris folds his arms. "That's what the queen says," he replies dryly.
Gelda lifts the olive to her lips and takes a tentative bite. Her eyes widen in surprise, and eagerly she slips the rest inside her mouth, already reaching for another. She moves to the trees, pulling off an armful of assorted fruits, snacking on another olive as she works. "These are delicious!"
A moment later she is hurrying back to him, munching on an apple. "What would you like?" she asks, smiling at him expectantly.
Zeldis clears his throat. "I am a god. I have no need of food." He tries to speak with contempt, but for once, there is a slight tremble in his voice.
Gelda blushes and looks down, embarrassed. "Of course, my lord."
Her demure submission is charming, and catches him by surprise. When others show such humility to him, it brings his scorn; but for her, it sends chills through him. Zeldris watches as she shifts uncomfortably, her lips parting as if to say something, only to close again, and he feels the urge to please her. "I—will taste one," he concedes.
Her cheeks are still dusted with pink as she looks back at him shyly through her lashes. A small smile ghosts her lips, and Gelda juggles the fruit she holds to take an olive, round and ripe, in her fingers. She holds it up for him to take, but Zeldris is so captured by her boldness that at first he does not respond. So she presses the fruit to his lips. At once they open, and her fingers slip inside, his mouth at once filled with the taste of her salty skin and the bitter olive.
Flames of desire are at once ignited, and Zeldris grips her wrist to pull her hand away. The olive bursts in his mouth; suddenly the taste overwhelms him, his eyes widening at the sensation. All the meals in the Underworld, the wines and cakes and meat that was laid in front of him and that he had shared with his brothers, none of it compared to the simple taste of an olive offered by the girl that stands before him. The tender flesh rolls between his teeth as the tart juices fill his tongue, the pit catching inside of his cheek, the flavor bright and crisp and vibrant as the princess.
He gasps, feeling a burning sensation behind his eyes. She has done this again, reached inside of him and pulled on his heartstrings, bring up a memory of life that bubbles to the surface and overflows inside of his chest. This simple pleasure confuses him even as it leaves him trembling.
He is still gripping her wrist, but Gelda turns her hand to tug on his arm. "Is it good?" she asks, and when he nods, unable to speak, she breaks into a grin. "Here, have more."
She sits on the grass, guiding him down next to her. In a haze he swallows the fruit as she lays out the rest on the fabric of her skirt, pooled in her lap. "What would you like?"
This is the second time she has asked him this, but this time, Zeldris has no answer. The act of being fed and the flavor of the simple fruit has him stunned completely. But Gelda's eyes are kind as she hands him cherries, a plum, and an apricot. Eagerly he takes the offered food and begins to eat, the taste more acute than ever. It is unlike any meal he has had, either on the gilded plates of his kingdom, or before that, the simple earthenware of his wife's kitchen.
For several minutes they enjoy their meal in silence, and the demon cannot take his eyes from her face as she peels and eats an orange. Zeldris is fascinated with the way her delicate fingers pull back the skin and the tantalizing way her tongue traces her lip after the fleshy inside is placed in her mouth. He remembers the feel of her mouth under his, her taste, and now desire is gaining ground inside of his mind as it shifts from the food they eat to the princess beside him.
"This food is a gift of the gods," Gelda says unexpectedly, and bows her head. "We thank you for this blessing, and offer ourselves to you in praise."
"What?" he puzzles.
She looks at him with a bit of surprise, and then laughs. "It's a prayer we say when we eat," Gelda explains. "A bit of a habit, I guess."
Zeldris nods and continues to study her as he begins eating an apricot. Again, the flavor is sweet and pungent, juicy and soft and warm, filling his senses. Despite the strangeness of it all, Zeldris cannot help but grin. This is the best thing he has had in years, even with its simplicity, and he allows himself to enjoy it.
The afternoon is wearing on, but Zeldris pays it no mind as they sit and share their little meal. Gelda watches the river flow by, but no animals or souls approach them. A gentle breeze will bend the grass and disturb the hair that curls at the end of her braid, drawing his notice. The hair was like silk, before, and his neck flushes with heat to remember. He desires, again, to feel it, to feel her.
The sentiment is no longer as startling as it had been, but deep inside of him, Zeldris wonders why his sense of desire has returned to him now.
Gelda cracks open a pomegranate, and as she begins to pull the seeds from the inside, he suddenly remembers why. It is Elizabeth's doing, the goddess who upturned their world, who made his brother love. His blood goes cold as Gelda eats a seed, and then another. He remembers this as well, that Elizabeth had done the same to stay in the Underworld. The goddess knew not to eat the food in the dining hall, but she had anyway; even knowing that Baltra was there to claim her, and that she could not stay.
But then Meliodas had given up his oath, much the way Zeldris is doing now. And she had done something to him, when the portal to the Underworld was closed, hadn't she? Zeldris remembers, and it fills him with dread. In that moment, as Meliodas sat dying in his throne, he had confessed to her that he had given up his love. Then Elizabeth had healed him, or so he assumed. It was the only time he had ever spoken of the woman he once loved, who had piercing blue eyes and had filled his days with desire. The goddess knows his sin.
The simple act was one of treachery, and Zeldris is reminded of his task and his real desire.
"Where is your father?" he demands harshly.
The princess looks at him in surprise. "I don't know," she answers simply with a shake of her head.
He leans forward, the perfume of the pomegranate filling his nostrils, and watches in curiosity as Gelda does not shrink away. "Your father is marked for death," he warns.
Her lower lip trembles, again drawing his eye. "Why?" she whispers. "He has done nothing wrong."
"He defied Belialuin," Zeldris insists, even as she shakes her head vigorously. "You call me a liar?" he shouts.
Her eyes pin him down, keeping him from lashing out. "You keep saying that," Gelda chokes out. "But what was his crime?" Zeldris purses his lips in answer, but she presses forward defiantly. "I volunteered to go before the beast, to give my life for my clan. If you say it was because of my father's crime, then I want to know what he did!"
"Why would you volunteer?" he hisses at her. "What sort of idiot asks for death without knowing why?"
The stillness that overcomes the princess then is almost palpable, erecting a wall between them. He sees her features smooth into nothingness as the pleasure and grace and defiance that she had shown since coming into his care all melt away. In an instant the girl who offered him fruit and dared to demand an explanation is gone. Now Gelda looks like the noble princess she is, one who knows her place, one who would not dare to speak against her betters, and he hates it.
"It is why I was born," she says quietly, her voice void of any emotion. "I was born to be a sacrifice."
"I was a gift from Belialuin," continues Gelda. "A gift from the god and a curse upon the king and queen, who wanted a son."
He presses his mouth tightly together. "Is that what they told you?"
"In order to fulfill my duty as their daughter and to the gods, I must give my life in return."
She speaks as if reciting lessons long-practiced, and it grates on his nerves. "Gelda—" he admonishes, but once more she interrupts him.
"My people faced a great threat, and by giving my life to save them, I honored my parents and my oath. I am the thousand temptations, who takes on the sin of the people."
Unable to hear more, Zeldris reaches for her. The dullness in her eyes snaps back into the spark he had grown to look for just a moment before he presses his lips on hers. He cannot hear any more of these ridiculous claims. What is wrong with humans, to make up such terrible lies?
Her hands press against his elbows, and he feels a wetness on his cheek.
Pulling away, he sees tears escaping from below her lashes. "Gelda," he whispers, brushing one away with his thumb.
Her lips are barely grazing his now, and his act is weighing heavily on him. It was a moment, just a moment that can be forgiven, can't it? For the third time he has taken from this girl, has given in to his desire, has broken a promise. His sins may never be forgiven; that truth is bitter in this place.
Yet his heart beats faster as her head tilts towards him, her mouth hovering against his. If he takes this step and kisses her again, he knows that he will forever be a part of her, that he will never be able to let her go. He will not be satisfied again with the cold ecstasy of performing his duty or the empty beauty of delivering justice. He will cross this threshold from demon and god to lover and protector, because once he chooses Gelda as his own, she will be a part of him again.
So he waits a moment, savoring this feeling. Somewhere behind the anticipation he wonders if Meliodas had felt this; if he had spent a moment suspended between choice and action; if he had realized all that would happen when he chose to kiss a goddess. He wonders if Meliodas understood his decision, as Zeldris understands it now.
Gelda whispers something back, but it is muffled by his lips sliding on hers. His fingers dig into the soft fabric of her dress, bunching at her waist. His palms are itching to feel her skin-to-skin, and he pushes himself into the feeling in order to keep his head. Her own fingers are now brushing his neck, tracing the nape of his hair over and over again. It is electric and deeply relaxing, each stroke dragging him further under her spell. How can there be so much life from her in this place of death? It reaches out to him, calls to him as if he were going home. Her small frame fits against his perfectly, her skin smooth and perfect, the soft moans perfect.
Is this what Meliodas had experienced? The hypocrisy of his actions does not escape the demon, even as his arms circle around her back, even as he drags his mouth down the side of her neck. As much has he had been overwhelmed by the roaring desire that had erupted during their first meeting, this, this slow drag of her tongue and her hands on his chest is so much more intense.
"Gelda," he murmurs against her lips. "What have you done?"
Chapter 7: Part Seven
The blackened blood of jealousy
Seeped out for every frightened eye to see
And a spiteful goddess felt the shame
Of anger too quick and always to blame
—Marissa Ann Scott
Minutes, hours, days, weeks go by, and Gelda does not care. All she knows is the deep, throbbing ache that has formed inside of her. As Zeldris kisses her, and she kisses him back, something is awakening deep within. Gelda of the thousand temptations, the sacrifice for Edinburgh's people, is coming alive in a place of death, is finding her heart under the lips of one who cannot desire love, is feeling safety in the arms of a killer.
The irony of this moment is lost to the feel and the taste of his mouth. Her fingers dance along the nape of his neck, bringing a sound from Zeldris' throat that sets her body on fire. She does it again and again, clutching at him as he clutches her. Gelda was taught to never speak, to never want, to never ask. All her caution has now been thrown to the wind, left to lay in the grass next to half-eaten pomegranate.
He pulls her closer, and the kiss goes on, deeper, growing passionate even as it slows. Gelda thinks for a moment how this must be what is is like to be worshipped, what it must be like to be loved. And she wants it, wants more of it. Desire for the demon who holds her now is all she knows.
Zeldris whispers her name, and it is fascinating to hear. "Gelda, what have you done?"
She should be caught with fear at such an admonition; but instead she pulls him back to her. Now the kiss becomes urgent, the princess desperate to push aside the feelings of regret that have clung to her for as far back as she can remember. She will not regret this, even if it lasts only this moment. Gelda of the thousand temptations will indulge a temptation of her own.
Eventually, they still, the passion sated for the moment. He pulls away, still cradling her closely, and says, "They lied to you, Gelda. You were not a mistake."
Everything around her seems to freeze as she tries to process his words. "What?"
"You were used, not a mistake," he insists. "And I think I'm being used too. But I promise you, I will figure out what is going on, and why you were left to die. I will get justice for us both."
She is stunned by his words. "Was my father innocent?" she asks.
Zeldris shakes his head. "I don't know. What I do know is that both of us are innocent in this."
The thought of this alone is enough to send Gelda leaping towards the god. He gives a grunt as she throws herself around him, and the princess laughs as she hugs him close. "Thank you," she cries, pressing her forehead against his temple. "Thank you."
Gelda tilts his head up and covers his mouth with hers. Never before this moment would the girl have been so bold; but now she is released of her bonds. She feels free now, of Edinburgh and her position, of the shame of her birth and the scorn of her parents. Zeldris, the god of Piety, has named her innocent. Never will she let this go, never will she forget.
Zeldris pulls her up and onto his lap, and she settles over him, her thighs around his as her arms circle his neck. The chains of her guilt now gone, she does as she pleases, taking her pleasure from the hard press of his body and the insistent tongue that matches her own. His hands go into her hair and palm her back, and she can feel his arms straining when she presses her own onto his shoulders. "I don't want this to end," she moans. "Please, I want…"
Zeldris groans before he moves his mouth down her throat. The feeling of being loved has her captured, and she shivers as his tongue presses against her pulse. "Tell me," he murmurs to her. "I'll give you whatever you desire."
"You," she answers. Gelda tilts away to press her forehead on the demon's, smiling to see his eyes widen at her. Then she kisses his cheek sweetly. "You have saved my life. You have given me another chance."
"Gelda?" he stammers out, his tone that of warning, but she goes on, "I have never been held, I have never been loved, I was never allowed to want—"
Before she can continue, they are interrupted. "There you are, brother!" a laughing voice calls.
At once Gelda feels him tense, and then she is pushed away. "What are you doing here, Estarossa?" Zeldris snaps as he stands.
The princess turns in surprise to take in a tall demon with silver hair and a devilish smile. This is not the king that Elizabeth had spoken about. Another brother, another demon in this place? Gelda stands and steps next to Zeldris, noting the tightness in his stance and the hard expression on his face.
"I was looking for you," the other answers amiably, and then gives her a smile that causes her to flush. "And for… is this the princess I've heard so much about? The human you saved?"
He steps forward, reaching out as if to take her hand, but a step from Zeldris separates them immediately. She presses a palm on his back and feels him tremble. "I won't ask again," he growls. "What do you want?"
Before he answers, Estarossa drags his eyes over her, and she feels as though he is looking inside of her soul. "You are wanted by the king," he finally responds, his eyes going back to Zeldris. "Belialuin himself is here, wanting to speak with you regarding her."
"Belialuin!" Gelda cries out, stumbling backwards with her fear. But Zeldris holds her steadily.
"Where?" he asks, and the other replies, "Meliodas is speaking with him now. Something about collecting what is his."
Estarossa smiles at her, and Gelda feels exposed. It is certain he is referring to her. Fear slips through her veins like ice water. She was meant to be the sacrifice, and Zeldris killed the beast instead; what punishment would be in store for her defiance now? Nervously she glances up to try to see Zeldris' expression. Gelda wants to believe he would protect her, but in the end, his is a god bound by duty and fate. Can even a god stand up to that?
As if he could hear her thoughts, Zeldris takes her hand. It is firm and steady as it squeezes her trembling one. "You'll be safe in my own chambers. Go straight there and wait for me."
"Allow me to escort the princess." Both of them look up at the demon, who tilts his head towards her. "I'll see her safely there. The Underworld can be a confusing place."
Zeldris begins to protest, but Estarossa holds up a palm to cut him off. "Do not worry, I have no interest in your human. You can certainly trust me." Then he folds his arms and tilts his chin down, looking intently at his brother. "Besides, I am rather interested in helping you with Belialuin and his daughter, as I mentioned before. I could even perform a task for you that you find yourself unable to complete, for instance."
Something passes between the two demons, but Gelda remains confused. She knows something unspoken is communicated, broken off when Zeldris bites out, "Fine. Take her there, and lock the door." With a last glance he says, "This won't take long."
She watches his back retreating as he goes in a flash. A minute later, a shadow covers her as the very tall demon left as her escort towers over her. "Princess," he says, his voice deep and his tone nothing but polite.
Slowly they walk side-by-side, Estarossa allowing her to keep pace with his long strides. The princess wonders if she should speak, but has no idea what to say to the intimidating being beside her. Thankfully he keeps his gaze straight ahead, not revealing an opportunity for conversation, so she follows him obediently. They head through the portal back to the Underworld, avoiding the throne room to end up in an empty corridor. The quiet that surrounds them once out of Paradise is stark. Their footsteps echo as he leads her from one hallway to the next, finally stopping outside of a door that is as austere and hard as Zeldris.
"Here we are," Estarossa says.
Gelda murmurs her thanks and reaches out for the doorknob, but his hand on her shoulder stops her. She swallows nervously and looks up at the demon, who looks back with an easy, amiable expression. "Before I take my leave, I have something for you."
Her brows go up in surprise. "For me?"
Estarossa nods. "First, a bit of advice. I feel it is my duty to warn you not to eat the food," he cautions. "Only take what the queen offers as safe. Otherwise you will be forced to stay here and never return to Edinburgh. And since you are a human, most likely you would die."
Gelda nods. "Yes, the queen had said something like that earlier… but, I thank you for your concern."
"One more thing, before I go." Estarossa smiles again, his tone soothing and affable. "You'll need to give the queen a gift."
"A gift?" frowns Gelda. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, it is a custom among the gods, in thanks for hospitality." He waves his hand in a dismissive gesture, and Gelda feels her cheeks burn in embarrassment. "I suppose you don't have one?"
"That's fine. I have one right here." Estarossa reaches into his pocket and draws out a small box. "Inside is an elixir for the queen. Something she uses to extend her life, so she can stay with the king." Gelda looks at him in surprise, and he shrugs. "A goddess could never hope to live as long as a demon. And without it, the Underworld would reject her. You can give this to her as your gift."
Gelda stares at the simple box, the wood dark and smooth on her skin as he presses it to her palm. "Thank you, but—why? Why are you helping me?"
"You are someone my brother obviously cares for; therefore, so do I." Gelda cannot help the gasp that escapes her, but if the demon notices he makes no indication. "Now don't forget what I said, and don't forget to give the queen this gift."
He is gone a moment later, and Gelda is left to stare at the little box in her hand.
Zeldris stalks through Paradise, his mood changing back into the cold strength of the demon of Piety. He stalks forward to his fate, but he will not allow Belialuin or even Meliodas to dictate what is going to happen between them. Now that Gelda has awoken his desires, he will not return to the nothingness. If Meliodas gets to keep his goddess, then Zeldris will be damned if the princess will be taken from him.
The door to his own realm approaches when a flash of gold catches his attention. The sun is nearly ready to set, and he squints as he turns into the glare. Blinking away the spots that form, Zeldris is about to continue his way when he sees the thing he has dreaded most, out of all the creatures he had ever faced.
She does not see him, but is walking a fair ways away. The golden hair is pulled into a familiar knot, her dress a simple white. The demon stops in his tracks to watch her stoop down, pulling up a bunch of wildflowers. His mouth goes dry and his hands tremble, a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead. There is nothing in this world or the other that could overcome him, that ever had or ever would… except for her.
Blue eyes, crystal tears, the smell of burnt bread, the splash of blood on the floor all flip through his mind's eye, his senses filled. He should not have come here, he decides; why would he ever, ever come to this place?
"Gelda," he chokes out, and she lifts her head.
Zeldris turns and flees, his behavior unbecoming of his station but without care. He pushes the past behind as he hurries back, wanting to forget her, forget this feeling, so desperate to escape that when he arrives in the throne room with a crash, he is sweating and disheveled.
"Zeldris," the king says from his throne, his voice unamused. "Good of you to join us."
He pulls up short, panting to catch his breath. The room is darker somehow, the shadows longer. They swirl in strange patterns on the wall and floor, and he frowns, his senses picking up magic within them. His eyes travel along the shapes that move in the corner of his vision towards their epicenter. Immediately his sight zooms into the shrouded figure that must be the god of shadows, standing in the middle of the hall. Merlin is nowhere in sight.
"Your Grace," he responds. The demon clears his throat and steps forward. "I have only just received your message." His eyes go to the figure, his face set as stone. "You must be Belialuin."
"And you, the demon of Piety." The voice that comes from under the hood is quiet and smooth. "You are tasked with bringing justice on behalf of the gods."
Zeldris folds his arms. "That is correct."
"Even when that justice is unasked-for?" the god murmurs.
"My brother was set to that task with an unbreakable oath," Meliodas adds. Zeldris' eyes flicker to him, surprised at hearing the king come to his defense.
"Edinburgh belongs to me. I will deal my own justice."
Zeldris huffs in cold amusement. "Like sending a dragon to eat an innocent girl?"
"If I must," he replies. Zeldris grits his teeth at the offhand response, but Belialuin shows no hint of emotion. The hooded gaze remains on the king as he says, "The innocent girl is why I am here. You have taken something of mine, and I've come to collect her."
"No." Zeldris' voice is clear, resolute.
The hooded figure slowly turns to face him. Zeldris cannot see the one inside the robes, but can feel eyes burning on him intently. The shadows themselves also move, as if reaching towards him. "No?" he replies. "Edinburgh is mine. The people are mine. That princess is mine."
His shoulders tighten as he tries to remain in control, his powers sending jolts through his nerves as he hears Belialuin make the claim. "If she is yours, why did you allow her to be chained? Why would you accept her being made a sacrifice?"
Belialuin snorts. "Edinburgh was to be exterminated. The king had betrayed me, so the clan was supposed to be destroyed."
"Your own daughter came here and asked me to intervene on your behalf." His voice shakes a bit, twisting tightly with the emotion he struggles to keep in check. "Merlin asked me to save her because you sent that dragon to devour the king, but Izraf sent his daughter out instead."
There is a silence, the statement hanging suspended in the air; then, the god laughs. Zeldris narrows his eyes as he senses the king shifting in his chair. "Merlin," he sighs. "Well, that cannot be helped. I will take the princess now."
"She thinks she deserved it. She thinks her purpose was to die." Zeldris takes a step forward, his muscles tensed. "She thinks she was born to be a sacrifice, for you!"
"We are all born to this world for some purpose." The reply is a clear dismissal, and the god turns back to Meliodas. "Izraf has been re-established as king of Edinburgh after our… misunderstanding. He wants his daughter back, and I have assured him she will be along soon."
"Izraf's back?" Zeldris chokes out, but the king looks on Belialuin coldly. "Your own daughter was the one that caused this mess," accuses Meliodas. "Before we hand the princess back to you, I want to know what the consequence is for her."
"I will deal with my daughter as well as the king," replies Belialuin. "Another misunderstanding, I assure you. The jealousy of a goddess such as she is a force as powerful as a storm."
Zeldris sucks in a sharp breath. "Jealousy?" he hisses out. Merlin was jealous? Of Gelda? "That's why she wanted her dead? Did she send the dragon herself?"
"A misunderstanding," the god says again smoothly, but with a tint of danger.
"She came here and lied to me," Zeldris goes on. His voice is dark and dangerous. "She lied to a god, she formed an oath based on treachery. These are sins that must be accounted for!"
"I will deal with—"
"What was Izraf's role in this? Did he know? Did Merlin conspire with the king?" Zeldris' mind whirls with the possibilities. How far did her deception go? "Is that why she wanted me to kill him? To cover for her lies?"
Belialuin does not answer, and Zeldris steps forward threateningly. "Why would she come here then? If she wanted Gelda dead, and if you ordered the clan to be destroyed, then why would she ask me to stop it?"
Belialuin still gives no response. Zeldris thinks of Gelda, her torn dress and sore wrists, the fear in her eyes, the tears she shed for failing in her role as sacrifice. She had thought she could save them. She had thought it was worth it to give her life to save her people. But it was all for petty jealousy?
His powers flare up and outwards, the mark of the demon burning over his skin, urging him on, demanding justice. Zeldris wants nothing more than to strike down the god of shadows, then go and find that daughter of his and deal another fate for interfering with the gods. However, he cannot do such a thing in the king's hall…
But if Meliodas were to give the command, he could.
He looks to the king for the order, but Meliodas does not give one. His eyes flicker over Zeldris in warning, so he steps back, as difficult as it is. Then the king says, "We will return the girl to her father tomorrow, as was originally agreed. Now take your leave before my brother loses control of himself."
His chest heaving, Zeldris watches Belialuin consider. "Fine," says the god. "I will tell Izraf to expect his daughter at sunrise."
The shadows in the room begin to move, drawing into the god, and as he is covered in the darkness, Zeldris finds his pulse is beginning to slow. Gelda will be his for tonight. It will need to be enough time to figure out his next move. Then the god is gone, and the Underworld feels at once familiar again.
Zeldris turns back towards the throne, but in that moment, his world explodes in a rush of stars. He falls back onto the stone floor, feeling blood in his mouth, and in an instant he is on hands and knees glaring up at Meliodas. The king is glowering back at him, just as fiercely, his hand out and ready to strike again. "Your foolishness ends now," the king commands. "I told you not to deal with them."
"How was I to know?" Zeldris snaps back at him. He climbs to his feet and faces his brother, his own fists clenched in anger. "What reason had I not to believe Merlin?"
Meliodas narrows his eyes. "It is your duty to know the truth. Yet you were blinded this time. Tell me, what was it that clouded your vision so much that you failed to see such obvious deception?"
Zeldris takes a deep breath. It was Elizabeth, of course, and the idea of doing away with her that had enticed him into this game. But he cannot tell that to the king; besides, it is no longer true. He has given his oath not to bring harm to the goddess. And now, he does not wish to, not anymore.
So he stands there, silently, until Meliodas shakes his head. "Get that girl back to her father before sunrise," he commands, turning to return to his seat.
But Zeldris calls out, "I can't do that."
The king looks at him threateningly over his shoulder, but Zeldris does not back down. "She will not be safe there. If Merlin failed to be rid of her now, what is to stop her again? And if the king is a part of this evil plan, then Gelda cannot hope to survive in Edinburgh."
"It's not our concern!" Zeldris presses his lips together as Meliodas steps up and sits on the throne. "The affairs of the humans and their god is their own. If the girl dies, it will be their sin. But we cannot interfere!" The look he gives his brother is filled with wrath, a clear warning not to press the issue further.
"You would interfere if it was Elizabeth!" shouts Zeldris.
The accusation echoes in the hall as the two brothers face each other. Then Meliodas' expression turns from fury to understanding. "So that is it, then," he says slowly. "You have fallen in love with the girl."
Zeldris swallows thickly and bows his head. "I don't know what is happening," he admits. "But I—I can't send her back there."
The last bit comes out as a harsh whisper, and he feels hot shame at the emotion in his words. It is made even worse with the king's knowing sigh. "This is not meant to be, Zeldris," Meliodas says, his tone even. "She is not like Elizabeth, who is a goddess, and can live here. Gelda is a human and belongs in Britannia. One day she will arrive in the Underworld, but not at your side."
Zeldris can feel his shoulders start to shake. "I don't believe that," he whispers. "I don't—There must—"
"You cannot escape your fate, and neither can she," replies the king. "Now go."
The dismissal is final, and Zeldris takes his leave. His body is trembling with the heavy truth of what must be done, but he dreads taking her back. Gelda is the one person innocent in this web, and yet she will be the one to suffer. How is that justice?
When he arrives at his room, his shoulders are bowed, his mood dark. Zeldris still feels the desire to destroy, to seek his revenge on Merlin and Belialuin and Izraf, to lay waste everyone and everything that had drawn him into this situation. But the violent side of him is held back because of his own part in this; if not for his own treachery, then there would have been no room for Merlin to cause such turmoil.
So when he sees Gelda sitting in his room, and her eyes light up as he enters, Zeldris knows nothing but pain.
She must know what he cannot say, because a moment later she is pulling him into her arms, her lips on his temple. "I'm going back, aren't I?" she murmurs.
He nods, his hands on her back, holding her against him. This was his goal since the moment he laid eyes on her; and now that the command is given, he is unable to fulfill it. The thought of returning her to Edinburgh fills him with fear and revulsion. "Your father is king of Edinburgh again," Zeldris whispers. "Belialuin wants you to return, and I cannot stop him."
Gelda sighs, pressing her cheek on his. "It's okay," she murmurs back. "I knew this would be my fate."
He clutches her even tighter, and she says, "I just wish… I know I'm not a goddess. I know I can't stay here, with you. But before I go back and return to—to that life—I wish to know what it is to be loved. I want to live."
The way she looks at him then takes his breath away. Suddenly her eyes are not sad, or wary; instead, they are filled with the spark of life, and his grip on her goes from possessive to protective. But then his mouth turns down a bit as he says, "Gelda, I cannot teach you about life. I am a god of the Underworld."
He drops his head a bit, and she grazes his cheek with her fingertips. "I know you are of the Underworld," she replies, her voice trembling. "But if there is no life here, then how can Paradise exist? Why do I feel more alive here than I ever did in Edinburgh?" His heart beats faster as she tries desperately to find the words. "I've never… felt before. You have done more than save my life, Zeldris. You gave me life."
They move at the same time, their mouths meeting in a kiss that sets them both on fire. This is what he had been trying to understand, he realizes, as he feels her heart beating wildly, as she tilts her mouth on his. Gelda has not opened his mind to desire; she has brought life to his existence. And now he wants it, he wants her, and he swiftly scoops her up in his arms. Her arms and legs go around him as he carries her to the bed, climbing over her as he lays her down on the mattress.
The kiss turns frantic, their hands wild as they pull and caress each other. There are still hours left, but it feels like only a moment more to savor, and that drives them both with a frenzied desperation. Her dress is pulled open as his shirt is pushed up and off; her hands grip his hips as his own grip her hair. They are uncontrolled now in their passion, never stopping the way their mouths devour one another as their clothes are removed until they are lying entwined, skin to skin, whispering their promises to one another.
"I want you. Please."
He nods, and her thighs open. Then follows a sweet bliss that Zeldris cannot describe, even later, when he is alone again. Their first encounter on the cliff was out of madness, but this time, he knows himself. His mouth moves on her body in a way that makes her groan his name, and he savors the sound as he savors the taste of her skin and her lips and her body. This time, he is deliberate in the way he kisses her, and when his mouth drags along her breasts and takes possession of her nipples, he is focused on giving her pleasure instead of taking it. This time, when his mouth moves lower, kissing her opening, he takes his time to enjoy, to learn her body, to memorize the feel of her.
Gelda is shaking when he moves over her again, but the demon cannot stop. He wants every inch of her, so his mouth slides along her calves, her hips, the bend of her elbow, as his hands trace on her ankles, the shape of her ear, the wet fire between her legs.
She calls his name, and he is there; then Zeldris enters her body, his own hard and thick and demanding as it sinks into the soft heat of her. The tension builds as he slowly thrusts, taking her as he had wanted to back on the cliff. Was that really this morning? Or yesterday? Was it a week ago, a year, a thousand years? How long has it been since he loved, and was loved in return?
Their eyes meet, and the blue is sharp and bright with desire. Her hands grip his hair as she pulls him into a searing kiss, and then Zeldris begins to pump his hips harder, faster, needing to bury himself inside of her. This way, she will be a part of him; when she leaves him forever, he will still have a piece to savor, a memory to hold on to that will remind him of what a life with desire truly means. He will mark her as his own, the other gods be damned.
Then she is moving, twisting, her back arching, a stuttered cry erupting from her lips; and Zeldris feels the pulsing ecstasy begin. He erupts inside of her, her body clenching deliciously around him, and their moans entwine as he finds her lips.
The night goes on and on for them, their searing passion flaring again and again and again. He kisses away her tears as their bodies move together, until the cold light of dawn appears in Britannia, and Gelda is returned to Edinburgh.
he wears the smell of blood and death like a perfume
there is fire in his eyes
and ice in his veins
but you love him anyway
for he is a star
burning with the light of a thousand suns
(and your world is dark without him)
Zeldris sits on the grass by the edge of the stream. The breeze that blows by brings the fragrance of the pomegranate trees, and he sighs as the air brushes the back of his neck. It reminds him of the way Gelda would caress him there, and he can imagine her with him now, her fingers dancing along his skin.
He draws his knees up, wrapping his arms around his legs. How many days has he sat here, where she had been, watching the water?
"Zeldris." A female voice calls for him, but it is not hervoice, so he pays it no mind. "Zeldris, please."
What is she doing now? Did Izraf take her back into his arms, loving her as a father ought? Or is she locked in her room, once more kept away from their accusing eyes? Is she happy? Does she think of him? Does she long to be chained to the edge of the cliff again?
"Zeldris." A hand slides along his arm, and he feels warmth press into his heart. "You are hurting. Let me help."
He looks at the goddess who now sits next to him. "No," he says. "I deserve this pain. I gave it up once, I don't want to do it again."
Elizabeth frowns. "No one would say you could have done things differently."
"I could have," he sighs. "I could have left her there. I could have taken her back sooner. I certainly could have stopped from falling in love." Zeldris looks over at the goddess. "Before that, I could have refused Merlin. Or not hated you so much."
Elizabeth shifts a bit, swallowing uncomfortably. "I wish I had not caused you so much turmoil. I won't apologize for loving Meliodas, but I am sorry that it hurt you so much."
"Can't be helped." He looks back at the water, his lips drawing into a thin line. "I've always caused my own suffering. Even back, before…"
They share a companionable silence, which would make Zeldris laugh if not for the heavy irony. This all started because of this goddess—no. Shaking his head, he huffs at his own thoughts. This is because of me.
"Why don't you go to her?" asks the queen.
He closes his eyes briefly. As if it is that easy! "It would only make things worse," he says, sharper than he had intended. So he slowly continues, "When I act on my desires, I hurt others. That's why I gave them away so long ago. I want to see her, and I know if I do, it will end in disaster."
"But why?" Elizabeth leans over, her face coming into the edge of his vision. "Surely she cares for you."
Taking a deep breath, Zeldris says, "I killed my first love." From the corner of his eye he sees her recoil a bit. "I found her in our home and—I failed to protect her—" Zeldris lets go a harsh laugh and drops his head. "The one thing I ever wanted, taken from me. That is why I gave up desire."
The goddess' hand moves from his arm to his shoulder. "I'm so sorry," she whispers. "I'm sorry that happened. But it wasn't your fault. You should forgive yourself."
Zeldris glances over at her, his eyes going cold. "Forgive me, my lady," he says, his voice clipped, "but what would you know of regret?"
She stares back for a moment, and then removes her hand. "Only that it is useless," Elizabeth finally replies.
When he is alone again, Zeldris closes his eyes. It is easy to remember her face, her body, the shape of her lips and the color of her hair. He hopes he can remember forever.
The passage of time is difficult to mark in the Underworld; yet it is days later when Zeldris finally sees Estarossa. Amazingly, he finds his brother in his own chambers, and the younger pulls up short to see the older searching through his things. "What is this?" he demands sharply.
Estarossa whirls on him; but there is no embarrassment, no guilty look of one who has been caught. Instead, he strides towards his brother and demands, "Where did she put it?"
Zeldris frowns. "What are you talking about?"
"Your princess. She has something of mine. What did she do with it?" Without waiting for an answer, Estarossa steps around him to fling open a closet.
Zeldris is at his side a moment later, sending him flying backwards with a flaring of his dark power. "What are you saying?" he growls as Estarossa climbs to his feet. "What would Gelda have?"
Estarossa returns his cold stare. "I gave her a gift for the queen. However, Elizabeth never received it." He grits his teeth, a fist clenching in anger. "That little human took something from a god. She must be punished."
"What was it?" Zeldris' voice is cold, but a seething anger is moving through him, boiling inside. "What have you done?"
"Only what you couldn't do, brother," he sneers in reply. "You made an agreement with Merlin to dispose of the goddess, didn't you? Then you fell in love and promptly forgot about her crimes." Estarossa draws himself up, but keeps his stance in a defensive mode. "So I spoke to Merlin myself. I procured an elixir that would do away with anything, including a goddess. The god of shadows has many secrets."
His heart thrums like a drum in his chest, his blood rushing with the possibilities. "You found an elixir of death," he hissed, "and you gave it to Gelda?"
"Couldn't exactly give it to the queen myself, could I?" Estarossa snaps back at him. "That little girl was already guilty of betraying one god, what would another matter?"
His sword is out and flashing through the air before Estarossa even finishes his accusation. But the demon sees Zeldris' play, his own weapon appearing from the air and creating sparks as blade crashes against blade. "You dare to say such things," spits out Zeldris in his fury. "I am the god of Piety, and yet you admit such treachery."
"Your own treachery, don't you mean, brother!" Estarossa roars. He pushes Zeldris away, and the two slide across the floor, at once standing to face one another. "You decided to do away with the queen. Youmade the bargain with Merlin. And you are the one who broke that oath with another."
"My sins are my own," admits Zeldris. "But you, the demon of Love, now admits a sin against a human. Isn't that your trade, brother?"
Estarossa growls at him through gritted teeth. "You wanted Elizabeth gone as much as I did. Then you broke with your own heart because some pretty thing spread her legs for you. You are no better than Meliodas."
"Your jealousy is tiresome," replies Zeldris. "Now, you will answer for your crime against the king!"
With a speed unmatched they meet again and again, and Zeldris cannot help but be reminded of the dragon he faced. His demon mark bleeds down his face and arms, as does his brother's. Their strength is well matched, as is their skill; but where Zeldris has the determination to win, he also has a weakness.
"Is this how you really want to spend your time?" Estarossa taunts him as he sends a slice in his direction. "Aren't you curious what Gelda did with the elixir?"
"Your tricks will not work on me," Zeldris roars.
But as they fight, his words take root like a seedling in his mind. What would Gelda have done with it? Why didn't she mention it to him? As if he can read his mind, Estarossa continues his remarks as they spar. "She took it, knowing full well it was not for her," he says, deflecting a blow. "Perhaps she is so cunning as to use it as a bargaining chip against Merlin."
Zeldris struggles with the desire to destroy his brother. "You only see Gelda as devious because that's what you are," he accuses.
"Perhaps you're right," laughs Estarossa. He slashes at Zeldris, and when the other twists he smashes his elbow into his chin. As Zeldris drops to a knee, Estarossa stands over him and sneers, "But you are wasting time. You should ask her yourself. We both know what will happen to a human who drinks an elixir of the gods."
Zeldris gasps, his eyes flying upwards to lock onto Estarossa's mocking ones.
Gelda sits in her room, staring out at the sea. It had been weeks since she was returned to Edinburgh, weeks since her heart was opened by the life she discovered in the Underworld. Yet life in her home had remained for the most part unchanged; and it is intolerable.
Izraf and the others now regard her with great suspicion, having somehow survived the dragon and Belialuin's wrath. Once more she finds herself confined to her room, but to the princess it makes no difference. There was no life before Zeldris; now there will be no life afterwards. Gelda is content to wait until she sees him again, when she goes to meet her fate before Meliodas.
Her eyes drift to the drawer in the table next to her bed. Inside is the gift Estarossa had given her to present to the queen. In the rush of passion and tears, she had forgotten all about it. Now it sits in her room, calling to her, mocking her for her weakness. If it gives life to the goddess, would it not give eternal life to her as well? Then she can go to the Underworld an equal of the demon she loves, and live by his side.
But fear holds her back. Not of death; she does not fear death, not anymore. It is fear of his rejection that stays her hand.
The shadows grow long as the evening fades, so when she hears footsteps behind her, she jumps in alarm. Whirling around, she nearly cries out, knowing that he has come for her, and Gelda is ready to launch herself with a cry towards him.
Yet when she sees Merlin standing in her room, she shrinks back. The daughter of Belialuin is well-known to those in Edinburgh. Her visit is a blessing and a curse.
"My lady," Gelda breathes, and quickly scrambles up to give a curtsey.
"Now that I have a look at you," Merlin says slowly. "I don't know what all the fuss is about."
Gelda's eyes go wide even as they remain on the floor. "I don't understand—"
"You wouldn't, would you?" The mage walks around her room, looking at the fine things on the tables, running her fingertips along the delicately carved wood of her vanity. Gelda watches her closely, wondering what to say. Her nerves cause her to tremble, particularly when she reaches the bed. With a smirk Merlin smoothes her hand over the bedpost, and then grins at her over her shoulder. "Did you enjoy your time in the Underworld?"
The princess does not know how to answer, so she steps backwards, shaking her head. She bumps into the window ledge, and in a flash Merlin in there, leaning in, forcing her backwards.
Her yellow eyes peer into Gelda's blue ones, cold and emotionless, betraying the smile plastered to her lips. "You have not thanked me for that gift."
"Thank you," she whispers immediately.
Merlin nods, but remains pressed against her. The princess shivers, feeling Merlin's breath against her forehead, and she cannot help but drop her eyes. What does she want? Gelda wishes that the demon would appear, but she knows it is impossible.
A moment ticks by, then another, then another, before Merlin says, "Without my interference, my father's dragon would have eaten you. I sent Zeldris to find you, did you know that?"
Gelda shakes her head, and Merlin steps back a bit, allowing her to breathe easier. "You had the opportunity to go somewhere few humans do." She peers at the princess closely, her eyes dragging over her body, causing her to flush. "Tell me, Gelda, did you learn anything there?"
The princess watches her uneasily. "Learn, my lady? What should I have learned?"
Merlin huffs sharply. "You are a dullard, aren't you? No beauty, no wit… the rumors about you are surely false."
She gives a shrill little laugh, and it cuts through Gelda's heart. "I learned about life. What it means to live," she declares.
The goddess freezes before looking at her with an incredulous expression. "Life! In a place such as that!"
Gelda nods, drawing forth her courage. "I found peace there. I found…" Her voice fades away, a blush rising on her cheeks and making her skin burn.
Her thoughts are interrupted by haughty laughter. "The princess of vampires fell in love with a demon prince! How ridiculous. Like something out of a story." Gelda looks at her sheepishly as Merlin tilts her head. It feels to the princess as though the god can look into her soul, and see all of her sins, all of her wants. "Well, I came here to get rid of you once and for all. But I think that letting you live will be more of a fitting punishment."
"Punishment for what, exactly?"
Gelda jumps in surprise, her hands flying to her mouth to keep from crying out. Her heart pounds wildly at the sight of the demon she had not dared to even dream of, now here in the flesh, moving slowly towards the other in her defense. Zeldris steps into the room from the shadows, his eyes narrow and cold, his hand gripping a curved weapon. Darkness swirls around his body, and his eyes are pools of ink that show no fear, no emotion. "You are not a god of judgment," he continues. "So how can you decide punishment on others?"
Merlin smirks, looking not at all unnerved at the demon staring at her with murderous intent. "I know a thing or two about sin," she laughs. "After all, I am the god of desire."
"Gluttony, more like," he mutters, and Merlin bows her head with another chuckle. "Desire comes in many forms," she replies.
"What do you want?" demands Zeldris. Gelda watches, trapped in fright, her eyes moving back and forth between the two beings.
"The same thing you do," Merlin answers smoothly. "The princess of Edinburgh."
Gelda gasps, but Zeldris does not even flinch. "You will not have her," he warns.
Merlin smiles broadly. "No doubt we have different designs. But I cannot exchange my claim on this girl."
"And why not?" he snaps. "Your father named her blameless. He has forgiven Izraf for whatever treachery he committed. He has brought back the princess despite your own jealousies." At that Merlin purses her lips a bit, and Zeldris gives a cruel smile. "Yes, I know about that business, and your lies. Deceiving a god of Piety is dangerous work, you know."
"My father is a fool who should never have given this girl to these stupid vampires," she counters. "But either way, I will have her life. We made an oath, Zeldris of Piety. The dragon's life for that of your goddess. You have slain the dragon; yet the queen still lives."
Gelda gives a strangled noise, her body trembling at the news. "That is why you saved me?" she whispers, and his eyes dart towards her. "Because you wanted to kill Elizabeth?"
She thinks of the beautiful goddess who had been so kind to her, who had taken care of her like no one else had. "Gelda," he says softly, and Merlin laughs. "The innocence of these humans you love! Yes, princess," she continues, turning to her. "Zeldris was as jealous of her as I was of you. He does not believe in love. He finds it to be below the station of the gods of the Underworld."
Her mind whirls even as he shouts at Merlin to be silent. Her hands move from her mouth, down her neck, resting on her chest. Her vision swims slightly as she looks at the demon, who now is solely focused on the mage. But she remembers, his words, his touch, his mouth. How they had moved together, how they had spoken of love and life, how he had clung to her as he kissed her in the grass. "Gelda, what have you done?" He had asked that of her, over and over… is it because he was not meant to love, that they were not meant to love one another?
The argument between the gods intensifies. "If I do not have the life of the goddess, then I will have the life of this girl," Merlin insists, the venom in her voice betraying the smile on her lips.
"Your oath was made on a lie!" Zeldris shouts.
"It was an oath the same." Merlin turns and points to Gelda. "I take her, or you kill the queen of the Underworld. Your choice."
"No!" Gelda surges forward, but Zeldris steps in front of her, preventing her from going any further. "You can't harm Elizabeth, she is innocent in this!" Zeldris orders her back, but she grabs onto his arm. "Please! You cannot let her harm the queen!"
"So you give your life in exchange?" Merlin laughs. She places her hands on her hips. "Tell me, princess, did Estarossa give you a gift for the queen? You kept it from her, didn't you?"
Her eyes dart to the drawer, even as Zeldris murmurs, "Gelda—"
"Yes," she confesses. "I didn't mean to do it, but I did."
"That is not for humans," Merlin scolds. Gelda takes a step towards the drawer, but suddenly Zeldris' hand is on her hip, keeping her firmly by his side.
"Enough of this," he barks out. "The oath is no more. I owe you nothing, and neither do Gelda or Elizabeth. So get back to your shadows before you find your ownreckoning."
"It's a pity you didn't drink it yourself, Gelda," Merlin continues, as if he had not spoken. "Then all of this could have been avoided."
"I said enough!" Zeldris roars. He lunges forward as Merlin's laughter continues, the hand on her releasing for a moment.
In that moment, Gelda decides to take her fate into her own hands.
She runs to the table, yanking it open, and pulling out the dark gift. Behind her, he hears a shout, but she ignores it. The top of the box is opened, and Gelda reaches in to find a small vial of violet liquid. Quickly she unstops the cork and drinks, a bit of the elixir dripping onto her chin.
The moment she swallows, the agony begins. It is boiling and freezing at the same time; her blood is replaced with lava and ice; it takes her breath away and pushes a scream from her lungs. At once she is burning, boiling, the fire in her body overwhelming, and Gelda falls to the floor. She closes her eyes, hearing cries, but is that her voice? Could she be making such an awful sound? Everything aches, it hurts, and she sobs as her fingers and muscles and even the roots of her hair are torn in anguish.
Then he is there, pulling her into his arms, and Gelda is wracked with chills through the fever. "What have you done?" he cries, and when she looks up, she sees tears in his eyes. "Gelda, what have you done?"
"I chose," she replies, her voice cracking with the pain. "You gave me life." Every word is like a slice of the knife, but she must explain. "But I don't want it without you."
"You didn't—didn't have to—" Zeldris is choking through his sobs, and she feels herself pressed against his chest. Her eyes close, the fever increasing by the second, until she is sure she must actually be burning alive. She is unable to breathe, her lungs feeling like they are filling with the boiling liquid, her insides ready to burst. "Merlin! Stop this! Help her!"
"I cannot," comes the reply. "That is Purgatory fire, procured from the Underworld."
"Elizabeth is safe," she whispers. Numbness begins to settle in, the flames that were once consuming her now turning to a thousand pricks of the needle. The pain is more acute, sharper, and her vision swims as she tries to scream.
There is wetness on her cheek, and Zeldris is kissing her temple as he cries against her. "Please." He whispers in her ear, but Gelda finds herself too tired to respond. "Please, live."
A heavy sigh comes from Merlin. "Let her die. Then she will be in the Underworld."
"No… no, not again, not again, please, please…"
Gelda sighs, the air in her lungs choking like ash. Zeldris' arms tighten around her… but how can that be, if she is melting from the Purgatory fire? His lips press against her face, igniting new pain as her skin feels like it is shredding beneath them. But she moves her hand, reaching up, ignoring the fresh wave of torment, her shoulder cramping with the effort. Her fingers weave against the hair at the nape of his neck, and Gelda feels him shaking under her touch.
All souls eventually go to the Underworld to receive judgment from the king. Those who are pure souls go to what was once Purgatory, now called Paradise, the design of his goddess queen. Those who are burdened with sin go to Tartarus, to meet his brothers, who will give their fate and carry out the sentence of the gods.
During the millennia that the three demon brothers have presided over this ancient ritual, none have interfered. Never once has any of the three felt compelled to step forward on behalf of a soul. The word of the king is absolute, his ability to read a heart unquestioned. Now that he has one of his own, he is compassionate, but steadfast in his resolution.
That is why when Zeldris had watched his wife step forward in the Underworld, he remained silent and still. He had hid himself in the shadows, struggling to breathe as he awaited her judgment. He had found her dying at the hands of another, and had convinced himself of any number of reasons why her life ended that way. Regardless of why, he had been unable to save her, and had given up his desire that very day. So when Meliodas had proclaimed her pure, and sent her to Purgatory, he had not been able to face her.
But now, as Gelda approaches the dais, he steps forward. She looks at him with tears in her eyes, and Zeldris ignores the noise of disapproval as he sprints forward and catches the girl in his arms. She is so very light, he lifts her easily, her beautiful frame unmarred, perfect, and free of the pain that had killed her in the end.
He cares nothing of the king, who Zeldris spies leaning forward in his throne as he kisses her deeply. Her hands brush the back of his neck as he presses her against him. She is sweet, delicious, all that he can ever want.
But still, she must stand in judgment. The kiss ends, and he brushes her hair back, pressing their foreheads together for a moment before turning to stand next to her and face the king. Elizabeth is perched next to the throne, a sad smile on her lips, her hand pressed firmly on the king's shoulder. It is she who holds him back from an accounting on Zeldris' brazenness, and he nods at her gratefully.
"I suppose you want to speak," Meliodas says darkly.
"All that has happened was my doing," he confesses. "I conspired with Merlin to eliminate the queen. I went to Edinburgh to save Gelda in exchange for her help. Once I made the oath to not harm her, Estarossa obtained the Purgatory fire and created the elixir. He did this to aid me, and—"
The king's head is bowed, his elbows perched on his knees, his fingers steepled before his lips. The black mark of the demon is flared on his forehead, bleeding over his eyes and slipping like ink down his arms and chest, a sign of his deep displeasure. Elizabeth's eyes are on him as well, guarded, but not angry. Zeldris lowers his gaze to the floor, unable to bear the king's wrath, or the queen's forgiveness.
"Gelda," calls Meliodas.
He feels her step forward, her fingers linked with his. Zeldris looks up, his heart skipping a beat for a moment to see her standing proudly, unafraid. "I am ready for your judgment," she says quietly, her eyes blinking rapidly.
There is a long silence, and the air is thick in anticipation, the room utterly silent. Zeldris only stares at her face, the rounded shape, the cheekbones dusted in pink, the blue eyes that started him on this journey. Whatever happens next, he will protect her. He had promised her that, and he will not fail again. If Meliodas declares her as deserving of Tartarus, he will figure out what to do. Surely he can find a way, now that Estarossa has fled, and the task of delivering justice is his and his alone.
"This girl is innocent," says the king.
Zeldris snaps his eyes at the throne, and Gelda gives a gasp next to her. "But my lord!" she cries out. "I—I took the elixir! I am guilty!"
"You did so to save the life of my queen," Meliodas answers. "You gave your life for another, as you were fated to do. Your soul is pure."
Gelda lets go a breath and turns to him, those blue eyes shining, and in an instant her arms are around him, and she is kissing his cheek. "Thank you," she says, looking over at the throne.
Zeldris can only stare in wonder at Meliodas. There is no merriment in the king's expression, and Elizabeth still stands guarded. So he wraps his arm around Gelda's waist and says, "And what of my judgment?"
"Yours?" Gelda looks at him, her hand clutching his arm.
He does not answer as the two brothers stare at one another. Then, Meliodas presses his lips together before saying, "Gelda will go to Paradise. But you cannot follow."
"No!" Gelda shouts.
"The way will be closed to you, and Gelda will be sealed inside until such time when I deem your sin is atoned."
"No! Please!" Zeldris stands frozen, the verdict settling heavily on him; but Gelda falls to her knees, bending down in supplication. "Please! Please, I love him! And I… I…"
She begins to cry, her face buried in her hands, but he cannot comfort her. Zeldris remains unable to move, or speak, the king's words echoing in his mind. Gelda is safe from Tartarus, and she will continue for eternity in Paradise. She is safe, and he must be grateful for that, at least.
A touch on his arm brings him back to himself. It is Elizabeth, and she smiles at him as she takes his hand. Then the goddess guides Gelda to stand before she presses their hands together. His fingers weave with hers, and her eyes swim with tears as they look at one another. "Love is eternal," Elizabeth says. "Your judgment is not." Gelda looks at the queen, but he looks down at their hands clasped together.
"You will wait for me, then?" Zeldris says quietly. He lifts his eyes to the princess, his princess, and she nods sadly. "Then I will come for you. When the seal is gone, I will come for you."
Gelda nods again, and then he pulls her into his arms. She looks at him then, the desire and love plain on her face, making his heart beat wildly as her eyes flutter shut. His mouth covers hers, slanting as he tilts his face, and Gelda presses against him, her palms flat on his chest. He wraps his arms around her, pushing her hair from her face as he delves deeply, drinking her in, searing their hearts together. A million thoughts race through his head, things he wants to say, things he wants her to know, but it all melts under the taste of her lips and the slow stroke of her tongue, fading with the way her body feels in his arms.
"When the seal is gone, I will come for you," he whispers again, and she nods; then the final, last kiss, pure and searing between them, just as the magic of the seal begins, lasting until she is pulled from his arms and into the Paradise he cannot enter.
Another story finished, and it is a bittersweet feeling. I won't pretend this one was easy to write, and I only succeeded from the encouragement of my friends, in particular Cerulean Grace and Galfridus.
Thank you so much for reading.