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The Dark Quest

Chapter Text

It is the mission of each true knight...
His duty... nay, his privilege!
To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go;
To right the unrightable wrong.

Joe Darion

The room is dark, illuminated solely by pinpricks of flickering torchlight, barely enough to lift the deep velvet gloam. He slowly walks the long, straight path towards the throne, each tread of his boots echoing off the stone walls. His destination seems to retreat from him with each heavy step, a trick of the light he supposes as he grits his teeth. If only it were reality and that he would never get there leaving him free to walk through the soft blackness for eternity: the last thing he wants is to see the king’s face or to hear his judgement.

But his progress is inevitable and get there he does. As he steps up to the throne he lowers his gaze to the floor, the glint of the ornate chair catching the corner of his eye. “Estarossa!” The call of his name is harsh and rings through the room sending an unpleasant chill down his spine. Still, he will not be cowed. With something approaching defiance he straightens his back, jaw tense, head lifted so that he can stare directly into the jet black eyes of the king. His hands rest on his hips as his lip curls in a smile; if he is to play this game he will have some fun.

“You stand in judgement for your crime against this kingdom, for deceiving a mortal under the protection of the Gods and for conspiring to end the queen’s life.” Estarossa cannot quite suppress a flinch as Meliodas’s power crackles all through the room, electricity shooting like sparks over his skin. It is evident that the king is furious, that he is nursing a rage the likes of which few live to experience let alone survive. The empty throne beside him will have done him no favours he considers ruefully. Elizabeth has returned to Britannia, and with her the king’s mercy will have also departed.

“What have you to say for yourself?” Meliodas demands, his fingers strumming on the arms of the throne. Estarossa stretches slightly, relaxing his arms by his sides. For all his anger, the king will surely not hurt him; this will simply be a slap on the wrist. He has done no more than Zeldris when all is said and done, and the demon of Piety he knows has resumed his duties in Tartarus, finding ever more inventive ways to punish those who have defied the Gods.

And really, he has done nothing wrong. That stupid goddess is so much dead weight, a jewelled toy that does nothing but distract His Grace from his necessary duties. The mercy Meliodas now shows to the damned is enough to make his teeth ache: the Underworld was so much more efficient, more enjoyable before she arrived and he and Zeldris were able to do what they would with the sinners.

He braces himself, hoping the defense he has rehearsed will take the sting out of Meliodas’s ire. “I am beyond desolate,” he laments, forcing himself to sound contrite and casting his eyes back down to the floor as he bows his head in mock shame. “I was the victim of a capricious attack. My reason was stolen from me. I would never have sought to harm the queen, or to bring any sort of displeasure to Your Grace. Now I am free of the madness cast over me, I am as horrified by what has occurred as you.”

Meliodas regards him, brows drawn into a scowl. “Do not dare lie to me!” he seethes, and Estarossa could swear the king’s eyes momentarily flash blood red. “There was no plot against you! I have discussed the matter with Baltra and Belialuin; your actions were your own. And now you face our judgement. So kneel before me like the dog that you are.”

A fierce wind rushes around him and, all at once, Estarossa finds that he lies prostrate on the floor, the air knocked out of his lungs so that he struggles to breathe. He tries to move, but his limbs are held in place by the darkness flowing like waves from his opponent’s body. He is trapped, humiliated as his cheek grinds hard into the stone and a curse hisses from between his lips.

Meliodas steps round him, the strides menacing and deliberate. “By rights you should be stripped of your power and ground into dust,” Meliodas fumes and, for the first time since he has entered the room, Estarossa feels the ice of fear run cold through his veins. “Believe me, I would like nothing more than to see you suffer for the rest of eternity. But the queen has interceded with her father on your behalf. At her request you are to be given a chance to redeem yourself.”

The tendrils holding him tightly in place suddenly retract and Estarossa finds he is able to stand. He does so, suppressing the urge to massage the flesh of his arms which feel like they have been crushed, managing to stay upright despite the way his legs tremble from the after-effects of his brother’s attack. His breathing is laboured, his face uncomfortably hot and he glowers as Meliodas resumes his place on the throne.

“Your punishment is to serve Britannia,” Meliodas declares, his expression blank and unreadable as his arms rest still on the throne. “For the next dozen years, you will do what you are told as an instrument of the Gods. You will prostrate yourself to their will and harm no living thing unless you are expressly ordered to do so.”

Unable to prevent it, Estarossa lets forth a snarl, irritation burrowing like insects under his skin. “And if I refuse?” he drawls, allowing his own power to flash through the air, the threat unmistakable as he curls his gauntletted fingers.

“Then you will face Zeldris in Tartarus, and believe me he wants nothing more. I am assured that he has a personal greeting planned to celebrate your arrival.” The king’s eyes are a challenge and Estarossa can almost feel Zeldris’s eagerness to begin what would no doubt constitute a creative torture. Much as he hates it there seems no way out.

“And what will become of the Underworld in my absence,” he asks as casually as he dares. “Who will punish those who have sinned against their fellow men? You cannot expect Zeldris to manage it.”

Meliodas leans forward, his lips twisting in a cruel smile. “You need have no fears on that score,” he crows, triumph ringing in every word. With a flick of the wrist, the ceiling above them seems to roll back, the verdant green fields of Britannia swimming into view and Estarossa stares with unbridled amazement. The land above them shifts as they fly like birds, soaring under trees and over mountains, until at last they hover around a snow-capped peak before plunging at speed towards the earth. Even though he stands still in the throne room of the Underworld, Estarossa feels his stomach drop with the fall.

He holds his breath as the vision of the ground above rushes to meet them, but instead of a sickening thud and the crunch of bones they pass through the earth into a hot, fiery chamber. Before them is a kindly-looking man sitting in a wheeled chair, dusty blonde hair tied back from his face and his long, slender hands folded neatly in his lap. Estarossa recognises the God of metals and masonry, the deformed creature cast into the depths of the earth to hide his comeliness, whose skill in the art of invention and the manipulation of materials knows no equal.

“I trust it is ready, Gowther,” Meliodas demands, his voice echoing through the cavernous room. Gowther nods in return before raising his arms and, seconds later, the air before them shifts as if in the haze of intense heat. He gasps as, without warning, a slight man materialises before him, standing between himself and the king, giving a stiff bow as the air settles around them.

The vision above is dispensed with in an instant, and Meliodas fixes his attention back on the demon of Love. “This is Gowther’s doll,” the king confirms, the smile on his face growing ever broader as his shoulders noticeably relax. “He will take your place while you serve the Gods in obedience.

“Now go!” Meliodas commands, his knuckles white as he grips the arms of the throne. “Your first task awaits you in the kingdom of Nemea.” Grinding his teeth, seeing that he has been outmanoeuvred, Estarossa summons his powers to form wings over his back, resentment tugging almost painfully at his insides. Wind rushes through his dark feathers as he heads up towards the living world, the gloom of the Underworld turning to sunlight so bright he has to wince against the glare.

Twelve years, twelve long years of doing whatever the deities command. He rages inwardly as he flits past the humans who inhabit the land. They visibly shudder with trepidation as he passes, cowering against walls and into shadows, pupils blown with fear, some sufficiently terrified for their hair to turn white. He curses as he is forced to let them be, left to wonder what their souls may taste like. Gratifying as it would be to ignore Meliodas’s commands he dares not touch the mortals that flee before him; a spell in Tartarus would be worse than even this unbridled tedium.

Hours pass, the sun rising over his back, the autumn glow warming his shoulders pleasantly as he moves. Eventually, the kingdom of Nemea looms on the horizon, the majestic white columns of an enormous temple at its centre dominating the landscape. It is drier here; the surrounding land rocky, tufts of dry grass and yellow flowers poking out from the pebbles and the sun-baked earth, red dust permeating his nostrils as it mingles with the the listless wind. There are several dwelling places dotted around, unkempt stone huts which are crumbling to pieces, and to Estarossa’s surprise, the place is entirely silent. There are no signs of the bustle of commerce, no laughter of children, not even the chants of worshippers as they pray. It feels like the land has been turned over to ghosts.

Curious despite himself, he steps into the temple, his boots slipping slightly on polished marble as incense wafts through the air. “Greetings stranger,” a calm voice calls as he moves further in. Faster than lightning, he whips round, hand automatically reaching for the hilt of his sword as he comes face to face with a young, unsmiling man.

The youth’s face is unblemished but clearly troubled, his piercing blue eyes conveying a sorrow of their own. “Welcome to the temple of Nemea. Have you come to make a sacrifice?” he asks, his vibrant coral hair such a contrast to the cool ivory of the temple.

“Something like that,” Estarossa mutters sullenly.  He glares at the man, stretching out his powers in an unbridled menace but the youth just returns his stare, unperturbed. “And who are you anyway?” he asks crossly, unnerved that the mortal seems able to withstand his power.

“My name is Gilthunder, and I guard the temple in my people’s absence,” the youth replies pleasantly. “And it is a long time since I have spoken to another,” he adds with a sigh. “Will you tell me your name and your purpose?”

“If you must know, I have been sent by the Gods to perform some service or other to this kingdom…”

He breaks off as the boy eagerly cries, “But that is wonderful!” The mask of authority slips from the lad’s face to reveal nothing more than an eager boy bouncing on the soles of his feet. “I have begged and begged the Gods for their aid and to think my prayers have now been answered… it is a dream come true!”

Estarossa sighs, the full force of his humiliation hitting him square in the chest as he regards the human whose errand he is to run. He is a God, one of the most powerful demons to have ever existed and yet here he is playing nursemaid to some mortal.

Unable to keep the bite out of his tone, he asks, “What troubles are you facing? What is the service you would have me perform?”

“It’s this lion,” the boy practically begs, his eyes wide and arms outstretched before they fall back with a slap to his sides. “It’s been preying on us for months. We tried to fight it off but it was too strong. Even my own father…” He blinks rapidly, his eyes sliding to the floor and Estarossa’s face works to suppress his sneer.

“My father was killed. In this temple,” Gilthunder murmurs, his voice rasping as the hands at his sides clench into fists. “Then it attacked the village, slaughtering anyone it could catch. It killed so many the ground was stained crimson with blood. The survivors have fled, and now no one will come to pay their respects to the Gods, not while the beast still stalks the land.”

Estarossa’s brow creases. “Then why do you remain?” he asks crossly. “This problem would cease to exist if you departed as well.”

“I cannot leave,” the boy interjects. “My father was grand master Zaratras, custodian of this temple and guardian of its people. I owe it to him to maintain it, to tend to its beauty so that others may make their sacrifices to the Gods. And I will slay that lion!”

Estarossa looks the youth over, noting the muscular build draped almost casually in the traditional togas worn by the priests. The physique tells of a penchant for action, of rigorous training, and the demon wonders why young man has not dispatched the beast himself.

“I cannot find it,” Gilthunder murmurs as if in answer to the unspoken question, a hand rubbing the back of his head. “I tracked it for days, but there was no sign of it. It just… vanished.”

The boy looks towards the eastern wall of the temple, his eyes raking over a row of long, golden spears. “If I could kill it, everyone would come back,” he says softly, his voice heavy with longing. “It would be alright again.”

“You want it dead?” A grin pulls at the demon’s face and he laughs as Gilthunder turns back towards him. “I can assist you with that, none better.” He smirks as the boy looks him over, no doubt taking in the broad, muscled chest and the way the air around him shivers with power.

“I am sure you must have been sent by the Gods. Please, take this weapon.” Moving swiftly towards the line of spears the boy selects one, running his hand over it lovingly before returning with his prize. “May it serve you well on your quest.”

Hearts lighter than they have been for what feels like days, Estarossa sets off almost cheerfully on his errand. Killing a lion will be no more than child’s play but entertaining enough for the present. He licks his lips as he contemplates what techniques he will use, debating whether the broadsword or the spear will render the kill more enjoyable.

The beast proves easy enough to trace. It has evidently prowled round the temple in recent days and fresh tracks lead from the marble edifice through the dust of the land. Estarossa follows the animal’s paw prints as they trail to the south, noticing signs where the animal has disturbed the vegetation. But his instinct tells him something is off: there is surprisingly no sign of scat, nor the acidic scent of a beast marking its territory, and the air here is as free from sound as it was in the kingdom he has left behind. The effect is eerie, unsettling despite the fresh breeze and the beauty of the earth burnished gold as the sun falls like an orb below the horizon.

Excitement runs like electricity through his veins in anticipation of the kill, reminding him of the times before the Underworld when he would hunt for grouse and deer, a social expectation as much as a way to pass the time. He has not thought of those days since imbibing the darkness that gives him his power, not recalled the dappled sunlight and the smell of damp moss since he forsook the grind and tedium of his former life to become a prince of the night. Little did he know what he was letting himself in for, and he wonders what his life would have been like if he had chosen a different path.

He shakes his head, ridding himself of these troubling thoughts. After all, the beast cannot be much further. He has travelled for miles, his muscles protesting and he flexes his shoulders to relieve the discomfort. Then he stops, stares: the track illuminated by the clear sliver of the moon abruptly disappears, as if the creature who made it vanished into thin air.

With a snarl, Estarossa straightens, squeezing the spear which rests comfortably in his hand and he passes it from one hand to the other to test the balance. He detects a faint trace of charcoal on the breeze, the odour of roasting meat hitting the back of his throat. It smells divine but he knows better by now; however enticing it seems, like all other delicacies this meal would turn to ash in his mouth. But it is odd that such a scent is to be found in the depths of the wilderness; he allows his feet to carry him forwards, drawn like a moth to an unseen flame.

The cottage appears almost directly in front of him before he can even truly register its presence. The blocks of stone blend in with the unrelenting shadow of the night, the sparse light creeping from the windows shining pearl with no warmth of the lantern, a wisp of smoke rising from a fat chimney the only indication of life within.

As he tromps closer, his feet padding on the dusty ground, a door swings open to reveal the hourglass silhouette of a woman. She stands slightly hunched, her shoulders pressed back at odd angles, and she holds a staff affixed with a large cruel, ornate claw as if for support. His mouth runs dry, his jaw hanging slack as he fans out his power, feeling the lick of magic reach out for him in return. It is like lightning, the signature call of a powerful mage and he tenses involuntarily. Human though she is, this is no ordinary mortal.

“To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” she murmurs and Estarossa crinkles his nose in disgust as the sticky scent of vanilla and honeysuckle wafts towards him. “You look weary,” the lady continues, her voice soft as butter, “come in and rest.”

The demon squints, straining to see the face of the dangerous creature, his senses on full alert as he ventures inside. Trap though this may be, the woman is clearly familiar with the area and my be in a position  to provide information about the being he seeks.

As he enters the cottage he lets his power fan out, testing the lie of the land. The woman before him is a displeasing sight, her eyes set too far apart, her mouth thin and mean, the short bob of coarse, tawny hair doing her appearance no favours. He quickly scans the interior, and is pleased to see there is no place to hide and nothing which could serve as a weapon. The stone walls are bare save for a shelf stacked with books, the only furniture a small bed and a table and chair set by the hearth. If she attacks he will have the upper hand.

“Tell me, why are you out here so late at night,” the mage demands, her tone casual but her hand clasped tight on her staff.

“I was out hunting,” he drawls in response, “but lost track of my prey.”

She returns his gaze, her stare a challenge and he feels as if she would see into his very soul. “Now why would one of the immortals be hunting out here?” she enquires, and he can feel the air crackle as she calls on her power.

“No one sent me. I am merely bored, that is all.” Estarossa stifles a yawn, running his free hand through his hair. “I heard of this fabled lion and thought I’d try my hand at catching it. But I’m sure it’s nothing special,” he adds acerbically. “A waste of my time no doubt, not worth the bother.”

The woman frowns and appears to be on the point of speaking when she starts, her eyes suddenly fixed on the spear the demon holds in his hand. “Where did you get this,” she hisses and Estarossa feels the change as wind blasts round, tugging at his hair and clothes. “Tell me now!” Her has is set hard as she takes a deliberate step towards him, her garnet eyes flashing in the light of the fire.

“It was from him wasn’t it! The boy at the temple,” she raves into the silence, her face flushed and  contorting with rage. “How dare you go near him,” she screams, and icy water runs down his spine as a face of madness rushes towards him. “He is mine! All mine! I love him!” The sounds of loneliness, of desolation rings through the small cottage, and the demon is reminded forcefully of the way his brother looked as he hulked on the throne, mourning the loss of the goddess he had somehow come to love.

He braces for the attack, raising his spear and aiming it at the woman’s long, white neck. But before he can thrust his weapon her form shivers before his eyes, elongating, taut muscles flexing as hair grows like thick vines to cover her lithe body. The staff she holds drops unceremoniously to the floor as her hands morph into paws and she pounces at him, mouth open to reveal sharp yellowing fangs and a bloodcurdling roar emanating from the depths of her lungs.

So this is the lion which has laid waste to the kingdom. Its mouth foams with delirium, crimson eyes locked on his as it springs. A wide maniacal grin spreads over his own face as the demon once more aims his spear, the sharp point glinting in the flickering light of the fire. But before he can strike, the beast snaps, breaking the weapon to pieces in its jaws before stalking forwards towards him, drool spilling in thick strands from its gaping maw.

Interest piqued, Estarossa calls for his sword, the shining weapon appearing before him from the air. With a cry, he swings for the beast, his eyes widening as his blade is deflected, the metal blazing hot then melting before his very eyes. The lion roars in triumph, before springing at him again; he dodges, moving more quickly than sound but even so the beast only just misses his arm as it flashes past.

“Well, this is fun!” Estarossa shouts over the din, his fingers twitching with anticipation as the animal rounds for another attack. Almost lazily, he moves, leaping into the air and landing with an easy grace  behind the monster, his fingers digging into the warm fur at its neck. He clamps his hands like a vice, squeezing soft flesh, relishing the pitiful sounds of gurgling emanating from the beast’s throat as its life force slips away.

The jolt of delight which he feels run right through his body when the bone finally snaps is almost indescribable. With a rush, he feels the creature go limp in his arms, the high almost enough to make him forget the circumstances which have brought him to this pitiful outpost. For a second he feels as though he is back in the Underworld. Then the meagre cottage comes back into focus, the adrenaline which had coursed through him turning  to a listless apathy. The kill was too easy, too quick, too unimportant , barely enough to warrant the drawing of breath.

It is dawn when he ventures back to Nemea, the heavy corpse of the lion folded over his arms. The landscape is burnished with the bright morning sun, but all he can see before him is muted and dull; as if the colour of the land has been drained away. Estarossa grits his teeth in frustration. After the temporary interest slaying the beast had sparked in his brain, the upper world was once more nothing but a shell of utter tedium, and he wonders what the doll plans for the mage he has so easily dispatched and whose soul will not doubt be standing before the king for judgement.

As he nears the pristine ivory pillars of the temple Gilthunder emerges, waving energetically as he spies the slain beast. “You caught it!” the boy yells, his voice just distinguishable over the remaining distance, his enthusiasm jarring considerably with the demon’s mood.

Together they strip the carcass of its fur, scraping the skin clean of flesh before leaving the hide to dry the heat of the sun. At Gilthunder’s insistence, they make a sacrifice in deference to the Gods, the new priest pouring a libation of wine as the meat smokes to the sky. Against all expectation, the act is soothing rather than annoying, like balm on a wound, though it does nothing to alter the listlessness of his thoughts.

Task complete, Estarossa is on the point of leaving when a hand on his arm arrests his movement. “I still do not understand,” Gilthunder says in puzzlement, his arms and clothing now pure and clean. “The lion attacked everything in this kingdom and yet it left me alone. I know it skulked round the temple, I saw its tracks.” The boy scratches his head, pleading blue eyes meeting his own. “Why? Why would it do that?”

Estarossa opens his mouth, then closes it again. Enjoyable as it would be to see the boy’s expression as he comprehends the role he has unwittingly played in his own father’s death, what purpose would it serve? The demon can read the soul standing before him: the way the lad put himself in harm's way to save others, standing between them and the lion; the care with which he tended his father’s body, stoically preparing the corpse torn to ribbons by deadly claws despite the pain in his heart. He had even sought to comfort the survivors, blaming neither man nor the Gods for his terrible loss. No, the youth has done nothing to deserve such pain. Fun as it would be to watch him suffer, Gilthunder should be left to live the rest of his days in service, untroubled by events he could never change.

“It was merely a dumb beast. I would not concern yourself trying to explain its murderous behaviour,” he says breezily, clapping a hand on Gilhunder’s shoulder. The boy looks at him with wary eyes before nodding gratefully and kneeling before the altar to pray. Estarossa takes the opportunity to slip out into the gathering gloom of dusk, wrapping the now dry lion skin tight round his shoulders. The velvet night surrounds him, the pale columns of the temple shining in the silver of the moon, and he takes a deep breath of the crisp air as he turns away, preparing to depart.

“Sir!” the youth calls as he takes his first step. “Stay a moment. I have received a message from the Gods.” Estarossa turns languidly to regard the boy whose face is shining with an almost radiant fervour.

“The Gods spoke to me!” Gilthunder proclaims, “and their direction is for you to head to Lake Lerna, to the west. That is all I could decipher,” the boy says ruefully as Estarossa shoots him a withering glare, “but I am sure their intentions will become plain once you are there.”

So with a sigh, and a slight wave of his hand Estarossa gives in to his destiny, setting off to continue his travels around the isle of Britannia. In accordance with his instructions, he heads to the west into the inky blackness of the night.

Chapter Text

Take me into the depths.
Show me the underwater beast,
the Leviathan, the oceanic Medusa,
the wet, slithering, Hydra.
Let me breathe in the sick algae,
and bury my eyes in floating sand.
Fill my lungs with coral and stone,
and grind my feed to stumps
so I never escape.

— Eric W

The air is cold, chilled with the bite of early morning as the sun rises slow above the horizon. He has heard dawn described as “rosy-fingered” by the poets who wander from place to place, reciting stories of adventure in exchange for a coin and a place to rest their head. But to him the sky is muted and dull as the shadows gradually lift and night becomes day.

Estarossa trudges on, kicking up dust from the earthen track as he makes his way towards the west. It has not rained for several days and the ground is hard as rock, dry and cracked, dotted with brittle, yellow grass. It is hot enough, but still he keeps the lion skin draped like a cape around his shoulders, the sight of such an obvious sign of danger keeping the idle curious at bay. No one would want to contend with a man who could slay such a beast.

Head to lake Lerna in the west , the boy at the temple had advised. He sighs, irritated that it is turning out to be such a tedious long way. He has walked for days, barely resting, and yet there is still no sign of his destination. He had considered flying, but the way his aura of power scatters all before him quickly palls. At least this way the tromp of his boots on the hard ground chimes with the boredom of ceaseless travel.

And of course, with walking there is the fun of running into human settlements. He smiles as he approaches one such example, a collection of white buildings roofed with terracotta tiles lining a large, open square. The signs of commerce are all around: long tables; weighing scales; an auctioneer’s platform. The slabs of marble underfoot are polished smooth with wear, grey and pink veins snaking through the creamy stone. Evidently this is a place long used to wealth and prosperity.

But no more, it would seem. The town is silent, nothing to be heard but the wind as it blows down the many chimney pots, the resonance sending sonorous tones to fade upon the air. The breeze brings something with it, a whiff of rot and decay, and he scrunches his nose up in distaste. The source of the stench becomes apparent a few moments later when a huge man approaches, dragging a cart piled high with corpses, their faces like skeletons and lifeless limbs sticking out from the sides at odd angles.

“Bring out your dead!” he booms, and Estarossa feels his lips curl in a snarl of amusement. The speaker is comprised of an overly-muscled body topped with a ridiculously tiny head, with flat hair plastered to the scalp like paper. He places the cart upon the floor, stretching his arms and ringing a silver bell, the chimes echoing through the town. 

Seconds later, the doors of the surrounding dwellings open, the citizens within dragging out more bodies, shrivelled and decayed. They deposit them quickly upon the street before immediately pulling back inside, and Estarossa hears the rasp of chains, the creek of keys turning in their locks and wooden bars thunking into place as the residents close themselves off from the world.

“I’ve got one for you,” a woman calls, a slender man draped over her shoulder. Her silver ponytail bobs slightly as she shifts her weight, golden eyes hard with determination.

“Jericho, I’m not dead!” The man she carries coughs, blood splattering across the pale, marble tiles. “I… I think I’m getting better.”

The girl shakes her head, her lips pursed in anger. “You will only infect Guila and Zeal if you stay. Do you want that to happen, brother?”

“This is immaterial,” the Goliath replies sorrowfully. “According to the regulations I can only take those who have expired.”

“And what about the rest of us, hmm?” Jericho hisses back. “This has been going on for months. One by one we’re all dying, and what are you doing about it? You’re supposed to be the knight of this kingdom!”

“Excuse me,” Estarossa interjects as he stalks forwards towards into the light, the sun falling bright across his face. “Fun as it is watching you squabble like vultures, would one of you like to explain what is going on?” The humans look at him, mouths open wide, as if they have only just seen him despite his louring presence.

The woman pouts, then unceremoniously drops the man she carries. He cries out in pain before crawling towards the cart, and Estarossa nearly recoils in shock. The man’s face is colourless, his translucent skin covered in liver spots and hanging loose along his jowl, eyes protruding in too-large sockets. He looks close to death, as old as any human he has ever seen alive.

“How can this man be your brother?” Estarossa asks the young lady, intrigued in spite of himself. “He must be at least seventy years your senior.”

“He’s three years older than me,” responds the woman, exasperated. “This is what the plague does. It strikes all of a sudden and makes you old and wizened. Then you die. I don’t want to lose Gustav, but he’ll be dead soon enough and I don’t want him infecting us all. And this dolt is doing nothing about it!”

The large man sighs, rubbing his tiny head with his hands as the woman glares with irritation. “Jericho, what do you want me to do?” he moans. “I cannot fight the plague!” She tuts as Gustav rasps a harsh breath. “Have a heart! I am a knight, not a doctor.”

Estarossa sighs to himself, seeing plainly his path. “I am an emissary of the Gods sent to right the wrongs in this land. Have you any idea what is causing this calamity?” he asks listlessly. He expects the answer will be a “no”; a clue would be too much to hope for, he laments to himself as he rests his hands upon his hips.

The knight returns his stare, a sheepish look crossing his ruddy face. “Well…” he begins, shuffling his feet uncomfortably.

“I knew it!” Jericho shouts as she rounds on the man in a fury. “You know something, Griamore!”

“Not for sure!” Griamore protests as he dodges the woman’s hard fist and Estarossa finds himself admiring the gentleman’s reflexes. He is faster than he looks. “I was down by the lake the other day and I think there is something in there. Everything is dead and I saw a dark shadow.  It gave me the chills. I wondered, perhaps…”

“You wondered, perhaps that it was the cause of our ills and yet you did nothing !” Jericho reaches down to the ground, and Estarossa thinks she is going to retrieve her brother from his undignified position. He is surprised when she selects some stones from the path and begins to hurl them at the giant knight.

Estarossa steps forward, placing himself between the two combatants and retrieving the invalid from the floor. He is indeed very sick, his breathing so shallow his chest barely moves. “Stop it. I want this nonsense over as soon as possible. You will take this man home,” he commands, watching with interest as Jericho’s face morphs from anger to one of acquiescence. “I will investigate this monster. Where is the lake of which you speak?”

He leaves the silent city not too long after that, treading carefully through the surrounding fields in the direction the humans have indicated. This path is quiet, devoid of the buzz of insects and the chirping of birds; all he can hear is the rustle of dry grass as he moves. The landscape is littered with the corpses of fallen trees and the odd mass of bones, which must, at one time or another, have belonged to livestock. It is a gloomy walk, the signs of death becoming ever more apparent as he nears what he surmises to be his destination.

When he comes upon the lake, black and foreboding and smelling of damp, he draws his breath sharply, staring at the scene in front of him. The murky surface is littered with the floating bodies of rotting fish and frogs, the willows which line the shore nothing more than dry, skeletal wisps of branches. Even the breeze has died, the putrid air still and stifling and, despite millennia of training, Estarossa feels a chill run up his spine.

Carefully, he moves towards the edge of the lake, his senses on full alert as he stretches his powers into the depths. Immediately, he feels a spark of energy in response, his puzzlement growing as he detects a signature reminiscent of the Underworld and the brooding dark magic that swirls through Tartarus.

“What’s this then?” he murmurs as his energy runs against the flashes in the water, a deliberate act designed to tease. He has no desire to get his feet wet: whatever it is, the creature must come to him. “Zeldris will be keen to know that one of his pets has escaped from its confinement. Perhaps I’ll go and tell him now…”

He expects a roar, a scream, the cry of challenge in response. Instead there is nothing but the ring of silence as he stares, shoulders tensed in preparation for a fight that does not come. He is just contemplating his next move when slowly, almost imperceptibly, a shadow rises from the water, the surface parting without so much as a splash as a black mass shrouding countless white, death masks in lieu of faces floats from the depths. It moves like silk upon the wind, twisting and flowing as the black holes of eyes rush in his direction.

“Rebellion!” he calls and immediately his curved sword materialises in the air, the sharp edges gleaming as he swings. He swipes at the creature as it flails around him, still noiseless despite the force of his blow. The head he had attacked disintegrates before his eyes, crumbling like plaster, white powder flying all around him as his blade hits its mark and the stench of death coats his tongue and stings the back of his throat. For once, he is glad his senses are dulled and that all he can taste is a slight trace of mould upon his tongue.

With a snarl, he prepares for a second attack, aiming towards another of the lifeless faces, but he pauses, lips pressing together as the floating mass rallies, moving towards him with intent. The hole which had so lately housed the head he has destroyed shudders slightly, then is filled with yet another mask, pale as alabaster as it blooms, eyeless sockets aiming towards him. Annoyed, he swipes again, and again, hurling himself into the air and slicing through dozens of the heads as the creature soars around him, grunting in frustration as each and every time the face he has annihilated is immediately replaced.

It is then he notices with a start that he is tired - more than tired, exhausted, practically on the point of collapse. His sword weighs heavy in his hand, his fingers trembling slightly as they grip the wrought hilt. His limbs ache, shaking as he tries to move, fatigued beyond endurance and failing to respond as his brain begins to cloud over as if swallowed by a fog. It is all he can do to keep himself upright as the mass swoops towards him, every face trained on him ready for the kill.

Before it can hit, a flash of light, swirling sapphire and amethyst, nearly blinds him and he moves a hand to shield his eyes. At once his limbs are free from pain as warmth floods his muscles, the fatigue vanishing as if it had never been. He holds his breath, his face inches away from the monster, both of them apparently frozen in place. He tries to move, to end his adversary but his limbs are like wood, refusing to respond to his command.

His eyes swivel in his skull, raking over the scene in frustration, and he is irked beyond measure to find he cannot even gnash his teeth. When the figure before him had materialised he has no notion, but his eyes are drawn to its shape: a slender woman, robes wisps of purple that barely cover her shapely form. In truth, they show off more than they conceal; her long legs, tiny waist and perfect back are plain for all to observe and he drinks his fill of the pleasing sight. When she turns and he beholds her face however the stirrings die an instant death. He has had enough of this mischievous sprite to last him an eternity.

The woman raises her arms, the fabric of her robes falling like satin around her, and the creature shudders before falling away. Without a sound, it sinks below the surface of the lake like a stone, as if it is pulled on invisible strings. Colour returns to his surroundings, the bright blues and purples of the lady’s power fading to the dull tones of the landscape: grey, muted green and dark brown. Once more he can move, and he stands without delay, intent on salvaging as much dignity as he can muster.

He waits, hand never leaving the hilt of his sword though he allows the blade to rest at his side. He cannot harm the lady, however much he would wish to. But his patience wears thin as the woman stands immovable, back ramrod straight and head held high.

“Well? Do you care to explain what this is about?” he asks finally, hoping he sounds as disgusted as he feels. “I presume you have come to gloat,” he snarls as the lady continues to make no sign of acknowledgement. “Having ruined my existence once was evidently insufficient.”

She turns, and amber eyes, alight with a cold mirth, meet his own without flinching. It is not many who can withstand the might of his ire, and he recalls that the divine mage before him is a formidable foe. “Why are you here, Merlin?” he challenges, toes curling in his boots as she lets forth a harsh laugh.

“To see you, of course,” replies the goddess as she sashays towards him, her hips moving with a hypnotic gait. “You do seem to have got yourself into something of a predicament. Your decision to take on a hydra of Tartarus without due preparation I can only presume stems from your absolute idiocy.”

His sword is pressed into the soft nape of her neck before Merlin can continue her sentence. The force is just shy of what is required to slice into her flesh, but still scores the skin and presses down upon her windpipe. The goddess merely smiles in return, knocking the blade away with her bare hand and he tenses his muscles, preparing to spring.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again too,” she mocks as Estarossa grips his sword. “Now, do not look at me like that! I am here to help!” Her amber eyes sparkle, her red lips curve in a smile and, reluctantly, he lets go of his sword. It hovers before them, the air trembling as the weapon disappears into nothing, safely stowed until he should call on it again. “I was rather hoping we would run into one another, after the last time.”

“You stitched me up!” he hisses as he presses into her personal space. “You wanted that girl dead! It was your idea I give Gelda the poison! You planned this!”

Merlin shrugs, one manicured eyebrow quirking with her amusement. “I do not deny it,” she says, not moving back despite his proximity to her. “I got what I wanted. We both did…”

“Do not lie!” he yells. “The queen is still alive and I have been kicked out of the Underworld on some fool’s errand. And it is your fault !”

“Are you going to tell me you didn’t enjoy our… let us call it liaison?” asks Merlin as she looks him full in the face. “I will not pretend I was disappointed. In fact,” she adds as she takes a step closer, “I have a proposal for you. I wish to help you dispatch the hydra in exchange for your services. With payment in full this time, not just the foreplay.”

He pauses, considering her words. In truth it had not be so terrible on the previous occasion. Merlin had responded pleasingly to his attentions, her hand tugging on his hair as he explored her sex, her shapely legs spread before him, and she had delivered the poison, as promised. Yet he is wary, not seeing the trap that he would no doubt fall into. “Why?” he asks sharply. “What is in it for you?”

Merlin rolls her eyes, then places her hand on the part of his chest exposed by his clothing, pressing her fingers lightly into his skin. It is the promise of more, and he feels his breathing slow with her caress. “Is this not reason enough?” she whispers. “For once, our interests are aligned. You want that monster dead and I want what you can give me. Besides, what have you to lose?”

The snarl he is nursing dies on his lips, and he feels his head nod in spite of his misgivings. Before he can recant, the wind around them grows to a fierce gale, whipping his hair into his eyes. When the atmosphere settles and he can once more look round, he is surprised to find himself in a room of polished stone adorned with soft, fur rugs and exquisite oil paintings, the faint scent of vanilla on the air a relief after the stench of the lake. The space is dominated by a large, four poster bed, dark wood complementing white, woven blankets. The effect is beyond grand, even more ornate than the palace Meliodas has fashioned for his queen.

Her body is pressed against his before he can even get his bearings. “I have been waiting for this,” she murmurs as her arms snake round his neck. “It was so much fun last time.” He does not resist as her mouth presses on his own and he smiles to himself; no matter what impression she chooses to give, the flutter of her mouth betrays her inexperience. He holds her in place, cupping her face to steady her movements, relishing the taste of cherry on her lips and the silken feel of her hair as it slips through his fingers.

It is then with a start that he realises he can feel , really feel as Merlin tilts her head to deepen their kiss, running her tongue along the seam of his mouth. How long had it been since he had truly experienced a woman like this, the softness of her kiss and the feel of the delicate bones of her shoulders as his hands roam down her form? She pulls him closer, and his body responds almost painfully, wanting her desperately.

“How?” he gasps as she presses flush against him, a knowing smile on her lips. 

“A spell. I have made a study of your affliction,” she adds by way of explanation. “Knowledge is power, remember that.”

He would be angry if he were not so overwhelmed, but all he can do is devour her, drinking from her mouth, the experience as clear and sharp as he has ever known, as if the centuries of dull, meaningless nothing were just a vile dream. He lets her push him back onto the bed, rubbing against her wantonly as she straddles him, groaning low and loud as lava runs hot along his spine.

“I take it that feels good.” She smiles as she leans down towards him, her lips brushing against his cheek. Her fingers stumble with the clasp at her neck, before her dress falls away, exposing the long, white column of her neck and neat, pert breasts. She arches into him as he caresses her, not quite believing that he can really feel the softness of her beneath his palms, really hear the hitch in her breath as he runs his mouth along her skin, savouring the taste he had been deprived of since he relinquished his mortality.

He guides her forwards, pulling the last of the fabric from her body as he positions her above his head, eyes fixed on the gleaming folds of her sex. The last they did this, it had been purely business, and he had felt nothing as he explored her, every sensation dulled as it had been for millennia. But now he breathes in her scent, mouth watering as he tastes her, hears her cry his name as he laps at her, rubbing his tongue along her slit as she tugs almost painfully on his hair.

How long this goes on for he does not notice, lost in the newly awakened ability to feel, to sense once more, to be lost in pleasure. He is slightly irritated as Merlin pulls away, until he sees her move back along his body, hissing a curse as her hand strokes his pulsing length through fabric. He dares not hope that the effect will last as she works him free of his confinement, biting her lip in a way that looks adorable as she lowers herself onto him.

And it is glorious: to hear her gasp, to feel her velvet walls as they clench around him, to see the dust of pink form on her cheeks as her eyes close in ecstasy. Every little detail is clear and sharp and his breathing quickens as his hands explore her thighs, guiding her movements as she rocks over him, riding him to oblivion. Blood pounds ferociously in his ears as they both near release. It takes no time at all for the coil inside him to tighten, the pressure almost unbearable having been deprived for so long, and he too closes his eyes as she begins to shake. Her cries quickly build to screams and he feels wave after wave of euphoria washes over him as he approaches an inevitable end.

But then, as fast as it has come, the feeling flees, the keen bliss of moments prior fading to nothing but a dull ache. He is numb, insensate, and entirely frustrated as he sees Merlin tremble above him, her muscles collapsing as she reaches her peak. He is nearly rough with her as he pulls out, depositing her on the bed and quickly rearranging his clothing, knowing from experience that further endeavour of this sort is pointless. He will never be able to find his end, not now that his past decisions have caught up with him, depriving him of all he once held dear.

“The spell wore off, I presume,” she pants and he looks at her coldly, fury raging in his breast. His hands curl into fists as he regards her flushed face and swollen lips, her hair disheveled as it spreads over the pillows. “I am minded to be offended. But no matter. You have upheld your end of the bargain. I will aid you in your quest.”

“It is not as simple as that,” he spits angrily, blood pounding in his ears. “This is your doing, again. You have tricked me!”

She props herself up on one elbow, regarding him with eyes alight with her amusement. “I can assure you I had no idea this would happen. I can adjust the formula,” she adds patiently, as though speaking to an imbecile. “With some effort to perfect the spell, it may last longer next time.”

“Next time?” he shouts, even more annoyed to see her calmly return his glower. “There will be no next time. You have humiliated me once too often. You…”

“Oh yes there will,” she counters, authority ringing in her tone. “After all, it might work. And you will need my help again, of that I am certain. But until then, listen well. I will tell you how to kill the hydra. Unless you would rather beg Zeldris to share his secret with you?”

He grinds his teeth together as she continues, “I thought not. Besides, only I among the Gods have the power you need to kill the creature. The hydra brings death to all around it by stealing time and so robbing mortal beings of their life. Even you, a God, felt its effect as your time was seriously depleted. For you to defeat it in combat, I will need to stop time itself, until you have destroyed your foe.”

“You can do that?” he asks, his eyebrows raised, and he is impressed despite his ire when she nods her head.

“Oh, and you must seek the primary head,” she continues as she climbs from the bed, reclothing herself as she talks. “And before you ask, no. I have no information as to how you will recognise it. Only that you will likely know it when you see it.” With the last fold of her dress in place, she snaps her fingers, the air around them whipping into a frenzy even though the window is closed against the breeze. This time, he is not surprised to find that he is back at the side of the lake, the luxury of Merlin’s rooms replaced with barren land.

The air stills, as if the world is holding its breath and Estarossa spins to face the lake, its surface shining peach and salmon in the light of the setting sun. As if it has sensed their presence, the hydra emerges, vaporous black body spotted with alabaster, eyes and mouths of nothing gaping wide as it rushes towards him. Then if suddenly halts, tendrils of darkness freezing as Merlin raises her arms to cast her spell over the earth.

“Hurry, I cannot make this last indefinitely,” Merlin calls and he hears the strain in her voice. “She is stealing time even as I stop it. I have to work to keep things still.” Estarossa waves his acknowledgement as he approaches the hydra, examining it with keen eyes.

The thing has many heads, but all appear to be the same. Now that he is close he can see the leathery skin of each pale face is cracked, their jagged smiles and aquiline noses betraying the creature’s heritage. It is not unlike the grey demons he and Zeldris breed to aid their work, the mindless servants ever useful as they wordlessly fulfil their duties. This one though is unlike any he has ever seen, as if it is an experiment gone wrong.

“If it is a demon, I must destroy its hearts,” he murmurs to himself as he regards it critically. He stretches out his darkness, tendrils moving through the air like snakes as they roam over the hydra, pulling at its form and slithering through eye sockets. He works carefully, systematically exploring every inch, but he cannot locate the hearts which should be at the centre of its being. Indeed, to his shock, he realises the creature may have none.

Then he feels it, a tiny pulsing core, no bigger than a coin in amidst the mess of unusual anatomy, just as Merlin cries, “You will have to make your move, quickly!” The tendril flowing from him grips the core, tightening around the object protectively as he withdraws it from the depths.

As soon as it leaves the monster, the hydra screams, the sound piercing enough to make ears bleed as it collapses in on itself. Estarossa feels the brush of air against his cheek as Merlin releases her spell and time once more ticks towards its inexorable conclusion. As he watches, the hydra writhes in agony, its heads exploding like white fireworks before the blackness fades to grey, then disappears.

He examines the thing in his hand, smooth and flat as a button, the aura of strong magic rolling from it in waves. But before he can ascertain the nature of what he has retrieved, Merlin is beside him, scooping up the object and sealing it within a flask.

“I told you, knowledge is power.” She gazes almost lovingly into the glass beaker, and Estarossa swears he can see the core within tremble in her grasp. “I will discover what secrets this contains,” she declares, an almost beatific smile on her face, and he recoils in disgust at the naked greed of her expression.

“Return to the humans,” she commands before he can chastise her. “You can inform them that their plague is over. I will see to it that this creature is not unleashed upon them again. Those still surviving should recover, though it will take a little time for their city to return to its full strength.” He opens his mouth in a question, but she vanishes before him, the only clue that her presence had been more than a dream the slight hint of vanilla on the air.

So once more Estarossa trudges through Britannia, performing the will of the Gods, the tedium of victory settling on him like dust as he continues on his journey.

Chapter Text

The Cerynean Swine

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas , I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

— Sir Thomas Wyatt

 

“Son of a—”

With some care, Estarossa gets rather painfully to his feet. He dusts himself off, wincing slightly as tiny thorns press into his hands. He has, of course, fallen into a mass of thistles, their cheerful purple flowers belying the sharpness of their leaves. He stares ruefully down at the mess of crushed flora which has broken his fall, the sharp scent of sap floating in the air. If his lion skin is stained this extremely irritating foe will pay.

He has barely enough time to register his annoyance before he feels a sharp pain in his side, the force of the blow knocking him off balance. This time he avoids the thistles, only to land in a patch of wet earth, the mud sticking to his skin, obscuring his vision and filling his nostrils, making breathing momentarily difficult. He curses loudly, then regrets his impetuousness as the brown ooze of the soil runs into his mouth.

“You’ll have to do better than that!”

The triumphant snort behind him makes the demon whip round in an instant. His blade is once more in his hand, the weight comforting as Estarossa rounds on the opponent he has been chasing for hours which feel more like days. “No one survives my Rolling Ham Attack ,” the creature says proudly. Estarossa has to admire the animal’s chutzpah. The pig stands with its nose in the air, a maniacal grin on its face, tiny eyes gleaming in the golden evening light. It does not seem to realise that it, a mere beast, is facing a God of the Underworld.

Estarossa bites his lip, examining the swine with some care as a plan begins to form in his brain. He cannot keep pursuing this thing all over Britannia; the past day is proof enough of that. An alternate strategy is clearly called for. So, with a half-smile, he slowly lowers his sword to the ground, shrugging his shoulders in apparent surrender. “Well then little master,” he says calmly, making sure to lace his tone with respect, “it appears that we have reached an impasse. You have evaded me but I am still on your tail. And now night is drawing in. What do you say we call a truce for today and resume our hostilities in the morning? That way we can both get something to eat…”

“You have food?” The creature is at his side in an instant, sniffing him with an excitement that throws the demon off guard. He nearly pitches forward with surprise, only just managing to retain his balance.

Quickly, Estarossa clears his throat. “Um… yes,” he says weakly, before pulling his pack off his shoulders. The goddess, whose cursed errand has led him to this clearing, at least had the courtesy to furnish him with provisions. “If you give me a moment I’ll set up a fire and… Hey!” Estarossa yells as he looks down to see the pig with its snout firmly pushed into his bag, the munching noises suggesting that it has made short work of the contents.

The pause in the surprisingly fast animal’s movements is all that he needed. In a flash, Estarossa pulls at the rope secured round his waist, looping it around the pig and pulling it tight, knotting the hessian securely about its shoulders. He can only hope it is as effective a cage as the goddess has promised, that the magic woven into the thread will prevent the creature’s escape. Estarossa is blessed with an incredible stamina but even he has reached the limits of his endurance. This pig has proven hard to catch.

“Let me go!” squeals the pig. It tries to move, to get on its feet so that it can charge at the demon but, from the way it twitches and grunts, its legs appear to be glued to the floor. It struggles and strains, before finally giving up and collapsing back in a heap on the grass.

Estarossa laughs, enjoying the sight. “That’ll teach you to try and get the better of me,” he manages to spit out between chuckles.

“Why are you chasing me anyway? What did I ever do to you?” the pig squeaks indignantly. “I, Hawk, Captain Of The Order Of Scraps Disposal, demand to know…”

“Shut up, pig. You’ll speak when you’re spoken to.” Estarossa looks up at the sky. The sun’s rays barely penetrate over the horizon, the dark of the night descending like a soft blanket, the last streaks of orange and pink fading to deep blue. He could carry out the last of his instructions, but he is in no hurry to complete this task. His body is bruised and battered from the many humiliating attacks of the swine, his skin scratched by thistle and holly. No, he would rest here for the night before reporting back to that Margaret, allowing his magic to heal his wounds. Meliodas would not thank him if the goddess clan found any signs of weakness among the demons of the Underworld, and he was already on thin ice with the king.

Then he checks his pack. Every scrap of food has been hoovered up, leaving him with nothing. Estarossa growls. After a day’s hard labour all he wants is a meal and a bed. “Change of plan,” he mutters to himself, his hands clenching with his new determination.

It did not take long to establish a fire, the flames ringed with stones to protect the surrounding vegetation. The warm glow and smell of wood smoke is welcome as the night descends, bringing with it the chill so familiar to this land. But the relief is short lived: the comforting heat that caresses his limbs dulls to nothing even as the fire continues to blaze, and all he can feel is the slight press of his power as it closes abrasions and knits his skin back together. He barely manages to hold back a snarl. If he had known that even such simple pleasures as the warmth of a fire in the dark would be denied him, would he have ever made his pact with Death?

“I’m hungry!” Estarossa sighs forcing his eyes and his thoughts away from the fire to the swine he has dumped a few feet away. The pig is staring at him, its expression defiant even though it is unable to move.

“You’re not the only one,” Estarossa complains. The demon takes a knife from his bag, the sharpened edge gleaming in the light of the fire. “And unluckily for you, I have to eat something...” He looks at the pig meaningfully, waiting for the animal to catch up with his train of thought.

“Wait! You’re not going to eat me?” The pig’s squeal is horrified. “That’s not fair!” it protests. “I’ve done nothing!”

Estarossa sighs. “Your death has been ordered. Did you really think you could get away with the desecration of Britannia? You’ve eaten much of the food that the humans set aside for the winter, along with what was left of the fruit remaining in the hedgerows and fields. Those you have stolen from have prayed to the Gods and, for once, the Gods have chosen to heed their pleas. King Baltra’s daughter, Margaret, goddess of life, has personally charged me with your destruction and I’m not in a position where I cannot refuse these ridiculous errands. But the goddess didn’t say how I was to do it,” he adds with some menace as he throws another log on the fire. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t eat you after the deed is done…”

He had expected the animal to display some sort of shock, or horror, but the pig just grunts its indignation. Ignoring the anger boiling in his breast, Estarossa searches for sticks to use as a spit, finding some sturdy examples on the edge of the tree line, just about visible by the light of the flames. His mind is cast back to the previous day when he stood before Margaret, the image of her clear and sharp in his memory. She would have been beautiful, with her slender waist, full breasts that looked to be as soft as pillows and her hair a waterfall of smooth lavender, were it not for the obvious contempt in her dark brown eyes.

“You must kill the creature. Do not show it mercy,” she had commanded as Estarossa ground his teeth to hold in his frustration. Did she think he was little more than some sort of errand boy? “It is a pestilence on this land, a plague which affects your kind as much as my own. Life and death are ours to determine, not some beast that has gone wild.”

“Have no fear, I just want this task over and done with,” he had muttered under his breath, ignoring Margaret’s sudden sneer. And it was true. The irritation at trampling over Britannia to do the bidding of the Gods had become almost unbearable. He wanted to go home , to resume his work in his half of Tartarus. Even the prospect of Elizabeth lording over him was acceptable to him now - it was better than being told what to do by her kin - if only he could just be left alone…

“Go on, eat me then. But I warn you, you’ll be sorry. I’m really important!” The unexpected snort cuts across his thoughts, and the image of Margaret’s triumphant face fades to dust. He frowns slightly; something about her look should disquiet him. She knows he has no choice but to accept her commission - surely all the Gods know of his pointless exile to this forsaken land - so why was the goddess so pleased when he had agreed?

Shaking his head, Estarossa gathers his thoughts. “Have no fear, swine, you’ll be pork soon enough.” The demon stalks towards the animal, knife held securely in hand. He was a hunter, and has some recollection of how to dispatch this sort of beast to make it fit for the table. One had to let the blood drain from the neck, then wash the carcass with water to remove the hair, a step he might reasonably skip with this beast and its hide smooth as silk. His brow furrows again. Surely that is peculiar. Swine were generally covered in thick bristles…

The pig is still speaking. “And the Queen herself will avenge me, you brute! I am Sir Hawk, Captain Of The…”

“Yes, yes, you said all that,” Estarossa groans. He closes in on the beast, knife at the ready, and is about to press the blade to its throat when he looks into the animal’s eyes, a reflex he has developed in his centuries of work. Then he stops, his hearts pounding hard against his ribs. He does not see fear, or hatred, or any hint of disquiet. The depths of irises glow with a soft light, golden rays spreading over a luxurious land. There are trees and fields, fruits and flowers, and men and women dance, their white clothes streaming around them as they move. Amidst the revelry sits a figure he knows only too well, a beautiful head of silver hair and eyes as blue as the sky.

“Pig,” he growls, his face drained of blood, “you said the Queen would avenge you if you are harmed…”

“She sure will! She thinks the world of me,” the swine replies, his nose once more pointing into the air. “I’m her personal Knight! She…”

“Then you’re coming with me.” Estarossa wraps his arms round the pig and hoists him into the air, cursing audibly as the full weight of the animal becomes apparent. “You weigh a ton!” he complains as he stumbles. “I’ll never get you back home like this.”

“Home? We’re going home?” The animal wiggles in his arms and Estarossa shouts as he nearly drops his cargo. “Then let me go,” the pig whines. “I want to go back, you don’t have to carry me.”

“I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you,” Estarossa mutters, but he sets the creature down on its feet. “Now no tricks,” he scolds as his fingers begin to pull at the rope. “I am a demon of the Underworld, and I too answer to Her Majesty. If the Queen finds out you ran away from me…”

The delighted squeals set his mind at rest. Even once the rope is removed, the pig stands like an obedient dog at his side. With relief, Estarossa summons his magic; the air around them pulls and swirls as a portal materialises, a gateway back to the land of the dead. “After you,” Estarossa says with mock politeness, the sarcasm apparently lost on his charge. The pig gives a slight snort before trotting into the mass of purple, its body disappearing as it makes its way home. Estarossa sighs, then follows the beast, hoping that the King and Zeldris will not catch him in his errand.

***

“Hawk!”

The delighted call echos like a clear bell through Paradise, and Estarossa grits his teeth. Outside of this realm, which he has only seen on a handful of occasions since Elizabeth had redecorated, his senses are dulled, the eternal punishment for his hubris. But here, in this miraculous land, he can feel everything: the soft caress of the wind on his cheek; the tinkle of laughter as the once-mortal children play, their faces shining with happiness; the bright green of the fields; the sweet scent of jasmine as it floats on the breeze. There is a young woman with a baby, the small thing gurgling happily as she lifts it up in her arms, the sheer joy the pair have in each other practically vibrating in the air. He fills his lungs again and again, the ever-present longing inside him even more sharp than usual as he takes in his surroundings, knowing the respite that Paradise provides will not last more than the time it takes him to speak to its Queen.

“Wherever did you find him?” the Queen asks as she approaches, a beatific smile on her face. She had made a fuss of the pig, flinging her arms around him and scratching behind his ears, the animal squealing in delight. It was clear that the swine was some sort of pet. After Elizabeth had finished tending to the beast, it had made its way through Paradise to be greeted by the dead as they enjoyed the afterlife

Estarossa finds that, whatever his intentions, he has stayed stock still at the very edge of the land. He stands within a few steps of the door that leads back to the throne room. He is a trespasser here, and the goddess’ fulsome welcome only serves to remind him of his catalogue of sins. He had wanted this woman dead, yet now she runs towards him with outstretched arms, her voice rich with gratitude as if he had never wronged her. His eyes slide to the floor, his gaze fixed on the shine of dew which beads the long blades of grass as, for the first time in millennia, emotions threaten to engulf him.

“He had escaped to Britannia,” Estarossa explains, his eyes still fixed on the floor. “The beast has caused no end of problems among the mortals…”

“I don’t know how he got out,” Elizabeth laments, “but I will be sure he is guarded more closely. Thank you so much for bringing him home.”

Estarossa swallows and slowly nods. He turns, his focus on the exit when he feels a light hand on his arm. “Stay awhile,” Elizabeth says, her words as soft as her touch. “You are weary. You are not prohibited from enjoying a rest,” she says with a laugh as Estarossa opens his mouth to protest. “Come and eat,” the Queen urges as she tugs on his sleeve. “The food here will refresh you. And it would be a discourtesy for you to refuse.”

Reluctantly, the demon moves further in, guided by the Queen of Paradise. He stretches out his powers, which snake through the land, feeling his way in this place so unfamiliar. All he can sense is gladness and joy, hearts carefree and light with happiness. Even the goddess beside him is relaxed, and it is clear to him that she feels no rancour towards him for his betrayal.

“Look around. You can stay for as long as you wish, provided you resume your quest once you are done.” Estarossa looks around but the Queen is gone, her laughter sounding in another part of the realm. He wants to hate her, to loathe her the way he had done just a few short months prior, but he finds the will for the enterprise has all but gone. Truth be told he no longer resents her presence. His mind is cast back to Gilthunder, the earnest, pious boy who has lost everything yet guards a temple to worship the Gods. Whatever he feels for the species in general, the mortals who have done no harm in life deserve the peace they can find in this realm.

He wades through the tall grass, the long stalks swishing around his legs. The further he travels, the more he feels, the incessant laughter beginning to grate on his nerves. Perhaps this is why he gravitates towards the small grain of sadness he can sense among the sea of joy, his feet drifting along a track which leads towards a small cottage, the homely-looking place set by a line of apple trees besides a babbling brook. The place looks cozy, warm, light spilling from the windows which are trimmed with flowers and he feels a sense of homeliness and peace.

He is taken aback when the door springs open and out flies a girl, braided hair shining like spun gold. Her face is radiant, her eyes wide as saucers and full of elation, until they fall upon his face. The pain he sees as her expression changes makes his hearts seize and his breathing come in ragged pants. He has presided over the punishment of mortals more times than he could care to count, relished their suffering and indignation, but never has he yet seen a look of such absolute sorrow.

The girl speaks, her voice hesitant. “Please excuse my rash behaviour, sir. I thought… I mistook the trace of your power for that of another. Wishful thinking on my part. Please accept my sincere apologies.”

Estarossa swallows, feeling an uncomfortable lump in his throat. In that instant, he recognises the girl and the last thing he wants is to converse with her. Quickly he bows and makes to take his leave, turning sharply on the earthen track. But for the second time that day he is stopped by a hand laid on his arm, this one insistent, long nails pressing slightly into his skin. “I know you,” the girl says in wonder. “You’re Estarossa, the demon of Love. Tell me, how is Zeldris? Have you seen him?”

“No, princess Gelda,” the demon says stiffly, pulling his arm free of her grasp. He does not turn, deciding to keep his gaze fixed ahead, but she anticipates him and moves round to face him, her violet eyes peering into his own. “I really haven’t,” he protests into the following silence. “I’ve been exiled, cast out on Britannia. I’ve seen nothing of Zeldris for many moons.”

Her shoulders slump, and she drops her gaze. “I just want to know he’s alright,” she pleads, her voice breaking.

“Well he’s not.” Estarossa decides he hates this girl. It is all her fault. If she had only done as he had instructed the Queen would be dead and… But then, he thinks with alarming clarity, he would still have been punished, perhaps the more so if his plan had succeeded. Perhaps Gelda’s stupidity had saved his life. “He’s miserable,” he adds more kindly as Gelda’s lip trembles. “I never would have  thought Zeldris of all people had it in him to fall in love, but fallen he has. Last I saw him he was moping around, gazing at the door to this land. He misses you,” he adds, unable to hold back a derisory hiss.

He expects the princess to show some hope at his words, and is surprised when her head bows. “What’s the matter?” he demands crossly, annoyed at her meekness. “I just told you he loves you, didn’t I? Why…”

“I want him to be happy.” Gelda’s eyes once more snap to his and he sees they are shining with tears. “Zeldris is everything to me,” she whispers as the tears spill down her cheeks. “He gave me life, even in death. I don’t want him to wait, alone for eternity. He needs love and companionship, or his soul will wither away. I hope he finds it before we are reunited.”

“You are a very strange woman,” Estarossa grumbles. He once more makes to go, his hearts as heavy as his footsteps though he does not know why, the sensation doing nothing to sooth his irritation.

“Estarossa!” Gelda calls and this time the demon spins round. “Take these with you.” She presses two apples into his palms, the round, ripe fruit feeling surprisingly comforting in his hands. “And, would you tell Zeldris I love him? Please?” she adds softly.

He rolls his eyes, but then swallows his retort. “As you wish,” he replies coldly. This time she does not stop him as he wends his way to the exit, munching on the apples the princess has urged him to try.

The experience is almost enough to make him cry himself: the fruits taste tart, juicy, bursting with flavour reminding him of autumn winds and the sweet aroma of pies as they cook in the oven. He closes his eyes and sees, for the first time in millennia, his home, the one he left without ceremony in pursuit of Godhood: rich tapestries hanging on grey stone walls; lush, woven carpets; and shining suits of armour. Servants and nobles alike bow before him as he strides through the halls, and he knows he can have his pick of any of them, men and women alike, to share his bed. He smirks. It is all too easy to live with this constant admiration. Then he recalls the ennui that seeped into his soul, forever driving him to seek bigger and better thrills…

“No!” he yells. Birds scatter before him, rising from the grass to soar into the air, their song resounding tremulously as they fly. Of course Paradise would be filled with nightingales. He grits his teeth and takes a last breath of the perfumed air. He has a final errand he needs to perform before he can count his latest task as complete.

***

The woman before him is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that she is seething with rage. Her lips are no more than a thin, pale line, her jaw is visibly working and her chocolate eyes are hard as flints. Estarossa smiles languidly, resisting the urge to slouch against one of the marble pillars, creamy ivory laced with pretty trials of pink and grey. He knows he has the upper hand, but it would do him no good to show it too soon.

“I told you, in no uncertain terms, that you were to destroy the menace before returning to me,” Margaret says coldly as she stands, hands on hips. “It was a simple enough command. So why have you dared to return without accomplishing your errand?”

“My apologies, Your Highness,” Estarossa smoothly replies, “but I reasoned there must be some sort of mistake. The animal is well nourished and can feed many dozens of people. You informed me that the humans were in a perilous state because the creature had worked its way through their stores of food. Well, here is a solution. It would not do to kill the beast too soon and let the meat spoil. Besides, the mortals have prayed to you. I figured you would wish to be the one to deliver the goods.”

The goddess pauses, and Estarossa grins to himself as he sees her mind working. “I see,” she intones. “Thank you… for the thought. I will see to it that the meat is distributed. If you could go and kill the beast now…”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Estarossa’s lips curve to a lazy smile. “If you want the animal dead, be my guest. It’s just outside. You’ll find it easy to slaughter.”

“I can’t…” Margaret begins to protest.

“I thought not.” Estarossa draws himself up to his full height, satisfaction running through him as he towers over the goddess. She shrinks back a little in spite of herself, the coldness of her expression faltering before his stern gaze. “Perhaps now you would care to explain why you asked me to destroy a creature you know to be one of my Queen’s most prized possessions,” he growls, allowing his power to fan out through the room.

Margaret’s shoulders slump a little but she stares back at him in defiance. “This is all bluster. You have nothing,” she says, doing her best to make her tone casual.

“I think not,” Estarossa gloats. “You wanted to cause a rift between me and the Queen. If you don’t want me to let Her Majesty know about your little scheme, I suggest you leave me well alone from now on. I have enough shit to deal with without you goddesses getting in my way.”

He does not wait for a reply. In a few strides he leaves the palace in the Celestial Realm, his wings spreading over his back as he nears the gates. The guards do nothing to stop him as he takes to the sky, speeding through the wind back down to Britannia. Estarossa sighs bitterly as the cold air hits his face, instantly freezing his ears and limbs. How long will it be before he can cease this endless travel and return to the duties he is fated to perform?