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The Dark Gift

Chapter Text

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.

Robert Hayden

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.

Isn't it?

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."