“We have to have a Christmas party!” they had said. He had asked why. The responses had been unsatisfactory to say the least. Something about team bonding and getting into the festive spirit, as if the marks of their servitude were not enough to chain them together whether they liked it or not.
And at this moment, he most certainly did not. Galland had mercifully managed to keep Estarossa away from the stove but most of the food provided still left much to be desired. A large plate of burned cookies was being passed around, no one daring to risk a bite. A pile of fruit also lay to one side which Gloxinia was quietly edging away from as Melascyla tried to force feed him. His reluctance was understandable. The apples and pears had started to decay, white plumes of mould sprouting out of them like frost as the flesh dripped fetid liquid into the bowl. That was the last time he would ask Grayroad to help with logistics; he should have remembered that her touch brought death.
But there was some good stuff in amongst all the horror. Dolor had rustled up some human grub he’d grown fond of while in Stigma, and while it pained him to admit it the rich stew was surprisingly palatable. Pork was quite acceptable as a meat. Derieri had also done rather well, providing a large number of human souls which Monspeet was languidly munching on, and by the look on his face they were tasty enough.
But as usual, it had fallen to him to save the situation. The enormous tyrant dragon he had slain single-handed took up the whole room, and his comrades were gleefully eating it raw. It was still warm, Zeldris thought appreciatively as he tore off another chunk with his teeth, enjoying the feel of the thick blood splattering over his face as he did so. This kill had taken him hours but it had been worth it.
He had also made sure that there was enough alcohol sloshing about to satisfy everyone, no easy feat when Estarossa was chugging it straight from the barrel. His brother had bagged the best bit of the dragon for himself too. The large, yellow eye he clutched in his hand was likely to be extremely good eating. A fond smile began to form on Zeldris’ lips as he looked over at Estarossa before memories of another who used to drink that way wiped the joy clean off his face, the brief flash of humour quickly replaced with an habitual scowl. The expression came so naturally now it was like a second skin.
“You don’t want any?” Estarossa called as he thrust the barrel in Zeldris’ direction.
“You know I don’t drink that cheap stuff,” Zeldris scoffed as he stared round at the demons who were his to command. They were all pissed as newts, most of them lolling about over the corpse of the dragon as they drank themselves into a stupor. Gloxinia and Dolor were chatting off to the side, dragon meat not being to their taste, and Grayroad was no doubt floating around somewhere. Come to think of it, Zeldris was not sure if she even needed to eat or drink. The rest of them were just lazing about, clutching greedily at the many barrels of ale. Fat lot of good they would be if any goddess scum showed up.
Still, they were deep within the demon king’s castle and the odds of an interruption were mercifully small. His father, in something of a strange, puckish mood, had allowed them the biggest room in the palace and even Dolor could stand up without crouching too much. The demon king had been pleased with him for converting the fairy and giant kings and had readily agreed to endorse the festivities, even making some crude remarks about supplying entertainment if they wanted. This should have made Zeldris proud, but it didn’t. Nothing really felt good anymore.
“Right, presents then,” Estarossa called and Zeldris’ scowl deepened. His brother seemed to keep forgetting who was in charge. He’d have to take control of the situation, even though he’d not warmed to this fool’s idea in the first place. But it had been nine votes to one so, contrary to his wishes, the first Ten Commandment’s Secret Santa was now a reality. Being their leader should bring more perks than this.
“Ok, everyone come round,” Zeldris called, summoning the wrapped gifts from their spots all over the room. They floated gracefully through the air past contented, drunk faces to lie in a pile in the middle of the polished stone floor. The others all crowded round, sitting in a tight circle without being asked. That was better, Zeldris thought as he took his place amongst them, Melascyla shuffling aside to make room.
With a flick of his finger, Zeldris sent a small, flat package in green wrapping paper into the air. It paused for a second before spinning round and heading straight towards Monspeet. The Commandment of Reticence raised an eyebrow, examining the gift that had plonked itself in his lap with a haughty glare.
“Come on, open it already!” Galland snarled, his armour clanking as his arm moved with his impatience. Zeldris was grateful for this intervention. No need for this ridiculous exercise to go on for longer than necessary. Then they could get back to the dragon.
Monspeet carefully peeled back the paper, making sure not to damage it before gasping in surprise as a thick, white cloak emerged. It was made of an extremely rare material fashioned by the fairies, breathable and yet water resistant. Gloxinia cooed in awe, fluttering over to examine it, shooting Monspeet a glance of appreciation. Monspeet indeed looked happy enough, and quickly discarded his old garment to replace it with the new. There was only one person who would have bought him that genuinely thoughtful gift, Zeldris considered, and he caught Derieri’s eye with a knowing smirk.
With the first present having gone down so well, the expectations round the circle were heightened and Zeldris could feel the tension as the next gift drifted into the air. This one was obviously a box from its shape, and it whirled around enticingly before flying to Melascyla, who shrieked with glee. She tore the paper away as quickly as possible, practically ripping the box in her impatience. Inside were tens, if not hundreds of little balls of wool, commonly used as padding to help ensure delicate objects did not get harmed in transit. Melascyla tossed these away with abandon and Zeldris had to clench his teeth to stop himself from snapping at her as one hit him square in the face. A quick glare at the others however was enough to ensure no one commented.
After what felt like ages, Melascyla finally hit the bottom of the box and pulled out a headband adorned with a pair of long, pink bunny ears. Zeldris bit his lip quickly so as to suppress the bubbling laugher which threatened to break to the surface. Wondering what Melascyla would do, Zeldris was surprised to see her immediately clamp the ears onto her head before she bounced around like a rabbit, earning herself a large round of applause and catcalls from the others. Say what you like about Melascyla, she had always been fun.
Beginning to enjoy the proceedings despite himself, Zeldris again raised an armour-clad finger and a third present sorted itself to its rightful owner, this time Fraudrin. One of the newest members of the Ten Commandments, and having achieved this pretty hefty promotion purely because his better had deserted the cause, Fraudrin was still pretty insecure and was right to be so. He wasn’t even truly one of their number and was very obviously the weakest link in their chain. Most of all, he had nothing compared to the magician he had purportedly replaced. Zeldris clenched his fists as Fraudrin peeled back the paper. He did not like the former general.
After some clumsy manoeuvres with his massive hand, Fraudrin finally exposed the gift, revealing it to be a human doll. Now this would cause havoc, surely. Whoever got Fraudrin this was an imbecile, determined to put an end to the fun. It was times like these Zeldris wished Estarossa would do more to help him manage the team, but he never did. Ever since the traitor had gone, Estarossa had become one the most indolent layabouts in the entire demon realm, and the only reason Zeldris did not discipline him sharply was that this attitude was by far and away preferable to his previous sycophantic fawning. That and, if he was honest, Estarossa would be hard to beat.
To Zeldris’ intense surprise, Fraudrin just picked up the doll and looked at it. There were no yells and no tears. His head was a funny kind of shape and it was generally impossible to read Fraudrin’s emotions, but from the careful way he handled the doll, Zeldris could have sworn he was pleased. Did this leviathan of demons have some affinity with this pathetic race then? He would have to have words; there must be something in the code about not fraternising with humans, and if there was not he would add it first thing in the morning.
Next up was Estarossa who also received a box wrapped in tasteful silver paper and tied with a dark red ribbon. This package had the novelty of actually moving on its own, although magic was still needed to guide it in the right direction.
“It’s hot!” Estarossa exclaimed as he picked up the parcel, dropping it back onto the floor in his amazement. Gingerly, he grabbed one end of the ribbon and pulled. Once free, the top of the box started to bulge upwards before a flash of bright green shot out and darted all over the room with a burst of flames. Estarossa yelped like a little boy as he caught the baby dragon up in his large hands, stroking it tenderly down its spine. The beast purred loudly, before turning round in circles in Estarossa’s palm and promptly falling asleep as the others made cooing noises. Zeldris grit his teeth. Now he’d have to add something forbidding the ownership of pets to the code as well. Using his power to fashion a silver cage so that the newest member of the family would not bring destruction upon the festivities, Zeldris moved on to the remaining gifts.
The next three presentations went smoothly enough. Galland was given a book entitled ‘The Art Of War’ and Zeldris could not prevent himself from releasing a bark of laughter at the sight of the gangling mass of metal trying to peel back the pages with his spiky gloves. Fortunately the sound was drowned out but a sudden, loud snore from the dragon and the booming voice of Dolor who was showing some interest in Galland’s present. That book was an apt gift from a genius. He would have to make sure Galland read the tome, anything to improve his strategic approach to combat.
Grayroad received some royal jelly from someone on the team who evidently knew more about how this queen of demons worked than he did. The floating horror set about devouring the delicacy without delay, the sight causing most of the party to wince slightly as she hovered it up with her many death masks of faces, the slow, sucking noise causing Zeldris to grit his teeth. Still, he would have to make sure there was plenty of that in stock. Grayroad was creepy but useful, and needed to be kept on side. Dolor’s gift was a small postcard adorned with a rather good drawing of the wilds of Britannia, the words “IOU one hug” written on the back. Zeldris caught Gloxinia’s eye and a look of understanding passed between them as Dolor blushed silently. Zeldris was pleased these two had joined their ranks. They both raised the tone.
The next present was his, and despite himself Zeldris felt his hearts race in anticipation as the others started a drum roll. Most of the gifts had been fairly thoughtful but Estarossa’s choice of present had not yet been opened and Zeldris hoped he was not going to be on the receiving end of whatever his brother conceived of as humour. As soon as the parcel landed in his hand however he knew he was safe. It felt like an ornate glass bottle.
Carefully unwrapping the sombre grey paper, Zeldris’ face worked as his scowl disappeared to be replaced by an expression of surprise and gratitude. It was a bottle of aged fire whiskey, extremely rare and wonderfully smokey, made with the help of the wet, spring rains and soft peat to be found in northern Britannia. The others gasped when they saw it, and Zeldris allowed a smile to curve over his lips. In a gesture of extreme generosity, he conjured ten glasses into the air, and poured the amber liquid out. The aroma of the alcohol tickled his nose pleasantly and he felt his mouth water in his impatience. Each one of the team, even Grayroad, took a proffered glass and drank contentedly. It was excellent, the hot bite of it warming him right down to his stomach.
There was only one person who would have given him that, and Zeldris grinned broadly at Dolor, pouring him a sneaky extra glass in thanks. They had agreed on the merits of this vampire speciality only a few weeks back. This thought made Zeldris pour himself a rather large second helping, and he drank deeply to try and forget, but he was not at all surprised when the fire which spread through him only reminded him more forcefully of what he had lost. It had been about a month since he had unwillingly sealed her and her clan and he had not slept properly since.
With another flick of the finger, a spherical package rose into the air and made its way towards Gloxinia. Zeldris tensed slightly as the fairy king started to peel back the shining red paper. He’d thought long and hard what to get for the new Commandment of Repose and hoped this would go down as well as expected. Gloxinia stared at the dark ball he had unearthed, dumbfounded and unable to speak.
“Is that what I think it is?” Dolor boomed as he leaned over his friend to get a closer look.
“I think so,” Gloxinia managed to squeak out, his voice sounding thin and forced. “An orbuculum.” He held it carefully, cradling it to his chest as it shone in the candlelight.
“What does it do?” Melascyla asked curiously, sliding over to get a better view. “Looks like a lump of glass to me.”
“It’s crystal. If you look into it, it will show you the face of the person you most want to see, whether they are dead or alive. It is the most wonderful thing I have ever been given.” This last phrase came with a heartfelt tremor, and Zeldris felt more warmth running though him which had nothing to do with the whiskey he was still knocking back. When he had found Gloxinia, a blubbering mess of tears and anger, the fairy had screamed and screamed his pain at the loss of his beloved sister. With complete understanding, Zeldris had gently coaxed Gloxinia back to his normal self, and the scar of his loss had begun to fade. But the agony was still there, and would be forever. Seeing Gerheade, even if it was only an image, would no doubt give Gloxinia some comfort. He found it helped anyway.
The last present made its way towards Derieri. This had gone well and Zeldris was just on the point of congratulating himself on a job well done when Derieri let out a vicious snarl. Of course. Estarossa. What had he done this time?
“Whoever is responsible for this is dead!” Derieri yelled as she shot to her feet, her eyes raking over the assembled faces as her huge hand of darkness raised to strike.
“What is it?” Zeldris asked. It was his job to arbitrate. Derieri did have a bit of a habit of over-reacting. When she tossed the pamphlet at him however, Zeldris decided that her fury was justified. The offensive thing was entitled ‘How To Behave Like A Lady’.
“I think we can approve of you taking revenge for this,” Zeldris said suavely as he rose to his feet. “This is an unconscionable insult. You are one of our clan’s most accomplished warriors and I will not allow this go unpunished. Estarossa, what have you to say for yourself?”
“Thanks a bunch,” Estarossa muttered darkly as he glared at Zeldris. “Some brother you are!”
“And some comrade you are. This is unforgivable. Derieri, you have no need of anyone to fight your cause. You two can settle this in the usual way. But as you are the injured party, I think the rest of us can give you a bit of assistance. Dolor, would you be so kind?”
With a grin, the huge blue giant waved his four hands and a line of golems rose out of the stone. Derieri lost no time at all and started pummelling them furiously. She kicked, punched, clawed and even head-butted the huge stone goliaths to Zeldris’ absolute amazement. Her skull must be made of some seriously hard stuff.
With a raised eyebrow, Zeldris shot his brother a look of triumph as he and the rest of the Commandments stepped back away towards the edges of the room, giving the two combatants more space to brawl. Zeldris hopped onto the top of the dragon and started to devour it, ripping away the still tepid flesh and chewing thoughtfully, relishing the soft, silky texture and the metallic aftertaste. It was delicious. Watching fights always made him hungry, and the flavour went surprisingly well with the fire whiskey.
“No weapons, Estarossa. I don’t want Derieri damaged,” Zeldris called as his brother started to summon a curved blade from the air. With a look of pure loathing, Estarossa tossed the sword away and it landed with a loud clang as he squared himself up. Derieri had smashed most of the golems to pieces and was flying across the room towards her target, screaming a war cry in her rage.
“Don’t forget about his Full Counter,” Monspeet advised as he took a seat next to Zeldris, offering him one of the shining souls. Zeldris smiled; the soul tasted like pure light as he crunched it, the tang of sadness from the mortal who had built it up causing a throb to vibrate through his core. He took another experimentally and felt the appealing warm spice of anger flowing through his veins, giving him new strength. He’d always rushed these, swallowing them whole in a completely business-like manner and had obviously been missing out by not savouring the flavour.
“These are really good,” he murmured appreciatively to Monspeet, who gave a slight nod in return before passing him another.
“They are, just make sure to avoid disgust. You can tell them apart by the slight green tinge. Joy is the best.” Taking the offered soul, Zeldris bit into it slowly, smacking his lips as the sweet taste of honey burst over his tongue and a gentle contentment trickled to his hearts. The sensation was almost one of being stroked from the inside, momentarily relieving the dull ache that was now always there. It was amazing, and he closed his eyes to concentrate on the feeling. Monspeet looked at him thoughtfully, and passed him another.
“Come on Derieri, bosh him up!” Galland shouted as the rest of the demons cheered. Derieri was circling round Estarossa trying to decide on an angle of attack. She could not go for him directly of course, but she couldn’t hold off forever.
Quick as a flash, the room suddenly went black as Derieri snaked out tendrils of darkness to snuff out the candles. In the confusion, she must have attacked Estarossa judging from the harsh grunt. Zeldris summoned a soft, red light to illuminate the room and was impressed to see his elder brother lying prone on the floor, darkness smoothing over the back of his head to remove the injuries Derieri had inflicted. Most would have been permanently damaged by a hit from Combo Star after that much preparation, but Estarossa was made of sterner stuff. He stood up hesitantly, looking disheveled and dazed, but alive.
“Zeldris, no fair on the lights! They have to stay on,” Estarossa whined as Derieri flew at him again. Zeldris nodded regally as he turned his attention back to the fight. They wanted to be able to see it after all.
“Full Counter!” Estarossa put his hand out, palm facing forward as Derieri slammed into him again, and this time he hit his mark. Derieri flew backwards with tremendous force to land with a blood-curdling smack on the opposite wall. Bits of mortar crumbled away with the impact, and particles clung to Derieri’s coarse, orange hair as she staggered slowly to her feet. Zeldris expected her to build up the combo again with the few remaining golems but Derieri had other plans. Before he could process what was happening, she catapulted herself into the air, soaring across the room with a shout to land on top of Estarossa’s head, pointing her toes so that they gouged into his eye sockets.
Estarossa roared in fury as his eyes bulged. He thrust his fist upwards into Derieri’s stomach, knocking her towards the ceiling. She bonked into the stone, narrowly missing the chandelier before plummeting downwards amidst a flurry of dust, miraculously twisting in midair to right herself. Before Estarossa could react, she changed her trajectory to crash into his chest, at which point she hit him as many times in succession as she could manage, her massive hand of darkness smacking him repeatedly, pulling skin away from bone and turning muscle to pulp. In utter amazement, Zeldris watched as his brother sagged, holding up his arms in surrender. Evidently the alcohol had affected his proficiency. Derieri yelled as she clenched her fist, punching the air in triumph as a fierce grin morphed her face.
“That’ll teach you to treat the team with the respect they deserve, and to watch how much you drink. Come on, let’s get you to bed,” Zeldris said kindly as he picked up Estarossa and slung him over his shoulder. His brother’s darkness had already begun to heal his many wounds, smoothing over the abrasions and knitting bits of his body back together. He would be fine by the morning.
“You’re coming back, right? This party’s not even started!” Melascyla simpered as she twirled round the room. Monspeet had found a lute somewhere and was playing it rather well and a number of the company were taking advantage of the rhythm, twisting and jumping in time to the music. Even Dolor was taking part, his graceful war dance drawing eyes and admiration as the room oscillated wildly with his efforts, the chandelier tinkling as it swung dangerously close to his head. Zeldris looked round at the many faces as they cavorted and swayed. His team all looked happy enough.
“Of course. This is the best Christmas ever!” Zeldris said to Melascyla, a rare smile spreading over his face as he carted Estarossa out of the room.