I'll tell you a secret.
Something they don't teach you in your temple.
The Gods envy us.
They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last.
Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.
Zeldris sips a cup of tea as he watches his victim. The man—what is left of the man—is contained in a crate just large enough for his body. The sound of quiet weeping comes from inside, but Zeldris is unmoved. He places his cup down before leaning forward, his elbows on his knees.
"Are you thirsty yet?" he asks.
"Yes!" The voice that answers is raspy, tinged with pain, as if there is glass in his throat. He can barely make out the words, knowing it is torturous to push the vocal cords in a nearly mummified state. The man's lips must be bleeding as well, stinging his skin, the taste of it too salty to bring any sort of relief. If Zeldris is lucky, the blood is hot and sears the man's tongue.
He considers a moment before saying, "You are then? You are ready for some water?"
There is silence, the air thick with dread. "Please," he cracks out. "I'm sorry—"
Zeldris stands, not interested in hearing any more. With a gesture two dark figures move in and open the cage. The demon finishes off the last of his tea as they pull the man—hardly a man anymore, really—out and stretch him on the ground. He pauses just long enough to ensure they have the funnel secure in his mouth before he turns away, heading back towards the Underworld.
Around him the moans of the dead fill his ears, nothing more than white noise. It is his duty as Piety to deliver punishment to those that defy the gods in their lifetime. It takes years, even decades according to how the humans measure time. For the Underworld, time is meaningless. Death is neverending.
Yet for the first time in his life, Zeldris is feeling the weight of time passing. It has been nearly four hundred human years since Gelda went into Paradise, and he has felt every day since then. Even though time does not exist in his kingdom, they too have their rituals of work, sleep, amusement. In this way he knows that the weeks and years are stretching onwards, feeling it like he never had before.
His work fills up the days, but now he is weary. The man in the cage had swore an oath to his god for water for his crops; when the god granted a bountiful rain that filled the rivers and streams, he worked to set up dams and divert it all to his own land. His neighbors were devastated by a drought of his making, and in doing so soiled the gift he had received. Now he is forced to drink water nonstop until it ruptures his stomach; then once drained, he slowly dies of dehydration, the cycle repeating as he nears death.
Zeldris stops in his walk as he spies his brother. "Estarossa!" he calls, pressing his lips together when the tall demon turns around. As his eyes trace over the blood spatters that decorate the front of his body Zeldris scolds him silently. Estarossa enjoys making a mess.
"I'm heading off to sleep," he continues. "I feel weary enough to drop."
"Are you sure?" laughs Estarossa. "This one here still has plenty left to carve."
There is a sound of whimpering panic behind him, but Zeldris cannot see the woman hidden behind his brother. Such methods of torture he finds tiresome, so he ignores the offer and says, "Two of my souls passed on into the darkness today."
Estarossa nods. "You have always been quite efficient at that."
Zeldris snorts at the lazy compliment. Without another word he heads directly towards the exit, which will lead him into the Great Hall of the Underworld. His oldest brother sits on the throne there and judges the souls that enter the afterlife, sorting them into Paradise or into Purgatory. Purgatory is the home of those who must atone for their sins. Zeldris of Piety takes those who sinned against the gods, while Estarossa of Love takes those who committed crimes against their fellow humans.
The door opens as he approaches, the black magic swirling until it disappears. He steps from Purgatory into the Underworld, his eyes sweeping around to see he is alone.
To the left is the throne, raised high on a dais. It too stands alone, as the king is the only one who can read the hearts of man and decide their fates. The king had been meant for an eternity of solitude, a curse and a privilege owned by his ultimate sacrifice—one which was thrown into chaos when he received a part of a goddess' heart. Once more Zeldris makes a face to think of the way she perches on the arm of the throne, or sits prettily on the steps between the king's hours of work, the two smiling and chatting and grazing palm to palm.
But Zeldris cannot begrudge them too much. He pauses opposite of the door to Paradise, the only sound his steady breathing. With deliberate steps he approaches the heavy wooden door. He raises his hand to trace a finger over the pattern carved into the wood, never touching, but reaching out with all his power to sense an energy that lay beyond. It is impossible, he knows this, but tries it all the same.
He feels the king enter before he hears the familiar footsteps. "Zeldris. I've been looking for you."
Meliodas' voice echoes a bit in the empty hall, and the demon turns to face him. "I've been in Purgatory. Some rather stubborn ones in their repentance lately."
The king nods as Zeldris continues, "Two more souls passed into darkness today."
He looks pleased at the news, his mouth curling a bit. "Good. It is an ease on my mind to hear another is released from their torture." Dark eyes that hint of green travel over to Purgatory's door. "Even though they are doomed to eternity of service, at least it is better than being in your hands."
"Or Estarossa's." Zeldris chuckles humorlessly. "He seemed to be involved very intricately in some method when I left."
Meliodas looks back at him, and Zeldris frowns, wondering what he is thinking. Finally the king says, "Just because his predilection is to physical punishment, that does not mean he is the more damaging out of the two of you."
"What do you mean?" demands Zeldris. "Speak plainly."
"What I mean is that I would take him over you any day."
His cheeks feel hot, anger and shame boiling up in his chest and throat. "You think he is better suited, is that it?" he snaps, demanding an explanation.
"Nothing of the sort," Meliodas laughs. "His punishments are efficient, but lack any imagination. His victims are horrified because they can see what is coming. But you?" The king tilts his head a bit, regarding him. "There is no way to tell what you will do. And that is more frightening than anything."
"Nonsense," Zeldris whispers to himself. He turns and gives the door a quick glance. "When will we be graced by the queen's presence?" he asks.
It is a selfish request, and he knows it, and he know Meliodas knows it, but the king still answers. "It is the middle of August now, so I imagine at least another two months. Summer is in full progress."
Zeldris nods, taking a last look. Elizabeth goes into Paradise when she is in the Underworld and brings him news of his love. When she is in Britannia, he must wait to hear anything.
"As I was saying," sighs the king, "you have an errand."
"An errand? For you?" he asks in complete confusion.
"No," replies Meliodas. "You've been summoned by Belios."
The demon frowns deeply. "The god of light?" he asks. "What does he want with me?"
"I couldn't say. But he is a powerful god. It would do well for us to have a friend in Britannia."
The two brothers exchange a look. They both know it to be true; in falling in love with creatures of the world above, they have in exchange made enemies of those who would protect or use them. In Meliodas' case, it is the goddess Elizabeth, whose father still curses him for stealing his precious daughter no matter how many times she refutes the story. For Zeldris, the princess Gelda was set to be used by Merlin, the daughter of Belialuin, the god of shadows; yet her plan went awry when he sought to protect her.
"Fine," Zeldris agrees. "I will hear his request. But I will promise nothing."
"Fair enough," replies the king.
He nods and takes his leave of his brother, heading towards his chambers to wash and change. Since Gelda is out of his reach in Paradise, it pains him to go to Britannia now. The taste of the air and the rich earth remind him of their time together in Paradise, and before that, how he had rescued her from the cliff of Edinburgh. Zeldris promises to himself to get this business over with as soon as possible, and return to his own realm where he belongs.
Belios, the god of light, is the bringer of the day; his brother, Belialuin, is god of shadows. They no longer speak to one another, their arguments whittling away at their relationship until there was nothing left but jealousy and bitterness. Their fights now are petty and leave victims across Britannia. Yet they are both so worshipped that their powers are far greater than most gods, so their antics are tolerated as long as they keep one another balanced.
It is with this knowledge that Zeldris cautiously approaches a castle in the northern part of Britannia. The summons has brought him here, which leaves the demon on edge. What would the powerful sun god want with a cold, wet castle set on a rock in the middle of nowhere? The air is cold and damp, a drizzle that seems neverending falling to the earth from clouds that are heavy and dark. This is the last place on earth Zeldris would have expected to find Belios.
It is nearing the evening, the wind whipping a bit faster now, and Zeldris decides to continue on foot. He lands on the ground less than a mile from the castle, his black wings folding in and disappearing without a word. He waits and observes, but the comings and goings seem very normal from his perspective. There are flags blowing in the breeze, guards on the parapets, the trellis raising and falling as carts and horses move in and out of the entrance. Is this truly the stronghold of Belios?
With his power Zeldris disguises himself as a simple traveller, pulling his hood up and his cloak tightly around himself to protect against the rain that is now falling sideways. He walks to the entrance, the shadows now growing significantly larger, pulling his energy inwards to not alert anyone of his true identity.
He is challenged at the gate, and Zeldris is amused to discover they are nothing but humans. "I have been summoned by your king," he calls to the doorkeeper. "Tell him Zeldris is here."
"We will inform King Escanor," the soldier replies. "You wait here."
Escanor? The demon laughs to himself. It seems as though they are all hiding something.
Minutes later the trellis opens, and a guard steps out. "This way," he says, and Zeldris is led through a courtyard of mud and supplies, horses being led to stables, men and women hurrying out of the rain to their errands. Once they are across he follows the soldier inside the building proper, up stairs and down a hallway until they reach the throne room.
It is a large hall, two gigantic hearths on either side with blazing fires. Despite the chilly weather the room is overly warm, and Zeldris can feel perspiration form on his neck. The ceiling is high, more flags draped downwards, but there are no other people in the room except for the figure clad in furs on the throne at the other end of the hall.
Zeldris' mouth twitches with the sight of it all. It is certainly convincing, this place looking like any other castle of an important king of Britannia. Once they are close enough, the king looks up and breaks into a wide smile. The demon regards him suspiciously, his eyes tracing over the figure that is smaller than he had expected, a large mustache covering his upper lip, his face wize but kind under a shock of ginger hair.
"My dear Zeldris! My good friend! How wonderful to see you!"
The king rises and steps down the three stairs of the small dais, walking forward with confident strides with his arms outstretched. Zeldris freezes in confusion as his escort steps to the side with a bow; moments later the king's sturdy hands clasp him by the arms, as if they are long-lost acquaintances. "You came! How splendid!" he booms.
Zeldris does not answer, but finds there is no need. "Come to my private room," the king says eagerly, turning him with an arm around his shoulders towards a door beside the throne. "We can speak in confidence and catch up on old times."
The demon suffers being led to an anteroom. Another huge hearth blazes with a roaring fire, thick rugs and cozy furniture decorating the room. The king gestures for him to sit as he moves to a table set with food and drink. "Will you take something? Does your kind eat?" he asks in a friendly tone.
"Are you Belios?" Zeldris asks, standing still in the center of the room.
The king or god or whatever he is glances upwards as he pops a piece of meat into his mouth. "That is one of my names, yes. Belios, Belenos, Helios… depends where you are in the world."
His nonchalant air grates on Zeldris' nerves. "The humans called you Escanor," he replies.
Escanor nods. "That is my name here. They think I'm human as well." He grins at Zeldris and gives a wink. "Isn't it fun to play at their games?"
"The humans are not my concern," answers Zeldris coldly. "I am a demon of the Underworld."
"But surely even you venture to the upstairs occasionally." Escanor smiles as he pours himself ale. "I've heard you even took a liking to a princess once. Saved her from a dragon?" Zeldris stiffens as he watches the god take a long drink of ale. "That doesn't sound like a god who deals only in death to me."
Truly agitated now, Zeldris asks through gritted teeth, "What do you want?"
"You demons could learn some enjoyment," Escanor chuckles. "But since you are so keen we will go to business. I was told you are the demon of Piety, and bring judgment to those humans who defy the gods."
"I am," Zeldris replies. "However I only deal with souls that are dead. The living are no interest to me."
"This one will be dead soon enough," laughs the king. "He is challenging my throne and bringing war to my doorstep. I want him taken care of. Without him the others will fall in line."
Zeldris folds his arms and snaps, "Did you not hear me? I don't care about the living, and I certainly don't care about any war of yours. Why do you even care yourself?" He looks around at the gloomy castle. "This place is fit for a human king, but you are the god of light. You have more power than most. Why debase yourself in this way?"
For the first time, Escanor looks uncomfortable; Zeldris watches him curiously as he makes a show of piling rich desserts onto a plate. "I am fulfilling a promise to someone. They have asked me to assume the kingship here. But this boy—"
"Who?" Zeldris demands. "If you don't start to speak the truth I will leave."
The name sends a shiver straight through his spine. At once his dark mark flares hotly against his skin, barely registering as it bleeds along his cheek and down his neck. "Merlin," echoes Zeldris, seething at hearing the hated word. "What does that bitch have to do with any of this?"
"I'd prefer it if you did not use such language about Merlin." Zeldris glares at Escanor, who regards him steadily. As the demon's powers pulse outwards, he finds it is met with Escanor's own, the light that now emanates from the god pressing back the dark. "I know of the… misunderstanding you had. Whatever your feelings are of her, I will not hear such talk."
Zeldris turns to go, but Escanor appears in front of him, blocking his way. The king seems to have grown, now a foot taller, broader, his face taking on the look of a warrior. He had heard tales of Belios growing more powerful with the sun; but it is nightfall now. How can this be?
He stares in confusion, but the god holds up his palms. "I don't wish to hear any denigration on Merlin, but I still need your help in stopping her."
That catches his attention. "What do you mean, stopping her?"
Escanor sighs. "The one challenging my throne is her protege, so to speak. If you deal with him, you will be taking something precious to her." He inclines his head, searching for a sign that Zeldris is interested. "Call it your payment for the favor."
The demon swallows thickly. Dealing a blow to Merlin is tempting. Very tempting. After all, she took Gelda from him, nearly took Elizabeth from Meliodas. Even Estarossa was caught in the mix of her treachery, and was gone for ages until the business was cleared. If this challenger is a favorite as Escanor or Belios or whatever he wishes to call himself claims, then his revenge will be worthwhile.
"Just one question, before I agree," Zeldris says. "What does this have to do with you? Why would the god of light put himself here, in the cold mountains of Britannia, to rule over a kingdom of measly humans?"
Escanor sighs. "He is the next ruler of Britannia. Or so she says. That's why I am here, to lose to him and make his claim legitimate."
Zeldris' brows go up in surprise. "You really are a fool then. Do you not know she is a liar?"
The god clears his throat uncomfortably. "Regardless, I don't want to give this kingdom to him. The people now worship me, but if he takes the throne I suspect Merlin will change their hearts towards my brother. And that cannot happen." He looks pointedly at Zeldris. "This boy has challenged a god to war. That is against our laws."
"Yes, but he doesn't know you are a god, does he?" Zeldris grits his teeth. Why do these gods play such games? Why can't they all just do what they are meant to do, and leave the humans to kill one another?
"Go and see him for yourself," Escanor says. He walks around the demon to settle on an overstuffed chair, steepling his fingers together as his elbows rest on the arms of the chair. "He may be human, but he could raise to the level of the gods. After all, weren't we all human once?"
Zeldris raises his chin, refusing to answer, and Escanor nods. "I see it is true for the Underworld as well. When I was called Beli Mawr, I was a great king. And now I am a god. It could be the same for the boy."
"If that is true," Zeldris says, "there is nothing you or I could do to stop it."
"Isn't there?" Escanor regards him carefully. "He has a sword that is the source of his magic. If it is taken—if he is slain by that sword—his time in this world is over." The god leans forward, his expression serious. "I do not want this boy to become a king. He could surpass the gods one day. What Merlin wants with him I do not know, but if the god of shadows is controlling him, then Britannia will fall into darkness. Perhaps he will even come for the Underworld."
Zeldris turns away, rolling this information in his mind. "I will go and see for myself," he says. "But I make no promises."
"Agreed." Escanor grins broadly, smoothing his hands on the curved armrests. "You'll find his band in the southern state of Britannia. He has a stronghold there he calls Camelot." He nods towards Zeldris and continues, "He is actively seeking recruits, so it should be easy enough to get near to him with your disguise. I'm sure your skill in combat will allow you to rise quickly through the ranks. Then you can see what the boy can do."
"And the boy's name?" asks Zeldris.
"King Arthur Pendragon."