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.