Chapter 1: The Coming Of War
It was bright, the sunlight almost harsh as it filtered through branches of sycamore and oak. Elizabeth watched as the rays bounced off the leaves to shine on the many stems of bluebells which dotted the forest floor. She would always remember this day, she decided, as she settled herself more comfortably on the fallen log she had chosen. She let her legs cross before her so that her ankles linked together, allowing her fingers to run over coarse lichen and dry, brittle bark. She needed something, anything , to distract her from the anxiety which was currently clawing at her insides like a caged beast.
Beside her, she felt Gloxinia sigh, the breeze shifting subtlety with his impatience. His wings ruffled, disturbing the ring of silence and spreading a multitude of colours all through the clearing. It was beautiful, but a glance at his face was all it took to confirm that he was more than displeased, his thin mouth drawn even further into an angry line.
“What is taking so long?” a voice boomed from above and Elizabeth raised her head in an attempt to meet the Giant King’s eyes. Even though he sat cross-legged on the leave-strewn ground, two of his large hands resting on his enormous knees, his head was still level with the canopy. Still, Elizabeth did not need to see his expression to know that he too was annoyed and wanting this meeting to be done and forgotten.
“I must say, Lady Elizabeth,” Gloxinia fluted, the habitual smirk he wore conspicuous by its absence, “I expected your demon to be a little more punctual. I have no desire to lock eyes on him, let alone exchange words. I do so purely because your clan gave me reason to believe we have no choice but to accept him into Stigma’s fold.”
“He will be here, Lord Gloxinia,” Elizabeth replied with as much authority in her tone as she could muster. “I am sure there’s an explanation…”
As she spoke, the three companions turned to stare at the sky, or what glimpses of it could be seen through the close cluster of trees. The sun had gone, replaced with a sudden dark that cast the woodland into gloomy shadow. Gloxinia bristled, then raised his arms, and Elizabeth could feel the protection that surrounded the Fairy King’s forest tumble down, just in time for Meliodas to fall like a bomb to the floor.
The breath caught in Elizabeth’s throat. It was not often she saw Meliodas looking like this nowadays, his eyes coal black and trails of ink pulsing over his forehead. Ever since he had declared his love for her, she had grown used to the emerald sparkle of his eyes, to soft, gentle words and to his light, playful tone. Now he looked hard, like a king not a lover, his regal lineage clear in his bearing despite the scratches that covered his skin and the way his left arm hung limp at his side.
“Meliodas!” she cried as she ran towards him, gathering him into her arms and letting the warmth of her power spread through his limbs. She hid her wince as she heard the bones of his arm move back into place with a sickening crack and then watched with some satisfaction as his skin knitted together, leaving him once more perfect and whole. “What happened? Are you…”
“With apologies, I must insist that these questions wait.” Elizabeth followed the fairy’s stern gaze up through the canopy of the forest, her heart leaping into her throat as she spied hoards of silhouettes flitting like insects across the sky. “There appear to be thousands of the creatures,” Gloxinia ground out between clenched teeth. “My magic cannot keep them at bay indefinitely. I presume this is your doing?” he asked coldly as his eyes swung to the demon who was still in her arms.
Meliodas stood, his shoulders flexing as he got to his feet and the mark on his forehead faded to skin. “I thought you said questions could wait till later, not that this will take long. There’s only a few of them,” he quipped with a grin. To her surprise, Elizabeth heard Drole chuckle above as Gloxinia failed to suppress a sly smile at the demon’s insouciance.
Before Elizabeth could stop him, Meliodas sprang up into the air, an enormous broadsword materialising in his hand. Gloxinia shrugged, then too started to float upwards. But before he could make much headway Meliodas was back, nothing much to show that he had taken on a host of demons single-handed apart from the few beads of sweat that clung to his forehead and the pudgy red and grey limbs that fell to the ground like rain all around them.
“So, you had questions?” Meliodas said lightly and the flurry finally stopped, his hands resting on his hips as he cocked his head to one side. He looked slightly surprised as the fallen body parts sunk into the ground. “Well, well, well, that’s efficient,” he remarked as the earth moved to cover what remained of his fallen brethren.
Gloxinia draw himself up before floating over to stand before the demon. “I can see why the goddess clan are… resigned to your presence in our alliance,” he conceded as he looked Meliodas up and down. “I have to admit that was quick work. But it does not mean that I trust you,” he warned.
“No more do I,” Drole said sternly. “But I think he deserves a chance,” he added, his voice lightening. “I’m willing to give him a trial at any rate. With him and Mael together, I can’t see us losing this war. Now come on,” he said firmly as Gloxinia opened his mouth. “These two want some privacy. You’re the fairy here; you can read people’s hearts. You should know that better than me.”
Before Elizabeth could utter her thanks, the giant rose to his feet and began picking his way through the trees with extraordinary care. Gloxinia gave an exaggerated sigh, before shooting a look of disdain in Meliodas’s direction, which the demon returned with a cheerful wave. He then turned to Elizabeth, the smile falling from his lips as the Fairy King finally drifted out of sight.
He took a few steps towards her so that he could take her hands in his. “This isn’t going to work,” he said, his voice laden with regret.
“What’s not going to work?” Elizabeth enquired, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“This,” he said with finality, giving her hands a final squeeze before letting them drop, his own arms returning more slowly to his sides. “I know,” he said softly as Elizabeth gasped in protest. “I left my clan so we could be together. But it’s not going to happen. You saw the way they looked at me,” he added with force. “And that’s a giant and fairy. How do you think the goddesses will treat you if they see us together? I’m not going to put you thought that.”
“Meliodas,” Elizabeth groaned as she reached for his hands, taking them once more in her own. “I know that,” she said, unsure whether to laugh or cry, “and I don’t care. I love you…”
“And I you, which is why I think we should keep our relationship secret.” He stepped back from her then, before rushing on, “It’s no change. We’ll be exactly as we were before.”
Elizabeth pursed her lips, her head shaking slightly. “So when can I see you then? When can we actually spend some real time together, if we’re pretending we have no connection? No, don’t answer,” she added with some irritation. “I’m not looking for a solution. I’m pointing out to you how ridiculous this is.”
“Elizabeth, it’s not…”
“Yes it is! I’m not ashamed of you!” she retorted as Meliodas’s head jerked back slightly in surprise. She wondered briefly if she had ever spoken to him in anger before, but pushed the thoughts aside. “I don’t care what they think. They don’t matter…”
“It’s not about them. It’s about you !” Meliodas sighed, before stepping towards her again. “Look, this isn’t fun,” he said, his voice uncommonly serious. “It’s one thing being in a war and hating the enemy, but to see people you care about look at you as if you were dirt? People you supported, people you watched over and trained, aiming their weapons at you to kill? It hurts , okay!
“That’s why I was late,” Meliodas spat, his eyes now fixed on the leafy ground. “Aranak and Zeno attacked me. I had to kill them. And then Zeldris showed up and… I couldn’t face him. So I ran. I ran away from my own brother so I didn’t have to destroy him. And no, I don’t want the goddesses to look at you the way he did to me. I don’t want you to hear them whispering traitor - or worse - every time you walk by. So I’ll be keeping my distance.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” Elizabeth said hotly and she only just managed not to stamp her foot. “I left my clan the moment I fell in love with you.” As she spoke, the truth of these words hit her for the first time, and she felt a blush creep into her cheeks as Meliodas looked directly into her eyes.
Coughing to clear her throat, she continued more softly, “I do know what I’m getting myself in for. I have done since the day we met. I love you, and that’s all that matters. No! No arguments,” she interjected as Meliodas began to splutter. “Whether you like it or not we are in this together.”
Elizabeth felt her shoulders relax as Meliodas nodded curtly, and she closed the gap between them, gently pressing her lips against his. Their kiss was soft and chaiste, and remarkably open . No hiding in the sky temple, no sneaking away. They were in the Fairy King’s forest, mere steps from Stigma’s camp and no doubt under the watch gaze of dozens of fairies. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth felt free, the sensation enough to make her giddy.
“Follow me. I’ll show you the camp,” she murmured as she led Meliodas through the trees, leaning on his arm to steady herself. Whatever the future held for them both, however her upright and hostile clan might react, she was certain in that moment that she had made the right choice.
Chapter 2: The Call Of The Past
Her limbs ached. That was the first thing that registered as she opened her eyes, before her inability to breathe properly through her nose became abundantly clear. She felt all stuffed up, her throat stinging painfully when she swallowed and her eyes feeling like sandpaper. Elizabeth coughed, the sound coming in harsh rasps as she tried to rise to her feet. She needed to get up! How could she miss her shift?
Just as she was staggering to her feet the door opened unceremoniously, the cheerful greeting followed by the sound of clattering trotters.
“Hey!” Meliodas called, his green eyes shining, and as Elizabeth looked at him she saw his expression change from one of gleeful enjoyment to one of concern.
“Elizabeth!” Hawk squealed as he ran up to her, pushing his snout into her legs. “You look bad. What’s the matter? Are you hungry?Do you have diarrhoea?”
“She’s sick you idiot.” The words sounded harsh, so unlike his usual playful patter and Elizabeth looked at her saviour in surprise. His expression was firm, his jaw set as he walked towards her, taking her gently by the elbow as he lowered her into the bed. “Wait here, okay?” he added as he pulled the covers up around her, before padding softly out of the room.
“What’s eating him?” Hawk asked with a huff. Elizabeth reached her hand out of the bed to scratch the smooth patch of skin between his ears. He pig grunted in response, before leaning back on his haunches to look at her more carefully. “You are sick,” he snorted, his eyes widening with worry. “You’re burning up!”
“I… I am?” The princess pressed a hand to her forehead, feeling the hot, clammy skin under her fingers. She sighed, pressing her head back into the pillows, squeezing her eyes shut to suppress the tears that threatened. How could she have become ill, now of all times? Sir Meliodas was relying on her to get information from the bar’s clientele. He needed her, and she was letting him down.
It was only a few days ago that she had stumbled into the tavern, only to find that the bar owner was the one she was looking for, the Captain of the Seven Deadly Sins, Sir Meliodas. And he had been so wonderful, first rescuing her from those Holy Knights, then promising her to help reclaim her kingdom. He had even given her a place in the bar, a job and a room. The more Elizabeth thought about it the more wretched she felt. She needed to get up and start being useful.
She had just swung her trembling legs over the side of the bed when the door swung open once more, the blonde moving towards her with quick, light steps. It wasn’t until he was quite close and practically shoving the vessel under her nose that Elizabeth realised he was holding a stein full of foaming liquid.
“Here, drink this. I know it smells bad, but you will feel better, trust me,” he murmured as he gently helped her into a sitting position and held the mug to her lips. Elizabeth nearly gaged as the first drops of the brew trickled down her throat, the viscous, oily mixture coating her tongue.
“It’s a herbal healing drink,” Meliodas said cheerfully as he forced Elizabeth to take another sip. “Tastes bad huh?”
“Awful…” Elizabeth trailed off as she clamped her mouth shut tight, swallowing carefully to suppress the urge to vomit. Forget the smell, the taste was truly terrible, a mixture of mouldy cheese and old socks.
“Well, you gotta drink it all,” Meliodas warned, his lips curved in a smile. “It really will make you feel better, I learned from the best.”
Taking the stein from Meliodas, with a great effort Elizabeth forced herself to swallow the rest of the drink down her throat. The effect was almost immediate; she found she could breathe and she felt the pain in her arms melt away as she handed the cup back to the barkeep. With a broad grin, Meliodas pressed her gently back down to the bed, briefly fondling her breast before making his way to the door.
“Rest now. I’ll be back to check on you in an hour or so. You might have to drink some more…” At this Elizabeth felt her stomach churn; the taste of the stuff still lingered in her mouth and she scrunched her face up in disgust as she tried to swallow the last traces of the cure. Meliodas winked at her before turning to leave, and it was his hand was on the doorknob that Elizabeth registered what he had said.
“Um… Sir Meliodas?” she called, her heart thumping in her chest as he paused his movements, turning slowly around to look back at her. It still surprised her that this man, this wonderful, amazing man, would have anything to do with her, let alone respond to her requests. But now she had his attention, she paused, her brow creased in thought.
She had only asked him for information once before, wanting to know if he had committed some heinous crime, only for her efforts to be almost lazily deflected. She had pretended that this did not bother her, but for some reason it did. Why should he share these details with her? Yet for some reason, Elizabeth felt he owed her something, that he ought to share with her information about his past.
“Um… I was wondering, who taught you medicine? You said you learned from the best…” She smiled brightly, feeling so much better and sure Meliodas would find this question easy to answer. Maybe then he would begin to share more with her about himself.
She was surprised to see the bar owner’s eyes darken slightly. The change was barely perceptible - he smiled at her in the same way, the easy grin spreading over his face - but, even though she had only known him a few days, Elizabeth found she could pick up on these minor changes of mood. It was almost as if she had a direct line to his soul. Despite the care she had taken, something about her question had obviously disturbed him.
“Oh you know, I just picked up this stuff here and there,” Meliodas said lightly, placing his hands round the back of his head as he beamed down at her. “Bits of lore I came across during my travels. Now, I’ll see you later, okay? I’ve got to get the bar ready for service. Come on Hawk!”
“You always order me around! Don’t forget who’s the one really in charge around here!” the pig snorted, but he obeyed, clattering out of the room with his curly tail in the air. Meliodas chuckled, shooting Elizabeth one last look over his shoulder before closing the door. The expression on his face had been slightly strange and the princess found she could not quite place it.
She settled back into the covers, allowing her eyes to close as she breathed gratefully through her nose. Although the aches and stuffiness had disappeared, she did feel drowsy, the tiredness enveloping her brain in a soft cotton wool.
She was just drifting off to sleep when, suddenly, a vision flashed before her. She could see Meliodas: he was sitting by a small campfire, legs outstretched, wearing worn travelling clothes, a tattered bag lying next to him on the ground. Even more strange the dragon handled sword he always kept on his person was nowhere to be seen. He was laughing, his bright green eyes fixed on her as she held something out to him and Elizabeth started. It was a cup with the same bubbling green liquid as she herself had just drunk. Even the smell was the same, a pungent aroma of wild garlic and sulphur. She looked down at her hands; they were stained green with the juice of the herbs. Evidently, she was the one who had made the potion.
With a start, Elizabeth sat bolt upright in bed, the vision dissipating in an instant as she opened her eyes. What had she just seen exactly? She tried to process her thoughts, pressing her hand to her head as she did her best to hone in on the image, but even as she did the memory slipped away. Memory? Was it a memory? She had never learned herblore; her father had herbalists at the palace of course but their skill had not formed part of her education. And yet it felt so real, as if that experience was part of her.
With a frustrated huff Elizabeth sank back into the bed, squeezing her eyes shut in an effort to bring back the memory. If she could only focus on it, maybe she would be able to understand why she felt such a connection with Sir Meliodas. There had to be a reason. The man groped her at every opportunity and yet she felt not the slightest bit threatened, as if his hands belonged there. But there was nothing, just the slight orange glow of the sunlight through her closed eyelids.
Taking several deep breaths, she forced herself to relax. After all, she did not have to stop trying; eventually, with enough effort, she would surely unlock whatever secrets her mind was keeping from her.
Chapter 3: Christmas Time
Heavily inspired by episode 2 season 2 of the BBC’s Inside Number 9 by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. Trigger warning: major character death.
Light, dazzling and brilliant obscured her vision. The cold sun shone a pale primrose, pouring from the sky to bounce off the snowy ground. It looked as if the landscape had been scattered with tiny diamonds. The pristine snow crunched underfoot as Elizabeth made her way to the church, taking the shortcut across the fields. The air felt close, cold, the cawing of the few squabbling crows swallowed up, sound muffled by the crystal blanket which covered the earth. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, the fire of the cold stinging her her face and throat as the clean taste of winter filled her with longing.
It was Christmas Day, and today she was going to tell him she loved him. He had said the words the previous day, her mouth running dry as she stared at the floor, unable to meet his gaze as he stuttered. She had tried to respond, to return the affection so freely given, and had completely failed, succumbing to the blush that bloomed in her cheeks and pushed uncomfortably down her neck. She bit her lip, thinking she must look a mess, a blotchy disgrace, and had made a hasty retreat as soon as Andrew had stopped speaking, chastising herself bitterly once she was alone. Why she always had to dissolve into a humiliating incoherence whenever he said anything important, Elizabeth felt she would never know.
But not today. Today, she was going to find Andrew and tell him that she felt the same way. It was not an overwhelming love of course - it always felt like something was missing, as if a piece of the puzzle were in sight but just out of reach - but he was stable and reliable, truthful and attentive, and honestly she knew she was not going to do any better. Her friends were all incredibly jealous, and when she was in his arms she felt safe enough. They had been seeing each other for nearly half a year. If she was not going to make a move now then she never would.
She did not normally go to the family service, preferring the cloak of darkness afforded by midnight mass. But Andrew would be there, cute nephew in tow, and so this Christmas she would be too. Elizabeth absentmindedly ran a gloved hand over her white woolen coat, brushing a few flakes of snow to the ground before checking her handbag, making sure she had the envelope she would need for collection. Today everything would go well: she was prepared.
As she stepped forwards, humming to herself as she looked up at the clear grey sky, the sound of her steps suddenly jarred, comforting, soft scrunch replaced by a hard scrape. She glanced down, looking closely at the white snow, alarmed to see not powder but shards of glass, glittering dangerously for what seemed like miles. Fragments of rainbow shone everywhere she looked and she stood still, not daring to move as her breath bloomed like smoke in the piercing cold air. Panic rose in her chest, her eyes darting from side to side. The silence of the field rang uncomfortably in her ears, making her wince and her heart race. She was frightened, lightheaded, unable to focus, unable to breathe as the world seemed to close in, the noise blooming to a piercing wail. She could not think, could not process, adrenaline coursing through her veins as the white glare shone to obscure her vision...
Elizabeth awoke with a start, sweat beading her brow, her breath coming in harsh rasps. She gulped painfully, her mouth dry as dust and she reached instinctively for the glass of water she kept on the bedside table. The digital clock face shone blue, casting a eerie glow over the otherwise pitch black of the room. Andrew was evidently sleeping peacefully beside her, untroubled by dreams, the blanket rising and falling evenly as he softly snored.
She reached out, intending to wake him, then thought better of it: it was a long way from dawn and her husband desperately needed his sleep. Since starting work as a junior doctor he had been perpetually tired, large bags resting permanently under his hazel eyes, and he would be on call the following day. One of the hazards of the job was working when you were asked, even if that meant spending Christmas Day tending to the sick.
Laying back into the pillows, Elizabeth closed her eyes, willing sleep to reclaim her. She turned, trying to find a more comfortable position then felt a warm arm envelop her, pulling her into a close embrace.
“What’s wrong,” whispered Andrew, his lips close to her ear.
“A nightmare.” Elizabeth relaxed as he nuzzled into her hair, “but it’s over now.”
“Stay with me, Elizabeth,” the voice urged, a hand moving the strands of long hair away from her face. “You have to stay with me.”
Elizabeth struggled against the cotton wool enveloping her, the fog which was settling into her brain. This was not right. She and Andrew seldom argued, and she had not once threatened to leave. The marriage was of course not perfect, but she did not care enough to make a fuss; far better to let the small stuff go, her husband was not being colourful enough to evoke a strong reaction in her. She tried to ask, to seek and explanation, but her eyes grew heavy, the lids dropping closed as the softness of the night swallowed her. She felt warm, safe, free from worry as the bliss of sleep came to claim her...
Elizabeth shook her head, trying to shuffle her memories back into place. She was sitting at the walnut dining table in her old-fashioned kitchen, the one she and Andrew had designed upon his promotion. As a consultant oncologist, the salary more than allowed a little luxury, especially with no children to care for. Her eyes roamed over the cream shaker cabinets, the white quartz worktop, the large aga and polished, stone tiles. It was peaceful, sitting here with a steaming mug of tea, idly leafing through a glossy magazine.
She was waiting for the turkey to cook, and had decided on a quick rest before preparing the brussels sprouts and the bread sauce, neither of which would take very long. It was their first Christmas alone - usually they spent the season with her family - and Elizabeth had been pleasantly surprised to find the preparations were easy without the distraction of children and parents, in the absence of the noise and the bustle and the constant demands.
The day felt listless, boring, anti-climatic. Elizabeth sighed, pushing the magazine away from her before draining her mug and standing up with a purpose. There was no point in brooding. Her life was comfortable, if uneventful. She was secure, well off, respected in the neighbourhood, and that should be enough for anyone. Elizabeth glanced up at the window, her mouth popping open as she saw the face of someone who was undoubtedly a stranger peering in at her with deep, emerald eyes filled with sorrow.
Her heart froze, every muscle in her body tense as she looked, trying to figure out what she should do. The man had his nose practically pressed to the glass, his wild blonde hair blowing in the breeze. It was snowing, delicate flakes swirling through the air to settle on the stranger’s hair and lashes. But he did not move, did not seem to speak, only staring and staring, his expression radiating a sadness and longing that took Elizabeth’s breath away.
Something seemed to stir, the cloud of her mind shifting slightly as she looked at him, and a pain so sharp it made her cry out stabbed at her chest, making her knees weak and knocking her to the floor. Yet she turned her head, seeking the eyes of the stranger as wave after wave of agony coursed through her body. The image swam before her, but still she could not look away, gold and peridot flashing through her brain as the pain intensified to impossible levels and her vision went white…
Elizabeth gazed around at the familiar kitchen full to the brim with family and friends, all of them with grins plastered to their faces. “Surprise!” Andrew said jovially, moving around the table to give her a peck on the cheek. “Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t know what to say… thank you! Thank you all!” She looked round at the group, returning their smiles, unsure of what to do or to say. She never had been one for speeches and she felt her face flush red as her mouth ran dry. After some smattered applause and some hearty ‘here, heres’, the buzz of conversation started up, glasses chinking as wine was poured, bright red liquid shining like rubies in the polished vessels.
Andrew looked at her, hazel eyes narrowing slightly as he laid an arm round her shoulders. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten did you?” he asked, his voice slightly hurt.
“Oh, no. I just wasn’t expecting everyone to be here.” Elizabeth looked more closely at the crowd: everyone she had ever loved was there. Her best friend from school who she had not seen for years, not since she had moved away to take up a job in Australia; her brother who had given her some sharp words only the previous week when she had refused his demands for a loan, his disappointment and anger seemingly forgotten; even her first boyfriend, a short but intense fling from her days at university, was mingling with the other guests. Andrew must somehow have found out his address.
This was very unlike him, Elizabeth considered. Her husband did not have many faults - he was frankly too saintly to feel like a rounded individual at times - but he did harbour a strong streak of jealousy, as if knowing, though she never said anything, that her love for him was far from the overpowering passion she had at one point hoped would be part of her life. She was on the point of querying his behaviour when a smell suddenly crept through the room, the stench of tar and iron enough to make her gag.
“The cake!” Andrew cried and he ran to the other side of the kitchen, pulling open the oven with a single movement. Black smoke billowed out, covering the kitchen, the acrid, burnt taste stinging in the back of her throat. The guests coughed uncontrollably as the smoke alarm activated, the sound of sirens deafening and she covered her ears. “This was supposed to be a happy memory!” Andrew exclaimed as he looked around at everyone, his face falling slightly. Then the noise stopped, the smoke dispersed and all that was left were the faces of her friends, all laughing and smiling. She could see them: her friends as children as they played together; as teenagers laughing over boys; as adults celebrating good news in the pub; all of them hugging and smiling and calling her name...
As she opened her eyes, she saw the smashed glass strewn over her body, covering her red dress and the dashboard of the car. Her head was pressed against the steering wheel, the seat belt cutting like wire into her stomach, the sound of sirens piercing the air. She could smell tar, see the ebony smoke and the bright, glowing sparks as a fireman cut through the frame of her vehicle, doing his best to free her from the wreckage.
“The car came out of nowhere!” a voice protested, and Elizabeth tried to turn her head towards the sound, her neck protesting as she moved. “He rammed her and left her for dead. You have to find him. You have to make him pay! I can’t lose her again! I can’t!”
Her eyelids were heavy, and she grit her teeth as the pain intensified to an unbearable agony. The man she had heard pushed past the policeman trying to restrain him, making his way towards her with lightning speed. His green eyes were swimming, tears pooling at the corners, his face haggard with a overwhelming despair the likes of which she had never before witnessed. But she had! She had seen this look before. She had seen his eyes look at her this way on countless occasions. As she watched, her brain shifted, memories flooding back as she looked at the man she was bound to for eternity.
“Stay with me, Elizabeth,” he begged, his voice cracked and trembling. “You have to stay with me. I can’t… I can’t…”
“It’s alright, Meliodas,” she whispered, trying to reach for him even as the memories continued to assault her. Her wings, the beauty of the celestial realm, the dark swirling mark of the demon she loved. The joy, the pain, the absolute agony as she watched Estarossa - no Mael, it was Mael - run him through with seven sharp swords, unable to run to his aid as the Ten Commandments looked on with impassive faces. She remembered the ache and longing she had endured as she waited for Meliodas to return, the emotion so sharp she could taste it, and the dozens more lives she had lived since then as both continued to live with their parents’ curses. Always living, never fading, never experiencing peace.
She tried once more to reach for him, and once more failed, her limbs refusing to obey her commands. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry. I married someone else…”
Meliodas choked, tears falling down his face. “It doesn’t matter,” he rasped out as he pressed up against what remained of the glass. “I love you. I wanted you to be happy.”
“I wasn’t.” The truth of her words washed over her like a comforting balm, and Elizabeth sighed. No wonder she had never been happy with Andrew. It was not her fault or his and she relaxed as the guilt she had carried began to fade. “I love you, Meliodas. And we will be together next time.”
“No- Elizabeth!” The scream registered as no more than background noise as the pain vanished, leaving her limbs warm and comfortable. As the memories stopped, her brain feeling numb and peaceful she made she she kept her eyes on him. She could not move, could not speak, could give him no comfort, but she would look at him until the bitter end. She saw anger morph his features as her vision blurred, and her eyelids closed for the last time in this life…
Meliodas stared at Elizabeth, breathing hard as he struggled to control the familIar whirl of anguish and hate which tore at his insides like tyrant dragons. He sensed her go, felt her soul slip through the air as his hands curled into fists at his sides. He wanted to kill, to destroy, but suppressed the urge, remembering the lessons of his training in Istar.
“I’m so sorry, she’s gone,” the paramedic consoled as she straightened up, turning to look him full in the face. “Did you know her?” she asked as she took a step towards him.
“It’s complicated,” Meliodas said with a sigh. He shook his head, pressing his pain down as he walked towards the police officer who was waiting to take his statement. Elizabeth was not gone after all. He could still sense her trace as she whizzed through the air, in search of the body that would carry her for the next life. And this time, this time, she would live and not reincarnate. This time, whatever happened, he would not let her down.
Chapter 4: On The Battlefield
The sound of metal scraping on metal rang out over the battlefield, the shouts of the soldiers as they charged booming in his ear as the tang of iron-rich blood made his nostrils twitch. With a sigh of annoyance, Meliodas glared at this troops, irritated to see they were not making much headway, the demons flailing about as if tackling wasps. The goddess clan was putting up more of a fight than he had expected and he ground his teeth with frustration. He did not mind going back to the demon king with his failure; no one had made much progress against these shits so far. It was more that Zeldris had said, fixing him with those eyes of nothing, that the resources he was taking for the venture would not be enough. He had scoffed at this idea - how could the sapling pretend to know what he was talking about - and now it appeared he should have paid more heed.
“Estarossa, go home would you?” Meliodas yelled above the clamour as, out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brother trying and failing to attack an enormous monolith of a foe. The male goddess loomed above the battle, scythe at the ready, preparing to swing at the second demon prince. Meliodas sighed; the poor boy had insisted on coming, determined to contribute to the cause and to test out the new ‘cure’ he had tried. But it was no use. The lad did not have any power still, nor any aptitude for combat, and that was becoming increasingly obvious.
Launching himself into the air, Meliodas swung at his brother’s attacker, cleaving him in two as if slicing through butter. Estarossa looked up at him as the goddess fell in pieces at his feet, puppy eyes shining with adoration as his too-large jacket flapped about him in the breeze. The sight caused Meliodas to bite his lip, the instinct to reprimand clashing sharply with an unaccountable pity and some other emotion he could not place and did not wish to feel.
With a start, Meliodas came back to his senses as a hoard of grey demons sauntered passed him, their long legs striding purposefully as they headed away from the battle. Cursing under his breath, he scoured the landscape to find the fool who dared to interfere with his army - again! This was the fourth time such an event had occurred and he knew for sure now it was some goddess trickery. The demon soldiers were loyal; they had no real sentience or feelings, no aspiration or fear. They were incapable of desertion, so some sort of magic was surely at play.
And then he saw it; at the other end of the field, a light shining around her, a slight woman dressed in a simple white tunic, hands outstretched, talking to a group of demon soldiers who had gathered around her. One of them even smiled: not a wicked grin of triumph, a genuine beam of happiness, a sight Meliodas had never happened upon in all of his days. Rage bubbling inside, he summoned his darkness to form two taut wings on his back and sailed through the air at top speed towards his target. He would end this interference once and for all.
As he approached, the demons scattered. Evidently the goddess had not yet had time to complete her work and they still had enough sense left to run. So much the better, he thought as he landed with a practiced ease in front of the wench, so close he could feel the heat emanating from her body and smell the jasmine perfume she apparently wore. He snarled at this; what a way to prepare for a battle.
He expected the woman to cower before him as almost all of her kind were wont to do, but he was to be surprised. The girl did not even flinch, and now up close he could see her soft eyes were devoid of the haughty cold arrogance of the rest of her clan despite the waves of power he could feel rolling from her. Curiosity piqued, Meliodas examined the girl carefully, chastising himself inwardly as his eyes slipped to her chest.
“I have been wanting to meet you,” the goddess said simply, the dazzling light around her dimming slightly as she stepped yet closer towards him. “You are Meliodas are you not? The demon king’s heir?” Without meaning to, Meliodas bowed his head slightly, making sure never to take his eyes from hers. However silky her voice and delicate her features this was a woman who was not to be trusted.
And he was not here to parley. In one fluid movement, the prince raised his broadsword high in the air preparing to swing at the girl in front of him. With a sad smile, the girl simply placed her hands across her chest, a rather endearing sign of surrender. Ordinarily, such a submission would earn the enemy the right to imprisonment but Meliodas was in no mood to observe usual etiquette. All at once, his sword swung down with great speed, aiming straight for the goddess’ neck.
“You could at least ask me my name first,” the girl said simply, her eyes unwavering and her body completely still. With a snarl, Meliodas found himself pulling back, straining his muscles to halt his attack. How had she done that? How could she have dissuaded him from his just actions with merely a sentence?
“It’s Elizabeth,” the goddess murmured, a slight smile on her lips, “and I have a question for you. What is this war for?”
Meliodas pulled up short, staring at the woman in front of him with wide eyes. “What do you mean?” he barked, his hands clenched around the hilt of his weapon, knuckles showing white with the pressure.
“Just what I say.” The girl looked the picture of innocence as she returned his gaze and Meliodas suddenly found he was struggling for air, the breath catching in his lungs. Why on earth did she need to ask that stupid question? Because it was ordered, because it was commanded, because it was his duty as the demon king’s eldest son. And surely it was the same for her and the rest of her clan; for all their faults they all served the supreme deity with loyalty. Was that not reason enough for any of them on the field?
As if reading his mind the girl bowed her head, sorrow showing in the tilt of her chin. “I thought so. There is no real reason is there? I have asked your race this before and got no answer. I was told you might know.” Meliodas felt his hearts beating as the goddess raised her head once more and fluffed out her wings, evidently preparing for flight.
Quick as a flash, Meliodas pulled his sword to the ready, pressing it hard up against the girl’s throat, a trickle of scarlet blood running down her neck as he pricked the skin. She was a spy, and a dangerous one at that, and she had let slip some interesting information. Who else in his clan had she been cavorting with? Who had dared to pass on intelligence to the enemy? This time the goddess was scared; she suppressed her fear, standing stock still as he pressed the blade into her throat, but her breathing was notably ragged and shallow. Meliodas leered, taking his time, savouring the tang of terror on the air. He was going to enjoy this kill.
Then all of a sudden Meliodas pulled back, his heart racing as his eyes caught a shape hovering in the trees behind the goddess shoulder. He stared, feeling his hearts beating wildly and the blood pounding in his ears as the he slung the huge sword to rest over his back. He could not quite believe what he was seeing, his anger towards the goddess, who was at last beginning to display something like fear in her eyes, fading as a cold dread crept into his chest.
“You stopped. But… why would you do that?” the woman gasped as he stumbled back, his feet catching slightly on a clod of earth. He could not answer, could not even speak, his eyes remaining fixed on the figure in the trees. The goddess spun round, following his gaze and her heard her breath stutter as she also took in the sight. There, just outside of the shadows, stood his brother, the ridiculous jacket still flapping around him. Meliodas did not need to hear the boy speak to know he was pleading silently for the goddess’ life, the expression of infatuation which crossed his features as she met his gaze proof enough of his treachery. Evidently the spy he had cursed mere moments before came from within his own family.
“I don’t know what there is between the two of you,” he seethed, his words coming out in a whispered hiss as he glared at the girl, “but I will find out. And I promise you, goddess, if you have hurt my brother I will make you wish you had never been born.
“Estarossa, come!” With a rush of wind Meliodas took to the air, scooping up the weakling who was bound to him by blood and bone from the ground. His signal to the troops pulled the demon forces into an organised withdrawal as Meliodas tightened his grip on the boy in his arms. As he sped back to the demon realm, the wind whipping his hair painfully into his eyes, he wondered exactly how he was going to explain his brother’s betrayal to his father. But not yet; he needed more details, to understand exactly how far the boy should be punished. Meliodas sighed, not relishing the task he could see ahead of him. He would have to find out exactly what had occurred from Estarossa himself before confronting that perplexing goddess again.
Chapter 5: Longing And Loss
The mirror was mocking him. There was no other explanation. How could his hair look this scruffy and unkempt, and on today of all days? Mael dusted down his tunic, casting a woeful glance in the direction of the glass. Sub-par as his appearance was, it would just have to do.
He really could not wait any longer. He had put this day off for weeks as he tried to summon the courage to tell princess Elizabeth that he wished to take her to the Spring Ball. The event was the height of the goddess clan’s social calendar and it was there that he planned to tell her he loved her. He had even somehow managed to get Ludoshel’s blessing, his brother encouraging him to make the move.
But he had failed. There had been many opportunities when he was alone with Elizabeth and somehow he had flunked every single one.
First there was the time when she had healed him after training, the humiliation of his defeat swallowing his pre-prepared speech. Next he had gone for a walk only to find her by the lake, gazing into the crystal clear waters. She had looked so lovely, so utterly perfect that his larynx had rather inconveniently shut down. Then, only yesterday, he had found himself wandering at her side on the way back from the war room and did not realise he had wasted goodness knows how much time going on and on about Ludoshel’s latest strategy until the lady Elizabeth had taken her leave.
So here he was, the very morning of the Ball itself and he still had not asked her.
Smoothing down his mop of hair with his palm, Mael muttered the words he had crafted so carefully to himself, testing the way they sounded with different inflections. Princess Elizabeth. Would you do me the honour of allowing me to escort you to the Spring Ball? It was short, simple, concise. Now all he had to do was find the lady and say it, preferably without turning red.
With a sigh, Mael fanned out his powers, electricity shooting like sparks through the palace. He had not yet been allocated a Grace but he had power enough to trace the various energies of his brethren. Tarmiel and Sariel were in one of the studies while Nerobasta was, for some unaccountable reason, in his brother’s chambers, although Ludoshel’s aura suggested he was elsewhere. To his relief, he detected Princess Elizabeth in her own part of the castle on the first floor and, with a spring in his step, Mael headed towards her.
His footsteps echoed through lofty corridors lined with marble statues, their vaulted ceilings painted in pastels and gold. As Mael made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms, he sheepishly waved to the white winged guards as he passed, pointedly ignoring their obvious smirks. Did everyone in the damn palace know of his intentions? Still blushing furiously, Mael took several deep breaths as he knocked on Elizabeth’s door, his heart thrumming painfully in his chest with the anticipation.
Silence. He waited, and waited, and waited some more but still the lady did not answer his summons. A mixture of shame and dejection welled up in his breast; after all that she would not even see him? A painful lump formed in the back of his throat and he was on the point of skulking back through the castle when he realised the room before him was empty. There was no trace at all of Elizabeth’s gentle waves of energy.
Alarmed now, Mael flung open the door, panic near to paralysing him when he saw the window wide open. The fresh breeze carried the scent of apple blossom and mint into the room, along with a faint hint of jasmine, the Princess Elizabeth’s preferred perfume. But why would she leave through her own bedroom window? Scanning the horizon, Mael could just make out the silhouette of the goddess he sought, a shadow against the golden light in the sky.
Swiftly he followed, relishing the feel of the air as it ruffled through his feathers. Elizabeth soared, pirouetting in the wind and Mael started on seeing that she was heading towards the disused sky temple, a ruin long since abandoned to the weeds.
“What is she up to?” he muttered to himself as he stealthily followed in her wake. With careful movements of his feathers to adjust his trajectory, Mael fell through the air, quietly landing in a clump of trees laden with vines. There he crouched, his heart in his mouth as he saw Elizabeth running towards a being who was unnervingly familiar, the messy blonde locks those he had watched with dread on the battlefield as Ludoshel did his best to crush the demon prince.
He was on the point of running forwards to tackle the brute when the sound of a dog barking caught his attention. Elizabeth was kneeling down, the silver sound of her laughter flowing over the land as the demon released the hound only for it to leap into the goddess’ arms. The blonde joined her then, ruffling the animal’s ears, the pair appearing to share easy words as the dog cavorted between them.
Ice trickled down his spine as he watched and Mael moved closer, tiptoeing as quietly as a mouse to avoid detection. As their expressions grew clearer he could only stare, every nerve in his body shutting down with the pain as he saw Elizabeth smile before sliding into the demon’s arms, their lips tentatively pressing together. Their arms stayed entwined for what seemed like hours before they broke apart, their foreheads touching with obvious tenderness before the demon took off into the sky.
“I love you!” He heard the call on the wind. Elizabeth waved in response, hugging the dog to her chest as he departed, the aura of his power fading to nothing as he flew to the east.
“It’s so difficult, saying goodbye,” she murmured and Mael froze where he stood, cowering into the bushes to avoid detection.
“It’s alright Mael, I know you’re there,” Elizabeth continued with a chuckle, and Mael could hear the amusement ring in her tone. “It was good of you to watch out for me, although unnecessary. And you can come out now, Estarossa won’t bite.” At this, Mael have in to the inevitable and stepped forwards into the light as the dog growled with unmistakable menace.
He looked at the princess, the tranquil blue of her eyes and cherubic smile doing nothing to calm the rage which had started boiling inside him. “W-what is going on?” he managed to stutter, his anger not assuaged by as she shot him a guilty look. “What were you doing with that demon?”
“Oh Mael, please don’t call him that.” Elizabeth carefully lowered the dog to the floor, the pup running around in circles before whining and scampering off into the bushes. “He’s… he’s not what he seems,” she protested as she gazed directly into his eyes.
“Can you keep a secret?” she asked, her voice slightly hushed and, almost against his will he felt himself nod. “Meliodas is planning to defect to our side. He’s leaving the demon clan tonight to join our alliance. I’m sure my mother will come round. We’ve… we’re…”
“You love him.” As he spoke the words Mael could feel his insides churn with misery and disgust. He had always looked up to her, adored her, worshiped her and now here she was giving herself to that filth ? But he forced himself to maintain a steady countenance, a tactic that apparently worked as she beamed at him in return.
“I knew you would understand! You have always been such a good friend,” she replied as she stepped towards him, pulling him into a warm embrace. The feel of the bare skin of her arms against his own was enough to make him grit his teeth till the enamel almost broke.
“But… he’s dangerous!” Mael protested as Elizabeth broke away. “You know this! You’ve seen how many of our clan he’s slaughtered! He’s…”
“Changed,” Elizabeth interjected, her fingers digging slightly into his arm. “I mean, how many people have you seen him kill recently? He’s completely different now, I promise!
“Mael, do you trust me?” His mouth fell open, the words once more sticking in his throat, only this time for an entirely different reason. No! he wanted to scream, to yell to the sky. Can you not see he’s using you? Can you not see this will be ruin for us all?
Instead he murmured, “Of course I do,” biting his lip hard as she embraced him once more, the scent of jasmine doing nothing to sooth his frayed nerves. It will do him no good to lose her regard for him now; better to stay by her side where he can keep an eye on that monster and protect the woman who he has determined will one day his bride.
“I always will,” he added softly holding her close as, unseen by the lady, his jaw set and he stared angrily towards the azure blue of the sky.
Chapter 6: Unrequited Love
Golden sunlight poured down from the sky, baking the already dry ground into dust. Mael sat at the edge of the stream, stretching out his wings as he dipped his toes in the cool, clear water. It was rare for him to have some time to himself, away from his duties as an archangel and the pomp and boredom of the celestial realm. Here, in Britannia, away from the rigid rules of his clan and his brother’s sharp eyes, he could actually relax enjoy himself.
But as the sun rose higher and higher in the azure sky, he could feel his power bloom uncomfortably, his Grace pounding like an excess of alcohol in his temple. Noon was approaching and he could feel his senses grow sharper, the scent of dry grass and incessant rustle of insects becoming more and more prominent with each passing second. Recognising the danger, he stretched out his powers, scanning the area to make sure he was alone. Woe betide any human or even one of the magical races that might stumble upon him just as the sun reached the highest point of its journey.
Quickly removing his shirt to save it from ruin, Mael felt his muscles expand and his chest swell. He should be used to this by now - he had hosted his Grace for several long months - and yet he still found the transformation painfully uncomfortable. But he was safe; there was no sign of life for miles around save for the fish gliding silently through the stream and the few birds that foraged happily for food. He grit his teeth as the power surged through him like fire, the pain causing his jaw to clench and his breathing to come in jagged bursts as he looked up at the sky.
It was with horror that he saw a dark silhouette soaring above him. The figure paused in its flight, sailing down to the ground just as his transformation hit. Mael roared, his whole body trembling as the goddess landed lightly beside him, her wings tucking neatly behind her back. The urge to strike, to hurt, to assert his dominance thrummed through his form as he looked and looked at the goddess who haunted his dreams. “Keep it together,” he ground out as he forced his hands to his sides. “You have to control it. You have to stop!”
“Mael.” The soft voice floated gently on the breeze, and the archangel felt his power flare in response. He closed his eyes, doing his absolute best to push away the image of the woman he adored. He loved Elizabeth more than life itself, but even that would not stop him from destroying her if he could not get his damned Grace under control. He took several deep breaths, willing the power that was not his, might never really be his, to pull back into himself and away from the princess.
“Just ten more seconds, you are doing really well,” Elizabeth murmured as Mael’s hands clenched into fists, the nails on his fingers digging into his palms. He could feel himself tremble, his whole body shaking with the supreme effort it took just to keep himself still. Then, mercifully, he felt the heat of his energy slowly begin to ebb, his breath coming more easily as reason percolated through his brain. It was over. Noon had finally passed and Mael turned to hide his embarrassment, stooping down to splash his face with water from the stream. The cold liquid instantly vapourised as it met his skin, the hiss of steam sounding in the ringing silence.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, his voice sounding bitter as he kept his eyes resolutely fixed downwards to watch the way the sunlight played on the water’s surface. Elizabeth sighed before moving towards him and placing a hand on his shoulder. It should have soothed him, the feel of her fingers lightly caressing his skin and the familiar aroma of the jasmine perfume she preferred. But, now the attack had passed and he himself had returned, all he could feel was a deep sense of shame.
How long was it that he had loved Elizabeth? Countless years stretching to decades as he had watched the young woman train to be the princess she was born to become. Every smile, every kind remark she threw his way made the world seem better, and he had enjoyed the days he had spent at her side. But since taking on the Supreme Deity’s power, which ripped at his body and tore at his soul, he had needed to keep his distance, the separation hurting him more than the magic of the gods he now carried.
Elizabeth moved to stand beside him, her wings touching his as she too looked down into the stream. Flowers bloomed at her feet, small white daisies and golden buttercups springing out of the grass, at once lush and green. “What are you thinking about?” she asked and Mael bit his tongue. He had never told her how he felt, worried that his brother would not think his affections appropriate, concerned that such a move would anger the Supreme Deity. Yet here, in the calm, he might have revealed his secret, if only he had not just made such a fool of himself.
Instead he replied, “Nothing of significance,” risking a look into her face to reinforce the lie. The lady opened her mouth as if to respond, her silver hair shining like stars in the golden light before she bent down to retrieve something from the floor. His annoyance with himself only grew as Elizabeth handed him the shirt he had discarded, and he quickly stuffed it into his pocket, his cheeks burning as the blush of his humiliation pushed down his neck.
“We should head back,” he managed to force past the lump that had rapidly formed in his throat. “Thanks for your help today. I will try harder tomorrow.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, please,” Elizabeth begged as Mael dropped his gaze back to the ground. “Sunshine is an extremely powerful magic. No one has ever wielded it successfully before, but if anyone can manage, Mael, it’s you. I believe in you.”
Her bright smile sent waves of contentment rushing through him. He opened his mouth to respond but, before he could, Elizabeth pushed off on the balls of her feet, her wings unfurling behind her as she soared into the air. Mael followed, allowing the hot wind to ruffle his feathers as he headed followed behind the princess. He would go back to the celestial realm, resume his responsibilities and reclaim the ache in his chest which was a permanent feature of his existence, wondering if Elizabeth could possibly know how he felt.
Chapter 7: Mistrust
Stretching slightly, the muscles of her arms and legs glowing warm in response, Liz groaned as she opened her eyes a crack before quickly squeezing them shut again. The early morning light streamed through the curtains, blinding her and making her head throb with pain.
How much exactly had she drunk last night? With annoyance, she felt Meliodas stir next to her before he sat up in bed, a grin on his face, as fresh as a daisy despite the fact he had drunk more than her.
“Morning!” he said cheerfully. Then he stopped as he looked at her, no doubt examining the pink hair plastered with sweat to her forehead and her possibly bloodshot, bleary eye. “You look like you’ve been in the wars.” That got Liz’s attention. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she aimed a swat at the blonde, not surprised when he dodged her easily, a smile on his lips.
“This is your fault!” she hissed as she flopped back into the pillows, pushing her eyes into the fabric. Now in the dark, her headache abated slightly and she was able to muster something resembling wit. “You and Cain. I hate you both.”
“Tsk tsk, I don’t recall either of us shoving that seventh bottle of ale down your throat. Or the eighth.” Liz felt Meliodas slip off the bed, then heard the sound of his feet padding softly on the wooden floor as he wandered round the room. A few moments later, she felt herself being pressed into a sitting position, a glass of water shoved into her hand.
“You’re welcome.” He grinned at her broadly as she took careful sips, feeling the cool of the liquid as it washed down her throat. “Lucky you’re not on shift today or I might’ve had to fire you.” Liz growled, throwing a pillow in the knight’s direction, glancing his shoulder but missing the face she had been aiming for.
“Anyway, you go back to sleep. I’ve taken the day off so I’ll take care of you.” Liz stared, searching the green eyes with a sudden interest. The grand master had never taken a day off before, not since she had joined the ranks of Danafor’s holy knights. Something was definitely fishy about this.
“What’s going on?” she asked cautiously, forcing herself to swing her legs over the edge of the bed and stand up. She wobbled slightly, trying to ignore the pounding in her temples as she took unsteady steps towards the man she loved.
“What?” His face was the picture of innocence, and Liz felt the suspicion in her breast grow to something like panic. He was hiding something from her. He always was of course, he never told her anything really, but she consoled herself that it was work matters he concealed, secrets that only Danafor’s top-ranked officials could share. But this was his time. If he was not going to work, then whatever he was up to had to be personal.
“I said. What. Is. Going. On!” Liz rounded on the grand master with fury on her face. Hands clenched into fists at her sides, she stared at him, willing him to give her an honest answer. She felt her face flush with frustration has he merely rubbed the back of his head with his hand, green eyes examining the ceiling as if in a dream.
“You’re impossible!” Without a backwards glance, she flounced into the washroom, banging the door behind her before quickly running a bath. Even in her agitation she still felt a flash of marvel as hot water ran in a stream from the faucet, a luxury she had thought she would never experience. Sinking into the warm water, Liz breathed, willing herself to calm down. She trusted him by now, surely? He had done enough to prove himself. And yet…
This was her fault really, she knew. Meliodas had done nothing to earn her suspicion. She had been a prisoner, a slave, an absolute nobody, and he had given her love and freedom and a home. But she still caught herself wondering about his motives even now, even though the tenderness he showed her and the adoration she caught in his eyes as he looked her could not possibly be faked. Or could it?
Only yesterday he had concealed a letter from her, hiding it quickly behind his back as she returned unexpectedly early from the training grounds. He had shrugged it off, but she got the distinct impression that she had startled him. He had placed the letter in his desk drawer, locking it and putting the key in his pocket. That was definitely off. Normally he left the key in the lock, knowing that she would not wish to invade his privacy.
Snarling angrily, Liz swept out of the bath, not even bothering to clean up after herself before towelling off and hurling her clothes on in a fury. Let him do it for once. She was always sorting the house out, even though she worked just as hard as him. And now she had a mission. She was going to find out what was in that damned letter he so clearly did not want her to see.
Slowly, carefully, Liz descended the stairs, making sure to avoid the one that squeaked as she made her way to the living room. It was still early; Wandle would be out for his morning flight and from the sounds of it Meliodas was doing something atrocious in the kitchen. If she was quiet, this should be easily managed.
As Liz entered the living room, she paused. The cheerful, homely space was filled with odd ornaments, worn furniture, the picture they had bought together in the market hanging above the fireplace. Maybe this was wrong. She should trust him! Then the vision of Meliodas shoving the paper into the bureau, hair hanging over his eyes to obscure his expression, came back to her in a flash and she just had to know. She had to be absolutely sure that there was nothing she should be afraid of.
Walking softly to the bureau, her bare feet making hardly a sound, she took a hairpin from her pocket and, with a glance over her shoulder, slipped it into the lock. The mechanism was simple, child’s play for a woman who had grown up deprived of food and water, shut away in a cell. If she had not learned this skill she would have died long ago. Before long, the lock gave a soft click, the drawer opening a crack as she achieved her objective.
The letter she was looking for was of thick, high-quality parchment and swiftly Liz sorted through the documents. Meliodas definitely had something to hide: rather than just shove it on top he had evidently buried the document deep in amongst his other papers. Her heart beating wildly, stopping every now and again to glance over her shoulder, Liz worked through the untidy piles until she found it, her chest glowing with triumph as she finally pulled it free from its hiding place.
It was a bill. A very, very costly bill. So costly her eyes watered at the sight. The description did not say what item Meliodas had purchased but she recognised the insignia at the top of the page. A jeweller’s shop, the most expensive one in the whole city. The amount paid out was more than her annual salary and she felt her face flush, her breathing quicken with panic. Meliodas never gave her jewellery because he knew she would not wear it, hating the way it interfered with her movements. He must have bought it for another woman.
With clumsy fingers, Liz forced the letter back into the desk, closing the drawer as best she could. She could not see properly, tears beginning to fog up her eyes, and she swiped at them angrily. No point getting upset over a shit of a man she had been stupid enough to believe she could trust.
“What’cha doing?” Liz spun round in an instant to glare at the grand master. He was looking at her cautiously, his eyes soft, his expression changing to one of concern before her eyes. “Liz, it’s not what you think…”
“So tell me! What is going on! None of this makes any sense!” Liz yelled, trying and failing to stop a stray tear falling down her face. Her heart paused in its rhythm as Meliodas hung his head, his hair once more obscuring his eyes and she too looked towards the floor, not sure she could take whatever answer he had to offer.
“Well, I was going to save this for later but now will do fine, I guess.” At this Liz looked up, surprised to see the grand master kneeling before her on the floor, arm stretched out, a small box in the palm of his hand. Carefully, Liz took it, her fingers trembling as she opened the clasp, her breath stuttering in her chest as her eyes beheld a magnificent diamond ring. It was beautiful, the shine of the stone sparking with the colours of the rainbow as it caught the light of the sun.
“Liz, I love you. Will you marry me?” he asked, his eyes searching hers and, with a start, she caught the apprehension in his expression. He was nervous! The man who had braved the worst of Britannia’s foes and who kept the whole city safe was afraid. Afraid of her answer.
“Look, I know you are worried but you don’t need to be,” Meliodas said softly into the ringing silence as he bit his lip. “There have been others, in the past. But I’ve never… I have never proposed to anyone before. It never… well… I think we can have a future together, something I have never felt before in my life. Liz… please. I love you.”
“Yes!” Liz cried, pulling Meliodas to his feet and flinging her arms around him. He returned her embrace, and she could feel his shoulders relax as she held him, the joy she felt in that moment completely overwhelming her. He hand trembled as he took it in his, placing the ring carefully on her finger. It fit perfectly, and she gazed at it in wonder, her heart fit to burst with happiness. As she pulled him close once more she knew for sure that he was right, as he so nearly always was. After all the pain and torture of her life, she was finally truly free; and she and Meliodas really did have a future together.
Chapter 8: The Damage Is Done
Some dialogue taken from the manga (volume 2). Trigger warning: character death.
He smiled. It had been so damn long since he had been able to stretch his legs, feel the rain on his face and smell the sweet tang of blood. The metallic odour hit the back of his throat, reviving his senses as he stared down at the girl. She was slumped against a wall, her wet hair plastered to her face as she gasped for breath, the holes he had left in her chest dripping scarlet onto the shining stones. Fraudrin grinned, his hearts beating wildly in his chest. He had never felt so alive .
He had wanted to find that goddess, the one with the huge breasts, vapid eyes and haughty dementor. How he hated her! The bitch had sealed him, him , the newest member of the elite Ten Commandments! As he had burst from the earth in a fit of rage, finally free of his confinement, his first thought had been to get his revenge. But fanning out his power over the land he had felt instantly that there were no goddesses to found; nothing, not even the smallest of traces.
Until he felt her . There was no mistaking it. The goddess. Not the one who had sealed him but, even better, the one who had lured the commander away from his clan and started the war. The one who was responsible for the thousands of deaths outside the Fairy King’s forest. Fraudrin ground his teeth as he remembered: the flash of white as that archangel unleashed a huge ball of Arc on his clan. He had seen friends go up in ashes that day, Derieri’s scream filling his ears, enough to make them bleed. Her raw grief had near killed him, and he had vowed in that moment not to leave a single one of that damn clan alive.
The energy of this one was different - more spicy, less refined - but the signature was unmistakable. It was the goddess Elizabeth, still alive even all these no doubt millennia later. He had flown like the wind, rushing through the sky over fields and trees, past small cottages with spirals of smoke rising comfortingly from the chimneys. Damned humans with their cozy lives. He had been robbed of this, robbed of the chance to just exist without fear and hate, ripped away from those who he might have grown to care for. His chest squeezed tight as he thought about this, grief flooding through him for the family and children he could now never have.
Lights, dazzling and brilliant burning in the dark blue of the night suddenly came upon the horizon and Fraudrin pushed his thoughts away. She was there! In amongst that mess of colour and noise. A city then, and a big one, a thriving human settlement. There were many energies with some sort of power, a barracks perhaps? And then Fraudrin stopped, his mouth falling open in astonishment. He was there too! The traitor! With her even after all this time!
The anger he had felt when he broke from the seal paled into insignificance as he struggled to process what this meant. He had been stuck in the earth, deprived of all freedom and feeling, and the traitor had been fucking that goddess all this time. Maybe they even had children. The thought almost knocked him out of the sky. Well, he would stop this. He would destroy them both! Alarms went off in the city, shouts and the clanging of armour suggesting the humans were aware of his presence. Well, let them come! He was so fucking angry he would end them all! This city would be dust before the night was out.
He flew like a shadow into the city, scanning the streets to find the goddess. As he explored, it started the rain, not a drizzle or a light spring shower but a genuine storm. Lightning flashed on the horizon as thunder rolled, stirring the air and his blood with excitement. Humans were milling about, screaming and running for their lives but he didn’t care; his mind was focused on one thing and one thing alone.
Then he saw her. A slender girl in gold and silver armour, bright pink hair bobbing as she ran. She didn’t look like the goddess - no wings, no aura - but that’s who she was alright. With surety, Fraudrin moved towards the girl, looming over her as she turned to face him, casting her into shadow. Her eye gleamed at him brightly, a cerulean gem and he was more than certain. He had seen that eye before.
“Greetings!” he ground out, his hands clenched into fists. “I have been looking for you.”
“And I have been expecting you.” Her voice was soft, soothing even and Fraudrin felt as if his hearts had been stabbed. She looked serene, composed, as if she knew what was coming.
“I have my memories, I know the damage is done,” she continued, a slight smile on her face. Fraudrin stared, not understanding her words, but the sentiment behind them was clear. No fear, no terror, no nothing! Just a calm acceptance of what she had coming. What fun was that? How dare she? How dare she rob him of his just revenge?
“I know you are here to kill me,” the goddess said gently. “And I do understand. I bear you no ill will, you may do as you please. But I would ask one favour. I know he must see it - that is the curse - but please give me enough time to say goodbye. I so rarely get to…”
“You ask a favour of me!” Fraudrin yelled above the splash of the rain and the rumble of thunder which pounded the skies. “Are you mad? Why would I…”
“I think you’re decent,” the girl murmured, her hands outstretched. “I saw you at the battle. You care, I could tell. I’m not asking for my life, just five minutes. He finds it so hard…” The girl broke off, a slight choke to her voice. “I love him,” she said simply. “I just want to say goodbye. Please.”
With heavy hearts, Fraudrin could see the pain in her eyes, the suffering etched into the lines of her face. Suddenly he wasn’t mad anymore. He was horrified. What had all these years of wasted time been about? He had nothing, all his dreams smashed to pieces, but then so apparently had this damned goddess, and from the sounds of it her lover as well. Confusion swelled in his breast, his chest heaving, suddenly unsure of what he should do.
Then he felt it, the familiar dark, snaking energy of his former commander standing just a few feet behind him and before he knew it the anger was back. It was his fault . He had destroyed the demon clan and any chance he had of raising a family. Before he could change his mind, he blasted his power towards the slip of a girl, piercing her body through with the tendrils of darkness that were his to command. With satisfaction he heard the shout from behind him, the traitor’s roar of pain as the rain pounded down.
“Liz!” The scream brought a rush of elation. He had done it! Revenge for all the pain, the heartache and loss. A grin spread over his face and he turned to regard the demon he hated with his entire soul. But Meliodas was no looking at him. Eyes green as emeralds were locked on the girl, gulping for air as blood bubbled over her lips and, quick as lightning, he had run to her, standing straight in front of the dying girl.
“It’s alright. People die sooner or later,” the girl murmured, her arms hanging limp by her sides.
Fraudrin looked on; something about this woman made him feel deeply uneasy, and now he was not sure he had done the right thing.
“Please Meliodas, you can forget about me. But please don’t forget about our ideals.”
What in Britannia was she talking about? Fraudrin felt his brow crease into a frown as he puzzled over the goddess’ words. This made no sense! Was this really what the lady had been so keen to say to the traitor before she died?
“But so long as someone keeps their ideals alive, they’ll never truly die,” she continued, coughing slightly as she spat out the last words. Meliodas leaned over, running his gauntletted fingers through the goddess’ hair, pulling her head towards him. “Once you’ve made up your mind to honour those ideals you can bleed a river and cry until there’s nothing left, but you will still carry them out!”
The girl drew breath, the task obviously coming with great difficulty as she opened her mouth to speak again. But her head fell back, her eyes dulling slightly as they stared into nothing and Fraudrin felt the lady’s soul fly through the air. Interestingly, the shining orb did not soar into the sky, or even fly towards the kingdom of the dead. It stayed close to the ground, slipping past buildings as it whipped down the street, apparently speeding to somewhere in the city.
Slowly, with some trepidation, Fraudrin turned to face his most hated enemy. He would end this little shit once and for all. He’d never liked Meliodas, not even when he was the most celebrated warrior of his clan. The prince had been an arrogant arse, disdainful and cruel, taking pleasure in belittling his soldiers. But on seeing his expression, Fraudrin took and involuntary step back. The demon was beyond distraught, beyond desolated, the naked grief there suddenly engulfed by tendrils of black.
Then suddenly pain. His body was being ripped apart, ground into dust, hurled to the earth. He could not see, could not hear anything but a vast roar which threatened to split open his skull. It went on for what felt like hours, the agony searing into his body like red hot knives. And he now understood the goddess’ words: she had been trying to stop this wanton destruction. The force that was tearing at him must had decimated the city and all who lived there. The girl was trying to save them, even as she lost her own life. That was what had mattered so much to her, enough to make her bargain with her assassin. The shame he felt in that moment was worse than he had experienced in all of his days.
Then it suddenly it stopped. And there was nothing. Nothing but darkness and damp. Fraudrin tried to rise, but found that his body would not respond. Did he even have a physical presence anymore?
So it was prison. Again. That’s where he was. Locked away in blackness just as he had been for all those millennia. Another seal? Or something else. Did it even matter? Fraudrin settled into the dark, resigned to the wait, knowing from experience that sooner or later there would be an escape.
Chapter 9: Waiting
He wasn’t sure he wanted to climb the stairs.
The thought, as unexpected as it was unwelcome, made Ban nearly gasp out loud with shock. How could he have let that sentiment slip into his head? He loved her, adored her, was the luckiest man on earth to have the chance to spend even a little more of his endless life with her. So why was he so reluctant to head to her room?
He stopped short, the steps of the Boar Hat creaking as he swayed. Merlin had rebuilt the pub after it had been knocked to pieces by the Ten Commandments, but she’d retained some of the old touches to make it feel more like home. In accordance with tradition, the bar floor was still sticky, the attic hosted a draft so unbearable only Gowther wouldn’t notice, and this staircase betrayed the presence of any who climbed it, its squeaks of protest impossible to avoid.
With a sigh, Ban made himself continue his steps, each foot falling heavy as he made his way upwards. “Elaine~” he called as he approached their room, forcing his face into its usual languid expression. “Are you alone? Can I come in?” The ritual was new, but one he had observed since he had burst in wearing much less than usual, only to find Diane and the princess sipping tea demurely next to their bed. He did not mind - street children and soldiers did not expect privacy - but the scolding Diane had given him was something he had determined to live without on another occasion.
“Yes, it’s just me!” the fairy replied and all at once Ban felt the reluctance rise again in his breast. He let out a sharp blow of air, enough to push the emotion away long enough for him to open the door. He was unsurprised to see Elaine propped up against the pillows, the bright sunlight streaming through the window showing plainly that her eyes were set with shadows and her face was pinched with concern.
She held out her hands and Ban floated towards her as if pulled on invisible strings. “What’s wrong?” she murmured as he sat beside her, their fingers interlacing without thought. “You can’t hide from me. I can read hearts, remember?”
He swallowed hard round the lump that had formed in his throat. “It’s nothing~” he sang, pulling his mouth into a faked grin even as his eyes fell on the tray on their bedside table. Not for the first time, the careful selection of fruit and herbal tea he had prepared for her had been set aside, untasted.
“Ban.” The word was soft, her voice steady despite the pain she must feel in every nerve of her body. “Remember when I blasted you off the cliff in the forest?” The question caught him by surprise and he let forth a genuine laugh. It was the first time Elaine had brought up their initial meeting since she had returned to him all those weeks ago.
“Yeah. You hurled me into some mushroom one time. You really pack a punch!”
“That’s still me.” Her golden eyes shone as they returned his gaze, the thin skin round her eyes crinkling as she smiled. “I’m the same girl who guarded the Fountain of Youth for hundreds of years, all by myself. You don’t need to worry.”
Ban paused, trying to think how to respond. Of course she could defend herself. He knew that. She could withstand attacks from all but the most powerful warriors. But she couldn’t cheat death. Only he could do that, thanks to her, and as each day passed and he watched her getting weaker and weaker, the prospect of losing her again gnawed at his insides. It had been hard enough watching her die the first time around...
“I’m sorry.” The words snapped him out of his reverie. “No, you don’t need to explain,” Elaine said glumly, her gaze now fixed on her soft woollen blanket. “I didn’t think of that, and I should have.”
“Didn’t think of what?” he asked. She did not respond so he let go of her hand to gently stroke her chin, tipping her face so that he could examine her more closely. She was not only exhausted, she was pale, wiped out, like a paper version of her real self and his heart seized with fear.
Just as he was wondering what else he could say, Elaine finally whispered, “When I gave you the Fountain of Youth, it was just… a way out. Something that would fix the situation we were in. I didn’t think of what immortality would mean to you afterwards. I didn’t even think about how it would hurt you to see me die again when the Commandment brought me back to this world.
“I’ve been watching you for years,” she continued, all hesitation gone as the words gushed out. “I’ve seen you hung, burned alive, decapitated, blown into pieces even. And I’ve got used to it. You get right back up every time, so it doesn’t affect me. But at first… the first time you were executed, I was paralysed. I couldn’t do anything! I just watched as that oaf sliced his sword through your neck. And now you’re in the same position, but with me. All this time, I wanted to protect you, as I was supposed to guard the Fountain in the forest, and at both tasks I have failed.”
“Elaine~” Ban said softly as he gathered her into his arms, folding her into a close embrace. He tightened his hold, feeling her chest rise and fall and wishing he never had to let her go.
“No, don’t try to comfort me,” sobbed the fairy. “This is all my fault!”
“Hey, stop this,” Ban murmured and he pulled back to look into Elaine’s face, wiping away her tears with his thumb. “You did what you had to, and I’ve no regrets. I would go through it all again to spend seven days with you.”
Elaine gulped, then shook herself, her fine golden hair rippling like silk as she moved. “And it’s not over yet,” Ban continued firmly. “Bringing you back to life is what’s been keeping me going, yeah? Well, I’m still gonna steal you. I’ll find some way to for you to live without pain.
“Until then, you have to eat.” Ban cut Elaine off by leaning over her to pick up the tray, placing it firmly on her lap. She laughed, the lyrical sound soothing him in an instant, and he breathed a sigh of relief as she started nibbling on an apple. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he added as he gently took her cup, feeling the stone-cold porcelain under his fingers. “I’ll fetch you another of these and you’ll drink it this time. I’ll bring the princess with me as well.” She nodded and Ban left on his errand. Elaine’s pallor had improved but she was still pale.
Elaine sighed, doing her best to swallow the fruit that had turned to ash in her mouth as she chewed. The small, homely room with its white walls and polished oak floor faded before her as she remembered that day: the huge, red monster, the way the ground trembled under its attack and the acrid smell of smoke as it hit the back of her mouth. And Ban. Ban coughing up blood, dying before her eyes and the way she had forced the Fountain of Youth down his throat.
If she had not done so, he would surely have died, and with him the forest she had sworn to protect. She had watched Ban as he planted the seed which has blossomed into the descendent of the first tree, watched as he fed the ever-growing sapling with his blood, watched as he sat beside her body, holding it close without shedding a tear.
The love that has sprung in her heart as they talked by the fountain had grown, matured as she saw how carefully he looked after the forest and how he stoically bore the fate she has thrust upon him. Seven days. That was all that was required to show that she loved him, but the following decades had proven to her that this love would endure.
As Elaine listened for Ban’s retuning footsteps, she remembered the sorrow she had felt in his thoughts. He was suffering - badly - and now it was his duty to kill the demon who had given her this cursed life. He had said he had no regrets, that he would do it all again, but as she laid back on the pillows, squeezing her eyes shut to imprison her tears, she wondered if she truly felt the same way.
Chapter 10: Berries By The Fountain
“And this one is from Danafor, it’s real smooth and fruity. You’d like it,” Ban enthuses as he points towards the faded bottle label carefully pasted into the leather-bound journal. Elaine grins to herself as her eyes follow the human’s long, bony finger and she examines the green and blue swirls, painted pears growing beside a crystal blue river. She sighs to herself, allowing contentment to wash in waves over her soul, and a smile to pull at the corners of her mouth.
This should be so boring , she thinks as her gaze drags over the spiky blue hair and impossibly long limbs laid out on the grass, her breath catching slightly in her lungs when the object of her attention casts a glance at her over his shoulder. Had she ever seen a man so tall? Fairies did not attain these great heights, no matter how much some tried.
“And this,” Ban continues as he turns the page, the excitement in his voice ringing through the clearing, “is from Danafor. They used to brew it with elderflower and it’s damn good…” Elaine tunes him out as she watches his lips moving, fascinated by the way his sharp canines peak out when he opens his mouth. To think she had tried to blast this human out of existence, and now mere days later she is hanging on his every word.
Her attention is caught by a rumbling sound: it starts as a few murmurs then grows to an insistent growl and Elaine looks in surprise at the man lying on the bank beside her. The noise is definitely coming from him. She looks at him questioningly, before floating over him and coming to rest on his other side as Ban looks up at her with a rueful expression.
“Guess I’d better go find something to eat~” he muses as he gets to his feet, the movement more graceful than one would expect.
“Oh!” She feels her head jolt up in surprise. Of course, it has been several days since the human has first entered the forest and, in that time he has not eaten. “I should have thought,” she laments as she chastises herself inwardly. She is his host, now the forest has accepted Ban’s presence, and she should have made sure he had sustenance. Fairies could go for many, many days, even weeks without food but she knew from her lessons that other clans did not share this trait.
“What… what do humans eat?” she asks Ban nervously as she bobs in the air before him, remembering the glint of the canines and the almost animalistic leer.
He laughs, the thin skin around his eyes crinkling in that appealing way as he stretches his arms above his head. “No fear, I can sort myself out, princess. I’m used to this,” he adds with a grin as he sets off towards the trees. “You can look at this,” he remarks as he places his treasured journal into Elaine’s hands, leaving before she can even stammer her thanks.
But without him around the fading labels lose their appeal. Elaine turns back to the lake which shines like lilac in the soft morning light. The chalice at its centre flows merrily, trickling like silver into the water below, the sound so familiar she wonders if she could ever live without it, monotonous as it is. She inhales, the refreshing aroma of damp moss and juniper doing little to calm the anxiety bubbling in her breast. She longs to go with the human, to protect him from the capricious will of the forest, to hold his large hand in hers as she guides him and shows him its beauty and strength. But she knows she cannot. Her place is here by the fountain, a role she resents with all her bored soul.
The minutes tick past, each one tugging at the fairy’s heart in a way that makes her near frantic. She stretches out her power to try and locate the man she is longing to see, wanting to know for sure that he is safe. What if he has done something stupid, by accident or design, and the forest is now seeking his end? Those few moments drag on for Elaine more than any in the past centuries, and she can feel the dread creeping through her veins as the shadows smother the land.
“Hey~”. The call snaps her out her out of her reverie, her limbs near collapsing in relief to see the human still standing. “These are good,” he drawls as he proffers handfuls of berries, bright purple and red staining his hands and the corners of his mouth. Elaine begins to smile before her eyes catch a magenta hue among the small shining beads and her heart seizes in her chest.
“Ban! Have you eaten any of these?” she asks sharply, pointing towards the tiny berry in question.
“What?” he replies even as his eyes glaze over and his mouth gapes, a dribble of drool slowly descending down his chin. He sinks to the ground, almost folding in upon himself as his faces creases with laughter, the playful snickers turning into a deafening guffaw. He lies back on the grass, staring up at the sky as he cackles uncontrollably and Elaine kneels before him, doing her best to shield his bobbing head from the hard earth with her hands.
She looks around, carefully scanning the nearby shrubs. Ban is in no danger. The berries he has eaten cause uncontrollable mirth; awkward but by no means life threatening. But as he curls up on his side, bashing the bank of the lake with his fist, tears squeezing under the lids of his eyes, Elaine feels her breathing quicken and her reason flee. She has to stop it, to bring him back to his senses.
Finally she spots it, a small, white flower picked out in the light of the sun as it streams through the trees. She floats towards it, cupping the petals in her hands as she uses her magic to sever the stem. With tremendous care, she carries the vessel over to the human who is now writhing as if in agony, his eyes wide and bloodshot and his cheeks flushed red.
“Here! I know it smells bad, but you will feel better, trust me!” she gasps as she forces the cup of the flower between his lips. Much of the nectar spills on the ground as Ban thrashes about, but she is relieved to see enough of the liquid pass down his throat, his adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows it down. Moments later his movements still, and he sits up slowly, his breathing heavy as he stares into space with hard, hooded eyes. His chest rises and falls in an even rhythm, his back slightly hunched as his arms lie still at his sides.
The quiet rings in her ears as Elaine examines him, nothing but the drips of the fountain sounding in the glen. Stretching out her powers, she can feel the embarrassment and shame burn desolate in his heart, her eyes widening in surprise as his thoughts echo in her head. She’ll never wanna talk to you now . The first girl you’ve got along with and you go and blow it.
Tentatively, the fairy picks up the discarded journal, tenderly brushing a few specs of dirt from the cover as she takes a place beside its owner, leaning lightly against the muscular frame. He tenses as she places her head against his arm and she has to suppress the urge to fling her arms tight around him, to hold him close and breath in his scent. She catches herself, her own face flushing furiously as she sits up straight; when had she begun to feel this way?
Without a word she places the journal in Ban’s lap, turning the pages until she finds a label emblazoned with the image of a woman, her flowing hair cascading down to cover her breasts as she bathes in a stream. Something about the lady stays with her, her hand ghosting over the page as she stares, finding that she is unexpectedly drawn to the design. She starts slightly as warm fingers brush against her own, Ban’s large hand covering hers like a blanket.
“This one is from the kingdom of Camelot,” he murmurs, and Elaine is relieved to hear his voice has returned to its usual timbre. “She’s supposed to guard a weapon that’ll save Britannia, or whatever.” He sounds bored now, but Elaine is not deceived, and she once more leans in towards him, the thin cloth of his shirt caressing her face.
“Tell me about this one,” she murmurs softly, her voice steady with a confidence she does not feel. He smiles at her then and she can feel his heart thrum, a purr of contentment as he settles back on the grass.
“She keeps some sword in that lake, is the tale,” he says with more enthusiasm as he pokes at the label. “Supposed to be some sort of super weapon only some chosen one can wield…” Elaine watches as Ban gets more into the story, finding herself relaxing as his confidence grows. She smiles as the day begins to turn into night, the glow of the sun fading to the glitter of the moon.
For the first time, as they settle down to sleep they curl against one another, the human’s warmth soothing her to sleep. But as she wonders if she has ever felt so utterly happy, the call of the fountain arrests her thoughts, her heart sinking to the ground as she wonders what she will do when he inevitably leaves.
Chapter 11: The Fountain Of Youth
Happy Birthday Leighthepeach!
“And this one’s from the south. It’s incredible! It’s real pale so it shines in the glass, and the taste !” Ban smacked his lips as he grinned up at her, the pointed end of his canines peeking through his smile as he laid sprawled out next to the shimmering fountain. “It’s like lemons and herbs and... grass.”
Elaine scrunched up her face a little, bobbing in the air next to the human Ban chuckled as she wrinkled her nose. “You like the taste of grass?” she enquired. “In a drink?”
“Sure~” Ban laughed, his fingers tracing over the label stuck carefully into his leather-bound book. “It’s different with ale. You’re gonna love it.”
“I…” Elaine began, the words sticking in her throat. He had told her he would steal her away, would show her the world beyond these trees and she wanted to believe him, she really did. Indeed she knew he was telling the truth; his heart ringing clear and sincere with his intentions. But after seven hundred years of loneliness and disappointment, this sudden change in her fortunes was too good to be true.
It was as if the mortal understood her concerns. “Hey~” he fluted as he sat up straight, putting a long arm around her. Elaine sighed as she leaned into his touch. Eyes closing, she laid her head on his chest, the beat of his heart pounding comfortingly in her ears.
Her own heart seized as a dark shadow fell over the trees, blotting out the warmth of the sun. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end, electricity sparking through her veins as she pushed out her power, her breath stuttering when she sensed the dark, unfamiliar energy that was now washing through the air. Her eyes widened as the source of the power came into view: a huge red monster, face a vacant mass and fire shooting from its mouth to cover the land, the trees of her home bursting with flame. There had been tales of a power this menacing but such a force had not been felt in Britannia for millennia.
“What the hell is this monster?” Ban yelled as the creature bellowed a roar.
Elaine looked at him sharply, something in her brain shifting but the hard look on his face drove whatever it was out of her mind. “The trees of this forest cannot be burned by normal fire,” she explained, though something still troubled her, and she shook her head in exasperation. It was as if she had been here before, said these words before. But there was no time to ponder this when the forest was burning. “There’s no mistaking it, it’s a demon. But I don’t understand. The goddesses sealed them away in the ancient war…”
“Not this one,” Ban shouted as he drew himself up, eyes blazing and weapon in hand. “Elaine, what about the fountain!”
“I’ve got it!” she cried over the demon’s growls, grasping the chalice tightly in the vines of her magic. “Ban, let’s go, it hasn’t spotted us yet.”
“That’s why I’m going to take it out with a single blow. Stand back.” Ban pulled out his three sectioned staff, the stick glowing magenta in his hands. Ban cracked his weapon in the air and barely a second later the demon grunted in pain, Ban shouting gleefully as he held a mass of red pulp aloft in his hand. “See, one shot!” he exclaimed as he squeezed the dead organ that had once been their enemy’s heart, the muscle disintegrating to a mess of red in his fingers.
“No, Ban! A demon has more than one…” Elaine felt something hot bubble up in her throat, drowning out her urgent plea. She tried to speak, but no words would come, her heart sinking as she saw Ban’s face morph from triumph to horror.
She fell to the earth with a thud, but not before she saw Ban run towards her, the red demon slicing a deep gash through the human’s shoulder as he tried to break her fall. She gagged as she watched blood pour from the wound, the smell of ash and charcoal filling the air. She had to save him! Before it was too late. Pulling herself along the ground she managed to crawl alongside the man she had learned to love, determined that she would not watch him die.
“Ban… please… drink this water,” she managed to stutter out, gritting her teeth hard as pain pulsed through her body. “Drink it all and you’ll live. Please.”
He looked at her, his eyes soft and the hint of a smile ghosting his lips. “Nah, don’t worry about me. You take it. I don’t even have the strength to drink.” Elaine had to bite her lip hard to stop herself from crying as Ban closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling but only a little as he barely breathed. She could not allow this! She had to save him, whatever the cost.
In a sudden flurry of inspiration, Elaine took the goblet, drawing the fountain of youth into her mouth. She then moved over Ban, ignoring the sounds of the demon as it rampaged through the forest, ignoring the screams of her kin as they fled the flames. She cupped Ban’s face, bringing her lips to his and letting the water flow into him, kissing him hard so that not a drop was misplaced. He was going to live! Elaine felt a peace dull the throbbing ache in her body. I will protect you, always , she promised in her head as she continued to give the mortal the forest’s life-giving water.
It took her completely by surprise when she was pushed onto her back, Ban’s face now looming over hers. She tried to move, to push him off, but the man was insistent. The fountain she had so carefully tried to feed him now gushed into her own throat and she swallowed involuntarily as the water filled her. She could feel her body reform, muscle and bone knitting together, skin building over the damage as the fountain of youth became part of her, mending her and making her whole.
“There ya go,” Ban said weakly as he fell back to the ground. “Takes more than that to get one over on me.”
“No!” Elaine yelped as she tried to cough, tried to separate the fountain from her body. But she knew it was no use. She could feel it becoming a part of her even as she looked down and saw Ban close his eyes, his aura of power fading to nothing as his life force slipped away.
“Hey, it’s alright,” he murmured as a tear fell down her cheek to splash on his face. “Elaine, it’s alright. Live your life. Put the sorrow behind you. Let me protect you for once, yeah? I’m a human, and all humans have to die sometime. It’s my time now…”
“NO!” screamed Elaine as Ban let forth a sigh, his chest staying horribly still as the breath left his body. “Don’t leave me!” she cried, banging her fists into the grass. “Don’t leave me! I love you. Don’t leave me…”
With a start, Elaine opened her eyes, panting hard, her body drenched in sweat. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, dashing tears away with the palm of her hand. Golden sunlight was streaming through the diamond patterned windows of the Boar Hat, illuminating the room full of their hopes and dreams, artefacts they had collected together, a new leather-bound book filled with the labels of different ales. Soft snores beside her gently filled the air, and she reached out her hand, relief flooding through her to feel the warm skin of the man sprawled out on the bed next to her. Ban was fine. The war was over and Ban was fine.
It was a dream. A nightmare. Nothing more. Elaine closed her eyes, forcing herself to breath evenly and so calm the pattering of her heart. Ban was safe. The war was over, and he was safe…
But no. The words he had spoken to her subconscious came back in a rush as Elaine watched his chest rise and fall. I’m a human. All humans have to die sometime. Ban had given up the power of the fountain to save her, to save Meliodas, to save the world. And now, more than ever, he was vulnerable. These humans were such fragile souls, that she had learned from Elizabeth’s curse. Ban could be felled any time: illness, disease, chance attacks, old age… Being realistic, the end of his life could not be far off.
Elaine gulped, swallowing hard as tears once more streamed down her face to splash on the pillow. What would she ever do without him? Could she live on, wake to great each morning when the world, her whole existence, had lost its meaning?
As her hands fisted into the bedsheets, she felt movement in her abdomen, and she stilled at once. Merlin had said it would not be long before she felt the stirrings of the child - their child - and she had thought she had caught a few chance presses and kicks before, only to convince herself it was just her imagination. This time there could be no doubt. The was a rhythmic thud in the base of her stomach and a small fluttering like little bubbles. Their child was awake, exploring, learning how to use its hands and feet.
Elaine sighed, the dread still gnawing at her heart, but a peace began to calm her emotion. Ban would die. He was mortal and nothing on this earth could change that. But he would live on through their child, and she would get to watch their little one grow, would bring their son or daughter up to follow in their father’s footsteps. Ban might die, but he would live on through their child, perhaps through their children if they were lucky enough. Ban had said he wanted two...
“Hey,” Ban said sleepily as he rolled over to face her. “What’s wrong?” he asked sharply as he cupped her face, wiping away a little moisture from around her eyes with his thumb. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. The baby’s moving and everything’s fine.” Elaine sank into Ban’s embrace, her fingers gripping into his back. She would hold him close, keep him close, until such time as the fates ripped him from her.
Chapter 12: Metro Blue
With a heave, Elaine hauled her suitcase through the doors of the train, just barely managing to control her momentum so that she did not hurtle to the floor. Gingerly she took a seat, checking her satchel was still around her shoulders and her passport safe in the zipped up pocket of her coat. It was a difficult business getting her large bag to behave but, after a few attempts, she managed to prop it up against her legs so that it was stable but mostly out of the way of the other passengers. She was ready to go.
The Piccadilly Line. Elaine gazed up at the poster where the map of London’s dark blue tube line was displayed. It showed all the many stops between Cockfosters and Heathrow Airport, including the little loop at the end where the trains would go round to Terminal 5 and so back again. It looked like some sort of demented snake and she shuddered a little before forcing herself to look straight ahead. This was an action she regretted instantly. The man opposite her, impossibly tall and sprawling out over the limited space with limbs that looked too long to be real, was leering at her with a lazy grin. His eyes were red and the teeth that stuck through his smile were sharpened to points, like little fangs.
She was just about to turn away from the unsettling sight, maybe to find a book to bury her face in, when the man fished out a brown bottle from the recesses of his coat and drank from it , smacking his lips with appreciation. Was that alcohol ? Elaine opened her mouth crossly, then closed it again. Yes, it was illegal to drink on the tube and yes, the man was a despicable oath who ought to be told to stop, but no the person risking themselves should not, she decided, be her. Not on this occasion. So she went back to her initial plan, pulling a slim volume from the shoulder bag that rested next to her on the seat and, checking once more that her suitcase would not cause a nuisance to other passengers. She began to read with earnest, pleased the pages hid her increasingly hot cheeks.
Well this is interesting , the man thought to himself as he examined the woman sitting opposite him. Tube etiquette was that one did not look at other passengers, let alone stare at them, but Ban had never followed the rules. He took the broad in, from the soft, fine blonde hair that fell around her face so that it tickled her shoulders to her short, summer dress and light coat, the pocket of which she tapped nervously every three minutes. But it was her eyes that interested him the most. They were golden and blazing, conveying a strength of will that was totally at odds with her demure posture.
He also knew she hated him. Ban cackled out loud as the woman looked at him furiously, her mouth gaping open. He took another draft of ale smacking his lips with gusto, even though the liquor was not the best. It was hilarious and a challenge he could not pass up. He could tell she wanted nothing more than to tut at him but then talked herself out of it. Every thought in her mind flashed plain across her face. So Ban sank back in his seat, spreading his legs out in front of him so his right foot was just shy of the woman’s enormous pink suitcase and waited for her to lay into him.
But she ignored him. They passed through three stations, Ban inching his foot closer to her at each one, and still she just read. He cocked his head to one side, peering at the book in her hands. Pride and Prejudice . He snickered. A girl like that would read something old and stuffy. All pretence at stealth gone, Ban knocked his foot quite deliberately against the bright pink case so that the back of it rammed into the prim lady’s legs.
“Hey!” exclaimed the girl, her blazing eyes once more pointed in his direction. “What are you doing?”
Ban grinned, making sure his canines were on show. “Sorry~” he drawled as he raised his hands in mock surrender, chuckling a little to see the girl flinch.
“So you should be!” The girl looked at him, eyes like pointed daggers, before sucking in a deep breath. “Apology accepted,” she muttered more to herself than to him, before her face fell once more into the pages of her book.
Elaine was furious. Livid. And a little upset. She considered moving seat to get away from the uncouth man, but over the course of her journey the tube had slowly started to fill up with passengers. Now they were at Green Park and a whole host of people pooled as one onto the train. Within moments, every seat and spare patch of ground was occupied and the way to the door barred by several rather solid looking bodies. She was stuck. With the man. Though at least there were many others now with her, she comforted herself. Enough to subdue him should he turn violent.
Elaine grit her teeth and made herself mutter something about accepting the oaf’s apology, then attempted to lose herself in the wonders of Mr Darcy’s Derbyshire estate. And it worked. For a while. Then the man actually leaned forwards, the top of him pressing into her personal space. “What do you want?” she snapped at him.
“What do any of us want?” The man spread his legs out even more in front of him and Elaine cringed back into her seat.
Her nails dug into the palms of her hands and she was just about to bark out some angry retort when the man added, “I just wanted to talk, but I’ll leave you be if you’re busy…”
Elaine looked into the man’s eyes. He’s being sincere , she thought to herself. She could see loneliness in the depths of his, one she was more than a little familiar with. “What’s your name?” she whispered in spite of herself.
“Ban~” said he lazily, leaning back with a grin. “And yours?”
“My name’s Elaine,” she found herself saying.
Ban smiled. Finally he was getting somewhere. “Elaine, huh? That’s nice. And where are you flying to?”
“How did you know…”
Ban grinned again. “You’ve got the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen and you’re going to Heathrow. It wasn’t hard.”
He watched as Elaine’s shoulders fell a little and she gave a tentative smile, then to his surprise, she stowed her book away in her bag. “I’m going on an adventure,” she said in a bit of a whisper. “I’ve… not travelled much,” she admitted and his brows raised. Apparently once she started the girl could not stop. “But I think it’s time. My brother’s left home and I’ve no responsibilities anymore. I thought I’d go and see the world…” She trailed off, blushing slightly before her eyes looked directly into Ban’s. “I’m going to see an old school friend who’s moved to Rome but… I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”
“Why not?” asked Ban, finding he was genuinely interested.
“Well, I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s not me ,” she insisted, her round eyes wide and pleading. “I’ve always been the responsible one, the one who stayed at home and looked after our parents while my brother… did not…” She blushed, her gaze falling to where she could watch her fingers lacing together in her lap.
Elaine looked up to find Ban looking at her kindly, all trace of the teasing smile gone from his features. “I understand,” he said softly. “I lost my family too.”
Elaine nodded, swallowing around the lump in her throat. “It feels wrong,” she whispered. There was a pause as the train burst out from the tunnel and into the light, the sudden sunlight enough of a distraction to help her stem the tears that had threatened.
“It feels wrong to be enjoying yourself? Or trying to?” Elaine nodded again, then fished in her bag to retrieve a tissue. “I get it,” said Ban as she blew her nose. “It does get easier.”
“What happened to your parents?” Elaine asked, chastising herself inwardly as Ban shook his head.
“I’d like to tell you, but this is the end of the line,” Ban drawled as the train pulled to a stop, a female voice floating over the tannoy asking passengers to check they had all their belongings before leaving the train. “We’re at the airport and you’re going to Rome.”
Before Elaine could protest, Ban picked up her bag with such ease she had to do a double take. She followed him in silence as they followed the signs for Departures, stopping by boutiques selling SIM cards and maps of the capital. “Here we are!” Ban declared as they made it into the terminal building, plonking her bag down on the shiny marble tiles.
“Thank… Oh!” Elaine felt her stomach fall as she registered the persistent rumble of annoyance in the background and the milling crowds of passengers all with cross faces. She looked up at the electronic display, her heart racing as she realised all the flight numbers were listed in red, the word ‘cancelled’ showing next to almost all of the listed departures, including her flight for Rome. “What’s going on?” she asked in a daze.
“Computer failure,” a gruff old man barked as he passed her. “It’s messed up air traffic control. All European flights are grounded until tomorrow. They’re telling us all to go home or get hotels,” he complained and Elaine followed his gaze to a group of uniformed officials with harassed expressions who were surrounded on all sides by angry people.
“I guess it’s fate,” she whispered. “I’ll go home. Thank you, Ban. I’ll take these back… hey what are you doing?” she yelled as Ban picked up her suitcase and began to walk away. He did not stop and she had to trot to keep up with him. “Hey! What…”
“There’s no flights right? So I’m taking you for a coffee,” Ban said as she drew up alongside him. He smiled down at her, and for the first time she appreciated just how tall he really was. “These things tend to work out when you relax.”
Elaine frowned. “But… don’t you have to get a flight too? You should go and see if it’s cancelled.”
“Nah, I was supposed to get off at Kensington,” Ban confessed as he rubbed the back of his head. “My mate’s got a bar there. The Boar Hat. He’s looking for a chef, but he’s going to hire me, he won’t mind if I’m late. Now, let’s get coffee.”
Elaine felt her pulse quicken as Ban held out his free hand for her to take, their fingers twisting together as he led her away.
Ban turned towards the girl holding his hand. This is the best day of my life , his heart sang as she gave him a tentative smile.
Chapter 13: Moonlight Sonata
Happy Christmas Leigh!!
He woke with a start, his pulse racing and sweat beading on his forehead. Shaking his head slightly, Ban pulled himself into a sitting position, carding his fingers through his hair and taking deep cleansing gulps of the soft summer air. Everything was still. There was not even the rustle of leaves or the buzz of insects searching for food. All he could hear were gentle sighs, just about distinguishable if he concentrated really hard, made by the girl who slept a few paces from him, her body curled up near the shore of the lake. Her white dress gleamed, strands of her hair catching the pale silver moonlight that pooled down like quicksilver to cover the landscape with an eerie shine.
He looked at her, drinking in every inch of her form, and he felt as if his heart would break.
Six days he had been here in the fairies’ forest and he had done nothing. Nothing but tease and laugh and joke and talk and talk and talk about ale. And she had listened, her golden eyes wide, as if he was somehow worthy of her interest. Ban knew, of course, that it was a mistake. Elaine obviously had no idea about humans. She spent too much of her time blasting them off an impossibly high cliff to protect the fountain from would-be thieves. She had no idea how lowly he was, how he was totally and utterly beneath her notice.
And so he had grinned at her, pushing his feelings down and away. Like he always did. Ever since he was a child. He had learned to switch off, to make himself go numb, to focus on something small, be it the next meal or even how he was going to take his next breath. That way he did not have to think about what was happening around him. It was how he had survived all those nights when his stomach growled with hunger and his bones ached with cold. It was how he had survived his father’s anger, a little boy who stared back at the Goliath of a man, jaw clenched and eyes as hard as his fist. He had refused to cry when his old man had beaten him for whatever shit he was supposed to have done or not done, even when it left him so bruised and sore he could barely move when the blows stopped falling.
But, no matter how hard he tried, he could not do that now. His feelings had grown too big to contain.
He loved her, of that Ban was certain. And he was even more certain she could never love him in return. How could she? She was a princess and he was a no one. Worse than a no one. He was a thief and a wastrel who lived for nothing more than to taste the next ale because it was all he had in the world.
Ban watched as Elaine turned over in her sleep, strands of hair falling away from her face and he inhaled sharply, the sudden influx of air catching his lungs. She was so beautiful. He swallowed, clasping his hands hard together to suppress the urge to reach out and touch her.
He would have to tell her. He would have to just grit his teeth and explain how he felt. To tell Elaine that, to him, she was perfect.
Ban snorted, managing to bite back a harsh bark of laughter. As if he could ever sound serious or sincere. As if Elaine would ever want to hear his declaration.
“Say nothing,” he murmured to himself. “You gotta pack up and leave tomorrow~”
He looked again at the girl and his chest twisted, the pain of his impending loss permeating into his soul. Every part of him was screaming at him to stay by her side, to look after her, to care for her, even if he got nothing back in return. Even if she never cast him more than the odd glance. All he wanted was to be near her and to keep her safe.
“I’ll let her decide,” he murmured as he settled himself back down on the ground, stretching his arms out towards the stars before resting his hands behind the back of his head. He would stay in the forest for as long as Elaine would allow. Ban closed his eyes, totally powerless against the agony and love and fear and hope that crashed through him like waves and, for the first time that he could remember, he opened his heart and let himself really feel.
Beside him, Elaine opened her eyes, forcing herself to stay stock still so as not to give herself away. She felt the sudden rush of emotion from the man who had sprawled out a few yards away from her, a respectful distance she had not even had to ask him to keep. The force of his turmoil was so strong it had dragged her from sleep and she laid there in the dark, wishing her heart was not so receptive. She could hear nothing but her own pulse as it pounded in her ears. Surely Ban must hear it too. The stars above were like clouds of twinkling lights, and she focused on them as she worked to control her breathing, making herself take shallow sips of air.
How long she had wondered if Ban was beginning to feel this way, she was not sure, but now his love for her was beyond a reasonable doubt.
And still, she hesitated. She cared for him too, but how could she ever hope to make him happy. Ban had seen the world, even though he had only been on the earth for such a short period of time he had lived . He had seen and tasted things she could only ever dream of. How could she ever be worthy of him?
Elaine closed her eyes to shut out the pain, listening to Ban’s steady breathing as her brain whirred, preventing her from sleep. He would leave soon, walk away from the forest and she would once more be lost and alone. And she knew at that moment that she desperately wanted him to stay. But how could she ask this? How could she chain Ban to the tedious fate that was her own?
“I’ll let him decide,” she determined to herself as she prepared her heart for the upcoming loss.
Chapter 14: What I Love About You
“You ate my dinner!”
King looked incredulously at the impossibly tall human who was leering over him, sharp canines showing with his smile. He looked again at the empty dish, the bits of crust sticking to the top of the ceramic bowl the only indication it had ever contained the fish pie he had been so looking forward to. He felt his face go red - he always did rise to visible anger more easily in this form - as his jowls shook with his rage. Ban meanwhile just grinned at him, downing the last dregs of his ale before placing the stein leisurely on the table, the very picture of nonchalance.
“I heard you let a cat beat you over one of these~” Ban fluted as he leaned back in his chair, his eyes falling closed. “I’m safe from you I reckon.” At this King spluttered, feeling his face turn even more red, as if that were possible.
“You look as if steam’s coming out of your ears,” Ban murmured, lazily opening one eye.
“Spirit Spear Chastiefol…”
“That’s enough of that!” The bartender of Yawn Of The Black Cat came into view, standing over the pair, his hands on his hips and his face like thunder. “I told you Sins, no fighting in here! It took me three weeks to clean up last time!” King scrunched up his face, forcing himself to take deep breaths as Ban cackled like a harpie next to him. Unable to stand anymore, King got up from the table, shooting the immortal a furious look before practically running out of the pub. Why is it he seemed to spend three-quarters of his time in this form being humiliated by his supposed comrades?
Stomping through the streets of Liones, King felt his anger grow: it was not fair! Why did Meliodas and the others let Ban behave this way? It wasn’t even as if he had real power, not in the proper sense. That stealing thing of his really didn’t count. He had complained to The Captain, several times, in no uncertain terms, always to find his legitimate concerns brushed off. The Captain and Ban got on well of course, and perhaps such refusal to see reason was to be expected, but Merlin had been the same. She had listened, or at least pretended to, while he spoke at length of Ban’s shortcomings, nodding her head sagely as he talked. After half an hour or so, she had held up her hand, silencing him as her amber eyes flashed. “Just put up with it,” she had advised as King spluttered indignantly.
Lost in his thoughts, King was just on the point of realising he had no idea where he was going when a welcome shadow covered him, blocking out the unbearable heat of the sun. He spun round, his face burning as if on fire as he took in the giant’s cute amethyst eyes and her signature pigtails. He had thought he would never see her again, and now here she was, living and working alongside him. It was like a dream come true, or it would have been if he didn’t have to hide his true self. It was hot work walking around in this body suit of flab.
“King, are you okay?” Diane asked, her head tilted to one side in that adorable way and instantly King felt his remaining anger melt.
“D-Diane… just… I’m fine,” he muttered, finding himself unable to form intelligible words as he looked up at her. Why couldn’t he go back to the way he had been with her before? When he was the one who knew things? Somehow after he had left her, Diane had not just grown up, she had surpassed him. The thought did his ego no good, and he felt himself trying to shrink as Diane leaned towards him.
“I can tell when you’re lying, silly,” Diane sang lightly as she leaned down towards him. “Come on, let’s got for a walk. It’s a lovely day!”
She was right, it was. The sun shone bright in the clear blue sky, not a single cloud to be seen and there was barely a breeze, the slight wind fluttering pleasantly against his cheeks. Summoning Chastiefol, King floated up towards Diane and together they made their way out of the city gates, the Holy Knights on duty waving to them as they passed. The verdant grass looked soft and inviting and King felt the urge to take a nap, but with Diane that was never an option. She always had more energy than was reasonable.
They moved at pace, heading towards the shade of the nearby forest and all at once King felt his heart ache. The cool, almost wet feel of the air on his skin was enough to bring memories flooding back; the blushing pink leaves of the sacred tree, the fluttering fairies laughing as they played and the glowing fountain of youth, Elaine standing beside it. How long had it been since he had seen her now? Too long…
“You’re very quiet, you sure there’s not something wrong?” The sweet sound of her voice brought him back to the present. The forest was not the same of course; the trees were still and sparse, the light streaming through in great rivers rather than tiny trickles, and the smell was wrong. This part of the world, the woodlands were filled with pine trees rather than majestic oaks, and the fresh smell of resin tickled his nostrils. It was not unpleasant, but a far cry from home.
“Ooohhh,” Diane squealed and she thudded towards a small clearing. King followed more slowly, the splash of a small brook and chirping of birds beckoning him forward. As he approached, King took in the sight; the clearing was full of flowers, the bouquets of vibrant colour dazzling his eyes. The soil must be particularly fertile here.
“These are my favourites!” Diane gushed, pointing at a bunch of white gerberas growing by the side of the stream. “I don’t know why but they remind me of something… It’s so silly, every time I try and focus on it, the memory slips further away. Do you think it means anything?”
King stood stock still, slowing sinking to the ground so Diane could not see his expression. Of course it did; those were the very same flowers that he had bewitched so as to erase Diane’s memories, knowing that he had to leave her forever to avenge his friend.
“They seem to mean something important, something to do with why I went back to my clan.” Diane’s voice was soft and sad, enough to break King’s heart. They had been so happy, and he had abandoned her, robbing her of all recollection of their time together in the process. But it was all for her own good of course. He had planted the suggestion that she return to the giants, knowing that she would follow the call of home in her confused state.
“I don’t know why I did that...” Diane fell silent, sitting down beside the clump of flowers, gently stroking the soft petals, “I wish I hadn’t.”
“W-why? What happened?” The question was out before King could stop himself. He had thought she would be safe, cared for, cherished even. He had congratulated himself for his quick thinking at the time. But as he looked at Diane’s sorrowful face he knew , and it felt like a heavy blow to the chest. “They’re your clan. Surely…”
“All they know is how to fight!” Diane’s hand which had gently been stroking the flower petals clenched into a fist and King looked up to see a glowering expression on her innocent face. It was so incongruous, so unlike her, that the breath caught in his lungs. “They don’t care about anyone, not even their own children. All they care about is honour and victory and violence.”
King stood stock still, his feet planted on the ground as he tried to process what Diane was saying. She had been unhappy, and it was his fault. For seven hundred years they had lived together in that cave, taking care of each other, and he had promised, promised her faithfully that he would not let her down. And yet he had, just like everyone else in his life. This was yet another example of how he had failed those around him.
“I’m sorry!” he blurted out, his eyes downcast.
“It’s not your fault silly!” Diane replied in her customary cheerful voice. “The giants have always been like that. That’s why my parents smuggled me out - they didn’t want me to fight like some sort of machine. They wanted me to think for myself, defend others and stand up for what was right. And… somehow, I don’t know how… I learned to do that. Someone must have taught me I guess but I don’t know who. My memories are all hazy…” As Diane broke off, her eyes strayed back to the flowers, her brow creasing in thought and King suddenly realised the danger he was in.
“We should get back,” he murmured, trying to sound regretful. “The Captain said…”
“Oh, The Captain wants us?” Diane enthused, her eyes shining with happiness. She sprang to her feet, the ground trembling slightly with the force of her movement. She stretched her hand down, and King stepped on, allowed the giantess to convey him to her shoulder. He jolted slightly as she set off at what was practically a gallop, heading back towards Liones.
“Do you think The Captain will ever like me?” Diane asked thoughtfully, panting slightly with the exertion as she ran. “I adore him so…” King knew this of course - Diane had made no secret of her infatuation - but it still hurt like hell. He loved her, more than anything in the world and he knew, deep down, she cared for him too. But how could he tell her, especially now? Surely she would hate him if she found out he was the one who had sent her back to her clan.
“I- I’m sure he will. I’m sure he does now,” King muttered, forcing the words out of his mouth. “How could he not?” There was a pause, and King held his breath. Perhaps… maybe… could she?
“This is what I love about you!” Diane sang into the silence. “You always give me hope. Of course he will, I just have to keep trying!”
As they continued back to Liones, King felt the ache in his chest blossom as he clung to the cloth at Diane’s shoulder. The ache that had been there for years, and would always remain.
Chapter 15: Experiments
Based on real life research with fruit flies, though the experiment conducted was slightly different.
It had been a mistake to visit Merlin’s lab.
Biting his lip, brow sweating slightly, his eyes tracked her as she sashayed across the room and Escanor struggled to maintain a semblance of stoic interest. He had never been so embarrassed in all of his days. His skin prickled and his face flushed with heat, his heart racing uncontrollably as he tried to get ahold of his himself. But it was no use. He licked his lips involuntarily as Merlin came closer to him and he could see, in sharp detail, every inch of her form, the flawless skin and delicate curves designed to send him crazy. Her lack of clothing had never affected him like this before, but this was hardly a typical day.
It had started well enough. Since the end of the War, it had become clear that his fears were unfounded, just petty jealousy on his part. That golden boy he had worried about clearly had other fish to fry, leaving Merlin free to enjoy her experiments now that Britannia was restored to something approaching its former self. She had returned to Liones, esconsing herself in the Magical Research Building, resuming her life before they had been exiled as if nothing had happened.
And he had let her. Every day, he told himself that this would be the day, the day he finally told Merlin he loved her. More than anything. More than the sun, and the moon, and the stars. Even more than the freedom to just exist in society that he now so enjoyed thanks to the glasses she had fashioned. But no matter how hard he tried he could not summon up sufficient courage to explain how he felt, not even via the medium of poem.
Alcohol had not helped either. The Captain and Ban had suggested a little Dutch courage, and had practically poured the concoction they had created for the purpose down his throat. With wicked grins, they had shoved a bouquet of flowers into his hand and pushed him unceremoniously out of The Boar Hat to go find Merlin. But he had been too drunk to navigate his way along the winding streets of Liones and had collapsed into a puddle at the side of the road, only to be rescued by Diane and King some hours later as they returned home. Escanor found he could not bear to be in the same room as the pair; he cared for them immensely and yet found their obvious happiness pierced through his chest.
Meanwhile Gowther had suggested modifying Merlin’s memories to make her more susceptible to his advances but, tempting as the idea was, Escanor had put his foot down. The doll had stared at him blankly, before resuming his book, the slight shrug of the shoulders his only remaining comment on the matter.
It was because he was so weak and pathetic with his glasses on, that was the trouble. Why would Merlin wish to bother with his night self? He stuttered, prevaricated, fussed, and generally made himself a nuisance. What he needed to do of course was approach her during the day, but he did not want to become him and so forfeit his pleasant life in the city.
But in the end he arrived at a solution: at half past six in the evening, just as the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, Escanor had stood outside the Magical Research Building, nervously pulling at his waistcoat. It was slightly baggy but not excessively so, and it would fit perfectly in due course. With great trepidation, he had removed the round glasses from his face, feeling the pride of a lion surge through his veins as his frame elongated and his muscles expanded. The sorceress would surely find him irresistible now.
Stealing himself, Escanor had rung the bell Merlin had hooked up to the door, unsurprised when it swung open on its own. Merlin hated to be interrupted when she was in the middle of an experiment, particularly to do something as mundane as answer the door, but she would permit visitors if she was in the right frame of mind. Every step he had taken up the stairs, the more excited he had felt. He was going to tell her, and she would be his and the whole world would shine with their love.
Then he had made his way into her sanctum and his dreams were almost immediately shattered to pieces. It was the smell that had hit him: a sickly aroma of dates and orange peel and something he couldn’t quite place. It only took a few breaths of the air before he had noticed his heart begin to race, his clothes suddenly feeling too tight and uncomfortable, his ability to think seriously impaired. And as he had struggled with this new reality, trying to work out why he had apparently lost control of his body, Merlin walked into view and all his courage had vanished in an instant.
“M...Merlin, how are you?” he spluttered, feeling his face flush as she flashed her seductive smile. Not the wittiest or openings but it was frankly a miracle he had been able to croak out something intelligible. As the woman of his dreams strode towards him, her hips swinging with her gait, he stood mesmerised, unable to take his eyes away from her. It was with a great effort he forced his gaze up to her cherry red lips, not finding that this helped him much with his predicament.
“Tolerable. This experiment could certainly qualify as intriguing.” Merlin looked longingly over her shoulder towards her work bench, some sort of apparatus placed in the very centre and Escanor started slightly to see the contents move. “Come and observe,” Merlin continued as she led him to the table, her eyes shining with enthusiasm. Escanor however found it difficult to move; whatever this odour was it affected him greatly.
“You can sense it too, I see, even at this low concentration. Most interesting,” Merlin mused as she examined him critically. “I presumed the effect was limited to these files but evidently this potion has great potential.”
“What is it?” Escanor gasped, his face red as a brick. Struggling to breathe, he looked into the contraption of Merlin’s creation. Inside the glass box were several chambers, all of them buzzing with large numbers of tiny insects. Escanor noticed however that some of the animals had green dots on their backs, and that these were concentrated in one part of the box in particular.
“Fruit flies,” Merlin said, a small smile curving over her face. “I’ve modified some of them so that they have no sense of smell, and those left in the usual condition I have marked with a fluorescent green ink. You will observe that these marked flies are all congregating in this corner? That is where I have placed a small drop of the potion.
“It turns them on,” Merlin said bluntly as Escanor stared at her, his mouth unable to form words. “My hypothesis was that non-humanoid life forms have no interest in sexual desire but you can see that this is not the case. Those flies who I have left able to experience pleasure are deliberately seeking it out.
“This potion is very mild,” Merlin continued, her smile faltering slightly as she moved closer and Escanor thought his heart would explode as it thumped cruelly in his chest. “I believed it would only influence these dumb creatures. I am surprised to see you have also fallen prey to its effects.”
His desire to run away growing to critical levels, all traces of pride completely erased, Escanor collapsed on the floor, doing his best to hide the way his body was responding so embarrassingly to Merlin’s experiment. He was on fire; every muscle, every nerve was twitching uncontrollably as he looked at the woman who had haunted his dreams for years. He drank in the sensual curve of her lips and the sparking intelligence in her amber eyes. He had never wanted Merlin so badly.
Frozen to the spot, Escanor watched as Merlin placed the glass box in a cabinet, before opening the window as wide as it would go. She then returned to her workstation, quickly combining the contents of several vials before briefly heating the potion over a small flame. The liquid boiled slowly, viscous green bubbles bursting at the top of the test tube as Merlin gave a cry of triumph.
“Here,” she commanded as she shoved the vial under Escanor’s nose. “I know it smells bad, but you will feel better, trust me.” Without further ado, Escanor took a deep breath, gagging as the new odour hit the back of his throat, burning the inside of his nostrils. ‘Smells bad’ was an understatement; he had never encountered any aroma so vile in all of his days. When the stinging in his throat subsided however, he found he could stand, the urges he had contended with moments before having completely subsided.
“I… I’m so sorry… that was unforgivable,” he muttered with a slight bow, the heat in his face now arising from pure mortification. As he lowered his head he caught sight of his clothing, shame welling up in his breast as he saw how baggy his waistcoat now was. Evidently night had fallen, and he was once more the powerless weakling Merlin do doubt despised.
Gaze fixed on the floor, Escanor started to shuffle towards the door, hoping to make a quick exit now he was back in control. He nearly jumped out of his skin as he felt a warm hand on his shoulder, Merlin’s fingers digging slightly into the fabric of his clothes.
“You don’t have to go,” she murmured, using two long fingers to raise his chin and Escanor was relieved to see nothing but kindness in Merlin’s eyes. She had always been so good to him, no doubt from condescension, but he valued her friendship more than anything in the world. “You get more interesting every day,” she continued, her smile broadening and Escanor felt his heart would break. When would he accept that his dreams were just that? Merlin could never return his affections.
He was extremely surprised therefore when, moving closer, Merlin placed her lips on his. It was slow and chaiste, and he stayed stock still, unsure of what to do. Merlin however was undeterred, pulling his arms around her waist and Escanor finally gave way, electricity running through his veins as he permitted himself to return her kiss. It was everything he had dreamed of and more, her soft sighs stirring his blood anew as Merlin ran her fingers into his hair.
“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Escanor groaned as they broke apart, gasping for air. Merlin grinned at him, her fingers caressing the back of his neck in a way that threatened to hypnotise him. His own hands dragged up her back, feeling the silk fabric of her gown under his palms.
“I know,” she murmured as she returned his embrace, pulling him close as their lips met once more.
Chapter 16: Locked Room
I tried writing my own poem for this and it is harder than it looks. In the end I gave up. This poem is taken from the Sierra computer game King’s Quest VI.
Failure. That’s what he was: an utter and complete and total failure. Escanor steadied himself, taking great gulps of the slightly stale air to try and calm his increasingly frayed nerves, to sooth the almost unbearable ache in his chest. Why did he have to be so entirely useless? Why did he always have to lose control?
But it had felt so good . How he had relished the battle with the odious vampire king, the rich iron smell of his blood and the snug feel of Rhitta as it fit in his hand. But now the adrenaline with its rush of triumph was all gone, replaced by the anxious beat of his heart. It was after nightfall and so he had returned to the man he truly was, and all he could do was remember the way he had acted with horror, images which made him wince flashing before his eyes. As he gazed at the blank stone walls of his cell, the ring of silence vibrating in his ear, he wished to goodness he had never been born.
The piece of paper he was holding crackled in his hands and he looked down in surprise at the crumpled page which contained his latest attempts at poetry. He had been blessed with some confidence when he had begun, the golden rays of the setting sun as they streamed through his window casting a brilliant blaze over his glorified prison. But now the silver light of the moon mixed with the warm glow of the lanterns, and everything he had wanted to say fizzled away to an embarrassed nothing.
“I bet Merlin’s lost faith in me,” he whispered to himself as his shoulders slumped, and he felt the swathes of cloth which covered him sag over his limbs, a constant reminder of his lessened state. “Even if I write a poem like this it’s not good for anything…”
“Will you let me hear it?” The familiar voice made him start. His head snapped up, his mouth falling open as he stared at the woman who forever plagued his thoughts. On her arms hung a basket of food, two bottles of ale shining in welcome as Merlin gave him a rare, warm smile. At once, the desperate sadness which had gnawed at his insides settled down to simmer, his joy at seeing her looking so contented enough to give him some control over the tumult of emotion.
“It… it’s nothing special,” he stuttered as his fingers closed round the parchment, “and it needs a bit more work. But I will read it to you when it’s ready if you would do me the honour.”
“I’d like to hear it now, at least what you have of it,” Merlin said kindly, her eyes seeking his across the cold, bare room. “Please,” she added and Escanor dropped his head, his stomach leaping into his mouth at the very prospect. But he knew he could not say no to Merlin, not even if the result was his own humiliation.
“Well, ahem, since you request it, my lady:
What was it when I looked at you?
What power has chained me through and through?
And binds my heart with links so tight,
I can not live without the sight of you?
What nameless thing has captured me?
And made me powerless to flee?
What thing is it without a name,
That brings my mind ever back the same to thee?
The name of 'love' cannot apply,
Its commonness does not descry,
The haunted, hunted, painful cry that my heart makes for you,
That ever my soul eternal makes for you.”
Escanor’s mouth ran dry, the last of his words barely audible as he stammered. Why oh why did he ever try to write: it sounded well enough in his head but, once uttered, the words revealed themselves for the clumsy, clunky nonsense that they were. But, to his surprise and great relief, Merlin hummed appreciatively as she moved towards him, her hip swinging gracefully with her gait. “I like it,” she murmured quietly, the faint praise sending his heart soaring to the heavens.
He needed to change the subject, fast. “Did you not wish to join the others,” Escanor managed to squeak out past the lump that stubbornly remained in his throat. He coughed quickly before continuing, “There must be quite a celebration.”
“There is, but no matter. I would rather be here with you.”
Escanor swallowed, his brows rising gratefully as Merlin handed him an opened bottle. He watched as she spread out the food she carried over a linen cloth evidently brought for the purpose, his mouth watering as he spied crusty bread, a round of cheese mottled with blue, some verdant apples and ripe, red tomatoes. He took a long draft of the ale, the smooth tang of malt providing a welcome distraction as he struggled to think of a suitable reply. “Oh,” he finally offered. “That’s… nice.”
He spluttered as Merlin chuckled, “I mean… it’s nice to spend time with you!”
“Well, here I am.” Merlin looked at him steadily then stooped, carefully selecting an apple before examining its surface with a critical eye. Escanor blushed as he too bent down to pick up one of the fruits, ashamed that the meal Merlin had so kindly provided was lying on the floor rather than a table. He had next to no furniture in his cell: just a bed and the single stone bench on which he now sat. He had been given bits and pieces which had decorated the room in the beginning, but of course the breakable additions had not lasted long.
Lost in his thoughts, self-loathing churning like bile in his stomach, he did not notice as Merlin continued to examine him, her eyes softening as they searched his face. He did not see her press her lips together, brow crinkling in concentration as she regarded him closely. All he could think about was that Merlin was next to him, that he loved her more than life itself and yet would never be worthy to lick her boots. Better to leave things as they were, whatever Meliodas advised about telling her how he felt. She would only laugh, or worse, he would lose her friendship.
Shaking his head slightly, he asked, “I still don’t understand why you are here. There are any number of better things you could be doing…”
“One more word of that sort and I will stop your tongue.” Escanor gasped, knowing the threat was no idle one. He had seen the Boar Sin use her magic in ways which should not have been possible. She was so powerful, so brilliant, so unique . He swallowed thickly, willing the tightening of his throat and the unmistakable prickle behind his eyes to go away and leave him alone. But it was no good. The more he tried, the more he struggled to breathe. What was wrong with him? Why was he incapable of having a conversation with Merlin without making an absolute fool of himself.
“Why are you crying?” Merlin peered into his face, her shoulder gently brushing against his own. “Escanor, tell me what’s wrong,” she commanded imperiously. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I’m not,” he protested, even as he felt a telltale tear cascade down his cheek.
“My eyes are weak,” he attempted by way of explanation. “They’re fine in the day but at night… well, they’re like the rest of me. Not really up to the task.” This was at least partially true. He had found himself blinking, his eyes watering in the lantern light, his eyes unable to focus on the words he wrote.
Merlin barked out a laugh, resting a hand lightly on his knee. “Sounds like you need glasses…” Escanor looked up in surprise as the mage trailed off. It was extremely rare for Merlin not to finish her train of thought.
“I have to go,” Merlin said as she stood abruptly, her long skirts rustling as she moved towards the door. “I’ll be back,” she added a little distractedly as Escanor’s face fell. “I just got an idea, one that can help your eyesight and mean you don’t have to remain in this room.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she said forcefully as she swept from the room. Escanor stared in silence at her retreating back as the mantle of loneliness once more closed around him.
Chapter 17: Parenthood
“I’m. So. TIRED.”
Escanor fell back on the bed, his head swimming with fatigue. He pressed his head into the pillow, feeling his neck ache and sparks burst behind his eyes. He knew, had always known, that becoming a father was not supposed to be easy, but no one had warned him about the perils of twins. It was insane. Everything, even just leaving the house for a nice stroll through the woods, had to be planned with almost military precision.
“But you were so cute with them,” Merlin replied and Escanor groaned as he explored the sore tendons in his shoulders with careful fingers. He felt Merlin sit beside him on the bed, the mattress creaking slightly with her weight. “It was adorable seeing you carry them both in their slings. It didn’t hurt you too much did it?”
“It got them to sleep, that’s the main thing.” Escanor sighed, his breathing evening out as drowsiness blanketed him in a warm glow. He had been carrying the twins around for most of the morning, fine when the sun was close to its zenith and he had practically unlimited strength, but as sun and begun to lower in the bright, blue sky he had really felt the weight of his children drag him down. And now it was the afternoon and he really was tired, both physically and mentally. How long had it been since he napped himself? Too long to remember he decided as he let himself sink further into the eiderdown pillows. “G’night Merlin,” he murmured, yawning as he let sleep gather him up. “I love you.”
“But you can’t nap now.” Escanor shook his head, part to rid himself of somnolence and part in disbelief. He opened one eye a crack to see his wife leaning over him, strands of dark hair falling around her face almost close enough to tickle his nose. She looked alert and fresh as a dew-dusted daisy. Had she invented some sort of potion that meant she didn’t require sleep? If so she really needed to share. “The twins will be two weeks old tomorrow and we still haven’t thought of names for them.”
Escanor yawned dramatically. “Can’t we do this later?” he asked rather plaintively. “We just got them to bed. Who knows when they’ll wake up again. Anytime now to judge by the way they’ve been for the past week.”
The twins had taken no more than half hour kips, even though all the midwives had assured Escanor that newborn babies slept for most of the day. He had tried not to resent the fact that their words were so wrong, then tried not to worry that his children might be defective, or grow up to be so because they had not napped properly, then tried not to worry that he had attempted to put his shirt on his legs like trousers he was that damn tired. He sighed once more, consoling himself that maybe whatever kept Merlin so awake was genetic, and she was alright. More or less.
“This won’t take long.” With a swish, Merlin pulled a scroll of parchment from the pocket of her gown, uncurling it to peruse the contents. “I made a list of every acceptable name I could find with names for both boys and girls. We should be able to find something for each of them.” Escanor gasped, turning to rest on an elbow as he watched the paper unfold before rolling off the side of the bed and onto the floor, running along for several feet until it bumped to a stop against the wall.
Merlin‘s eyes were alright with her enthusiasm, and Escanor did not have the heart to tell her no. “Let’s take them in order. Aaron? Abigail? Adeline?” she started to intone and Escanor groaned inwardly. This was not the first time they had tried to have this conversation. The problem was, he just wanted to call the twins Lionel and Merle: they were names he had cherished ever since Merlin had told him she was pregnant and he was having a hard time adjusting to alternatives.
As the list of names droned on and on, Escanor let his eyes slide closed, occasionally giving grunts or positive noises in response to particular monikers. But ones he liked, Merlin turned her nose up at and vice versa. It seemed as if they would never agree.
Then the cries started. Escanor grit his teeth as first one, then the other of the twins started murmuring in their sleep, their slight mutters growing to little barks and then full blown wails. He rolled his eyes, forcing his tired frame off the bed as he padded towards the cot positioned against the opposite wall, scooping the twins up in each of his arms. They were so tiny. Gulping at the way the little lives were so light in his arms, he stepped carefully towards the bed, placing the shouting bundles into Merlin’s arms. The boy and girl both latched on without delay, the cries instantly swallowed by the sounds of sucking.
Rubbing his bleary eyes, Escanor trudged down to the kitchen, the floorboards of the stairs creaking beneath his feet. Once he had made his way to the stove, he placed water on to boil in a pan, drumming his fingers on the countertops as he prepared the bottles. Merlin had invented a milk that mimicked her own precisely, and that could be delivered to the twins in glass bottles made safe by a rolling boil. It took twelve minutes to ensure the vessels were sufficiently sterile, after which Escanor filled them with the milk and conveyed them back upstairs.
He walked in to see Merlin lying back on the bed, her eyes shining softly as she looked down at the twins, kissing each of them lightly on the head. It was so peaceful, so domestic, that his heart missed a beat. This was what he had always dreamed of.
Merlin looked up at him, a sleepy smile spreading over her face. He drifted towards her, passing one of the bottles to her on autopilot before sitting on the bed beside his family. Merlin passed him the girl, and he started to feed her, the afternoon so quiet he could hear the children breathing and the chirrup of birds as they hunted for worms outside. The sounds were hypnotic, and he rested back on the bed, drifting instantly to sleep, not noticing as his daughter finished her meal and settled to sleep on his chest. He did not notice when Merlin laid their son next to his sister, nor the soft hand the stroked the hair from his eyes before she too laid down next to her family. The four of them slept, peacefully, as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
Chapter 18: Till Death Do Us Part
Warning for major character death
The stone was rough under her frozen fingers, scratching her palms as she traced over the engravings. The familiar features carved into the rock were so lifelike she could almost believe he was lying before her, almost feel his power warming the air. But, try as she might, the hair would not push back from his brow and he did not smile as she caressed his cheek. It was not him and it never would be and Merlin felt her heart would break.
She took an involuntary step backwards, the clipped knock of her boots echoing around the crypt, disturbing the silence that had been ringing in her ears. “Escanor,” she whispered as the noise softened to a dull ache, his name repeating over and over as it bounced off the walls. “Please don’t go. I can’t live without you.”
A lone tear fell down her face to splash onto the stone flagons, a drop of life amidst the chill of death. The time they had spent together had been so very brief, a mere flicker of flame in her long, lonely existence, a life spent continually searching for answers that were never quite within her reach. Merlin closed her eyes as the truth crashed upon her - for all the millennia she had watched come and go, for all the progress she had made in the advancement of magic and science - she had never had a true purpose until she had found him, until his light had brought meaning to her existence. And now he was gone, irretrievably gone, beyond the reach of even her power to sustain life.
The regret was so potent she could almost taste it, a sour tang coating her tongue. Not once since she had discovered the true nature of her magic and frozen her time in perpetuity had she felt the need to revisit her decision. There were always more things to learn, more things to explore, more knowledge to acquire and secrets to unlock. But now, for the first time in more than three thousand years, she wondered what the point in such acquisition could be if there was no one to share it with.
She felt his presence before he stepped into the space, the fall of his feet on the stone vibrating through the air. The king’s power was so bright, so golden that it made her head spin; it was too much of a glare in this sombre chamber of death. She was not surprised when she felt a hand squeezing her shoulder, though she resented the unwelcome intrusion. It took ever ounce of her self-restraint not to brush Arthur off, to turn and snarl at him to leave her be. She just wanted to be alone.
Arthur must have known, but was not to be deterred. Turning her in his arms, he scooped her into a warm embrace and Merlin broke down, sobbing in earnest into the king’s shoulder as he held her close. This was the child she had raised from a boy, the man she had watched grow into his destiny; he was all she had left in the world but, comforting as he was, even as she clung to him she wished he would go.
She felt the king set her back, and quickly she swiped at her eyes, gulping to try and stem the flood of tears. “Hey, it’s okay to cry you know,” Arthur said softly as he ran his hands over her upper arms. “I miss him too.”
Merlin nodded, not trusting herself to speak. How could she expect her ward to understand? He was in the prime of his life, a father with young children of his own, a kingdom to rule and people around him who would do anything for him, even die in the dirt of the battlefield if it advanced his interests. He had been on the earth for such a short time, and had a love of life no other mortal could rival. How could he ever understand?
She jolted as she listened to the king’s next words. “Merlin, I… I don’t want to be rude but do you have to stay here? Can’t you… well, could you join him?”
“What?” Her head snapped up, her gaze meeting deep violet eyes that shone a little in the soft lantern light.
“I don’t want to be crass but, well, I’m not sure I’d want to go on without all the people I love. I’m glad I’m human, I want go first,” Arthur said with a chuckle. “I want to go before you too, but I also don’t want you to suffer.”
Merlin swallowed around the painful lump in her throat, grateful for Arthur’s silence. Relinquishing her magic was not something she had ever considered doing. Though life was hard and painful she had always enjoyed waking up each morning, always felt the spark that drove her onwards, and she turned the idea of stopping it all over in her brain. Several months had passed since Escanor’s life had come to its end, months where she had trudged through each day, forcing herself to put foot in front of the other even though all she wanted to do was to stay in bed. It was a sensation she has never before experienced, one as if she was swimming through time, unable to breathe, unable to laugh or smile, just a constant ache of loss and grief. She had been told it would pass, that the pain would lessen and fade, but if anything it was stronger than before.
“But you need me,” Merlin protested, her voice harsh and she quickly cleared her throat, her hands twisting before her. “Camelot needs me! I…”
“No.” Arthur took a step towards her and gathered her hands in his. “You’ve taught me everything I need to know. I may not do as well without you, but it’ll be good enough I expect. Britannia will continue to prosper. It’s my destiny right?” he said with a chuckle. “And besides you’ve set up the university. Researchers from all over the earth are working to make the world a better place. They will succeed, I know they will. I’m not telling you what to do, of course, but please don’t stay for me.”
“I wonder what it’s like on the other side.” The question surprised her even as it clamoured through the chamber. She had not been there herself. Try though she might in her younger days, she had no strong connection to anyone who had passed and so found the door barred to her, and more recently she had known she could not survive setting eyes on Escanor only to leave him all over again. But she had to acknowledge she felt the pull to explore, to see the emerald shards of crystal rising to the heavens, to breathe in the stillness and the eerie peace. Elizabeth and the others had so clearly described the land of the dead, their narratives dovetailing in important ways, but it was not the same as first hand observation.
The notion began to take hold. The more she considered the advice of her ward, the more it resonated with her will. Arthur was correct: he was a good ruler, a king and competent monarch and he would continue along the path she had set out for him, and even if he deviated from it he would find his way. Britannia was safe. Magic was waning, leaving the world and becoming every day closer to being obsolete, but the scientific method she had helped to establish would usher in a continued wave of progress. This was a world that humans could manage on their own, without the aid of mages.
And Escanor… Merlin turned to look once more at the chiseled face of the man she loved. The likeness before her was almost perfect: the high, proud cheekbones, the jut of his jaw, the challenge she thought she could see in his eyes. She missed them terribly. What should I do? Merlin sent her thoughts outwards, asking the man who she had learned to confide in, only to hear nothing in return. I don’t want to exist without you. But I don’t know if I can give up.
“I do trust you,” she murmured without turning to the king. “I know you will protect Britannia, and I… I will think about it.”
As Merlin strode to the exit, a slight smile twisting her lip as her mind turned to research for the first time in what felt an age. The ache was still there, full and throbbing and making her wince with the pain, but now it was boxed into a corner of her heart. She could go on. There were phenomena to explore, a country to run, a king to support as he established a new order. She did not turn to see Arthur approaching the tomb, bending before the great knight in a low bow.
“Sorry Escanor, she’ll see you soon, but the world needs her for now. I hope you understand.” Arthur grinned at the stones, the air blowing a sudden comforting warmth as he followed his mentor out into the sunlight.
Chapter 19: Sunrise After The War
Happy Birthday to Tumblr’s x-strokeofmadness-x!
It was loud. Really, really loud.
Escanor’s ears rang with the snouts of cheer as he shuffled past tables stacked high with empty glasses of ale and around bodies draped over the room in various stages of intoxication. The Holy War was over. Elizabeth’s curse was finally broken. Everyone - even the Captain’s brother - looked happy.
If only he could feel the same.
Lost in thought, he drifted towards the bar, determining to get himself a drink. “Hey watch it!” came an indignant squeal and Escanor pulled to a quick halt, just about managing to avoid tripping over the pig. “Why the glum face,” Hawk asked pointedly, his body visibly quivering in the soft lantern light. He had evidently eaten his own weight in scraps and was on the point of physically bursting.
Escanor stuttered, “I-I was going…”
“Are you not going to drink?” Hawk interrupted.
“No.” Escanor sighed deciding to give up on his errand. There were too many people between him and the bar for him to stand a chance of making it through. But was this not what he has always wanted? To be himself , the sort of man who could slip by unnoticed in a room full of people? He sighed again. Yes it was, and at the same time it most definitely was not. Everyone else was having a great time and he was on the edge, not left out exactly but not included either.
His eyes swung over to a smiling woman, hips swaying as she sashayed through the room, glass of red wine in one hand. She paused to laugh at Howzer’s joke, taking a stein from Veronica who was on the point of collapse. “You know, you really should tell her how you feel,” Hawk grunted as he jostled into Escanor’s side. “I told you so already. What’s keeping you?”
“I can’t...” Escanor’s words stuck in his throat, now burning with a sudden pain. “She’s too good for me,” he muttered as Hawk snorted in protest. “If you’ll excuse me…” Escanor stood, quickly making his way through a convenient path that had formed in the revelry, heading towards the exit, dodging enthusiastic claps on the back and waving off greetings from the drunken knights. He did not belong at this celebration. This party was for heros, not weaklings who had borrowed a goddess’ power.
As he left the bar, the door swinging to a close behind him, the crisp night air hit his face cooling the glow in his cheeks. The Boar Hat was stationed just outside Liones and he could see the city walls to the east, the Magical Research Building towering over the kingdom. Swallowing hard, he turned to the west, his feet carrying him over stones and grass and so through a cluster of shadowy trees. He kept walking, the drunken shouts and shattering glass fading to the soft hum of crickets and the majestic hoots of a pair of owls as they called to one another. Everyone had someone, even the birds.
He pulled up short as he broke through the copse, taking a sharp intake of breath on beholding the clearing before. It was bathed in a still, silver light. The moon was full as it shone the reflected rays of the sun onto the sudden expanse of ground below. This must be some sort of meadow, the sweet aroma of wild flowers drifting to him on the breeze and he began to relax, his heart rate slowing a little even though his chest ached.
“A penny for your thoughts.” Escanor whipped round, pulse racing once more as Merlin stepped towards him, her skin gleaming in the pale moonlight. He could just make out her features, her mischievous eyes unusually dark. She was even more beautiful than he had remembered, stunning in fact. It was hard to believe a woman so lovely could exist.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted out.
Merlin shrugged a little as she continued towards him. “I saw you leave,” she remarked as she drew up close. “What’s wrong, Escanor?”
When he did not reply, the mage continued, “The Grace is gone and your body will likely recover. Do you miss your power?”
“No,” he said a little too quickly. “I… hated myself, I still do, for not being able to control it, for turning into that… monster. It’s good Mael has his Grace back.”
“And yet you are unhappy.” Merlin peered at him, an uncomfortable heat pushing down his neck. “Why is that?”
Escanor opened his mouth, then shut it with a snap. How could he possibly tell her? Because I’ve seen the way you sometimes look at the Captain. Because you care for that king - our saviour - so much more than me. Because I will never be good enough for you…
“Escanor,” Merlin said softly as she took another step forwards, pressing into his personal space so that the hairs stood on the back of his neck, “I want you to tell me. Just say exactly what is on your mind.”
“I…” Escanor ground to a halt.
Merlin looked at him through her long, dark lashes, her cherry red lips curved in a smile. “You will never know unless you try.”
“I love you.” Escanor closed his eyes, horror and elation struggling for control. A part of him wished vehemently that he could retract his admission, but now the words were out, still resounding like echos through his mind, he found he could not stop his tongue. “I love you, more than anything. I have done since the moment I saw you. You are my sun, my moon, my stars. You are the most incredible being to ever walk this earth. I love you. I would die for you. I would do anything to see you smile. And I… I know that isn’t enough. But it’s all I have.”
His gaze swung to the ground, his breathing ragged as Merlin’s hand cupped his face. “Escanor,” she said softly as she tilted his chin so that he was looking directly into her eyes. “It is more than enough. It always was, and it always will be.” Before he could speak her lips were on his, and he melted into her arms, blood pounding triumphantly in his ears as he held the woman he adored, carefully as if she were made of the most delicate china. He had pictured this in his head many, many times, each and every fantasy falling short of reality.
Breaking apart, Merlin pulled him into a close embrace. “I love you back,” she whispered into his ear, sending a shiver down his spine.
They stayed locked together, fingers entwined as night turned to day and the sun rose in the sky.
Chapter 20: I can’t sleep
Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts (not in detail)
Silver moonlight seeped through to his cave, picking out in sharp relief the pointed stalactites which dropped like daggers from the ceiling. He was far back from the entrance, huddled in the warmer dark at the back with many thick skins of fur to ward off the chill, but it was still bitterly cold. Over the past several weeks the weather had turned and now mist stalked the land each morning, ice shining on the grass like iridescent crystals. Winter was coming and he could feel the frost freezing through to lick along the length of his bones.
He glanced up towards the mouth of the cave. It was dark outside, rain falling in a steady rhythm. It even smelled of damp this far back. Surely she would not come tonight. Not even her. Not in this. Escanor sighed and turned over on his makeshift bed to face the other way, staring at the rock wall he knew to be just a few inches from his face. He closed his eyes, shutting out the world in an attempt to quell the anticipation that surged in his chest. She would not come. He did not want her to come. Why would anyone brave such vile atmospheric conditions for him.
Sucking in a deep breath, Escanor began to count backwards from one thousand in a bid to induce the sort of mental state that might lead to somnolence. He was practiced at this. His nights were often were restless. It was hard to find peace when one slept in the skins of animals slaughtered in rage, or when one was desperate for company, particularly that of an elegant mage.
He must not think of Merlin. With renewed energy Escanor set about focusing on the numbers as he continued his countdown. It was no use, his heart was racing and intrusive thoughts ticked in his brain. “I will not think of Merlin!” he yelled allowed to the cave, the command to himself reverberating from the ceiling and walls.
“Well, that was interesting.”
Escanor jolted upright, pulling the furs right up to his neck. He could see her, her hourglass silhouette dark against the shimmering light of the moon. She was here! Well, what had he expected. She it was raining and yes it was cold and yes it was horrible outside but Merlin had come to him every day for the past several weeks, and had vowed to return each night until he agreed to join her band of knights. He tried to say something, but the words stuck in his throat which had shut like a clam at the unexpected intrusion.
“What’s the matter, Escanor?” Merlin asked kindly as she slid further into the cave, her body disappearing into the shadows. He heard a snap, and a moment later a magenta light was shining up from her hand, illuminating the mage with an eerie glow. Her face was pinched, brows drawn together in what seemed to be concern. “Are you ill?” she murmured as she stepped closer towards him.
“I’m worried. I c-can’t sleep,” Escanor finally managed to stutter in response, pulling the furs a little more firmly up to his chin.
Merlin shrugged her shoulders. “Does it matter?” she enquired. “I sometimes go without sleep for days on end.”
“It matters.” Escanor swallowed hard. It was bad enough, the daytimes, when his body would stretch and break and his very soul would burn in a blaze of arrogant fire. It was bad enough knowing that he would change to a monster, a beast that would kill all that came in its path. But it was even worse if he was tired. The part of him that blossomed during the day was so much harder to control if his night had been restless. He opened his mouth, wanting to explain, but his vocal chords once more refused to give the words substance and his throat closed around them.
Merlin peered at him through narrowed eyes. “Very well,” she said. “In that case, it is even more imperative that you join me in Liones. I can prepare a sleeping draft for you. Do not concern yourself, it is safe and effective,” she scoffed as Escanor gave a little gasp. He had never had medicines, not since he was a child, and the prospect was not unwelcome, just unexpected. “I cannot administer it here,” Merlin continued gruffly, perhaps misreading his reaction. “I will need to check that your body responds in the usual way before allowing you to take it alone. You are so… atypical,” she said with a chuckle. “There’s no predicting how you will react to the mixture.”
Escanor paused. He wanted with all his heart to say yes, to be among people, to be with her . But the risk was too great. He shook his head, scrunching his hands to fists under the cover of his blankets. “I can’t,” he whispered. “Please stop asking me to do something I can’t. I’ve explained, I’m dangerous. I could destroy the kingdom. I really could!”
“And I have told you as many times that you’ll just have to trust me,” Merlin shot back, but her words were devoid of anger and her face bore a slight smile.
“Look, the world is better off without me. I ought to…”
Merlin’s light flared as the silence rang, punctuated by nothing but water dripping on to the floor of the cave. “You ought to what?” she asked sharply.
“Escanor.” Merlin knelt beside him and he sat up instinctively to look her directly in the face. His cheeks flushed, heat searing his ears. “I know perfectly well what it is you just considered, and I am telling you now, do not ever think of that as an option again.”
He gulped. “I-I don’t want to.” Tears began to fall down his face. “But realistically… I have nothing to live for. I spend my days trying to make sure I don’t hurt anyone and my nights terrified that tomorrow I will. If it wasn’t for the poetry I think…”
“You write poetry?” Merlin interrupted and, if possible, Escanor’s face burned even more. “You are full of surprises,” she said with a laugh. “But, after that admission, I am afraid this is no longer up for discussion. I insist that you must come with me to Liones, right now, where I can keep an eye on you. I will not allow you to continue living on your own. Come, Escanor,” Merlin huffed a little impatiently, “you are hardly in a position to refuse. I do not want to force you to do anything against your will, but I must if it is for your own protection.”
“But, I mean, um…”
“Yes?” Merlin enquired.
“W-why do you care so much?” Escanor managed to ask, swallowing hard over the lump in his throat. “What can a wretch like myself possibly mean to you?”
Merlin smiled, her head cocked a little to one side. “If you wish to know the truth, you are the most interesting individual I have ever encountered. For a number of reasons which I will not go into at this moment. Now, no more talk. Collect your belongings and I will transport you to Liones, with or, as I said, without your leave. Trust me I know exactly how to make sure you do not have to worry about any damage you might inflict. The kingdom will be safe, and so will you.”
Tentatively, with shaking legs, Escanor rose. He wanted to argue, to protest, but he knew it was useless. Merlin was stronger than him both physically and in will. There was no way he could hope to withstand her. Tugging self-consciously at the fabric of his nightgown, Escanor carefully manoeuvred his way to a small alcove that had formed in the wall of the cave from which he extracted a carved, wooden box.
“Can we take this?” he asked shyly. “I-it’s all the poetry I have ever written and it means the world to me.”
“Of course.” Merlin flashed him a brilliant smile, her hand waving before her to form a magenta circle in the air. The shape grew, his eyes widening as he examined the shimmering mass, silver swirls shifting in the mulberry sea. His legs moved, a little unwillingly at first then it was as if he was being dragged forwards, his knuckles white as he clutched the box to his chest. Merlin fell into step beside him and, together, they stepped into the mage’s portal, their shoulders touching as they were whisked out of sight.
Chapter 21: When Can I See You?
With thanks to lickitysplit for suggesting this format. I love you.
I cannot believe you have me writing actual letters: do you even know how much my hand is aching right now? Still, with your city experiencing periodic blackouts for the foreseeable and you refusing to indulge in a smartphone, I concede there may be some logic to it.
How is work? I am presuming that by the time you receive this you will have completed the tedious induction and have started your actual job. I hope it is all you were expecting it to be so far and that you have been able to see some of the city.
Elizabeth came round today. I think she misses you. She is not the only one. The next two years cannot pass by soon enough.
All my love,
I will be honest, I’m finding it a bit of a culture shock being here, more than I would really like to admit. It’s not the country: our neighbours are lovely and it has been wonderful getting to know some people outside of the compound. It’s more my colleagues inside the UN buildings. I have the task of managing two volunteers: one is charming and competent but never stops talking and the other is the most difficult person I think anyone could ever have the misfortune to work with. I swear she is trying to undermine me…
Anyway the work itself is interesting enough - I am in charge of securing a delivery of maize to the country and then overseeing its distribution across the country. It’s no easy task and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
By the time this reaches you, you will have started your new job. How are you finding work as a trainee solicitor?
I miss you too.
Work is… interesting I suppose you could say. So far all I have been allowed to do is proofread other people’s documents. At four in the morning. I haven’t even been home these past few days. I had to buy a new suit from the tailor next door to get by; it is pretty sharp though. One of the perks of having this ridiculous salary and goodness knows there need to be some because there is no pleasure to be had in the work. I think I would mind not leaving the office if you were back at the flat; every cloud has a silver lining.
I really miss you. I have tried not to say it as I do not want to prevent your enjoyment of your new job. I know how hard you have worked for it, how competitive it is. But I miss you. More than I can really say.
Apologies, that got miserable. Tell me something to lighten the mood. How is your project going?
I love you,
I think I have made a horrible mistake. In fact I know I have.
I’m so sorry. I know you wanted to hear something good but there is nothing good to tell you. I spent days organising the delivery of the maize; I got hold of enough for several districts and sorted out all the logistics. But the pots and pans needed to cook the damn stuff haven’t yet arrived. So the people have the food but can’t do anything with it and it’s quietly rotting away. It’s extremely frustrating but I’m working on finding the missing shipment of cooking equipment and I’m sure I’ll sort it out.
I’m so sorry to hear you’re faring no better just at the moment. I’m sure it will improve: you’ve always wanted this job and we knew it would be a hard slog for the first couple of years. I wish I was with you.
All my love,
I am struggling very hard not to say “I told you so”. This inefficiency is making me angry. I never quite understood why we can’t just pay reparations to every nation we ruined with the slave trade so there is no need for aid organisations, but I’m sure you would say I have no idea what I am talking about, and it would be fair comment. And you are exceptional; I am sure you will find a way to resolve the issue.
My job is a little better actually. I spotted quite a significant error in one of the arguments my firm was attempting to use. The case we now have is much more likely to succeed. The partners have stopped treating me like a dogsbody and are letting me use my brain. The hours are still long but it is more satisfying now.
I still miss you though. When can I see you? Are you coming back here before Christmas or do we need to wait until the holidays?
I adore you, I really do.
That’s great news! I’m really pleased! I knew you could do it!
Thanks for your faith in me; turns out it was misplaced. I failed.
You know the colleague I mentioned who was not being so nice? Well, I sent her to check one of the storage centres to see if the package of cooking equipment had arrived. She reported back that it had not, and I didn’t think to question her.
But it had. The damn package was sat there this whole time and now all the maise is unusable. I have been crying on and off since.
I cannot do this. It’s bad enough messing up at work without being able to come home and talk to you about it. I miss you. It’s agony being apart from you. I don’t want to do this anymore.
So… I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but one of the management consultants we’re working with seems to think I have potential despite this mess up and he offered me a job. There’ll be international travel but it’s based in the London office. I’m delighted in a way but I feel like such a failure. I don’t even know if I’m making sense but I really wanted this to work and I’m just gutted I couldn’t manage it.
Anyway for right or wrong I’ve handed in my notice. After this month is up I’m not coming back, but I do need to serve out my time. So I won’t be able to come home till Christmas.
I really, really miss you. I can’t wait to see you.
I love you.
I’m writing this from the airport. I will be on the next plane. I might reach you before this letter does.
I love you. I always will.
Chapter 22: Secret Love
It is quiet, almost too quiet. With senses on full alert, Gelda scans the area. The warm light of sunset creeps into the room, the soft light shining on the golden stone. The breeze wafting through the opened window is sharp, cool, bringing the scent of pine and the chirps of birds calling as they roost for the night. The gathering gloam of evening falls like soft blanket over the earth and Gelda feels her magic bloom in response. It will surely not be long before Edinburgh Castle bustles with activity. She stretches out her powers, not yet fully developed, nowhere near those of the demon lying beside her, but enough to navigate the vampire clan.
Her father, King Izraf, is still asleep in his chambers. Orlondi lingers in the cellar, his energy fuzzy, suggesting he had spent the day as usual drinking himself to a stupor. The others she feels patrolling the outside of the castle, pausing, walking slowly, on the alert for human intruders. Once the sun is set the vampires will not be disturbed and her breatheren will return to organise a hunt. Only Ren is missing, but this is not of concern. Alone of their clan this warrior takes her training seriously and is often absent at the juncture between day and night, pushing her strength to the absolute limit.
And it is as well for Gelda that she has not been discovered. Heat pools in her cheeks as she examines the figure beside her, dark hair and pale skin, his brow furrowed as if in thought even as he sleeps. She watches the mark of his power shifting as he dreams, black and purple swirling on his forehead like molten ink as the thin cover he rests under rises and falls. The tenderness she feels in that moment is enough to make her heart ache, and she wonders when their soft words and slight touches had blossomed into the joy in one another they had shared that day.
Loath as she is to leave him, she will need to go soon, before Ren gets back or her father awakens and demands her attendance. Slowly she stretches her legs, preparing to make a careful exit. She knows the man at her side gets precious enough sleep, keeping as he does a close watch on the castle by day and by night. But despite her precautions he stirs, bright malachite eyes opening as his mark fades to skin, and the contentment she beholds there takes her breath away.
It is just over a week since Zeldris had come to Edinburgh, his orders to make sure of the tentative alliance between their two clans by any of the various means available to the demon king’s executioner. The look on her father’s face after their first encounter had made her blood run cold.
Yet despite the very real danger her heart flutters almost painfully, her chest near to bursting as they gaze at one another. Without thinking she bends towards him, allowing her lips to brush over his. Her world stops, the earth seeming to pause on its axis as his scent of ginger and cardamom smooths over her like balm.
But something is wrong. The seconds tick by and he does not respond, apparently frozen at her side. Gone is the passion and sweetness they have shared but hours ago replaced with a cold, lifeless nothing. She squeezes her eyes shut as the trepidation she had felt at the prospect of their discovery instantly morphs into shame. He obviously does not care about her at all. She is a princess, a future queen, not some common whore. What could she have been thinking to put herself in this position?
He swallows, his breathing shallow as he pulls sharply away. “Gelda…” he gasps and for a moment his hand cups her face and the blood returns in a rush to her cheeks. Then, with a shudder, his arm drops, and she hears him force the breath from his lungs as he moves from the bed. His back to her, he dresses in silence and she struggles for words, struggles to make sense of the hurt and anger and confusion which fight for dominance in her soul.
“I am so sorry.” Her breath is ragged and she hears the bitterness in his voice as he declares, “I should never have let things get this far. I should have had more self-control.”
Her eyes slide close, holding back tears. “It was my fault,” she manages to force out past the lump in her throat. “I came to you.”
“To plead for the safety of your people, which is natural enough. I am responsible for the... transgression,” he says stiffly, self-loathing edging his tone. He steps away as he turns to face her, his eyes obsidian and expression unreadable. “I should have stopped it, and now I find that I am in a position where I must beg your forgiveness. I promise you it will not happen again.”
Before she can reply, he heads to the washroom, crossing the room in a few graceful steps despite its large size. Alone, she takes the opportunity to dress, smoothing her saffron gown so it falls unwrinkled to the polished stone floor. Her corset she cannot pull as tightly round her body as usual without the assistance of her maids, but the slight difference will hopefully not be too noticeable.
She checks her appearance in the large mirror hanging to one of the walls, fixing her braid so it falls neatly over her shoulder. But preparing to leave causes something to snap, the world somehow to shift. She remembers the hours they have spent basking in each other’s company, the spark between them now blazing like fire. Would she not give anything, everything, to stay by his side, for what they had shared to be more than a passing mistake?
Zeldris steps quietly into the room, his hearts stuttering to a painful halt. From the shadows he watches as Gelda braids her hair, deft fingers working the golden strands. He loves her, dearly, of that he is certain. How it happens he knows not, but, to him, she is now everything and more: the light and that dark, the very centre of the universe. So how could he have been reckless enough to place her in such peril? Blood pounds in his ears and he clenches his hands into fists to prevent them from trembling. He is the master of control, how could he have lost it when the stakes were so high?
“Why are you still here?” He intends to snap but his words come out as a hoarse whisper. He strides forward, risking a look into her face, the sorrow he sees there almost sufficient to break his resolve. Still, with difficulty, he commands, “Leave. Now. Before you are discovered.”
“Zeldris.” The sound of his name on her lips, soft and low, sends a chill up his spine. “What is it? If I did something wrong…”
The distress in her voice pierces him through and all at once she is in his arms. He holds her close, digging his fingers into the fabric of her gown, as rose and lily diffuse in the air. The ache he feels as she returns his embrace, sweet and sharp, leaves him shaking with adoration and fear. And yet, painful though it may be, he must let her go, or else risk her life.
“We cannot do this,” he murmurs even as he tightens his grip. “If my clan find out your life would be forfeit. Do you not understand? I cannot let any harm befall you.”
To his surprise, he feels Gelda relax in his hold. “Is that what this is about?” asks the vampire, her voice sounding light and he pulls back, incredulous, to stare into her face. She is smiling, eyes of amethyst shining with determination. He holds his breath, spellbound.
“But why didn’t you tell me? This is no problem,” she says, “at least not in the long term. Our clans are allies…”
“Who have less than no trust for one another.” He sighs, taking her hands in his, their fingers interlacing in an instant. “That is, after all, why I am here,” he adds, a touch of impatience in his address.
“Yes, I know. But once the war is done, and the alliance has held, surely any union between us would be desirable,” Gelda explains, a smile playing on her lips. “When your brother is king, I’d be willing to bet he won’t want you around; you’re far more use to him as a instrument of diplomacy than a potential rival hanging in the wings. And I am a suitable candidate for your hand. I may not have your power or influence but I’m your equal in rank. There would be no good reason to oppose the match.”
At her words, visions of the life they could have together crowd upon him and utter contentment diffuses through his soul. It is with effort that he forces them away. “This is fantasy,” he whispers as his throat constricts, clutching her hands more tightly in his own. “Once I am gone, Izraf will never keep his word.”
“I truly believe that’s not the case,” Gelda declares, her thumbs running in light circles over the backs of his hands. “My father may not always be the most honourable of rulers, but whatever the downside this alliance is bringing him power and prestige.”
She looks at him, and he feels a rush of hope as she asserts, “I can make sure by father does his duty, and if the war’s won soon, he will remain loyal.”
“Are you certain of this?” he asks carefully. She nods, head cocked to one side, and he moves, pressing their lips together. This time their mouths mesh together, and it is all he can do to keep his emotions in check as his hearts thrum in his chest. Then, painful as it is, he places his hands on her upper arms, gently pushing her back, before making his way across the room.
“In that case I will take my leave of your father,” says the demon, his hand on the door. “I trust your judgement. I will leave the vampires to you and return to the battlefield. I will end this war once and for all.” Then he is gone, heading through the castle towards the throne room and Gelda makes her way back to her own chambers. As she passes statues and polished suits of armour, a doubt claws at her insides and she wonders if she can truly keep her end of the bargain.
Chapter 23: The Perils Of War
Gelda sighed, rolling her eyes slightly as the conversation around her droned to a tedium. She cast her eye along the large dining table, the light of the lanterns gleaming on the silver candlesticks and glasses filled with crimson blood and wine to suit the tastes of their guests. The pact of alliance between the demons and vampires had been signed earlier that night, and now the two clans had come together in a supposed celebration.
Some celebration, she thought as she leaned away slightly from the man sitting to her left; a portly old codger with a lion’s mane for hair and teeth sharp as razors. The aura he gave off was frankly creepy and she closed her eyes briefly, giving way to her displeasure before her training kicked in. With some effort, she forced herself to smile sweetly, issuing remarks at suitable intervals as the demon droned on.
It was a relief when the meal was finally over. Gelda stood, uttering excuses then making to flee the room, the silks and satins of her gown rustling with her hurried movement. She would no doubt face her father’s ire when her absence was discovered, but she did not care. The whole alliance was a farce, doomed to fail before it had begun, her father’s fickle nature enough to ensure its fallibility. She could only hope that the demons’ immense power would encourage his loyalty, at least until the war’s end.
So quick was her haste to escape to her own chambers, that she nearly crashed into the young man standing at the door. He turned, the pale face which emerged from the shadows etched with something like disgust as his black eyes met hers. The aura of power that resonated from him was dark, dangerous, the swirling mark upon his forehead enough to give away his heritage; there was only one other she had seen with that particular pattern, a whirlwind of intense, brooding power. This must be the younger of the two princes known all over Britannia for their dangerous reputations: Zeldris, the demon king’s executioner.
She paused, wondering how she could still make her retreat, when to her surprise the man before her stepped to the side. She looked at him without speaking, seemingly fixed in position as the scowl on his face deepened under her gaze. “Well?” he demanded. “Can I help you with something?”
“No,” she quickly replied. “Please excuse my rudeness. The proper etiquette escaped me in the moment. It is not everyday one is in the presence of the demon king’s son. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is…”
“Gelda of the Thousand Temptations. I am aware.” She stared at him, mouth hanging slightly open as she shifted his weight, his shoulders relaxing imperceptibly. “You are King Izraf’s daughter. Your clan is now our... ally . It is my business to make a study of these things.” The emphasis on the word ‘ally’ made an unwelcome heat pool in her cheeks, her insides churning uncomfortably.
Zeldris cocked his head to one side. “Why are you embarrassed? I’ve been watching you,” he added, his voice clipped and careful as Gelda tried and failed to cover her disquiet. “You don’t like this alliance any more than I do. That much is clear. As we appear to be conversing, my question is, why? Your clan get nothing but the glory from the association while we get dragged down to your level.”
The undisguised arrogance took her breath away, her nervousness morphing to anger. “I will tell you exactly why I dislike…” Gelda broke off, suddenly aware of the people milling around her, a cluster of high-ranking demons and royal vampires, glasses in hand, surrounded by the hum of small talk and aroma of wine. “I will be happy to explain my position, but not here. Will you come with me? I will show you the cause of my concern.”
“Interesting,” Zeldris murmured, eyebrows raised. He looked around, huffing slightly as his eyes roamed the room. “Very well,” he agreed, “lay on.”
“Lay on?” Gelda asked, just managing to suppress a snort.
“This is Northern Britannia. I was informed it is customary to say ‘lay on’ in place of, ‘get on with it then’.”
Gelda chuckled, a smile curving her lips. “Not so much, but yes by all means let us go. Follow me.” Without a second glance, Gelda swept from the room, deliberately ignoring the protocol that women followed a pace behind the menfolk. It was a dictat she had no patience with, and the demon beside her made no protest. Perhaps gender did not matter to his clan, or maybe he just accepted the practicality of the situation.
“So where are we going?” Zeldris huffed as he strode beside her, Gelda darting her eyes in covert glances, taking the opportunity to study her companion. He moved with a surprising grace, as if floating along the ground, the way he walked almost mesmerising. The set of his jaw however denoted a warrior, as did the gauntlets and short sword strapped to his side, the sheath swinging slightly with his gait. But it was his hair that drew Gelda’s attention, the way it stuck out from his head in gravity-defying spikes.
Gelda did not answer, instead leading her guest through Edinburgh castle. Her high heels clacked on the polished, ocre stone floor so that the sound echoed round the cavernous halls, the large oil paintings and ornaments fashioned from coloured glass doing less than nothing to muffle the noise. She could sense her companion looking around, taking in the gold picture frames and marble statues, a sour expression marring his face. No doubt the demon was deploring the waste of resources. She had only once been to his father’s residence, surprised to find it a labyrinth of dark caves, austere in decoration and damp of atmosphere. Unlike Edinburgh with light air perfumed with rose, the demon king’s palace smelled of iron and oil, the walls hung with armour and swords and row upon row of sharp spears.
She mounted a staircase, slowly ascending the spiral steps. Her fingertips traced the rough stone of the walls until, finally, they reached the top, exiting onto the castle roof. The view was magnificent: the clear sky permitted the moon to illuminate all below, silver light shining off the rolling hills and catching the flow of the river and the tall castle turrets.
“Look there,” she commanded, gesturing to the ground below. Zeldris followed her gaze, their eyes alighting on the training grounds of the vampire clan, all of which were crawling with activity. From the way the combatants moved it was clear to see the few seasoned warriors were putting hundreds of new recruits through their paces, the less experienced clumsily failing to repel even the most basic of attacks. Gelda watched as Zeldris’s brows drew into a scowl, his jaw working as he observed the action below.
“What is this?” he asked, his voice as chill as the cold night air.
Gelda sighed as she turned to face him. “Now you see my concern,” she said softly, the breath catching in her lungs as she saw the fire in his dark eyes. “We are not soldiers. It is true we hunt our prey but the humans are weak, so we have no need for advanced levels of skill. My cousins and I are the most powerful of our clan. Our people have no hope of succeeding in battle against the goddess clan.”
“I quite concur,” he growled, and Gelda could see his hand move to the hilt of his sword. “Your father gave us to believe otherwise.”
“I know.” Gelda hung her head, feeling a blush creep into her cheeks. “It was all bluster—“
“Your clan will be slaughtered.” Zeldris looked at her closely, taking a step towards her to examine her face. “And that is what troubles you. You care more for your people than the prestige of the alliance.” The princess nodded, and to her surprise she saw his shoulders relax and his arms fall loose at his sides.
His eyes returned to the training fields and Gelda felt her heart sink. What she had hoped to achieve with this expedition she was not entirely sure, and if began to occur to her that she had placed herself in great danger. The demon in front of her was bound to his King by blood and by oath; surely he would be obligated to relay the intelligence she had handed to him to his brethren. Even if this broke the alliance it would not save her people: the demon king would punish not absolve.
“I will say nothing,” murmured Zeldris and Gelda’s head snapped back in shock. “My clan are not sentient, not for the most part at any rate. Only our high-ranking warriors have sufficient brain cells to rub together. They matter not. But if I were in your shoes I would feel the same way. I cannot stop the massacre but I can at least try to give you some time. I will ask my brother to delay your deployment until you have had more time to train, and I will request that some of our clan be seconded to help build your strength.”
“You would do that?” Gelda asked, her heart in her mouth. The offer seemed far too good to be true.
Zeldris shrugged, his lips pressing together for a fraction of a second. “Why are you so surprised? It does my clan no good for you to be sent out in that sorry state, nor for this alliance to fall at the first hurdle. It will only improve goddess clan morale.”
“Well, thank you.” Gelda paused, unsure of how to continue.
“No need. I am doing this for us, not you. Now we had best return to our clans before we are missed.”
With those words, Zeldris turned away from the fields, indicating to the princess that she should take the lead. They made their way back through the castle, the silence between them stretching into the night.
Chapter 24: Shifting Sands
“Don’t blame yourself… You did nothing wrong.”
He stares, mind numb as agony blooms in his chest, throbbing dully with the continual thrum of his hearts. It feels so unreal, as if the shifting bronze and magenta before him is from another’s existence, not his own reality. He watches the haze as it sparks almost angrily; charcoal and ash float on the breeze as his magic gathers and grows, then spreads out to form a large dome over the earth. The shouts of rage emanating from the furious vampires encased within are barely audible, save for the sweet, low murmurs of one.
Gelda is smiling. He can see her through the translucent shimmer: her heart-shaped face almost radiant; the neat golden braid; the amethyst eyes shining bright with her tears. His arms ache with longing and he reaches out, fingertips barely brushing the energy of the spell. He bites his lip as he lets his arms fall back to his sides. He cannot reach her, cannot comfort her, cannot save her from the magic he himself has cast.
Her smile broadens and his hearts seize. She is trying to reassure him even in this moment as he seals her and her clan below the depths of the earth. They will be suspended in time as if in sleep, never aging, never growing. She will be trapped there forever. “This is the best course,” he mutters to himself more than her, giving voice to the mantra which had dogged him for days. “You will be safe. When the war is over I will come for you, I promise.”
“Gelda, do you trust me?” Her mouth opens, then there is a crackle, a fizz and she is gone. He stands alone and all he can do is scream his pain to the heavens as his entire world is ripped apart. The world spins sickeningly on its axis as he cries, the air blowing cold on his wet cheeks as pewter sky, auburn leaves and dark heather fade to white.
The breeze is still on his face when he opens his eyes. His hearts stutter to see her smiling once more, her hair gleaming in the silver light of the moon, her perfect face cast in shadow. Britannia’s clean air bursts with the fragrance of herbs: thyme, mint, and rosemary diffusing in the velvet night. His hands are in hers, their fingers interlacing together and he has never felt so overwhelmed in his life. The pain from before slowly eases as he looks into her eyes and sees nothing but joy.
She leans towards him, and before he knows where he is her lips brush against his, her hands running through his hair in a way that makes hot oil trickle down his spine. He can barely breathe, barely think, barely make sense of it all. All he can do is surrender.
But this is wrong! He forces himself to pull back and turrets of Edinburgh Castle swim into view. “Gelda,” he gasps, even as he clings to her, digging his fingers into the satin and lace at her waist. “This is madness. We have to stop!” He is cut off by a finger pressing gently to his lips, before he is pulled more firmly into her arms.
“I love you, Zeldris,” she murmurs as their foreheads press together, her perfume of rose soothing him like balm. “I will not give you up. Whatever the danger, I will face it with you. That is, if you want me…”
“Always,” he replies and the familiar ache creeps into his chest as their lips mesh together. He cares for her so dearly and he closes his eyes, torn apart with the want and the love and heart-stopping fear. He should say no, should leave her safe and alone, should do anything but stay here at her side, his presence drawing violence like a moth to a flame. But he cannot stop, and as she deepens their kiss he knows he will never be able to let her go.
Then the world begins to go black, he gloam of twilight replaced with a dark, empty nothing. There is no soft breeze, no twinkling light from the stars, the fragrant air sucked into a void. He watches in horror as Gelda too is swallowed, pulled from his grasp as the blackness engulfs her. And he is screaming once more, desperation and terror fighting for dominance. His breathing is ragged as his fingers tear at nothing in his futile efforts to pull her back to the light.
Then there is light, a vast abundance of it chasing the vacuum of darkness away. He squints against the glare, panic still coursing through him as he does his best to get his bearings. It is not long before he spots a figure in the distance, the dark silhouette of a woman picked out by the blaze of white. He moves with abandon, seeming to float through the air and he can feel an utter relief as he flies towards her.
But he cannot approach. The more he tries the further he slips back, and the relief turns to frustration and fear. He can hear her call for him, her voice thin across the fathoms of dark and he grinds his teeth, refusing to give in to the grief and despair. Nothing he attempts works, the air around him sticky like treacle, impeding his progress. He cannot win.
And then something snaps, and he surges forward, flying with a rush towards the light. His breathing quickens, then he notices Gelda is walking tentatively towards him, the swing of her gait clumsy and unfamiliar.
When the goddess appears before him he nearly explodes, the resentment and pain he has carried for centuries bursting into flame. He feels his hand clench over the hilt of his sword and magic surges through his form, crackling through the air as he aims for her head. The goddess’ expression however does not change as his power crashes forwards: her face shining with expectation and joy.
Then the image shifts. Deep blue flashes amethyst, silver spins to gold, strands of hair swirling in the air until they are woven together. Her round, blushing face becomes pale, her cheekbones sharpening, and it is Gelda who looks at him, adoration lighting her face. He looks around, the neverending nothingness gone replaced by greys and dark blues of carved rock. The air feels damp and smells of stale water, the persistent drip from a stalactite regular enough to mark the passage of time. He looks out of the cave opening, hordes of red and grey demons soaring past on their way to die in a war that had no real plan or purpose.
He pulls her towards him, burying his face in the crook of her neck, the fragrance of roses grounding him back in reality. She is here, safe. They are at the very edge of the demon realm, the spell he has cast enough to ensure no one will find her.
“I love you,” he whispers, “stay with me.”
Thud, thud, thud. Without warning, the opening of the cave shatters, splinters of rock ricocheting off the floor. The noise is unbearable, a cacophony of roars and squeals and shouts. Meliodas is there, his eyes flashing with menace, the mark of their family pulsing on his forehead. The terror he feels in that moment is paralysing, as his brother, broadsword angled in front of him, stalks towards the woman he loves.
There is no time for the plea to leave his lips. The ground before him has vanished, Gelda nowhere to be seen. She is gone, and his world collapses, the pain the realisation brings ripping him apart. Desperately he pushes out his powers, seeking even the slightest trace of her energy. But there is nothing, nothing but a bottomless pit. Time seems to stop, then barely crawl forwards, every action played out with agonising clarity. He sees his brother throw back his head in laughter, and without thinking he launches himself at Meliodas’s smirking face, magic and sword prepared for the kill.
The rush of demon soldiers resumes, the sound of battle cries and flapping wings filling the air now thick with their bodies. An albion thunders past, a sickening grin on its face and the ground shakes as it traipses off to war. Before Zeldris can reach his brother, flesh rains around him, the demons surrounding them hacked to pieces by an invisible force. It takes only moments for the army to fall, their gurgles and grunts echoing in his ears. He ignores it, slicing at the bodies around him, his technique in tatters as he slashes at random, aiming to clear a path to the traitor. Sweat beads his forehead as the bodies keep falling, blood and tar stinging the back of his throat as he slices at them over and over again.
He sits up with a start, sweat sticking to his skin as his breath comes in ragged bursts. The pale sunlight of morning pours into the room, lighting up the golden stone and for a moment he hopes he is in Edinburgh. Then his eyes adjust, the bold reds and greens of the castle interior so different to the muted blues of the vampire clan. It is several weeks since he came to Camelot in pursuit of this quest for the ultimate weapon which so ignominiously refuses to budge from its rock.
The quiet is punctured; cries from outside the walls have him out of bed and on his feet in an instant. He crosses the room to fling open the window, releasing the aroma of wet grass and rich iron. The ground outside is littered with corpses, flab and gore spilling into the dirt. The invisible assassin had struck again in the night. Furious, he crashes his fist into the stone, the force enough to draw blood. He would never win the war if things carried on like this.
And winning the war was now an imperative. Ever since he had beheld the destruction at Edinburgh, his anger had boiled into stone cold rage. Gelda was dead and at his own brother’s hand. He had to kill the traitor, to torture him, to destroy every cell in his body until his worthless life drained away. With the goddess now recovering her memories, it would surely not be long until he had the opportunity. Meliodas was on his way to Camelot, and with quiet patience Zeldris would wait for him.
Chapter 25: True Reflection
Based on a post by Tumblr’s @but-iamadisaster-blog (follow them, they are super funny).
The cool night air blows softly, bringing with it the earthy aroma of heather and pine. Gelda takes deep, slow breaths, willing the unpleasant gnawing that curdles in the pit of her stomach to just go away and leave her alone. She had no idea why she feels so sad, so close to the precipice of desperation and anxiety, but whatever it is she cannot seem to shake it. She peers out at the deep black of the night; the obsidian velvet untroubled by the small pinpricks of starlight that occasionally break through the bank of cloud. The silence of the landscape jars with the hubbub of conversation that comes from the ballroom behind her, the threads of discourse so numerous that she can make out nothing of importance from the jumble of words.
It will not be long before her presence is missed. Gelda shoots one last look of longing out across the gloomy hills, before turning to head back into the fray, expelling the air from her lungs sharply in a bid to quell her emotions. Inside is a riot of noise and colour: bright red walls are offset by the polished oak of the of the ceiling, by the checkered black and white tiles of the floor and the splashes of blue and green worn by the chattering guests. A small orchestra is beginning to tune up in one corner of the space, violins quavering over the sound of conversation and shoes that clack as they hit the floor. The cool of the night she has so recently enjoyed is immediately replaced with a stuffy heat and the scent of wine and stale sweat.
Gelda moves gracefully towards the throng, a smile plastered to her face in accordance with her training. She steps lightly through the crowds, eyes darting from left to right as she examines the festivities. To her relief the event seems to be going well: the demons in attendance to celebrate the new alliance between their two clans seem to be relaxed and talking to one another easily. Even her father, for once, does not look displeased. Her breathing starts to ease, her chest rising and falling under the tight corset of her gown. It will be over soon, and then the demons will return to their realm. If everything remains as it is, the vampires will be in no danger.
Gelda starts slightly as she spies a young man standing aloof from the rest of the crowd. She examines him closely, noting the pulse of the vein in his neck, the tensed jaw and the way his dark eyes sweep over the room. She smiles to herself as a familiar fondness floods her senses. Trust Zeldris to find the whole thing acutely embarrassing, even if the alliance which had occasioned the ball had come about partly due to his skill in diplomacy.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she chides as she draws up by his side. The scowl on his face instantly melts into nothing, and the beginnings of a smile even curls his lips. “I was just wondering where you were,” he replies gruffly, and Gelda grins in return. “Your absence was far too prolonged for it to be due to a need to attend to your appearance.”
“What?” She laughs at his obvious discomfort. “Are you saying I look a mess?” she enquiries playfully.
“Of course not! It is merely customary for females to do that, in my experience, whether or not there is any requirement for it,” he blurts on as Gelda chuckles. “They are forever reapplying lipstick or powder or rouge or…”
“Not vampires, Zeldris.” Gelda lays a hand on his arm and instantly the demon leans into her touch. “We can’t just touch up our appearance,” she explains as his eyebrow quirks. “We vampires don’t have reflections so we tend to just leave our makeup alone unless there’s some sort of emergency.”
He looks at her in surprise before asking, “What do you mean you cannot see your reflections?”
“Just what I say.” Gelda sighs, drawing Zeldris over to one of the large windows that line the room, the flickering glow from the candelabras and lanterns shining in the glass. She watches Zeldris’s expression, reflected with the light as she looks out at the darkness, smiling as she catches the look of incredulity which crosses his face. Although her hand is on his arm, her fingers digging slightly into the fabric of his suit, she does not appear beside him in the shimmering tableau.
Zeldris turns her to face him, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Does this mean… you have no concept of what you look like?” he asks softly as he peers into her face.
She inclines her head sadly. “No,” she confirms as she gaze slides to the floor. “I’ve often wondered, but… well…”
“Then I’ll tell you.” Gelda looks at him keenly, noting the blush that creeps into his cheeks. “I mean… if you would like me to,” he mutters awkwardly.
“You would do that? For me?” Gelda smiles as Zeldris rubs the back of his head. She has heard description from others before, but is excited to learn how Zeldris might view her. “Of course,” he replies, “I will do anything you wish.”
He coughs to clear his throat. “You have purple eyes,” he begins, his words slightly stuttered as he looks down at the floor, “blonde hair, and pale skin. Your face is heart-shaped and you have a slight point to your chin.”
Gelda waits, but the words have evidently stopped. “There must be more to it than that,” she prompts, her tone light with amusement.
Zeldris huffs as his eyes briefly meet her own, and the seconds tick by. She is just about to give up and change the subject when he mutters, “I love the way your hair shines in the moonlight. It looks like you are wearing a crown of stars. Your eyes sparkle too. They are so bright they remind me of amethysts, but they’re also gentle, like delicate orchids, rich as the dye which comes from the sea. I sometimes get lost just looking at them…
“And you look so… radiant,” he continues more confidently before Gelda can make a reply. “Your skin is flawless, completely unblemished, like smooth alabaster, like finely carved marble, and you must have noticed how everyone turns to look at you wherever you go. That’s because your smile lights up any room, because the way you move is like the most graceful of dances and it is a joy to just watch you as you walk.
“Everything about you is… perfect.” He sighs as his eyes snap up to hers. “It’s not just your looks, beautiful as you are. You are kind, courageous, sharp as a whip. You can make me happy or sad with just a look and I know… I know I should not see you,” he rushes on, discomfort evident in the way the muscles in his arm twitch. “I know that you would find it easier to be with someone from your own clan. But I can’t do it. You mean the world to me and I would do anything to be near you, to keep you safe.”
He stops and Gelda struggles to speak past the lump in her throat. “Is it over?” she finally manages to ask as Zeldris chews his bottom lip. “I love you,” she murmurs and their hands clasp together, their fingers interlacing in an instant. “I am not worthy of such praise, but thank you. And you know I don’t care about the difficulties, or anything really. I love you, and I never want to be anywhere but by your side. Whatever the risks, I will share them with you.”
“I love you too,” he replies and he draws her hands to his lips, leaving a light kiss on her fingers, “and I will make this work, I promise. I will keep you safe.” Gelda nods, unable to reply as they stand together looking out at the night.
Chapter 26: The Castle In The Lake
Written for the first NNT Zine
The room was quiet, silver light and dark shadow flitting across the polished stone walls. A soft breeze wafted through the window, filling the space with the pensive still of night. There was no sound to be heard save for the gentle wash of the lake as it lapped at the shore, the familiar splash of waves against rock. The soft air, perfumed with the scent of seaweed and brine, mixed with the hot oil of the lanterns as it gently ghosted over her skin. It was as if the earth was holding its breath, as if it too wished the night would never come to an end.
Gelda’s eyes fell on the demon lying beside her and her heart was instantly filled with tenderness and longing. It was rare that they were able to spend time together in this abandoned castle on the very edge of northern Britannia. The humans who had constructed the simple stone edifice, on a island in the middle of a salt-water lake, had long since retreated, fleeing the dragons which sometimes stalked the area. Zeldris had found it and painstakingly restored a few rooms, creating a sanctuary where they could hide from the war, where they forget their responsibilities and prejudice of their clans.
Yet, much as she did not wish it, the night was drawing to its close. The sharp calls of guillemots and the noise of cormorants as they made their almost comical grunts heralded the imminent coming of dawn. Even as she watched, the sky grew lighter, streaks of pinks and golds lighting the now-visible cloud. She sighed, forcing the air from her lungs in a failed attempt to control her emotions. It would soon be time for them to leave one another’s arms, and who knew when they would see each other again.
As if sensing her perturbation, Zeldris stirred, his eyes flashing dark as they gazed into her own. The mark on his forehead swirled with his power and she had to stop herself reaching out to trace over the patten. He too glanced out of the window, then made as if to go, before evidently thinking better of it and relaxing back into the pillows. Gelda fell into his comforting embrace, relishing the feel of his skin under her palms and the way his hair brushed against her cheek. It was almost without thinking that their lips brushed together, their kiss slow and chaste; she struggled to breathe, the ache of longing and loss threatening to overwhelm her.
“We have to go,” Gelda murmured reluctantly as she pulled away, shivering slightly as she left the warmth of his arms. “My clan’s hunting party will return soon.”
Zeldris wrinkled his nose, before checking himself and smoothing his countenance into an expressionless mask. She laughed at this, the sound swallowed by the soft drapes and comfortable furniture, so different to the echos one would make in the great halls of Edinburgh.
“I know what you’re thinking and it’s alright,” she reassured, forcing herself to push her sadness aside. She had to make it so they enjoyed these last moments together. “I can’t see myself eating dragon any more than you could drink human blood.”
“I did try if you recall,” he replied, an edge of complaint to his tone. “It was… an experience.”
“Is that what you’re calling it?” she asked innocently. “It looked more like a diplomatic disaster to me.”
“I was not prepared for the taste,” he grumbled as Gelda broke into fits of giggles. “How was I know it tastes like liquid iron? I have no concept of how you vampires can possibly enjoy it.”
Gelda smoothed back the dark hair from his forehead, running her fingers lightly over his scalp, and she felt him grow still under her touch. “Anyway, no harm done,” he continued, swallowing slightly as she scraped her nails lightly along his skin. “It passed off without incident.”
“Only because I covered for you!” She pushed herself up on her elbows, pleased to see him looking sheepishly up at her, before his brows drew together in apparent confusion.
“I have wanted to ask you for some time why you did that.” He sat up in bed, head cocked slightly to one side. “We had not set eyes on each other before that day, and had barely spoken two words together. You had no reason to come to my aid.”
Gelda felt a blush creep up her neck and into her cheeks, her gaze sliding sideways to the woven coverlet. She bit her lip, wondering just how she was supposed to answer that question, whether she could bear to reveal the truth. She jumped slightly as Zeldris cupped her face, forcing her eyes to look into his own.
“What is it?” he demanded more forcefully as she remained silent. “Will you not tell me?”
Several more seconds passed, his gaze never wavering until the pressure to talk became overwhelming. “Alright. If you must know. But it’s really embarrassing,” Gelda felt her blush deepen, heat pooling in her face, and she could feel the cool air moving over her glowing cheeks.
“I… I had seen you before,” Gelda admitted, and Zeldris looked at her with keen interest. “It was in the demon realm. My father dragged me and Ren along to the negotiations as token females. The alliance with the demons meant a lot to him and he didn’t want to leave anything to chance. My cousin and I were supposed to, you know...” She could not continue past the lump in her throat. The memory of her mission, as explained to her in no uncertain terms by the vampire king, caused her revulsion even now the ordeal was over.
“I’ll kill him,” Zeldris muttered as he pulled her into his arms. “Or hurt him at least,” he seethed as Gelda opened her mouth to protest. “I hate the way he uses you.”
“I was lucky. Nothing happened,” Gelda said quietly as she pulled back a little, noting the look of black fury on her lover’s face. “Your clan were surprisingly respectful. Ren and I were shown around by one of your colleagues, Melascyla was her name if I remember rightly. We went to the library, the research stations and then the training grounds.” Zeldris froze as she added, “We watched you and Meliodas sparring.”
“Well, I bet that was a humiliating sight.” Gelda could see Zeldris’s jaw working as he forced the bitterness out of his tone. “I still do not understand…”
“You almost beat him,” Gelda said softly as she took his hands in hers. “I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. Then after that you took on this tall brute in spiked armour, and he was clearly out of his depth.”
Zeldris chuckled as his fingers slowly interlaced with hers. “Galand is a hot head, but he is useful enough.”
“You let him land several blows.” Their eyes met as Gelda continued, “You didn’t have to do that. It puzzled me, then I worked out why. You wanted the fight to be fair.”
“He gets very despondent sometimes,” Zeldris explained.
Gelda’s heart thrummed in her chest as a little warmth coloured his cheeks. “I thought it was kind,” she murmured over his hesitation, “and I haven’t seen anything since to contradict that impression. I wanted to get to know you more. And besides,” Gelda added, a smile curving her lips, “you looked so… you know...”
“What?” Zeldris asked as she trailed off and he looked at her closely and she struggled not to laugh out loud. “Are you saying you were influenced by my physical appearance?” He stared at her, incredulous. “Gelda! I would never have imagined you could be so brazen!”
They fell back to the bed, laughing as their arms wound around one another. Her heart ached as she watched his dark eyes lightening, emerald shining in the early morning light as the mark on his forehead faded to skin. “I love you,” he murmured, and she reached for him, only to find her fingers brushed over air. Alarmed, she pulled back, fear gripping her insides as wind rushed painfully in her ears. Her insides jolted sickeningly, and she felt a splash of bile hit the back of her throat as the world around them spun sharply, the room swirling like a vortex before it faded to black...
In my deep sleep here in the seal, Zeldris… I’ve been dreaming about my days with you.
Waking was like returning to the surface from the depths of the sea. Her lungs screamed in protest as she struggled to breathe, her limbs shivering, weakened from millennia of lying in a space on the edge of sleeping and waking. She felt sick, dizzy, disorientated, a metallic taste permeating her mouth. But as she looked around at the rolling hills of Edinburgh, darkened by the deep velvet of night, memories returned to her in a flood of hope. She had been sealed and released, imprisoned then freed. After all these centuries, Zeldris must have finally come for her.
Gelda fanned out her powers, scouring the area, searching for even a trace of the energy she loved, but her efforts became increasingly desperate. Something was wrong. There was no one, nothing of significance to be felt for miles and miles, and certainty no sign of demon magic. Human settlements were all she could find, with a party of that race fast converging upon them. Evidently the humans had felt the crack of the seal and come to investigate, a fact not lost on the remains of her family.
“Spread out!” the vampire king yelled. “Don’t let any of them get away.” She heard the rush of wind in her ears as her brethren flocked to obey his command, followed seconds later by the screams and shrieks of despair from their prey. The vampires had returned to Britannia, bringing with them destruction and death.
And she knew as she smelled the rich aroma of blood, gaging in revulsion as she tasted the tang of iron on the air, that she could never be the same again. She wanted nothing, none of this morbid reality, only the dreams she had been forced to leave behind.
As her clan continued their macabre feast, Gelda stood still, detached from the world, remembering the feel of comforting arms, the soft timbre of of Zeldris’s voice as he whispered in her ear, knowing with certainty that she would never see him again. Blinking back tears, the princess gazed up at the sky, love and loss gnawing painfully at her insides.
“Please kill me,” Gelda murmured to herself as she closed her eyes and prayed for death.
Chapter 27: Love And Salvation
This is an adaptation of chapter 12 from StarryNightGazer’s amazing comic, Love and Salvation, which can be found here: https://thestarrynightgazer.tumblr.com/post/181254986223/love-and-salvation-so-i-compiled-all-the-links
It’s a wonderful clanswap AU and really worth a read.
Agony; pain the like of which he had never experienced flashed through his body like lightning. Arthur grit his teeth, focusing on the pain, relishing every throb and ache. He could heal himself if course, smooth over the cuts in his skin, repair the internal organs which were slashed to a pulp. The temptation to do just that was overwhelming. But the demon made himself stop, made himself cut even deeper into his flesh with the sword he could not live without. Otherwise he would be dragged back to his home to face Cusack’s wrath.
Aranak had attacked, casting his magic, drawing any who slept under his blanket of bliss and into a neverending world of nightmares. And the youngest goddess prince was there, in terrible danger, refusing to use Salvation even though the Grace was his to command. He could see Zeldris laid out on the floor, dark hair and pearly white feathers mingling together. The sight was enough to take his breath away and his hearts seized in panic: if Arthur did not save the prince now he would surely perish.
Suppressing a scream, with difficulty he pushed his blade further into his throat, the tang of blood, dust and metal flooding his mouth as the sharp metal severed his windpipe. That ought to do it he thought to himself as he let the torment wash over his broken body. Dark snowflakes fell around him, fluttering in the air, shining obsidian and amethyst in the morning light. With a little more effort, his power bloomed and a bank of black ice formed between the goddess he now cared about more than he would like to admit and Commandment. The air swirled, whipping his auburn hair in a frenzy as the demon was sent screaming from the celestial realm.
Zeldris awoke, his head fuzzy, unfamiliar fragments flashing before his eyes. A wall of ice, dark as charcoal, edged with sharp points; the floating head of Aranak grinning from ear to ear; a blast of mulberry and a piercing scream; Arthur, lying prostrate on the floor, deep red blood pooling around his lifeless body. He screamed, the sound echoing round and round in his head as everything faded to a blinding white.
The prince sat up in an instant, a soft, grey coverlet falling around him as his breathing gradually returned to normal. He was in a tent in the celestial realm, the air light and fragrant with the aroma of herbs and orange blossom, embroidered drapes and feathered charms fashioned by Merlin hanging from the walls. It should have been soothing to be home, but a wave of nausea washed through him as his insides churned with fear. Was it a dream or was Arthur...
Voices, muffled and low found their way through the tent’s opening. As silently as he could, Zeldris jumped lightly down from the bed, padding softly towards the entrance. He slunk into the shadows on hearing his name, straining his ears to catch the faint conversation.
“He’s still resting,” a voice that was no doubt his brother’s responded, the high, quavering voice ringing with concern.
Then there came a reply, and Zeldris felt every limb in his body relax, his heart pounding almost violently in his chest with joy and relief. It was Arthur’s voice, low and sonorous, hauntingly beautiful as it hung on the air despite it being laced with obvious insolence. “As usual, you don’t look pleased to see me, Estarossa,” the demon responded and Zeldris could easily imagine the sneer that must now marr Arthur’s face.
“As I said, he’s still resting. He doesn’t need to see you.” There was outright hostility in his brother’s tone now, and Zeldris felt anxiety pump through his veins. Even though the demon had deserted his clan, proven his loyalty to the side he has chosen rather than been born into, there was still so much suspicion about his motivation.
“Tsk, you’re just being cold. And I thought you were the one who understood us most. Perhaps your Judgement has deserted you,” Arthur taunted as Estarossa growled. Jaw clenched, Zeldris pushed the fabric of the tent aside, determined to stop the fight before the antagonists he cared for came to blows.
“Es, it’s alright,” he called as he strode forwards and both his brother and Arthur whipped round, dark and light, black and silver. “I need to talk with Arthur,” he continued as Estarossa smiled in greeting, his brother’s expression falling as he processed the prince’s request. “Would you mind?” Zeldris asked, suppressing a giggle on seeing the demon before him openly smirk. Fortunately, Estarossa had his back to Arthur, else there would have been the very real prospect of serious blows.
“Of course not, why would I?” Estarossa asked sulkily before spreading his enormous wings. The feathers trembled, soft, fluffy tendrils quivering as he soared into the air, wind rushing as Estarossa headed for the palace. Brow furrowed, Zeldris considered following behind, before Arthur took his hand, their fingers brushing together. He gasped, time seeming to halt in its beat as prickles of energy sparked along his arm. In silence, the pair moved towards the edge of a cliff, taking seats next to one another in the tall, dry grass.
“It’s nice that you’re worried about me, Zel,” Arthur said softly.
Zeldris scoffed, a small smile playing on his lips. “Of course I would be! I’m not a heartless fool,” he countered as he looked into the demon’s face. “You were bleeding so badly. I thought… I thought you were dead.” Zeldris felt tears smart behind his eyes, this throat stinging as he recalled the image of the demon, a memory he would give anything to forget.
“I did that to myself.” Zeldris’s eyes snapped to Arthur’s in alarm. “Aranak’s magic forces anyone into a world of nightmares before he kills them. I had to stab myself to stay awake.” The words were said so casually, as if the act were nothing, that Zeldris felt a hot blush bloom on his cheeks.
“You saved me by doing that!” he gasped incredulously, so ashamed he could not look the demon in the eye. “And I honestly don’t know how to thank you…”
“Can you keep a secret? I’m really not that hard to please.” Arthur was right next to him, their hair intermingling together, red and black strands shining in the sun. Their noses almost touched, and Zeldris could feel Arthur’s breath ghosting over his skin, his scent of nutmeg and cinnamon such a contrast to the floral air of his realm. His heart beat wildly, his mouth ran dry and it was all he could do to swallow as he gazed in awe at the demon. As Arthur learned closer, his lips so close to his own, he knew with a certainty that he wanted to hold him and never, ever let him go. Zeldris closed his eyes, warmth running like water down his back as he started to reach out for Arthur’s hands.
But then the demon pulled back, wings sprouting from his back, unfolding like a pair intricate, black fans. Arthur got to his feet, his head cocked slightly to one side as he regarded the goddess with smouldering eyes. “If you want to thank me, meet me at Merlin’s tent tomorrow,” he said loftily, a playful smile pulling his lips. “Let’s have a little fun there.”
Before Zeldris can move, can even open his mouth to protest, the demon shoots into the clear grey sky, a dark silhouette above him as the sun beamed down.
Chapter 28: Barcelona
A Yuri on Ice AU inspired by Ed Sheeran’s ‘Barcelona’.
It was early, way too early to be awake let alone waiting around in London Gatwick’s soulless departure lounge. Arthur shifted uncomfortably on his plastic seat, trying to find a position which would allow him some sleep. But he failed of course. With some incredulity he looked over towards his coach who was lounging comfortably on the chair next to him, sipping what was no doubt industrial strength coffee while completely engrossed a book. Arthur felt his pulse quicken as he gazed at the man who was so beautifully put together, like a piece of modern art rather than a person.
Something unintelligible crackled over the tanoi and Zeldris looked up, smiling as he stowed his book in his bag. “Let’s get going,” he called, rising to his feet with signature grace and stretching out his arms. At the sound of the American twang, several girls stopped what they were doing to look in his direction, the excited chatter that followed suggesting they had recognised the internationally renowned ice skater.
Arthur’s suspicion was confirmed a few moments later when the boldest of the group sidled towards them, her eyes wide as saucers and her back ramrod straight. After some pleasantries, it was not long before her friends joined them.
“It’s so exciting to see you!” the ringleader gushed enthusiastically. “I knew the Grand Prix was in Barcelona, of course, but I never thought you’d be taking a flight like this. Don’t you get to go with a proper airline?”
“Ice skating is not flash for cash, not in Great Britain anyways,” Zeldris drawled as he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a bit better in the States, but even there we’re all skint.”
“You’re routine last year was amazing!” the young lady continued. “Um… could I… would you mind if we got a picture with you? With you both I mean?” she continued as Arthur reached for his phone.
“Oh, you don’t want me, surely?” Arthur protested surprised to see the girl shake her head.
“You think we’d miss having a selfie with Arthur Pendragon?” the girl asked incredulously. “You’re all over the news,” she explained as she pulled over a passerby. “Would you mind?” she asked unceremoniously as she shoved her smartphone into their hand before turning back to Arthur. “That last win was amazing. And for it to happen on your birthday as well!”
Arthur felt his face flushing with the undeserved compliment. “I was lucky, very lucky,” he murmured, the embarrassment of the competition resurfacing as he recalled the number of slips and errors in his routine, even on some of the easier jumps. “I shouldn’t have made the podium. I wouldn’t have done if Gilthunder hadn’t messed up so badly...”
“Stop talking nonsense!” Zeldris said sternly. “You earned that medal, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate turning nineteen. Now smile!” At this the bemused gentleman who was doing the honours stared at the group while squinting at the phone he was holding. Then, apparently pleased, he passed it back to its owner and hastily beat a retreat.
“Do you mind if I ask a question?” one of the girl’s friends asked, a serious expression on her countenance as she turned to Zeldris. “Why are you not competing this year?”
“I’m coaching,” he replied simply and Arthur felt his face flush again as Zeldris smiled at him.
“Yes but why?” the girl puzzled. “I mean, you are so much better than the rest of the competition. No offence,” she added as she gave Arthur a guilty look.
Before he could reply with ‘none taken’, Zeldris chipped in, “Coaching Arthur is the best experience I’ve ever had. He’s just super to work with. And besides,” Zeldris added as he looked Arthur square in the eye, “he asked me. How could I say no?”
“Did I?” Arthur asked, his brow creased in wonder. “I don’t remember that at all…”
“You were drunk. But ask me you did,” Zeldris replied. “Anyway, we’ve gotta go now, see you later!” Zeldris called cheerfully causing several of the girls to visibly swoon.
Arthur prepared to trot after his coach, and was surprised to see Zeldris stall, waiting for him to catch up, then draping his arm over his shoulder. The movement made Arthur stiffen slightly. They had been training together for several months and had become close of course, but deep down Arthur still saw himself as inferior.
“I asked you to coach me?” he repeated incredulously. “And you agreed? Because of that?” he added as Zeldris chuckled.
“Of course. I’d do anything for you, you know. Now come on, let’s get on this plane.”
Arthur paused as they reached the line of travellers. “Z-Zeldris,” he murmured as he reached for his passport, “I’m not sure I’m ready for this. What if…”
“Shush. You got this,” his coach said quietly as he squeezed Arthur’s shoulder. “You nailed the routine last night. Eventually. Just relax, okay? And I got you whatever.”
Before Arthur could respond Zeldris nudged him, signalling that they had reached the front of the queue as he flashed the EasyJet staff a dazzling smile. Arthur snorted quietly as the smaller of the two assistants fumbled with their passports, practically curtsying as they passed through the barriers and onto the jetbridge.
“On to Barcelona!” Zeldris said enthusiastically, adjusting the bag slung over his shoulder as they made their way towards the plane. To Arthur’s amusement, his coach insisted on carrying all his costumes with him, having nearly lost his own clothing himself several times due to airport incompetence.
Arthur knew he should be used to air travel by now, but the sight of the tiny orange seats made his heart sink to his shoes. They were just so small . Still, it was only for a couple of hours. He should enjoy it really; there would be the Grand Prix to contend with tomorrow.
“Get some sleep. I’m taking you out tonight,” Zeldris said cheerfully as he plonked himself into the seat by the window. “Alcohol’s the best cure for nerves.”
Arthur took his own place more hesitantly, suddenly jealous of his companion’s short stature. “Easy for you to say,” he muttered under his breath as he tried in vain to stretch out. Zeldris laughed, making a point of elongating his legs as he retrieved his book.
“Just relax,” he said encouragingly, surprising Arthur when he turned towards him to gently stroke a lock of hair out of his eyes. The Brit blushed profusely, the hairs tingling on the back of his neck as he suddenly remembered the last time that had happened. He had collapsed into Zeldris’s arms after completing his programme, flawlessly for once, his coach holding his head gently as he sobbed his joy into his shoulder. The kiss and cry area really did see a lot of tears that day.
To hide his confusion, Arthur quickly pressed his face into the hard seat, willing the heat in his cheeks to fade. As his embarrassment dissipated, he let the hum of the air conditioning ring in his ears, allowing his tiredness to lull him to sleep.
The next he knew Zeldris was shaking him gently awake. “Come on, sleepy head,” he murmured softly, again sweeping the hair out of Arthur’s eyes. “We’re here.” Arthur leaned over to look out of the window, his eyes meeting tarmac being baked in the sun. The conditioned air suddenly felt cold on his skin in contrast to the obvious warmth of the plane’s exterior.
It felt like no time at all until they were on a bus heading from the airport towards the city. Arthur was right, it was hot, and he was glad he had worn a t-shirt under the jacket he had now stowed in the bag. When they reached the Plaça de Catalunya, dominated by the imposing Central Bank, the two disembarked and Arthur gazed around the square with wide eyes. It was the first time he had seen Barcelona and the bustle and colour made his jaw drop slightly.
The day flashed by as Zeldris dragged him round the city, through the covered market selling fragrant herbs, fresh fish and enormous tomatoes to the lofty spires of the Sagrada Famillia rising out of the ground like a fairytale castle. They explored narrow streets lined with tall, brightly coloured houses and Arthur felt himself beginning to relax; the more time he and Zeldris spent together away from the ice the closer he felt to him, contentment flowing through his veins as he watched a treasured smile transform his companion’s countenance.
As if reading his mind, Zeldris turned towards him, taking his hands. “You know tomorrow doesn’t matter, right? Whatever happens. I know… well, I’m sorry I told you I’d coach Gilthunder if you didn’t make the podium tomorrow. I honestly didn’t mean it, I just wanted to motivate you…”
“I know.” Arthur cut him off as a lump formed in his throat and he allowed his eyes to stray to the cobbled path. The pain he had felt in the moment the heard those words was beginning to fade, but even now the memory made his heart beat wildly, cold dread dropping to the pit of his stomach. How could he live without Zeldris at his side? This was more than competing at this point: they spoke every day, practically lived together. Without him life would be a drab, hollow shell.
Zeldris bit his lips as he squeezed Arthur’s hands apologetically. “Look, follow me,” he murmured as he pulled him into a nearby shop. Arthur looked round in surprise at the rows of sparkling jewels, all laid out in neat rows on red cushions.
A sales assistant approached, putting a question to them in Spanish. Arthur was about to plead ignorance when Zeldris jumped in, answering the elderly man’s query with ease. His accent was perfect and Arthur felt a mixture of amazement and pride. Was there nothing this man could not do?
The assistant smiled before pulling a couple of boxes out from under the counter, opening them and laying them out on the glass countertop. Arthur gasped as he saw two near-identical bands of interwoven white and rose gold; the shining metal immediately put him in mind of two different souls joining steadfastly together.
“Symbolises us don’t you think?” Zeldris asked with a smile as he took the larger of the two rings, placing one gently on Arthur’s finger. “Suits you,” he added approvingly as Arthur looked at him in astonishment. With trembling fingers, in response to a rather exaggerated nod towards the remaining box, he picked up the second ring, his hand shaking as he slid it onto Zeldris’s outstretched hand.
“There, I’m not going anywhere,” Zeldris said confidently as he flashed Arthur a dazzling smile. “You wait here, I’m gonna pay for these.” Before Arthur could stop him, Zeldris had moved towards the counter, standing in such a way that Arthur could not see the numeric display on the till even though he stretched his neck slightly in the attempt.
“Okay, let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving!” Zeldris gave the sales assistant a cheerful wave as they left the shop, the look on the gentleman’s face suggesting the sale he had just made was valuable. As if in a dream Arthur followed, allowing Zeldris to reach for his hand as they walked. After some moments, Arthur could hear the buzz of conversation, the tang of salt on the air suggesting they were approaching the sea.
“Woah,” Arthur gasped as they rounded a corner onto a broad thoroughfare, lined on both sides by dozens of busy restaurants. Street musicians were playing, the irresistible sound of beating drums stirring his blood as they walked down the street.
Zeldris squeezed Arthur’s hand as he called, “Las Ramblas,” over the hubbub. “Don’t worry, we’re not gonna eat here. They’re all tourist traps. Come on, let’s dance.” Before Arthur could respond, he found himself pulled into Zeldris’s arms, the pair moving skilfully through the crowd in time with the music.
The tune was upbeat, and a number of other people joined in the dance, diners clapping along in appreciation of the unscheduled entertainment. Yet despite the crowds and the festive atmosphere Arthur felt as if he and Zeldris were the only people there, sparks shooting up his spine as they pressed closer together. He felt as light as air, wonderfully happy, as if he was walking on the softest clouds, the doubt that forever plagued his mind finally beginning to fade.
“Whatever happens tomorrow I’m staying with you, I promise,” Zeldris murmured in his ear and, for the first time since the fatal words had been spoken all those months ago, Arthur believed him.
Chapter 29: Beyond Limit
A follow-on to StarryNightGazer’s fic ‘Limit’. You are a wonderful collaborator and an amazing friend.
The harsh, white light shone, a beacon cutting through the pitch black of the room. Arthur rubbed his watering eyes, feeling then protest as he forced himself look back at the screen, back at the endless stream of smiling faces and poorly-spelled, soppy platitudes. His heart twisted in his chest, feeling like it had been skewered by some sort of knife and, not for the first time, he wondered just why he insisted on putting himself through this torture.
Ever since Zeldris had left, had told him in no uncertain terms he no longer wanted to see him, Arthur had been barely existing, getting through life one day at a time. Focusing on the laundry, the cooking, the dishes, his drudge of a job, anything to stop himself remembering those green eyes and the way those arms had held close him at night, he had at least found a way to subsist. It’s not you it’s me , Zeldris had whispered, regret resonating like a bell through every syllable. The memory was enough to cause a lump to form in his throat even now, even after all these weeks had passed.
It was her fault, Arthur thought as he bit his lip hard, his eyes snapping back to the computer screen as heat pushed its way up his neck. He had been miserable, yes, but not driven to this social media stalking that kept him up for hours and made him feel like so much crap. He had been getting by, focusing on things that did not matter but gradually finding a bit of solace in the song of a bird or the way the marshmallow clouds drifted overhead.
Then he had seen them, hands entwined, lips pressed together in a passionate kiss. It was in a shady spot under branches of willow, canal boats drifting lazily by. Arthur had gone to feed the ducks, having found a hard lump of bread at the back of the cupboard that was good for nothing but waterfowl. The day had been soothing, the gentle heat of the sun and the soft, forgiving breeze almost enough to make him forget the pain. That kiss had jerked him straight back to reality, the agony of the moment nearly bringing him to collapse.
He had recognised her immediately, of course. The girl in the photograph with the violet eyes; the girl who had ruined everything and taken away the best thing that had ever happened to him. Gelda was beautiful, he had to admit, with her long, blonde hair spun like gold in a braid over her shoulder and the almost exquisite clinch of her waist. But just in that moment the desire to erase every trace of her from the earth made his fingers twitch with longing.
Practically running home, tears blurring his vision, he had leant against the door as his legs gave way. How had this happened? She had left him hadn't she? So what were the two doing together now?
Facebook and Instagram provided the answers. Arthur had felt the sting of betrayal to see that pictures of the reconciled lovers were posted not even forty-eight hours after Zeldris had told him he could not see him anymore. And all because his eyes were so similar to hers, the amethyst recalling a painful past rather than promising a bright future. Yet now he and Gelda both looked so happy , so perfectly contented, the delighted comments of their friends below each photo enough to make him feel physically sick as he read. She didn’t want him Arthur’s mind screamed as he scrolled. Not the way I did, the way I do.
So it was that every day for the last five weeks, Arthur had been monitoring Gelda’s social media accounts, pushing past the guilt in order to spy. Zeldris posted little he noted, not that this gave him much comfort. It got to the point where his eyes were bloodshot, dark bags hanging below as his eyelids drooped, his appearance sufficiently ghastly to trouble his friends.
“You have to get out of this mate. Go to places,” Gawain had advised, and Arthur had looked at his ex-boyfriend with something approaching horror. “I mean, you look like death. When was the last time you ate?” Arthur thought about this; he must have eaten something - he was not hungry at all - but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it tasted like.
“Come on, I’m taking you to McDonalds.” Arthur groaned inwardly; Gawain would not be deterred he knew from experience but the thought of leaving the house left him feeling cold, shivers running all over his skin.
Then he had an idea: Gelda had mentioned that morning that she and Zeldris were going to try a new place that had opened up on the waterfront. “Um… you’re right,” he stuttered as Gawain opened his mouth, evidently preparing to force the point. “But let’s not go there, let’s try this new place. It looks… fun,” he added weakly, his eyes dropping to the floor. He noticed for the first time that his clothes were stained, and there was a definite sour odour about his person. “I’ll freshen up and then we’ll go.”
Gawain looked at him, arms folded across his chest and suspicion in every line of his face, but he said nothing as Arthur made his way to the bathroom, emerging ten minutes later feeling - he had to admit - much more comfortable. As they walked along the river, Arthur tried and failed to respond to Gawain’s cheerful attempts at conversation; it was just too much effort to stay in the moment. His mind kept wandering into the past, ‘what ifs’ plaguing him like flies.
When they reached the restaurant, softly illuminated by coloured lights and the silver of the moon, Arthur suddenly felt panic rise in his chest. What had seemed a good idea in the safety of his home now felt like utter lunacy. How on earth was he going to hide from Zeldris, who would surely know something was up if he saw him?
He was about to suggest that they leave when, glancing behind, Arthur caught a flash of white heading towards them, the familiar dress shining in the moonlight. Gelda was laughing, the sound soft and sweet as the couple drifted closer towards them. Quick as a flash, Arthur shot into the restaurant, relief flooding through him as they were shown to a booth, the position providing enough cover to prevent discovery.
Afterwards, Arthur had no idea how he got through the evening. The twitch of unease never left his brow, his insides tense and twisted with the fear of being caught. He barely tasted the meal, and could not recall what Gawain had said to him, or what nonsense he had muttered back in return. But got through it he had; his seat had given him a perfect view of Zeldris and Gelda and he had drank them in to his heart’s content. It had even been soothing, seeing the pair of them so utterly contented, happiness shining in Gelda’s violet eyes.
Having seen her in person and overhearing snatches of her conversation, to his dismay Arthur found that his antipathy towards the woman was fading. He had hated her: loathed the way she had caused Zeldris pain and despised her and her eyes for ruining the best thing he had ever had. But seeing them together, it was abundantly clear that Zeldris adored her, and that she loved him just as much in return.
Buoyed up by his success, Arthur continued to observe the pair, Gawain an unwitting accomplice as he followed them across the city. Days turned into weeks, and Arthur was soothed to see them together, the contented smile that pulled Zeldris’s lips and the easy laughs and jokes which passed between them. It was remarkably easy to find hidden places, to remain undetected as he watched.
Or so he thought. It should have come as no surprise when Zeldris cornered him but it did, Arthur near jumping out of his skin.
“What exactly are you doing?” As soon as the words left Zeldris’s lips Arthur knew it was not the first time he had been caught. He felt his face flush and his heart pound wildly, his throat constricting as he wondered how to respond. Zeldris looked at him patiently, and Arthur was relieved to see no sign of rancor in his dark eyes.
“I’ve tried so hard not to say anything,” Zeldris murmured softly, his arm reaching out towards Arthur for a moment before dropping to his side. “But this has to stop. I don’t think I can take any more.”
Arthur drew in his breath sharply as Zeldris continued, “I am happy for you, I really am. No one is more pleased than me that you have moved on. But… but I have not. I cannot bear seeing you with that guy. So please…”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur gasped, his mouth falling open as he stared at Zeldris with wide eyes.
“I know I made a mistake,” Zeldris muttered as his eyes swung to the floor. “I thought if I got back together with Gelda I would be able to forget what we had, but I miss you so much. I just wish… well, I am happy for you. He’s very good looking. I hope he treats you better than I did.”
“Wait!” Arthur moved quickly to catch up with Zeldris who had turned to walk away, placing a hand gently on his shoulder. “Gawain is my ex. He’s been taking me places to get me out of the house. We’re not together.”
“You’re not?” Arthur felt his pulse quicken to hear the hope in Zeldris’s words. “Then what is going on? Why do I keep seeing you everywhere?”
Arthur bit his lip as he removed his hand from Zeldris’s shoulder. “I’ve been following you,” he admitted, his face flushing bright red. “I just wanted to see you, that’s all,” he blurted out in a rush as Zeldris looked at him in puzzlement. “Just… seeing you happy made it feel so much better. But you’re right, this isn’t healthy and I need to stop.
“I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone.” Arthur turned away, blinking his eyes rapidly to stem the tears, only to draw up short a few paces later. Gelda was standing directly before him, a sweet smile on her lips. She stretched out her hand, and before he knew where he was Arthur felt her palm press against his own in greeting. The photos and long-distance surveillance did not do her justice, he thought as he took in the porcelain skin and the sparkle of her violet eyes. No wonder Zeldris preferred her to him.
Gelda smiled, the grip on his hand tightening. “You must be Arthur,” she said cheerfully but Arthur could see her features pinch slightly in pain. “I recognise you from Zeldris’s description. He has told me all about you.”
“He has?” Arthur stepped back in surprise, almost banging into Zeldris, who somehow managed to dodge the impact. By the time Arthur had steadied himself, Zeldris had moved towards Gelda, their fingers lacing together in an instant. Arthur felt the blow as a slap in the face, the sight making his stomach drop in an uncomfortable dance.
“I’ve actually been wanting to talk to you for a while,” she said softly and, despite significant effort to cover the action, Arthur saw Zeldris start at her side. “The three of us have some things to discuss. Perhaps you would like to join us for dinner?
“I know you still care for each other,” Gelda declared as Zeldris and Arthur both opened their mouths in surprise, “so we need to sit down like adults and sort this out.” With a backwards glance at the pair, Gelda led the way towards the table, Arthur snorting quietly on noticing that a third place had already been set.
“Is she always this organised?” he muttered under his breath, Zeldris murmuring an assent.
As Arthur looked around for Gawain he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, the message drawing the first genuine smile to his face since Zeldris had stuttered out his final goodbye.
Gelda’s explained. I’ve made myself scarce. Good luck! You got this!
“Thanks,” Arthur whispered to Gelda, who smiled in return as he took his seat beside her.
Chapter 30: Frozen Forever
Written for @thestarynightgazer - this is her alternative ending for her comic Love and Salvation.
Elaine gasps as she rounds over the crest of a hill, the verdant grass that sparkles with dew in the early morning light suddenly crunching under her feet. The blades are dusted with frost, like a coating of sugar that reflects rainbows across the ground. It would be beautiful, if it were not for the sight that stretches before her, a macabre landscape filled with gore and death.
The earth is stained a dark red, limbs sprawling out at odd angles, pale skin and snow-white feathers splattered with mud. Elaine has never seen so many people all in one place, let alone so much carnage. The Fairy King’s forest is a place of sanctuary, a calm retreat from Britannia’s woes where a few fairies flit between the trees. This is the first time she has travelled beyond the borders of her home and she is already regretting her decision. Ban had promised their lives in the human world would be good; not perfect of course, but happy enough. Times would be hard and money scarce but they would have each other and that was what mattered. Elaine had consented, excitement running through her as she said a curt farewell to her brother before heading beyond the reach of the Sacred Tree.
But at their agreed meeting place, Ban is not there. She waits for what feels an age but is no more than an hour, before stretching out her powers to scour the area. She has vowed to eschew her magic, to blend in with the society she would be joining. What human would want to consort with a stranger who could read hearts as easily as breathing? But worry gnaws at her insides and she can hold out no longer, her need to find Ban overriding every other concern. She searches for his signature, the spiky energy which is strong if a little crude, Ban’s magic having developed without formal instruction.
The trace is faint but distinctive. Elaine picks up a slight tremor on the breeze, a weak suggestion, nothing more. Heart full of misgiving, Elaine paces forward, following the hint of power she locks her senses onto. Unthinking she launches herself into the air, soaring through the breeze until she comes upon the slope of the hill. Touching down lightly, senses on full alert as she feels an ominous shiver on the wind, she takes the few steps over the top to look down, bile rising in her throat as she beholds the scale of the death, her powers telling her than Ban lies in the middle of it.
She will have to go on.
Elaine holds her breath as she carefully picks her way through the bodies, unable to stop herself looking down to the gruesome sight at her feet. These are goddesses and demons, of that she is sure. There are several enormous cadavers in red and grey, the feel of darkness still clinging to their forms. Many of the more human-looking specimens have wings; some only a single pair on their back in downy grey while others are broad with feathers pure as the driven snow, save for the grime of battle. She gasps as she passes the corpse of a large goddess with three heads, eyes closed as if in sleep. She scrunches up her nose, remembering the stories of her childhood and the four archangels who led the Supreme Deity’s army until the two opposing armies vanished to nothing. This goddess must have been the one they called Tarmiel. And in that case…
Elaine sucks in an audible breath when she sees the wings, still iridescent even after all these centuries. They reflect the sunlight, sparkling rainbows over the large body of the giant lying alongside the corpse the appendages adhere to. Only one being had been blessed with wings like these: the first fairy king, the Lord Gloxinia. The body slumped next to him must be that of King Drole. The four-armed Goliath is covered in cuts, slashes which have criss-crossed his blue skin. But Elaine is puzzled, and she examines the giant and the fairy who lies protectively beside him. There is no damage which can explain their deaths; the wounds are nasty but merely superficial.
Elaine shivers, the hairs on her arms standing to attention. Her breath ghosts through the air, trails of steam floating like gossamer before her, as is she were a dragon. It is freezing cold, colder than she has ever felt in the shelter of the forest where the fountain of youth maintains a permanent spring. But here, in the midst of all the death, the ice on the ground shines obsidian, sucking in the rays of the sun to leave a darkness soft as velvet. All is still, completely quiet, not even the sound of an insect rustling through the frozen grass. All she can hear is the sound of her blood as it pounds in her ears.
Her instinct is to flee, but Elaine grits her teeth. She is the Holy Maiden, and she will not be deterred. Has she not guarded the secrets of her home for centuries, sending humans flying off the cliff before her? She pushes out her powers, feeling the crackle of magic on the air. Somehow Ban has got himself into the middle of this morass of a battlefield and she must follow him.
It is the strange glow that attracts her attention. The ring in her ears grows to an uncomfortable thrum as she presses forwards. Her limbs ache, the pressure in the air almost enough to make her head explode, but still she keeps going, rising above the ground to float through the air. Elaine forces herself forwards as she approaches the centre where a violet haze sparkles and glows. The air is fresh here and, hard as it is to keep pushing on, Elaine feels the refreshing fire of the cold burning her lungs.
A sudden groan attracts her attention. “Ban!” cries the fairy as she redoubles her efforts, fighting towards the centre of the field. It is as if the very earth is trying to keep her away and she wonders how Ban made it quite this far. She passes misshapen corpses, encased in ice, their twisted expressions of fear and anger preserved for eternity. There is a tall demon with a long moustache, arrows shooting down from his eye. He looks in horror towards the purple mass which now dominates the space, his face a picture of desperation and sorrow.
When she researches the object her heart skips a beat. The mulberry ice rises in terrible shards, fingers pointing cruelly at the sky. She cannot breathe, cannot think as terror drips down the back of her neck. Then she looks into the centre of the glimmering structure, the sight enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Within the iceberg stands a demon, anguish etched on his features, a lithe goddess held close in his arms. The angel he carries is pierced through the heart, a spear of darkness jutting from his chest. Tears are frozen mid-fall, and Elaine can feel the pull on her heart, the demon’s emotions so strong they can be read even now. She feels love, pain, despair, the agony of loss which tears the demon to pieces. He has unleashed his power, unable to control the surge of emotion, freezing himself and the goddess he adored with everything that he had and ending the war in a blanket of black snow.
A painful lump forms in her throat and a tear of her own slides down her cheek. She sinks to the floor, breathing heavily, unable to stem the overwhelming sadness which has penetrated her soul. She falls, swallowed by sorrow, the warmth of the terrible ice and snow folding over her like a blanket. She will lie here forever, bound by the pain of the demon and goddess who suffered till death.
“Elaine!” The yell brings her back to her senses and she struggles to breath, suddenly overwhelmed with the cold. “Must… escape!” She feels arms wrap around her, pulling her into a close embrace as her rescuer hauls her away from the pain, away from the sadness and back into the light. The tears fall in earnest as they reach the top of the hill, the warmth of the sun sinking through to her bones.
She melts into her love’s embrace. “Ban,” murmurs Elaine softly as she rests her head on his chest. “What happened? Why were you in that terrible place?”
She feels the human stiffen as he holds her. “What were you doing?” she asks a little more sharply, and she twists so that she can see the human’s expression. He is looking decidedly shifty, his crimson eyes darting everywhere but in her direction.
Her stony silences releases his tongue. “I was… looking for treasure,” Ban admits with a little laugh. “It looked so pretty and I thought… I thought it would give us enough to start our lives together.”
Elaine flies upwards, flinging her arms round his next. He steps backwards with the force of her movement but maintains his ground, holding her close as she sobs into his chest. “We don’t need money, we have each other,” she eventually manages to rasp out. “Is that not enough?”
“Yeah,” Ban replies as he pulls her closer towards him. “Yeah, it is. And it always will be.”
Chapter 31: Look Behind You
For emolordzeldris - happy birthday!
Snow, pure and sparkling in the pale winter sunlight, crunched under his boots as he paced into the forest. Apart from his footsteps there was not a sound to be heard, the white powder swallowing up all noise to leave a silence ringing on the air. There were signs of life though. The ground showed tracks of a cloven hooved animal, presumably an elk, which appeared to have meandered through the trees at random, and the odd three-toed footprint of some sort of bird that had no doubt attempted to forage for sustenance. But nothing was moving now, no matter how hard he strained his ears. It was quiet and cold and very, very still.
“Arthur,” he called loudly, his voice booming and he winced at the noise. “This is a really, really bad idea.”
A slight echo was the only response. “Come on,” he snapped impatiently, gloved hands clenching into fists at his sides. “This is utterly stupid. Can’t we just go home?”
Still no reply. Zeldris sighed and strode forward, batting stray branches out of his way. The forest was full of pine, the aroma of resin floating over the frost and the green fronds of the trees bending with little piles of snow. His eyes darted from left to right, noting trunk after trunk and nothing but snow on the ground. There were no landmarks to speak of, just an endless stretch of woodland. Narnia must be like this, he thought to himself as he went further in, watching closely for any sign of anything that might give away Arthur’s location. Perhaps if he looked hard enough he would find a wardrobe full of coats.
“This isn’t funny!” he complained. The wet was beginning to seep through the wool of his gloves to freeze his fingers and his toes were also starting to ache. “I hate the outdoors,” he muttered to himself, wrapping his arms tightly around himself. “It’s too… unpredictable.”
He should just concede, tell Arthur he was, in fact, the best of the two of them at surviving in the wild - which he was, Zeldris had to acknowledge - and then they could leave and salvage what was left of the weekend. They had not been going out long and every moment was precious. It was his own boasting that had got him into this mess. Why on earth had he said there was nothing Arthur could do that he could not do better? Zeldris opened his mouth, but no sound would come out. Clearly Arthur was better at hiding in the woods than he was and yet still he could not admit defeat. He would just have to find him so this game could end.
More stealthily now, Zeldris crept behind a tree, casting a glance back along the way he had come. There were his tracks plain to see, and a few broken branches along with a marked absence of snow on the spiky leaves. Arthur must have left some sort of trace, he just had to find it. He looked around carefully, scanning the scene for anything that looked out of place, holding his breath as he saw it: a string of red wool caught on a branch some twenty feet or so off, the vibrant crimson standing out against the snow. It had to have come from Arthur’s red scarf. Smiling to himself, Zeldris began to move, stepping on the roots of the trees near the base of the trunks in an attempt to conceal his movements.
Carefully, he drew closer to the red that dangled down, lifeless in the absence of breeze, focusing on his destination and the placement of his feet. It was slow progress but he gradually made his way close to the strand of wool, and began to look around for other signs of the man he was hunting. He had almost reached the spot when he felt it, a sudden shift in the air, a tension and a buzz of excitement. He stiffened, determining to turn to face the threat when a faint whistle called and then, not even a second later, something very wet and horribly cold smacked him hard in the neck, the crack resounding through the woods. He yelled as whatever it was started to drip down inside his shirt, crawling like ice along his spine.
The laughter that followed made his teeth ache. “That. Was. Amazing! ” Arthur exclaimed as he trotted up towards him. Zeldris did not turn round as his boyfriend approached, doing his best to control his rising temper. “You are so bad at this,” Arthur added with a chuckle. “I’ve been following you for ages. I could have got you with a snowball so many times it’s not even funny, but I wanted to see what you’d do and it was hilarious .”
“And why are you so good at it exactly?” Zeldris snapped as he finally whipped round, rubbing the back of his neck and shaking to displace some of the now-liquid snow. “You’ve left no tracks at all! What are you, some sort of ghost?”
Arthur snickered. “Oh, no I just know my way around. I spent a lot of time in these woods. Once I lived out here for nearly a month, or maybe it was a bit more,” said Arthur thoughtfully, his brows furrowing together. “Something like that anyway. It was a long time ago. I was only a kid at the time.”
“Why were you living out here?” Zeldris asked, curious in spite of his irritation. “Don’t tell me, it was some sort of environmental protest or to raise money for something worthy. You’re too bloody noble for your own good sometimes.
Arthur shrugged. “Guilty,” he said with a grin. “I do like to help out where I can and the planet is important, whatever you say. But no, I lived out here for a spell because I ran away from home and I didn’t have much choice.”
“You ran away from home?” Zeldris looked at him closely, examining Arthur carefully. “What happened?” he asked more softly.
Arthur pursed his lips, then shook his head. “Aww, it was no big deal,” he replied. “Just… you know, one of those things. My family don’t like me very much and I thought, well, I thought they’d be better off without me. They certainly said so quite a few times. I stayed out here for as long as I could, then school noticed my clothes were… pretty gross, I guess. They made me go back. Well, I say back. I went into a children’s home, which is an experience I would not recommend. But this is all gloomy,” Arthur said with another chuckle, “and all in the past. No harm done. Let’s talk about something else.”
“I ran away too,” Zeldris whispered, swallowing hard as Arthur’s eyes snapped to his. “But I didn’t live in the woods,” he added acerbically.
“What happened?” Arthur asked, mirroring his own words.
Zeldris bit his lip. “My father is… he was fine when I was young, nice even. We used to get on really well. Then… something happened. His personality changed, and I don’t really know why. He started drinking. A lot. And he started to hate me. Really, really hate me. I remember one day, I was thirteen, I was heading out of the house to see a friend and he stopped me, lent down right into my face and squeezed my shoulder hard, really hard, and said, ‘Get out of my sight you pathetic shit’. I hadn’t done anything.”
Zeldris paused, forcing himself to suck in a deep breath. “Anyway, I decided not to go back home that night. When I left my friend’s house I just walked around, just walking the streets. It wasn’t really running away as such, I just didn’t want to go home. That was when Mel found me. My eldest brother, Meliodas,” he explained as Arthur cocked his head to one side. “He drove around the city looking for me. My other brother, Estarossa, must have called him to say I hadn’t got home and he came to find me. Mel brought me up after that. Got me through college. I haven’t seen my father since.”
Arthur’s arms were around him, tight and comforting, before he had even finished his sentence. He hugged Arthur back, the two pressing their cheeks together. Zeldris closed his eyes, throat stinging hard, unable to hold back the tears that leaked under his lashes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured into Arthur’s ear. “Your family don’t know what they’re missing.”
“We’re family now,” Arthur replied, his voice muffled and choked. Zeldris felt Arthur’s heart beat against his own as they clung together, an anchor amidst a furious storm. He was right, Zeldris thought as the warmth of their embrace banished the chill. Whatever else happened, whatever life held, they had each other and that is what mattered.
Chapter 32: Slight Of Hand
The air is hushed, silent but for the soft snip of scissors and the light tap of shoes against stone. You stand in front of a full-length mirror, your slender body shrouded in crimson silk, the high colour and full skirt of the gown you will wear emerging slowly from fabric and fastenings as the seamstress works around you. This is his favourite colour, one you have selected carefully in anticipation of your meeting. For that evening there will be a ball to celebrate his coming of age, and that night he will take his place as second prince of the demon realm.
You and he have been betrothed for as long as you can remember, but rarely have you spent time in one another's company. You have seen him of course - what woman in your clan does not recognise his features? - but, as is the custom of noble families, never have you been alone. It is only now that he is on the cusp of attaining adulthood, and since your cousin Derieri has been accepted into the Ten Commandments, that preparations for your marriage are being taken in some earnest.
You sigh, drawing deep breaths of the air to your lungs, your senses somewhat soothed by the calming sage and rosemary drifting through the open window. But anxiety ticks through your veins: what if he does not approve of you? Hearts beating wildly, you peer at your reflection in the mirror, at hair as black as night, smoothed and pinned back to obedience. It looks well enough, you suppose, as do your eyes, which gleam turquoise in the soft evening light. There are imperfections though. The skilfully applied makeup cannot hide the shadows under your eyes, nor the scar that adorns your upper lip, a souvenir of your training.
But this is the best that can be done with the materials on offer. Setting your jaw, you activate your magic, smiling to yourself as a dark claw reaching for a dot appears on your cheek and your eyes fade to black. This is the family crest, the sign that you and Derieri share a bond of blood, a token of your lineage and strength. Like her, you have promise. Whatever your appearance, there are few demons in the realm who can truly match your power. Surely, Prince Zeldris will recognise you as a kindred spirit, someone who works as hard as he in pursuit of perfection.
As dusk falls and the burnished sun sinks below the horizon you summon your darkness, allowing wings to spread across your back. Pressing the balls of your feet into the ground, you catapult yourself into the air, enjoying the freshness of the breeze as it stings your skin and freezes your ears. You soar towards the castle, spiralling down to land at the palace gates and relishing the rush of the fall. Around you, other demons come to land, some in formal wear while others are cloaked in their darkness alone.
The guards check each guest carefully before they are allowed to enter into the grounds, but, eyes on your mark, they merely give you a respectful bow, not daring to fully meet your gaze. The recognition gives you confidence and you stride inside with your head held high, the silk of your skirt rustling with your movement. The celebration is being held outside and the chatter of the guests mixes with the call of insects and the welcome hiss of roasting meat. The smell is enough to make your mouth water, but you refrain from eating, not until you have seen him at least.
But where is he? Your eyes dart left and right across the grounds, spying groups of demons congregating under trees and next to to the fire which cooks a whole dragon, slowly being turned on a spit. You recognise many in attendance: Melascyla, laughing with her head thrown back as she practically inhales her wine; Calamiados with his enormous frame scowling indignantly; even Bellion is here, arms folded sulkily across his chest as he glowers at Prince Meliodas, who is holding court beside an ornate fountain. Girls have flocked around the blonde prince, fawning on his every word and your heart seizes in your chest. What if Zeldris is in a similar position? Your only consolation is that Meliodas seems entirely bored.
“He’s not here,” a soft voice murmurs in your ear and you turn to see a tall, dignified man, clothed in nothing but his darkness and a cloak, as is his wont. “No one has seen Zeldris for an hour or so. His presence is beginning to be missed,” the man continues as he quirks an eyebrow, his moustache quivering slightly as he talks.
“What should I do?” you whisper. You would not trust your insecurities with many, but Monspeet is practically one of the family. It will not be long before his line is joined to yours by marriage, and he has always treated both you and your cousins with respect.
“Go and find him,” Monspeet replies. “Zeldris admires those who take the initiative…” The demon breaks off as a raucous guffaw disturbs the chatter and you look round, unable to suppress a gasp as you spot Orlondi the Rose, who appears to have made the mistake of trying to chat up your cousin, though from the look on Derieri’s face his attentions could not be less sought after.
At once Monspeet’s face darkens, and you can see he will intervene. Quickly grabbing his arm you ask, “What are the vampires doing here?” for now you have seen Orlondi there are others you recognise.
“They are here to celebrate the alliance treaty which has been signed between our two clans. You had better brush up on your politics, Allura,” he scolds as he looks at you with narrowed eyes. “Zeldris was pivotal in negotiating the deal.”
“I know about it!” you protest. As if you had been idle these past two-hundred years, as if you had not studied the demon king’s court until your head spun. “But this is an occasion which is traditionally reserved for our clan only. Even with an alliance there is no reason for the vampires to be invited.”
Monspeet looks at you, a slight smile playing on his lips. “You will have to discover what is going on for yourself, for none can figure out what is going on. Not even Meliodas seems to have a clue. Now, if you will excuse me, I have business elsewhere.” With that, the crosses the slightly yellowing grass to loom over Orlondi, who shrinks back in fear as Derieri yells, “What an ass!” The sight should make you chuckle, but an unease you cannot quite place swirls in your stomach. Pushing it aside as best you can, you leave with as much dignity as you can muster on your errand, determined that you will find your betrothed.
Pressing out your powers is enough to tell you that Zeldris is inside the castle. You have visited it a number of times, but never alone, and never have you needed to navigate the labyrinth of corridors without assistance. They all look the same: grey stone walls set with polished suits of armour and somber oil paintings which are barely illuminated, the lanterns too few to light up the space. But Zeldris’s energy is unmistakable and it does not take you long to pinpoint his location. Your hearts beat with an uncomfortable pound as you work your way towards the room, the heels of your shoes sinking into the carpet in your haste.
He is in one of the smaller studies, and you are on the point of pushing open the door when, to your horror, you sense the signature of another. Quietly, you kneel before the door, pressing your face to the keyhole so you can look inside.
And she is beautiful. You catch a glimpse of your rival in all her glory before she turns away to face your intended, your insides boiling with anger as Zeldris presses his lips on hers. You have never seen such elegance and poise, and you hate the way her golden hair, spun like the sun, is twined into a neat braid, the way her unblemished skin glows in the candlelight, the breathtaking iridescence of her amethyst eyes. There are no scars on her face, no sign of arduous training and you scorn the indolence you detect in her features. How could Zeldris of all people be drawn to this jewel, a useless ornament good for show and not much else?
Your instinct is to burst in and demand an explanation but you push the impulse down and away. It will be better if you find out more about this woman whoever she may be. It is clear she is not of the demon clan, and the presence of the vampires suddenly makes perfect sense.
“I love you, Gelda,” he murmurs and you clench your teeth hard at the unexpected stab of pain.
“We have to stop,” the girl demands, but you can see the way she clings to his shoulders as she speaks. A clever bitch, you think to yourself. She knows how to play the game very well. “I couldn’t bear it if you were hurt because of me.”
“That is my risk to take, and besides we have been careful. No one will discover us,” he replies. “But we had better get back outside. You go first. I’ll follow you in ten minutes or so. You know the way?”
She nods, and you quickly scramble to clear the door, taking shelter in an alcove before she steps into the corridor. You hold your breath as she passes, suppressing your power so that you will not be discovered. She even walks perfectly, practically floating as she moves. She evidently know how to step without getting her heels caught in the carpet. Emotion overwhelms you, flooding every nerve in your mind. You hate her, loathe her, and a revulsion stronger than you have ever yet experienced tears at your soul.
You oscillate, but then Monspeet’s words sound in your mind. Zeldris admires those who take the initiative . Your jaw set and your shoulders held high, you move with purpose into the room, gaining some satisfaction as Zeldris stares at you, the look on his face decidedly guilty.
“Allura! Are you okay? What are you doing here?” You step forward as a plan begins to form and you smile. You have studied for this role, pined from him from afar and no stupid vampire is going to get in the way.
“I came to find you,” you explain simply, making sure your mask of calm does not slip, “and I saw… you together.” You allow your voice to break just a bit and force your gaze to the white rug on the floor. You are curious to see what he looks like, but you keep your eyes fixed downwards, biting your lip in a show of distress.
You stop him with an upheld hand. “There is no need to explain,” you say, your tone reassuring. “We were betrothed by our families; I wasn’t your choice. Evidently you’ve fallen for another. It pains me, I admit, but… well, it’s your business, I suppose. I’ve no right to get in the way. So I will release you from your promise, such as it was. Your happiness is what matters to me.”
You feel his hands cupping your face, raising your eyes to meet his own. “You are a remarkable woman,” he murmurs. “And… I am sorry… I…”
“There is nothing to forgive,” you make yourself say, and this at least is true enough. It is not his fault the siren targeted him, making him forget his position, his duties and his very clan. She will be punished for the ill she has caused, as long as you keep your head now. “I wish you well,” you add, as you smile bravely. “Now, get back to the party before people ask questions.”
“Thank you, really,” he rasps out, and he leans to kiss you on the cheek before he sweeps from the room. You feel the place where his lips have been, missing the warmth the moment it is gone, and you take several deep breaths of the stuffy air. If Zeldris thinks you will give him up without a fight, he has another thing coming. There is no way on earth you will let him go.
Mind made up, you walk with purpose from the room towards the demon king’s throne room, sure that his majesty will appreciate the news about his son you will give him.
Chapter 33: The Sound Of Silence
All dialogue taken from the Holy War flashback arc of the manga.
The scream of agony brought Monspeet to his senses, his simmering anger morphing into cold horror. As he gazed into the giant ball of white fire he saw her, the face he had been searching for and lost in the crowd, lost in the war. The woman who had been taken from him. The rage that had bubbled inside him, the wrath he had cared for and nursed until it blazed through his whole being as he searched ceaselessly across Britannia crashed like a wave in his chest as he stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing. How could this have happened? How could he have let this happen?
The woman he loved with everything that he had was reaching out, one eye opened in an attempt to give Derieri some comfort, the other scrunched up against the glare of the archangel’s light; Derieri had flown right over to the trap she was caught in, stretching out her hand as if to pull her sister free. Monspeet flinched involuntarily - to touch that vile thing would be worse than death. And he could not bear to lose Derieri as well.
“You’ve fulfilled your duty and earned your reward. Now rest.” The soft, sonorous voice floated over the battlefield, and Monspeet looked round sharply to regard the archangel he now loathed with every fibre of his being. Ludoshel held up a gauntleted hand, the palm facing towards him as he bowed his solemn head almost benevolently. Then suddenly the hand clenched into a hard fist and, to Monspeet’s horror, the ball imploded, engulfing his brethren, engulfing her , and wiping them all off the face of the earth. The pain he felt in that moment was worse by far than any he had ever experienced; taking in that hated decree which had ripped through his form, binding his tongue so that he was unable to speak, no matter how hard he tried? All of it paled into insignificance. It was in that moment that he realised that the Commandment Of Reticence not only prevented him from voicing his thoughts; it also had the power to stop him from crying.
To his right, Galland, Melascyla and Fraudrin were pushed back by the blast, covering their eyes against the unbearable flash of light. In front of him, Derieri pressed forward, her hand even now outstretched as if to put an end to the horror they had just witnessed. As if she could. As if anyone could. The goddess stood beside her and Monspeet felt the anger once more blaze in his breast. This hated woman had lured his Captain away, had caused this damned war, then tried to trick them with her honeyed words. His comrades were shouting in their rage and indignation but all Monspeet could hear was that woman pleading with them, begging in a quavering voice for Derieri to listen. “Hear me out-” she began and something in Monspeet snapped. He would end her. He would end them all. He was beyond gratified when Derieri smacked the bitch to the ground.
Without needing orders, his fellow Commandments floated into formation, preparing for the upcoming attack, refusing to back down when they other archangels made an appearance. But how many more of their brethren could they lose today, Monspeet thought as yet more balls of arc dissolved their army to dust. “Sorry. We’ll be sure to avenge your deaths,” he found himself saying. As if that really mattered. All he wanted now was to kill. Scooping Derieri up by his side, Monspeet flew towards Sariel, unleashing the full force of his power upon the little shit while Derieri dealt with the other. Monspeet smirked a little to see the three-headed oaf she was tackling knocked senseless, his face concaved by the force of her Combo Star. But no! Somehow the archangels kept dodging their repeated attacks. Would nothing allow just vengeance to be served on these bastards?
“Looks like this is the end of the line,” he said, more to himself than to the woman at his side, whose anger was blazing a bright as his own.
“We’ve got no other choice,” she confirmed as she raised her hand, her need to see justice done as great as his own. What was a little more pain to add into the mix? What price was his life if he could not protect those he loved?
As one, they reached into their chests, gouging away the flesh that covered their bodies, fingers as hard as steel and sharp as knives slicing through muscle and bone. A few moments later they withdrew their hands, six hearts still pulsing, covered in blood and gore resting in the palms. It was agony: Monspeet felt his head swim as his body spasmed, every vein and sinew on fire with the pain. He closed his eyes briefly, letting the waves wash over him and then dissipate before clenching his fist to crush his hearts into pulp, feeling the juices of his own organs run between his fingers.
“I OFFER UP MY SIX HEART ORGANS IN SACRIFICE FOR THIS CONTRACT,” he and Derieri intoned together, moving as one, the solidarity of loss and death and heart-stopping grief pulling them towards one another. “BE FREE… THE TRUE NATURES WITHIN OUR SOULS!!”
At once, Monspeet felt a rush of darkness rip through his form, smothering his soul, devouring his reason and, in its wake, bestowing a power the like of which he had never experienced. He felt so omnipotent, so strong, so damn invincible and he knew he could finally crush the goddess clan and all they stood for into the dirt. Yet even now his mouth was stopped, as if it was filled with cotton wool; the transformation had not affected his Commandment. A glance to his right showed him Derieri was in the same state as he: she looked just like a wild beast, tortured and tormented but now free to ravage its prey. As he squared himself for attack, unleashing his new power, he felt his lucidity slip into nothingness…
Then suddenly a magnificent light pierced his consciousness, pushing the pulsing darkness away. “Let there be light!” He heard the words blast through the fog in his mind, and all at once he looked in horror to see Derieri in front of him and finally take in what she had truly become. She looked hideous, animalistic, like a monster and his remaining heart squeezed in his chest as he realised the full extent of his mistake. He was going to lose her, and it was his fault. The darkness inside him was fighting for dominance even now, and he willed it to lose, willed it to leave him, longed for peace. He wanted to shout out his regret, to beg for forgiveness, but as damn usual the words were stuck in his throat and even as he resolved to rid himself of it the darkness engulfed him once more. Before he lost his reason completely, out of the corner of his eye he saw Meliodas position himself between the burning brightness that was soothing his soul and stony-faced Ludoshel, wondering exactly what this could all mean.
“Who determined whether it has value or not? Who gets to decide that?” Monspeet heard the yell above the fierce roar in his ears, his eyes snapping upwards towards the goddess he had so wanted to destroy just a few moments ago. “Morning light and nightfall, they bathe us all equally. Humans, fairies, giants, goddesses and demons!” At once the light grew to a blaze, and Monspeet finally felt the invading power leaving his form as the brightness pierced his soul right through, and he fell like a stone to the ground, Derieri curled up beside him. He opened one eye cautiously as he lay, feeling the warmth of his companion’s body against his own. She was safe! His heart melted as he looked at her, marvelling as she slept peacefully by his side. She was all he had left and he would protect her with his life, whatever the cost.
Monspeet stared in horror, his arms around the monster’s neck, his eyes fixed on Derieri. How could he have let this happen again? He had known it was not a sound plan for his companion to face Estarossa; her power was too easy for him to return. And now the demon prince had her in his grasp and Monspeet knew just what the fiend meant to do.
No he could not lose her, he could not let her die, could not let her suffer because of the vulnerability he had induced her to accept. His heart filling with fear and an overwhelming love, he gazed at her. After all these months working and fighting together he had realised he loved her, adored her, wanted nothing more than to be by her side. He had cut her hair, styling it to cover the damage of attack, startled to see just how much she looked like her sister and his heart had stopped in his chest as he struggled with the swirling emotions he could not express. They had even lived together in peace for a few short, blissful weeks, protected by the human they had both come to regard as a friend. The girl now lay dead and crumpled on the floor, murdered in cold blood by his former comrade, but her soul was protected in the palm of his hand.
“Derieri… there’s something… that I’ve always… wanted to tell you,” Monspeet ground out through clenched teeth as he did his best to hold Estarossa back. Seeing the prince lift his arm, knowing what he meant to do, Monspeet used the very last of his power to switch places, pulling Derieri safe behind the vile demon. He felt the punch hit his chest moments later, and the familiar waves of pain as his remaining heart was pulled from his chest. He looked over at Derieri, a smile on his lips, willing her to be safe but pleased that he had not failed her this time.
Chapter 34: The Dream
This onshot means a lot to me. It was my first time writing AndrogynousInk’s brilliant original character, Moth, who is an absolute joy to write. This is set in the universe of her story ‘Bad Mood Rising’ which she has just updated.
I was super nervous when she commissioned me to write this and so thankful that it was the start of the friendship we now share and which I hope I never have to do without. Thank you for being a wonderful friend and collaborator.
She is walking through a field of corn, the fine hairs of the golden ears gently brushing her fingertips as she moves, the proud stalks parting before her in a graceful bend to her will. The too-bright sunlight beams down, making her wince against the glare but she can still make out the shape on the horizon, a small dot of black amidst the shining gold. Heart beating wildly, she moves forwards, the anticipation as she nears her target near overwhelming her. But she does not know why.
It starts to rain but the water is warm and refreshing and Moth raises her head to the sky, relishing the feel of fat droplets as they run down her face like tears. Then a soft wind blows, gentle but leaving her chilled to the bone as her sodden clothes cling tight to her skin. The sky has darkened, grey clouds rolling over to obscure the cerulean blue, the sound of thunder distant as it booms.
The corn brushes over and over against her tunic, making it hard for her to move her legs now weighed down with water. She can feel something pulling on her back and she turns round, startled to see what appear to be grey wings move with her body. But before she can process the unfamiliar objects, the faint aroma of damp sulphur invades her nostrils and she continues to push forward, more determined than ever to reach her objective. The spot on the horizon remains in place, though it is now hard to pick out from among the shifting shadows.
And yet she only seems to be moving further away. Moth growls, pushing her legs to go faster but the ground slips underfoot. What sorcery is this? Moth curses as her boots slide in the mud, nearly pitching her forward. She prepares her power, red swirls surrounding her fingers as she summons a desert wind, aiming to blast the wretched rain out of the sky…
With a start Moth awakens, her dark hair tangled over her face and with some impatience she pushes the strands out of her eyes. Her nightdress clings unpleasantly to her skin, sweat soaking her clothes, the tang of stale salt making her crinkle her nose in disgust. Teeth grit together, she pushes herself out of bed despite her ongoing tiredness, flinging open the windows, finding some comfort from the fresh, clean-smelling air as it permeates the room. It has rained in the night and the pleasant aroma of wet grass soothes her senses as she turns to enter the washroom.
How many times has she dreamt of that field of corn since the day in Liones when Gowther unleashed his magic on the unsuspecting city? But at least he had not been there this time, she tells herself, though the twinge of disappointment and loss and she does not understand makes her feel more than a little uneasy. Moth splashes water angrily over her face (no mirror over the sink, she has no wish to see her reflection) as an image of dark pits of eyes and starlight hair flits across her vision. Why did his energy, his magic, the way his warm chest felt under her palm those few times she had touched him in sleep all feel so familiar? She is sure, more than sure, that they have not met before.
Moth hears sounds suggesting Meliodas is already up, and she cannot suppress a flash of annoyance. He is lying to her, she is certain. She has asked him about her dreams and the man with silver hair several times and yet he has done nothing more than evade her queries. Merlin has done her best to reassure her of course, but that does not change a thing. She knows him; they have been travelling together for most of their lives and they can read each other’s thoughts as if they were their own. From the way he watches her out of the corner of his emerald eyes, Meliodas definitely knows more than he is letting on.
Still, that does not change their mission. The Sins have recently left Camelot, the kingdom bowed but not broken by the attack of the Albion, and they are depleted in number and weary from fight. Moth’s body is healed from their encounter with Galand but her magic is spent for the most part, and she keenly feels her frustration that such simple tasks are now so draining. And she has no desire at all to enter Istar, whatever the inducements dangled before the rest of the party.
Once dressed, feeling the comforting weight of her daggers as she sheaths then in place, Moth heads down to the bar. She is immediately aware of the conspicuous lack of pendulous movement, indicating that Hawk Mama has for some reason halted their progress. This surprises Moth. The group are in a rush to restore Meliodas’s power, and indeed her own: the only way they will be able to withstand the might of the Ten Commandments. With no rest they will be at Istar the following day.
As she rounds into the bustling bar, Moth cannot suppress a smile to see Ban sitting at one of the many bar tables, rubbing his head as if in agony, his tongue lolling unpleasantly. Ignoring the immortal Meliodas wipes tables, his expression as ever one of supreme unconcern. The rest of the Sins mill about, tidying the bar, looking for all the world as if they were preparing for a service.
“What’s going on?” Moth cautiously asks as she meets Meliodas’s eyes. “I thought we were heading for Istar.”
“Gotta stop for supplies,” he answers as he resumes his task. The table will be nothing short of gleaming by the time he is finished. “Someone drank all the ale last night.”
Moth hears a groan and her gaze returns to Ban in sudden understanding. “Don’t blame me Capt’n,” the man just about manages to choke out. “I wasn’t alone~”
“As if I could have contributed to the consumption.”
Merlin appears, her form materialising in an instant around her sacred treasure. “You have to remember I have no physical form,” she continues, arms folded and a mischievous glint in her eye. “You are entirely responsible for the current state of affairs…”
The conversation is abridged by the princess Elizabeth, who stumbles ungainly from the kitchen, mop held in one hand. Quick as a flash, Meliodas is before her, his arm securely round her waist to steady her as his free hand roams. The embarrassed squeaks that follow are enough of a distraction for the threatened argument to be shelved, and Moth notices Ban relax back into a more usual position of languor.
Around half an hour later, the bar having been made ready, the Sins prepare to venture to the nearby town of Buxton, a place where they can take the waters as well as stock up on supplies. This news is greeted with some enthusiasm from King, who contends loftily that Ban is due a proper bath, and it is all Moth can do to smooth over the situation.
It is as they start to depart that Meliodas takes her aside, gently telling her that she must remain at the Boar Hat. Moth protests - since when is she left behind anywhere, and besides she would not frown upon the prospect of a proper bath herself - but Meliodas explains that she is best placed to ensure their home is secure with Merlin being out of commission. Moth looks at him keenly, searching his face for the lie she knows full well is there, but she cannot find a way to counter his argument. It is true that someone needs to mind the place, and the Witch alone has the skill required to deter any attack without damaging the locals unnecessarily.
“See ya in a bit,” Meliodas calls cheerfully over his shoulder as the Sins wend their way towards the town.
As she retraces her steps, Moth is hit by the deafening silence, the unusual quiet ringing like a bell in her ears. It was several weeks since Elizabeth had staggered into their home and the bar had not been this empty since. Even Hawk is gone, the lack of snorting and squealing disconcerting the Witch more than the absence of familiar chatter.
With a sigh, Moth moves towards the stairs, wondering if she could get some unbroken sleep when the sound of a tinkling bell followed by the squeak of the door made her whip round. “Good morning. We are closed at the moment…” she starts to say when the words die on her throat as her eyes fall on the tall, broad chested man who has entered the bar. Her mouth runs dry, falling open slightly as she takes in the messy, silver hair and dark eyes, memories of her dreams flooding back in a tidal wave. She stares, her heart beating wildly in her chest as she struggles to breathe.
“Now that’s a shame.” The soft voice floats towards her and Moth realises for the first time that, while he had been haunting her dreams for days, she has never yet heard him speak. It is the sound of silvery moonlight, of a cool autumn breeze, and Moth feels the tension she has not realised she was carrying in her shoulders instantly melt away. “I was looking for someone,” the stranger continues, “and was rather hoping I would find them here.”
“Who… who are you looking for,” Moth manages to stutter out, willing her throat to obey her commands and just talk.
The stranger looks at her, sorrow showing in the depths of his eyes. “Someone I knew a long time ago. I doubt she even remembers me now.” His evident melancholy makes Moth shiver slightly; indeed the whole place feels a little colder. As she continues to gaze into his eyes, she thinks she can see the raw pain she finds there turn to something like rage, but whatever it is flickers to indifference almost immediately, before she can get a true reading.
Lips pressed together, Moth moves behind the bar, locating a bottle of Vanya Ale, one of the many Meliodas has picked up from the town following their earlier stop. “On the house,” she murmurs, unable to tear her eyes away from the man, though she does manage to force her gaze down from his face.
Her eyes lock onto the navy fabric of his jacket, open at the chest to reveal a powerful physique. Moth quickly forces herself to examine the floorboards, failing to fully suppress the blush that floods her cheeks. Since when does she ever allow herself to behave in this way? Since when does she even need to check herself like this?
As if reading her mind, the stranger smirks, the expression contorting his features into something approaching cruelty, but Moth is not deceived. Vicious in action he may well be but it is not his true nature. He has suffered Moth thinks as she watches the man sip the ale thoughtfully out of the corner of her eye as she pretends to wipe down the bar. She has seen that look in another’s eyes, the virulent green clouding over as yet more loss overwhelmed him. Unable to suppress her curiosity, Moth stretches out her powers to see what more she can learn of the stranger.
He is powerful, certainly, the force of it taking her breath away; a strange swirling darkness reminiscent of Meliodas, and yet somehow dissimilar, as if a current of light runs through it like electricity. She is so surprised it takes her a while to realise that the man is staring at her intently, his power assessing hers just as she had with him.
“Who are you?” she whispers, her eyes wide as she regards him warily, feet planted square on the ground as she crosses her arms across her chest. The warmth of her body comforts her, as does the knowledge that she is on familiar territory. Clearing her throat she continues, “And what makes you think you will find what you’re looking for here?”
The look he gives her makes her heart flutter. “I already did,” he says languidly, stretching his arms behind his head as his legs extend under the table. He looks around, his eyes raking over every inch of the bar and again she detects a momentary flash of something like anger. “Tell me about this place.” It is a command, and Moth instinctively fights against his attempt at control.
“It’s a bar,” she says, hostility dripping from every word, “as you can see. Now, if there’s nothing else I can do for you…”
“Oh, but there is,” he replies languidly, his head resting on his arms and his dark eyes half-lidded. Moth feels the urge to snap at him keenly, but she holds herself together with difficulty. “Nothing extravagant,” he adds as his eyes close full way. “I just want you to answer my question. What would you do to someone who has taken everything from you?”
Moth pauses, her brain working as she tries to pinpoint the man’s motivation. “Why do you ask?” she murmurs, and he laughs.
“Oh no reason, I ask everyone. Someone told me once…” He breaks off, his eyes dropping to the shining tabletop. “Well, indulge me.”
Moth considers, her eyes straying to the window before she starts as something floats across her vision. Golden sunlight, pleading eyes, a strange sensation surging in her breast: a tenderness she has not experienced in thousands of years and which she never thought would be hers.
She pauses, struggling to find the right words. “I would try to understand,” she finally answers, her eyes returning to the stranger’s face, her feet moving unbidden towards him. “People rarely act purely to hurt. Only the gods to that. Forgiveness is a powerful weapon.” She sees the man bite his lip at this, the unexpected response catching her off guard.
“And is that is not possible?” he asks, his eyes dark with a fierce anger. “If only death will make things right?”
“I don’t think that is ever truly the case,” Moth replies quietly, all at once needing to sooth his anger. “But tell me, what has happened to you?”
“Nothing is importance, nothing that will not be avenged.”
Before Moth can answer the man continues, “I can tell from your power that you are a Witch. You should go and check out a stream that lies around half a mile to the east of here. You will find something of interest to you, I am sure. Go before he comes back,” he cautions as he pushes himself back to a sitting position. Moth stares, her mouth dry, unsure of how to respond. She can usually tell what people are thinking, but now she falters, unsure of her ground. It is then that she realises the man has not revealed his identity.
“Thanks for the drink.” The tall stranger shoots her a smile that sends a shiver run straight down her spine before standing, his large frame seeming to dominate the room. “I’ll be seeing you.” And with that he is gone, Moth staring at his retreating back, surprised to find she is disappointed that he does not glance back as he departs.
She stays stock still, feeling her pulse thump in her ears before she starts to move, grabbing her bag before she bolts towards the door. Before she leaves however she doubles back, sweeping the empty brown bottle from the table. She is not sure what the meaning of her dreams and the unexpected visit might be, but if Meliodas is keeping things from her she will return the favour. She will not tell him or Merlin about the appearance of the stranger.
Fifteen minutes later, Moth can smell fresh water; indeed nearly taste it in the back of her throat. Her feet have moved over the earth as she has walked east almost blindly, following the faint sound of a trickling brook, barely noticing the lush green of the grass and the cheerful song of blackbirds and thrushes as they flit about, collecting insects for their young. Finally, she has climbed a small hill, the muscles in her legs protesting slightly with a welcome burn as she pushes them onwards. And now she is cresting the mound, a mixture of wonder and horror halting her in her tracks as she stares at what lies on the other side.
A dark forest stands before her and Moth stumbles towards it, the sound of water bubbling in her ears as she approaches the tree line. She pushes through braken, feeling the tug of the plants on her clothes as she wends her way forwards until she reaches a clearing, soft sunlight streaming through a gap in the leaves. There, she finds black peppermint, feverflew and tansy in abundance, the medicinal herbs not uncommon but rarely found in such perfect condition. Quickly, Moth gathers the spoils, carefully placing the cuttings in a pouch at her side. The stranger was right: this had indeed been a worthwhile journey.
She moves forwards, making her way out of the trees until she is standing on the edge of a field, the golden corn bending gracefully before her in the breeze. Crickets chirrup joyously, enjoying the glut of the summer and Moth is suddenly conscious of the sheer scale of life contained amongst the grain. In her dreams, the landscape, this place is always eery and silent, devoid of all except the one who she now knows is waiting for her.
As if in a dream, she walks through the stalks, insects jumping out of her way as she moves. I’ve done this before she suddenly realises: it is not a dream but a memory that haunts her. And the man with the dark eyes? Has he not always been here too, their fates inescapably bound together? Moth feels her legs tremble, her knees collapsing underneath her and she falls to the ground, not knowing the source of the desolation she feels but sure that it belongs to her.
Chapter 35: A Permanent Break?
Set in the universe of AndrogynousInk’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. Thank you for letting me publish this :)
Mist, deep and impenetrable creeps through the city, the invisible droplets of water that hang like gossamer in the air freezing on her skin. Moth moves with purpose, examining the various stalls that dot the streets of Cailleach, making mental notes about the traders' prospects. As might be expected on such a chilly day, those selling the hot, spiced wine and rich drinking chocolate that perfumes the air are making good money while those offering crafts and trinkets are faring less well than usual.
Perhaps the stall owners would have packed up and gone home, but the Dark Court are expected and no one would miss the opportunity to trade with the demons. Moth sighs, pushing the unease which lies at the pit of her stomach as far down into her boots as it will go. She had not seen Estarossa since that day he had rather rudely spied upon her during an intimate moment, and her face flushes with shame as she remembers that night. As if sensing her disquiet, the raven Nyos flies down to rest on her shoulder, leaning his head against her hair as she makes her way through the streets. His weight is comforting, soothing and she takes grateful, deep breaths of the soft, cold air.
Surely she can deal with Estarossa when he arrives: they are childhood friends, know everything about each other and, even though he has rather hurtfully stopped corresponding with her, she hopes that seeing each other in person will allow them to reach the point of amicable friendship. Yet even as she steels herself for the encounter, the sight of his face from her bedroom doorway flashes through her mind, and she rubs her hands over her eyes to hide her embarrassment.
The auras of the delegates roll like waves through the city even before the demons that bear them arrive. Dark, dangerous and brooding, their energy excites the citizens, who sniff at the electrified air as they hold their breaths. Moth stands tall, pressing her shoulders back as she prepares to greet the visitors, making sure she does not flinch as they land lightly on the frozen ground. Meliodas leads, and slides his wings back into his form as he looks over Moth with an undisguised disdain. She meets his stern gaze, her lips pressed together as she prepares to utter the traditional greeting.
"Well met, Prince Meliodas, Prince Estarossa. You are welcome to Cailleach."
Meliodas nods curtly, and Moth can see he only just about manages to keep the snarl from his lips. Her heart sinks slightly at the sight, a sorrow gnawing at the pit of her stomach. She was supposed to be neutral as a representative of her clan, but the regard of the eldest son of the demon king had always meant a lot to her. It pains her to see him looking so severe.
“Lady Alessa,” he responds, his dark eyes sweeping over her form. “I trust your mother is well. I would ask that you take us to her now, if you please.” The dismissal is clear, and Moth cannot help but flush as she turns, silently leading the demons to Nemain’s palace. She does not look round, does not glance to the side but feels the eyes of everyone on her as she treads the familiar path. The lack of freedom, as always, makes her itch under her skin.
Once at the palace, the day unfolds as if in slow motion, the etiquette of the visit guiding her actions. She knows exactly where she should stand, what she should say, where even it is appropriate for her to glance when not otherwise occupied. She falls into the rhythm she has rehearsed since childhood, allowing her training to take over as the only way she can distract herself from Estarossa’s presence. To her chagrin he studiously ignores her; in foregone days she would often catch him grinning at her, trying to lead her into mischief with his smile, but now he stares straight ahead. Well, two could play at that game. Moth concentrates on making sure that her eyes stay fixed into the distance, allowing a cool indifference to show on her face.
But the more she tries, the angrier she becomes. How dare Estarossa treat her this way! How dare he tell his brother to be so offhand with her! He was the one who was at fault; he had been rude, obnoxious and, finally, breached her trust in the most vulgar way possible. No, she decides, his behaviour cannot go unpunished. She had tried once before, and it had not gone well, but she would yet again seek an audience with him and force him to explain himself.
The day drags on, and Moth counts down the hours, cursing the tedious formal dinner put on to honour their guests. Nemain has obviously noted the change in the demons’ demeanor towards her daughter, and seats Moth well away from the princes. This does nothing for the princess’ mood, and she eats her meal without really tasting it as she rehearses what she will say time and again. It is with relief that she sees the final course being cleared away, and Moth shoots up from the table, hoping to catch Estarossa before he heads to his rooms. She wants to see him, but will not on any account risk another meeting in private.
As Moth nears the large double doors of polished oak, she sees the demons begin to head towards their own quarters. “Prince Estarossa,” she calls to his retreating back, blood pounding in her veins as her breathing quickens. His back stiffens, but he does not look round. “Would you speak to me for a moment?” she adds quickly, as her heart thrums almost painfully in her chest.
Meliodas turns towards her, anger etched on his features but Estarossa stops him with an upheld hand. “I can give the princess a few moments of my time,” he says loftily, his tone one of absolute boredom. “I am sure whatever business she has with me will not take too long.” A look passes between the two brothers, before Meliodas’s shoulders drop, his brows drawing together before he strides from the room.
“Estarossa,” Moth says placatingly as nobles wander past them, some casting them curious glances as they walk, “we need to resolve this. We need to…”
“I have nothing to say.” His words are curt, designed to wound and Moth forces the air into her lungs to calm her emotions. She steels herself before replying, “I think we both know that’s not true. The way things ended last time was… unfortunate.
“I know you’ve been avoiding me,” she challenges as he snorts, “and I have tried to understand. Your clan hates the goddesses, and Mael is courting me, but I am neutral! You know this! We’ve been friends for years. Is it over just because you don’t like who I’m seeing? I thought our friendship meant more to you than that.”
“It meant everything to me!” Estarossa immediately snarls in response and Moth is taken aback by the tremor in his voice. “Don’t fucking play games with me, Moth. I won’t have it.”
She bridles at this, the injustice of the accusation stinging like nettle. “Who’s playing games?” she barks back. “The only thing that’s changed as far as I can see is that I’m seeing someone, and I told you about him at the first opportunity. Not like you and that girl you’re sleeping with, whoever she is.”
“What?” His eyes snap to hers, the anger smouldering there very clear to behold, but Moth thinks she catches something else in his expression. “What are you talking about? I don’t know who you’re referring to…”
“The red head,” Moth replies lightly, satisfaction bursting inside as she sees guilt flash across his face. “She looked very… willing,” she adds coldly. Estarossa recovers himself, and he draws himself to his full height as he towers over her, pressing a little into her personal space.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The words are out of her mouth before she can stop herself, and she curses inwardly, her eyes sliding to the floor as heat floods her face. What is wrong with her? It is none of her business who Estarossa sleeps with, as she has told herself time and time again. But, despite her best efforts she seems plagued by the image of that girl, auburn hair obscuring her face, her curiosity growing with time rather than fading as expected.
“I’m sorry, that was not an appropriate question,” she adds quickly as Estarossa’s mouth falls open. Try as she might she cannot look directly into his eyes, nor can she prevent the blush from pushing down her neck. “I hoped that we could have preserve the friendship we have, but I was obviously mistaken. That is on me. I will not detain you any longer.”
Moth quickly heads towards the exit, practically running, her insides curdling and her thoughts scattered. She comforts herself with the knowledge that she need not repeat her mistake: the demon has no desire to speak to her and she will never again force him to do so. The resolution soothes her frayed nerves, but as she enters her chambers, grateful that she is blessedly alone, a nagging doubt tugs persistently at her mind. As she collapses into the chair, the same she had sat in when Estarossa had spied on her so uncouthly, she wonders, however angry and hurt she may be, if she will ever truly be able to set him aside.
Chapter 36: Unconditional Love
Ban cackled with laughter as he sailed through the air, before landing with a crack and a bump on the stony ground. He felt his right arm snap back into place, the shoulder popping into its socket as the skin on his thigh knit slowly back together. He felt it all, of course. Being immortal did not exempt him from physical pain.
How many times he had made this particular arc of flight through purgatory, catapulted by the demon king’s power? Too many to count by now. Who knew how many years he and The Captain had been on this fool’s errand? Ten? Twenty? Four Hundred?
An increasingly loud yell snapped Ban out of his reverie, and he stretched his arms wide to catch the falling ball which hurtled towards him out of the sky. Meliodas landed with an “Ooof” straight on Ban’s stomach, the force of the impact causing the Fox Sin’s spleen to rupture. As Ban’s pulp of an internal organ pulled itself back together, he wrapped his arms around the small blonde man, holding him close as they both coughed in the putrid air.
It took him several minutes to realise that the demon he was holding was completely naked, at which point he became acutely aware of the smooth skin under his fingertips. Try as he might, Ban’s mouth ran dry as he felt the ridges of muscle along the demon’s back, the pound of his companion’s seven heart beats vibrating against his chest.
“Yo!” Meliodas barked as his coughing subsided. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to crush you. Does it hurt?”
“Nah, it’s all fine,” Ban lied, wondering when The Captain would roll off of him and let him breath more easily, but Meliodas stayed exactly where he was, their bodies pressed together as they had been on so many precious occasions. Ever since he had found his comrade all that endless stretch of time ago, lost and alone, these moments between them had happened with increasing frequency. Both of them needed the physical contact, though neither would put such a thought into words.
The Captain hardly weighed anything at all, the heat of his body comforting in the creeping gloam. Ban relaxed back into the rough stone of the ground, listening to the soft sound of the other’s steady breathing, just audible over the howl of the wind and the grunts and screeches of purgatory’s beasts.
But as the minutes ticked on, Ban’s brows furrowed in puzzlement. Never had they stayed glued together this way for such a long time. “Say Cap’n, are you gonna move?” he drawled, flexing the muscles of his torso a little to relieve some of the ache which he had started to notice.
“Nope. This is good.” Meliodas settled himself more firmly, curling up a little as he pressed his cheek into Ban’s chest. “You know, you’re not wearing any clothes,” the demon added casually. “Not that this is a problem.”
“Yeah, you’re not either. What was that attack anyway? What happened?” Ban rubbed at his temple as he tried to make sense of the jumble of half-memories and vague impressions that sloshed through his brain. “And where’s Wild?” he asked, a hint of urgency creeping into his tone. “If your old man has hurt him…”
Meliodas chuckled, the sound reverberating through the air and across his breastbone, the sensation causing Ban’s lips to curve in a smile. “It’ll take more than that to finish him off,” the demon said confidently. “He must have got knocked down somewhere. He’ll be back.”
“Yeah.” Ban stretched his muscles once more only to discover his arms were still wrapped round the demon, holding him close. He grit his teeth, wondering if he could just peel his arms off and place them back on the ground without drawing attention to his ongoing faux pas, when Meliodas said with a sigh, “This is nice. I really missed you before you turned up.”
“I missed you, too,” Ban shot back, his voice missing it’s habitual lilt. And he had. After that vile monster had butchered his friend, had been forced to endure week after week just feeling numb, as if he was inhabiting someone else’s body. The nothingness was broken only by white hot flashes of pain whenever he allowed himself to think of the Captain.
Even when Meliodas had returned he was not him . Ban’s cheeks flushed with shame as he recalled how he had been unable to greet his friend properly, knowing that the comrade he loved was not in fact there, however much he seemed to be. But what of it? If he had felt the way he did now, would he still have been so cold and unfeeling? It had taken him this time spent in purgatory to realise it, but now he knew that the way he had acted was wrong. He finally understood his own emotions.
“I love you,” he said suddenly and he felt the demon still in his arms. “I mean… I love Elaine and you love the princess. But I love you, too. I can’t explain it….”
Meliodas chuckled softly, turning slightly and raising himself up on his elbows so that he was looking directly into Ban’s eyes. “No need. I feel the same way,” the demon murmured. Then their lips were pressed together, Ban unsure which of them had made the first move, and he tasted cloves, the flavour so unexpected in this barren land that he almost startled in surprise. He had not felt the tingle of spice on his tongue since he had arrived in purgatory.
All too soon the softness was pulled away, and Ban resurfaced as if from a dream. His breath was coming in short pants, his heart thrumming wildly, more painful in its beat than it had been during his recent battle. “Wh… what was that about?” he asked as casually as he could.
“You know, I’ll disappear. When we get back,” Meliodas remarked. The words sounded carefree but the demon was looking off to the side, his expression the closed mask which showed he was troubled. “I’m just feeling , nothing but bits of memory and sentiment. I won’t even appear when you’re back in Britannia.”
“Yeah~” Ban pushed himself up into a sitting position, displacing Meliodas who landed with a bit of a bump at his side. “But you’re here now, and that’s what matters. And when we get out, I’ll get you back to your body. Just you watch. It won’t be long until we’re together again.”
There was a bit of a pause then Meliodas asked, “What am I like, without me I mean?” and Ban felt this stomach sink to his boots.
“You’re… not the same,” Ban murmured quickly, rushing on as the demon, who had pulled himself up to sit crossed legged on the floor, opened his mouth. “But it doesn’t matter. I didn’t get it straight away, but I care about you , all the time, no matter what you are and what’s going on. And you want to get back to your body, so we need to think of another way to attack.”
“But…” Meliodas began.
“But what?” Ban replied into the following silence.
The demon bit his lower lip, his hands clenching into fists in his lap. “You may not feel the same about me when I’m back in my body. You’ll have Elaine and all our friends. And I’ll be different too. Whatever’s going on in Britannia right now is bound to change me. Even if my body accepts me it’ll have experienced things without me. You might not like me anymore...”
“Nah, not going to happen.” As he said this, Ban reached out to squeeze Meliodas’s shoulder, and the demon instantly lent into his touch, the strands of his blonde hair ticking the back of Ban’s hand. The immortal took several deep breaths, trying to dull the ache in his chest, but only succeeding in drawing the poisonous air into his lungs. “Don’t think of these things. None of it will make any difference,” he managed to force out without succumbing to the cough building in his throat.
Ban saw Meliodas swallow, several minutes ticking by before the demon gave a single nod of the head. Without speaking Ban rose, pulling the other to stand alongside him. It was easier this time, for there was no doubt. Love is unconditional and that was what they shared.
“Come on, let’s make new clothes,” Ban said lazily as he looked Meliodas up and down. “Then we can try the attack again.”
Chapter 37: Forgiveness
Of course it was raining. Veronica sighed dramatically, pulling up the collar of her coat and staring with undisguised irritation up at the gloomy, grey sky. This day only occurred once a year - thank goodness! - and on each of the last three occasions it had bucketed down, water pooling on the cobbled streets to create dirty puddles. Liones was a beautiful city, but not in the rain and the cold, and the citizens shivered as they waited, huddled together like young birds in a nest, wet hair plastered to their scalps.
But despite the weather everyone was there, standing in the kingdom’s large, central square. Her eyes swept over the crowd, picking out the city’s Holy Knights, Grand Master Howzer standing slightly in front, wearing his dress armour and an uncharacteristically sombre expression. It was three years to the day since the Second Holy War had ended, three years since Liones had lost a princess and Britannia had gained a goddess. And the cost had been worth it, of course, although it was dear. Today they remembered Gustav and Denzel and all the many, many others who had lost their lives in battle, who had never got to see the bounty of peace.
And this year, Veronica thought proudly, Liones’ memorial would include all of those who had been killed as a result of the demons’ struggle for power. She remembered the meeting she had chaired in her capacity as Margaret’s heir, the way she had argued that the knights of the new generation, so cruelly lured to take demon blood into their bodies, should also be treated as heros. She felt suddenly warm, a glow spreading through her to ward off the chill of the near-sleeting rain. She had won. The committee had expressed their doubts and dissension but her arguments had carried the day. Today, Holy Knight Dale was listed alongside the fallen, his name shiny and newly carved in the obsidian stone memorial which took centre stage in the square.
“Are you sure about this, Your Highness?” an advisor had asked, his head bobbing nearly as much as his adam’s apple. “There is a tumult or feeling against the new generation. That Guila for instance…”
“That is enough!” Veronica had stared at the man imperiously, putting every ounce of her authority into her voice. “Lady Guila is an esteemed knight of this kingdom and she will be spoken of in terms of the highest respect. She trained me, I will remind you,” she added furiously, not even pausing for breath. “I might not be here if it were not for her help.” Veronica had gained some satisfaction from the way the advisor had withdrawn his opposition immediately, his mouth having stayed shut for the rest of the meeting.
But despite her victory, Guila was nowhere to be seen. With Veronica’s new edict having been made law, Guila should have been with the others, standing alongside Jericho, Gilthunder and Griamore, her head held high, dark eyes flashing despite the low light. The princess bounced on the balls of her feet, stretching her neck as high as it would go in an effort to search more of the crowd from her position on the temporary wooden platform erected for the ceremony. But there was no sign of the raven black hair, no glimpse of the pink and silver armour Guila preferred, and Veronica felt her heart sink with disappointment.
She was on the point of abandoning her post in favour of searching for the missing knight when Margaret swept gracefully onto the platform, a thin gold circle crowning her head. The Queen of Liones looked graceful, poised, her mouth curved in a regal smile.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the queen addressed the crowd to rapturous applause, “it is my pleasure to open today’s celebrations. It has been three years since the end of the Holy War; three years of peace, prosperity and hope. It is thanks to you that we, as a people, have been able to move forward, to rebuild our lives and to grow.” The crowd cheered at this, several of those assembled raising foaming steins of ale into the air as they hollered.
Veronica tuned out the rest of her sister’s speech. She was suddenly tired, the familiar drone doing nothing to enliven her spirit; she had given up looking for the face she so wanted to see. She almost missed the gasps from the crowd, the shift in the air as Margaret cleared her throat.
“Lady Guila, would you please join me,” Margaret said kindly and Veronica felt her brain suddenly snap into focus. Her eyes swung away from the crowd to the platform, her jaw falling slack as she saw Guila step forwards, the knight’s long, sleak, black hair swaying with her gait.
“It is time to set our fears aside,” Margaret said, her voice commanding and her jaw set with determination. “For too long we have scapegoated others when things have gone wrong, when the rains have fallen too heavily or the crops have been spoiled. The pride we had in ourselves - that we had for all of us who fought side by side to protect Britannia - has slowly eroded since the war. It is about time we got it back. The new generation were saved, were revived, and battled hard to save Liones. And there has been no difference between those who lost all trace of demon blood in their veins and those who had no choice but to retain it. We must not forget that.”
Margaret flashed a smile at Guila, who stood with her back ramrod straight and her lips pressed together into a thin line. Veronica felt her heart sink in her chest; she knew Guila well enough to see that the knight was not just angry, she was furious, her calm exterior hiding a tumult or rage. The princess could help but feel her disappointment, her brows drawing together into a scowl. Did Guila not realise what her sister and she had gone through to achieve this breakthrough for her? Had she no concept of how much easier their lives would have been if they had stayed away from this fight?
Margaret’s announcement was met with scattered applause, which gradually grew and built into a genuine sense of celebration. The Holy Knights led the citizens; many made a point of smiling and waving at Guila and Howzer even punched an enthusiastic fist into the air. The people relented in the face of such enthusiasm, though Veronica could see that many faces were wary, that many glanced up at Guila covertly, their gaze lingering on her black eyes. Some clearly clapped more out of politeness than agreement. It would be a long slog yet before true equality was achieved for those like her former mentor who had not been purged of demon blood.
Margaret shaking Guila’s hand signalled the end of her speech. The assembled people began to break apart, the sudden bustle and noise pounding on Veronica’s ears as the citizens queued for sausages and ale, joking and laughing and slapping each other on the back. Children wove through the cluster of legs, chasing the odd pigeon that had braved the morass in search of some food. The air was alive with chatter and the tang of alcohol, thick with the aroma of roasting meat and melted cheese. The princess moved quickly, but Guila had gone, no doubt lost in the milling crowd.
Out of the corner of her eye, Veronica could see Griamore striding towards her, the over-large muscles in his arms and neck flexing as he walked. True man always followed her around like a lost puppy. The saliva in her mouth was suddenly sour, and she grimaced before jumping down from the platform, ignoring the shouts of surprise and her sister’s irritated cluck as she darted into the crowd. She was never anonymous, but the people of Liones respected her enough not to kowtow before her as she all but pushed past them, knowing her preference to be treated just like the other Holy Knights of the city.
Still, it took Veronica a while to make her way to the edge of the group, the formal dress she had consented to wear now crumpled and mud-splashed as a result of her exertions. It was then that she saw her, a lithe young woman dressed in armour, long back hair swinging across her back. The knight was moving at pace, making her way towards the city gates. “Guila, wait!” the princess called desperately, hating the way her voice caught in her throat. She was half annoyed, half surprised to see the figure in front of her stop, but Guila did not look round as Veronica ran up to her.
“What do you mean by disappearing like that?” Veronica asked crossly when she finally came alongside the other. She could hear the childish pout in her voice, and she bit her lip with her agitation, taking several deep breaths to try and calm the emotion swirling within her. But it was to no avail; her heart pumped loudly, the blood in her ears pounding with the beat and she could feel her face flush red as Guila still avoided her eyes.
There was a pause, and Veronica was on the point of shouting her irritation when Guila finally said, “The ceremony had ended, Princess Veronica. I was not aware that my presence was required further.” The voice was flat and uninviting and Veronica felt her insides boil.
“Aren’t you a bit grateful?” the princess yelled, not caring that Guila’s lips pressed even more tightly together as the knight’s eyes flashed with an unmistakable anger. “Do you think it was easy, getting that damn law passed? Do you think…”
“Do you think I want you to fight my battles for me?” Guila interjected coldly. Veronica stopped, the words she had prepared stuck in her throat and she had to force her to mouth to close once she realised it was hanging open. Then, to her surprise, Guila drew herself up, the knight’s face settling to an expressionless mask. “I apologise for my outburst, Your Majesty,” she intoned. “It was unbecoming of me. I will take my leave.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Veronica said hotly as Guila began to move away. “Look, I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” the princess pleaded, her shoulders relaxing as Guila once more paused in her stride.
Guila spun round on her heels. “I do not need your pity.”
Veronica gasped. She suddenly felt lost, the anger draining away in an instant. “It’s not like that,” she insisted to Guila’s stony face, wishing her former mentor would show her some warmth. “I don’t pity you,” she added truthfully. “I just wanted…”
“What did you want?” Guila peered at her, something like curiosity showing briefly in her features before her face smoothed over once more.
Veronica took at sharp breath, feeling the cold air in her lungs. It was only then she realised that was still raining; and that her coat was heavy with droplets, while Guila’s hair was plastered to her cheeks. “I wanted you to be welcome in Liones,” she said quietly, her voice almost a whisper. “I wanted you to have some justice and to be treated like the hero you are. I wanted… I wanted to spend some time with you. You’ve avoided me, ever since the rumours began,” Veronica blurted out in a rush.
“You could not be seen with me,” Guila replied. “I would have damaged your reputation.”
“Do you think I give a damn about that?” Veronica felt her face flush once more, her hands curling into fists. “We both know it was bollocks. As if you and the others of the new generation could have soured the milk? It’s just crazy!”
Guila smiled, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards slightly. “Nonetheless, accusations like this tend to stick. It does not matter whether they are true or false. I decided it would be better not to tarnish your name.”
“As if I care about that?” Veronica shouted. “And who said you got to decide that anyway? Why didn’t you ask me what I wanted, how I felt?”
“I could say the same,” Guila remarked, her face set once more. “I did not wish to be paraded in front of the entire kingdom as some sort of symbol…”
“That wasn’t my idea!” Guila looked at Veronica sharply as the princess continued, “I don’t know why Margaret cooked that up, but it was nothing to do with me. All I wanted was to see you again!” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and Veronica clamped her mouth shut, seething inwardly at her indiscretion.
Guila cocked her head to one side. “Why?” she asked, her brows drawn together in puzzlement.
Veronica inhaled deeply. “If you must know,” she declared, “I missed you, alright? Liones hasn’t been the same without you around. It’s been pretty miserable actually. I just wanted you to come back,” she added, her voice quavering slightly, relief flooding through her as Guila’s expression softened and the knight stepped towards her.
“But I cannot,” the knight said simply and Veronica felt her heart sink, desperation clawing at her insides. “The change of law will not alter hearts,” Guila explained with a shrug to the shoulders. “I will still be regarded with suspicion.”
“I don’t care!” Veronica took several paces towards Guila, closing the gap between them. Before she knew what she was doing she held Guila by the arms, and their lips were pressed firmly together. The world spun on its axis, Veronica forgetting to breathe for a moment as she tasted honey and thyme and felt the gentle touch of Guila’s fingers as they slid into her hair. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the sensation, one which she had been dreaming of for so long she had lost hope it would ever actually happen.
Veronica felt a mixture of confusion and relief as Guila pulled back, taking the opportunity to replenish her lungs with oxygen. She looked at the knight, trying to read her expression, gritting her teeth as she failed to read the other’s thoughts. She was on the point of snapping when Guila said softly, “It will be difficult. You must be aware of that. If you associate yourself with me…”
“I said I don’t care!” Veronica stared at Guila, her hands pressing into her hips. “I… I love you,” she muttered shyly, “and the public stuff never mattered to me, you know that! I just want to be with you, whatever.” Veronica held out her hand involuntarily, and was on the point of withdrawing it when, to her surprise, Guila took it, her hold unexpectedly warm and firm.
“I want that too,” Guila whispered. Veronica pulled the knight into her arms, their faces pressing together as the rain eased off and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. They held one another close for several minutes before breaking apart, then heading back towards the castle, their hands entwined.
Chapter 38: Brothers
Character list: Meliodas and Zeldris.
The wind rushed by, nearly catapulting him to the ground. The air was hot and thick with sulphur. Dense plumes of smoke dotted with flakes of fiery ash swirled around him, completely obscuring his vision. Zeldris grit his teeth, his fingers curling round the hilt of his sword as a deafening roar boomed across the sky, and he wondered, in the circumstances, how best to go for the kill.
The dragon he and Meliodas had been tracking for days was proving to be more of a handful than either had expected. The beast was encroaching on the very edge of their territory, venturing into the demon realm on sporadic attacks. The king had ordered the beast’s extermination, but both he and his brother had found it difficult to get any concrete information about the brute. Where it had been, it had left no survivors.
“Zeldris!” a familiar voice called and the demon readied his stance. “We’ll have to get it in the head.”
“What do you think I have been trying to do?” Zeldris yelled back, quickly swooping to the side as he felt a hot blast rush in his direction. His wings buffeted against the wind as he moved, and he turned with a scowl trying to locate his brother’s form. “I cannot see a thing! How is one supposed to aim exactly?”
“Well, think of something!” Meliodas shouted above another booming roar.
Zeldris wrinkled his nose as another gush of fire passed within an inch of him, nearly scorching his suit and threatening to singe his hair. “It would be my job to fix this,” he muttered to himself as he floated carefully back down to the ground. “Ominous Nebula!” With the words, his power sprang to life, a swirling vortex circling round him in an instant, sucking the acrid smoke right out of the air.
He was about to call some instructions to Meliodas, but evidently his brother did not need any prompt. Before he could open his mouth, his ears were ringing with a resounding scream, high pitched and angry, followed by a sickening thud as something large smacked down into the earth. Withdrawing his darkness back into his form, Zeldris watched the red dust of the land settle around him as the dragon slowly appeared through the debris. He gazed at the long, white body which twitched erratically, up to the beast’s oversized head, skewered with an enormous sword.
The air shifted slightly as Meliodas landed softly beside him. “That is an interesting move,” his brother murmured. He examined Zeldris with a critical eye. “I was unaware that you had unlocked such power.”
Deciding it was best not to answer, Zeldris paced towards the fallen body, which now lay prostrate on the burnished ground. The edge of the demon realm was an arid desert, the dry land stretching into the distance, marked by nothing but obsidian rocks. Dust had collected on the dragon’s lustrous scales, dulling the opalescence, but it was still plain to see they were of an unusual quality.
Drawing a knife from his belt, Zeldris began the arduous work of stripping the carcass, taking care to preserve the shape of the skin. The demons hunted dragons for sport, but were not above harvesting the valuable material. The scales would be used as decorations and amulets, the skin turned into strong leather, and the meat sliced and salted, the perfect sustenance for soldiers on the move. Usually, this labour was left to more junior members of the clan, but Zeldris always felt satisfaction when processing a kill. He was, however, a little surprised when Meliodas joined him, watching with interest as his brother used his own knife to carve through the flesh.
“We’ll have this bit,” Meliodas remarked. “Hellblaze,” he uttered, pointing at flat-shaped boulder on the ground, purple flames bursting forth to smother it in an instant. After several moments, the fire dispersed and Meliodas placed the steak to sizzle on the heated rock, turning it over a few minutes later. “Don’t even think about it,” Zeldris warned as he saw this brother reach for the pouch tied to his belt. “You never improve the taste of anything with your concoctions.”
“You can’t just cook meat without seasoning it!” Meliodas protested.
“And why not?” Zeldris did not even look up as he continued to tease the dragon’s skin from muscle and bone. The animal’s scales were of an unusual character, and he absent-mindedly polished one with his thumb, his hearts pausing in their beats as it gleamed with a rainbow sheen. His mind was pulled back to the green hills of Britannia, to an abandoned castle jutting forth from an island in an immense salt-water lake, the light of the sunset reflecting in the clear water. It was with difficulty that he pushed the image away, along with the sensation of blonde hair brushing against his cheek and the feel of a warm hand entwined with his own. It would do him no good to think of Gelda now.
Meliodas must have sensed something for he looked at Zeldris with watchful eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me that you had learned how to call on your magic?” he asked slowly, as he sliced the steak he had cooked into strips. “More to the point, why has Cusack neglected to mention it to me? It’s unlike him not to boast of your prowess.”
“He does not know yet.” Zeldris said casually, deciding to reveal a partial truth. He finished his task with the dragon and stood, stretching the muscles in his limbs as he rose.
“You mean you acquired this power by yourself?” Meliodas also stood at this, stepping towards Zeldris with undisguised menace. “I’ve always wondered why you work so hard. There’s no need for you to have made such progress at your age. I’ve told myself it’s just your sense of duty, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Something specific is driving you…”
Zeldris grit his teeth, returning his brother’s hostile stare as Meliodas continued, “What is it, I wonder? Your silence suggests it’s something shameful. You know, Chandler thinks you want to usurp me…”
“What?” Zeldris gasped, his eyes widening involuntarily. “Meliodas, I would never dream…”
“I put him in his place,” Meliodas said thoughtfully and Zeldris noticed his brother still held the knife he had been using. “I’m now wondering if he may have been right. He often is, much as it pains me to admit it.”
“This has got nothing to do with you,” Zeldris growled, shifting his stance and allowing his hand to wander to the hilt of his sword. He was not afraid of his brother, however powerful Meliodas might be. “You should know better than to listen to that old fool. I am insulted that he would question my loyalty.”
“So what is it then?” To his relief, Meliodas relented, his features softening as he returned the knife to his belt. Zeldris responded in kind, allowing his shoulders to drop and his arms to hang relaxed at his sides, but said nothing. “Come on, you have to tell me,” Meliodas warned.
Zeldris muttered, “It… is not what you think, and has no bearing whatsoever on you.”
“You will let me be the judge of that.” Meliodas stepped closer, peering into his face. “Or do I have to report my suspicions to the king?”
“Look, it is none of your business,” Zeldris snapped. “It has nothing to do with you, or our clan, or… anything . It is a private matter…”
“It can’t be a girl !” Meliodas stared at him, a derisive smile curving his lips. “It is a girl,” he mocked as Zeldris let his eyes drop to the ground, feeling a hint of heat flood his cheeks. “Who is she? I want all the details!”
“I do not kiss and tell,” Zeldris said in as haughty a tone as he could muster. But one look at his brother showed that the attempt at distraction was not going to work. “Who. Is. She,” Meliodas demanded. “I’m not letting you go anywhere until I get an answer.”
Zeldris’s mouth ran dry as a calculating look entered his brother’s expression. “Wait,” Meliodas mused, “something’s not right. If this girl was a demon, I would definitely know. There’s no way you could keep something like that from me. Which means…”
“Stop!” Zeldris yelled but Meliodas went on, “She’s from another clan. Don’t tell me you’ve fallen in love with some disgusting goddess?” he spat, his eyes pools of ink.
“Of course not!” Zeldris took several deep breaths, willing the terror he had begun to feel not to show on his face. “Look, all you need to know is that she poses no threat to our clan. I am no traitor.”
“An ally then!” Meliodas said triumphantly, and Zeldris hissed a curse under his breath. “Well, well, well, that narrows it down. There’s only one clan we have dealings with. So, which of the vampire chicks is it?” he mused, his smile turning cruel. “The one with the ridiculous claws or arrogant chit who calls herself the thousand temptations?”
“You will not dare speak that way!” Zeldris fumed, unable to keep a check on his temper. “It is not a title she has sought for herself! How can she help the way people describe her?”
“So, Princess Gelda.” Meliodas grinned and Zeldris felt his stomach drop to the toes of his boots. “No wonder you have kept this information to yourself. Our father will definitely not be pleased.”
Meliodas chuckled as Zeldris struggled to respond. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. As you say, Princess Gelda poses no threat to us. If anything, it will strengthen the alliance. I have no concern about us mixing with the vampires, whatever prejudice our father chooses to nurse. When I am king, I will even sanction your union.”
“You will?” Zeldris stared at Meliodas, hope rising in his chest.
“Of course. If nothing else, that will more perfectly ensure your loyalty. I don’t want to fall out with you. Now, come on. Let’s eat,” he said with a grin as Zeldris nodded. He felt his breathing return to normal, the fear he had felt relapsing to nothing as his determination to end the war burned like a flame.
Chapter 39: The Monster In The Lake
Character list: Meliodas and Zeldris
Fog, thick swirls of soft mist, dense and eerie, rolled like waves of cloud through the tall, dark trees. Zeldris suppressed a curse as he pushed carefully through the branches, wishing fervently he had not let his brother talk him into this ridiculous endeavour. It was alright for Meliodas, the second most powerful demon in all existence, but for him the atmospheric conditions were proving somewhat of a hindrance.
He clenched his jaw, treading the ground as softly as he could as his power fanned out to scan the area. Moving with caution, his senses on full alert, he was thankful the fallen pine needles cushioned his steps, masking the sound of his boots as they padded on the earth. He could hear the soft song of the chaffinches, the rustle of squirrels as they searched for food, the strange call of the capercaillie as they moved in their dance. But there was no sign of the prey they were hunting, and the overwhelming aroma of resin which obliterated every other scent in the forest was doing his search absolutely no favours.
It was all so annoying. Zeldris silently pressed his lips together as he felt his brother’s signature in the distance. Evidently Meliodas had already reached their destination; the tremors of power Zeldris could detect on the air radiated that unbearable smugness that communicated self-satisfaction more clearly than any possible taunts. How Meliodas always managed to come out ahead was a genuine mystery to him: the eldest son of the demon king was of course powerful - one might even say obscenely so - but he had his faults. Sloppiness for one, Zeldris considered as he made his way with lightning speed past the copious pines, his form nothing more than a blur as he ran through the trees.
He stopped when he reached the loch, huge and shimmering like pewter with reflections of sky, grey as smoke with cloud and fog. The surface stretched for miles and miles, dark hills just visible past the far shore through the low-hanging streams of mist. Meliodas stood at the water’s edge, his eyes scanning the horizon as waves lapped musically at his boots, polishing the stones which littered the pebbled beach.
“You took your time,” Meliodas barked as Zeldris seethed, forcing his hands to remain at his sides. His palm itched with longing for the hilt of his sword as he stalked towards his brother, his jaw set and eyes narrowed.
“And you have made some sort of mistake,” Zeldris said triumphantly as he pushed his powers out in all directions, feeling no response to his investigations. “There is nothing here. Just a pine marten, several squirrels and a family of badgers. There are no signs of even humans in this part of Britannia, let alone some monster that will win us the war.”
Meliodas held up a hand imperiously as he cocked his head slightly to one side, the air ringing with silence as Zeldris bit down on his tongue. There really was nothing in the surrounding area; just trees and the faint smell of pine and moss and some sort of animal skat. Zeldris’s mouth twisted as he composed a retort in his head, before he saw Meliodas’s face spread into a grin.
“It’s clever, very clever but there it is,” his brother almost sang as he took a step closer to the lapping waves. “Don’t tell me you can’t sense it, little brother.” Zeldris growled, but sent out his magic into the depths of the loch, feeling along the rocky edges and through the ice cold water.
And there it was. He gasped, recoiling slightly as he felt a Goliath of a creature, so massive it was enough to encompass at least two tyrant dragons. There was no mistaking it, the signature was too forceful, its body too large for it to be anything other than some sort of magical beast. Yet why had he not been able to sense it before? Now that he had found it, the animal’s energy was like that of a lantern shining in the dark; bright and glowing and impossible to miss.
“Well, well, well,” Meliodas said thoughtfully as he bent down, trailing his fingers into the water. “Whatever is in there, someone powerful has attempted to conceal it. No doubt the goddesses wish to use it for their own purposes.” Meliodas leered, his grin lopsided and cruel. “We has better put the creature out of its misery. One way or another.”
“And how do you propose to do that exactly?” Zeldris huffed as he continued to press out his power. “This loch is fathoms deep. How will you encourage it to show itself?”
Meliodas cast a glance at Zeldris over his shoulder, his eyes flashing with a cold mirth. “I have no intention of encouraging anything. Watch and learn, little brother.” With that, Meliodas cast off his clothing, quickly covering his body in darkness, the substance flowing to form webbed flippers over his feet. He strode with purpose into the loch, sinking slowing into the shining grey water. Zeldris shuddered, wrinkling his nose before swiftly following suit, hissing slightly as the ice cold waves covered his skin.
The water beneath the surface was dark, and he struggled to see in the murky gloam. Weeds, stringy and slimy, brushed uncomfortably against his cheeks, and he swept them aside with growing impatience. He pushed out his powers once more, easily tracing his brother’s familiar signature which was heading rapidly towards the strange energy he had sensed from the surface. It was stronger here, and he had to suppress a jolt of surprise on feeling a number of other smaller creatures swimming in formation around the prey he was hunting.
As he drew closer, this darkness helping him to blast through the water, the felt Meliodas at his side. A few slight touches were enough to convey the plan of attack, and he swiftly followed his brother’s instructions. Carefully, so as not to give the beast cause for alarm, he wrapped tendrils of darkness around its body, tightening them at the very last moment. The animal struggled, writhing desperately in his grasp. He could feel the pull of Meliodas’s power as the two hauled the monster up to the surface.
And what a sight it was. Pushing through into the cold, autumn air the brothers looked at the creature they had managed to capture. The large, jade-coloured animal, with a long thin neck, bellowed forlornly as they examined it: it was indeed powerful, both in strength and magic and it took everything that they had to keep it still.
“This is not goddess magic,” Zeldris declared as he held onto the beast, lurching to the side as it whipped its head round in an attempt to strike. “Whatever it is this creature is not tied to them. It is unlike anything I have felt in all of Britannia.”
“It is ancient power,” agreed Meliodas. The demon grinned broadly as the monster flailed, and he clambered up over its back, holding on to its neck with his knees. “It appears to be one of the early creations that wandered the earth before the great darkness took hold.” Zeldris nodded, allowing his shoulders to relax just a little; if that were true the animal transcended current politics. It would steadfastly refuse to align with any clan, and as such it would be fruitless to try and secure it. He began to breathe more easily, planning in his mind the quickest route home.
Meliodas stiffened, obviously noting his change in demeanor. “I must be confused. Is it over?” his brother asked, every word he uttered emphasised with a brooding menace. “You would allow this creature to remain in Britannia? A source of power we do not control?”
“I do not see why we should feel obligated do otherwise,” retorted Zeldris as he returned his brother’s cold stare. “It will not be possible for the goddess clan to recruit it.”
“Which is exactly what Monspeet said about the giants.” Meliodas dug his knees into the animal’s flank, causing it to cry out in pain. “Ludoshel has his wiles. Though,” he added thoughtfully as he cocked his head to one side, “you may be right. This is hardly a sentient thing. It is running solely on instinct.”
Zeldris drew a deep breath, stretching his muscles which were beginning to feel the strain. The monster had not ceased its movements since they had brought it up to the air, and the continued exertion was beginning to take its effect. “All we need do is hide it,” he argued as Meliodas bared his teeth in a smile. “A masking charm should do the trick. It is so outlandish,” he added as he cast a derisory look over the animal’s ungainly form, “that even if it is spotted it is probable that their tale will not be believed.”
“Indeed, we can make sure of that,” Meliodas mused. “Very well.” With that, Zeldris felt the air around them shift, a warm glow spreading through his frozen limbs. Quickly he summoned his own magic, mulberry swirls melding together as they cast a masking charm over the monster. Then, as one, they released their hold, springing into the air, wings sprouting from their backs as they sped away from the vast loch. They watched as the animal slunk back beneath the surface, barely causing a ripple as it returned to the depths.
“Not a word of this. To anyone,” Meliodas commanded, Zeldris bridling slightly at the authoritarian tone. Still, he held his tongue as the sped back to the demon realm, pleased that the area so close to the vampires’ stronghold in Edinburgh was now safe from observation.
Chapter 40: The End Of The World
Character list: Meliodas, Ludoshel, Gilthunder. Trigger warning: character death.
Britannia was so small . That had been his first thought on emerging from the protective shell which had hidden him from the world, giving him some much needed privacy as he underwent his transformation. The power held by the commandments was electric, exhilarating, the way it thrummed through his form and into the very tips of his fingers both euphoric and overwhelming. He felt like a God . He was in fact a GOD, and nothing could now hope to stand in his way.
The throne room of Camelot castle was barely enough to contain him, and he could only just register the golden stone, the ornate throne and the pitiful flashes of magic before he burst through the walls, the masonry crumbling to dust in his wake. He soared up to the sky, relishing the freedom of flight and the expanse of the velvet night as it stretched out before him. Up here he felt he could finally breathe, his lungs expanding gratefully as he took gulps of cold air.
But stay he could not. With a snarl he dropped like a stone to the ground, heading directly for the accursed archangel who was engaging in a dance of death with his brother. His memories seemed to adjust as he fell: there was no Estarossa; it had all been a lie , nothing more than a despicable, filthy goddess trick.
And worse yet he had fallen for it and it had cost him his life, or would have done if he had possessed one to lose. Because of this disgusting race, Elizabeth had endured weeks of agony, kneeling in front of his body as she begged for his return. His regard for her - no longer love but the weight of obligation - was the only thing approaching sentiment he had left to his name. That and the absolute rage which flooded his veins.
He cared not that the archangel was rounding on Zeldris, nor which of the combatants would emerge the victor from the altercation. He wanted to kill this little shit for himself.
As he swooped lower, his brother seemed to sense his wishes, as it had been all those millenia ago. The dark silhouette moved away, nothing more than a speck as Meliodas landed directly in front of Ludoshel, who must now be regretting the pitiful body he had chosen as his vessel. The demon lord towered above him, and Meliodas felt his face pull into a smirk as he caught the expression of horror crossing Ludoshel’s face.
“Meliodas.” The archangel had always had a sonorous voice, and it sounded somehow appropriate mixing with the human’s whose body he had chosen, a melodic ring of delicate steel. He watched as Ludoshel composed his features, a sly smile creeping over his human’s pretty face. “I was hoping I would be the one to have the satisfaction of dispatching you.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” He was contented with the way he himself sounded, his unfamiliar voice booming over the land, causing the very breeze to still. The familiar weight of the sword in his hand was there as soon as he summoned it, the magnificent weapon poised to strike.
The archangel’s burnished power exploded before him in a flash of stars, only for him to deflect it with a slight flick of the wrist. He didn’t even have to move to watch Ludoshel wince as he was bathed in his own light, his human body unable to fully withstand the assault of his power. The vessel fell back several paces but managed to remain standing, the venom of the goddess’ gaze shining through the dark, mortal eyes.
He was dimly aware of the exchanges around him: the ridiculous, oversized human wielding a power that was not his own amplified by the puerile fool who had dared to challenge the Gods. Evidently the bitch had failed to learn her lesson, he considered as he knocked them both to the ground with a swipe of his hand. He could hear the irritating buzz of his former tutor extolling his praise to the heavens but he did not care; he would deal with the sycophantic old man in due course. For now he wanted to concentrate on his prey.
A rush of adrenaline washed over him like a wave as he raised his gleaming sword, angling it towards the wench’s slip of a neck. Taking out the girl’s body would not be the end of the task, but it would stop the archangel from using his power. He could even scoop up the fleeing soul in his palm and squish it like an insect between his fingertips, feel the snap and the splatter as the irritating wasp expired. The thought made the muscles in his face tense, his eyes narrowing as he prepared for the kill.
“No! Stop!” The call, desperate, resounding with an agony that, even to his ears, was pure and sincere snapped Meliodas from focus, his gaze panning out to take in his surroundings. Another human, crawling along the ground, brought to his knees by the immense power which cracked all around. The boy could barely move, but he somehow managed to drag himself from the spectator seats to the centre of the action, placing himself in front of the archangel.
“Sir Meliodas,” the boy stuttered between clenched teeth and the demon lord felt something stir in his memory. He had mentored this twiglet, knocked him on the head when he cried, the recollection of something like fondness buzzing through his unresponsive hearts. “Please, I beg you, spare Margaret. It’s not her fault…”
“Silence human!” The archangel took a pace forwards, slapping the boy - Gilthunder, that was his name - across the face with an echoing crack. “Stay out of affairs you cannot hope to understand.”
“I understand this!” Gilthunder yelled, and Meliodas raised an eyebrow to see the mortal somehow struggle to his feet. “You are nothing but a coward! You have possessed Margaret against her will, taken advantage of her. I will not let you harm her because of some pathetic feud.
“I don’t care what has happened in the past,” the boy continued, his back ramrod straight as he faced the archangel head on. “Sir Meliodas is a good man. And you have driven him to… to this !”
The demon lord was on the point of chuckling, finding it in his will to spare the flustered youth, but Ludoshel apparently had other ideas. The archangel rose, levitating into the air, the white flowing dress pooling and flailing around him, strands of mulberry hair whipping in the wind. The air around the girl’s body shone with the light of creation and even Meliodas moved a hand to his brow to shield his eyes. Gilthunder fell to his knees once more, his body starting to blur, to dissipate before it exploded in a shower of sparks, flecks of silver and gold floating like dust on the breeze, swirling and shifting until they finally disappeared.
The battlefield seemed to shift, to pause, an inaudible gasp hesitating on the edge of consciousness. Does it hurt, to be dispatched in that way? he pondered, wondering why he had reacted, why he had responded at all. The boy was nothing, an amusing aside, no more than a distraction from his present purpose.
Dark power oozed from him, snaking towards the archangel with a fluid grace that belied the speed of its movement. The light was extinguished, the body of the host wrapped like a corpse prepared for burial, no doubt muffling indignant cries. Without effort, Meliodas allowed his magic to do its work, crushing the body in his grasp, crumbling bones and turning muscle and organs to pulp. When the darkness withdrew the body fell to the floor, detritus to be devoured by the demons that stalked through the castle on his brother’s command. As predicted, the soul sped through the night, Meliodas catching it and swallowing it like a pill, feeling his immense, rolling power spike a little as the archangel’s strength became his own.
“Zeldris, dispense with these others,” Meliodas commanded, pleaded to see his brother instantly stand to attention, moving with confidence to stare at the two irritations he had once called comrades. As he flew through the sky he felt the flash of dark power engulf the landscape behind him, leaving Camelot once more free from outside interference. It would be his clan’s base from which to rule Britannia, once the rest of the dissenters were stopped in their tracks.
Stretching out his power, Meliodas rushed to north west of the island, heading towards the woman whose curse he must break.
Chapter 41: The Hidden Rooms
Character list: Monspeet, Estarossa and Meliodas.
Monspeet was sure something fishy was up. He had been bored that day so had gone for a stroll through the palace grounds, listening to the soothing wails of the hydra and counting the windows of the Demon King’s castle. And there were exactly forty-eight of them on the first floor. This had surprised him. Last he had visited the building interior he had only counted forty-two from the inside. So where were the missing six?
Lips pursed, Monspeet took a step closer, trying to figure out the lie of the land. The ones on the end, at the very easternmost edge of the palace appeared to belong to a self-contained annex. The windows were blacked out but that was not necessarily suspicious of course; there were plenty of rooms that required total darkness at all times in the demon realm. But nonetheless Monspeet got the feeling something was wrong. He stared upwards, eyes fixed on the panes, wondering what the Demon King was keeping secret behind them.
Well, he had nothing better to do so why not find out? The others were always telling him he was too curious for his own good but this was too intriguing to pass up. The question was, how to do it? Entry from the outside would surely be noticed, so Monspeet would have to try and find the way in from the inside. There must be one. Mind made up, the soldier started on his way towards the castle, his senses on full alert to ensure he was left alone. The realm was full to the brim with spies; the Demon King did not trust his people, not even his own sons, both of whom were kept under constant surveillance, though Meliodas and Zeldris could fend for themselves of course.
With a nonchalant wave to the guards, Monspeet made his way inside the castle, taking the central staircase up to the first floor. There were some benefits to being in training to join the elite Ten Commandments; it was gruelling work, the missions were of questionable validity and Meliodas was a hard task master, but it did open doors. Quite literally in this case. It would not be long now before he received his decree and he occasionally wondered which one he would get.
Quietly, doing his best not to draw any suspicion, Monspeet examined the paintings on the wall, his eye running over generals of old. The fashions of the realm had changed considerably, and it took a while as he walked down the hallways until he arrived at the familiar high collars which were popular in the present. He passed a few guards on patrol along the way, but they paid him no heed. This was unsurprising. Commandments were the highest ranked soldiers in the realm, apart from the princes and their tutors, and were generally left to themselves by all and sundry. It did get lonely sometimes; Monspeet had been courting a woman, sister of a fellow trainee, but he had seen her enthusiasm wane as his power expended. She herself was not of the bloodthirsty ilk.
He reached the end of the corridor and stopped, checking he was alone before starting his investigations. Close examination of the stonework confirmed his suspicions; the eastern wall of the castle had been built recently, likely in the last one hundred years or so. Something was definitely being hidden behind it, he just needed to discover what.
With great care, Monspeet began to tap lightly on the stones, listening for a change in the timbre of his knocks. It was cleverly done - the wall was protected with a magical barrier - but Monspeet could feel where the weakness was. Fingers grazing lightly over the stones, he searched for the opening, his hearts soaring with triumph as he pressed on a hidden switch and a door swung open. Looking inside, Monspeet could not but help shiver slightly; the room within was pitch black and carried the notable tang of pain and despair. A torture chamber perhaps? He told himself that, if so, it would do no harm to investigate further. He would ideally want to know about the place so that he could threaten the enemy with incarceration in the no doubt gruesome chambers. But as he entered the room, the atmosphere freezing his skin, he knew that this was not somewhere he should be exploring.
Eyes adjusting to the gloom, Monspeet stilled his breathing, treading on light feet to make as little noise as possible. This had always been a skill of his, the ability to move in silence. He wrapped his cloak more tightly around his frame to ward off the cold; it was absolutely freezing, and if there had been light enough Monspeet was sure he would have been able to see the steam of his breath.
“Who’s there?” a small voice called from the gloom and Monspeet nearly jumped out of his skin with the shock. Just a torture victim he told himself, forcing his feet to continue their path. Nothing to worry about. Whoever it is will be behind bars, or worse… The thought caused another chill to slide down his spine as he stepped closer towards the source of the noise.
All at once, he was in a large, well-lit chamber and Monspeet squinted involuntarily against the sudden onslaught of light. Shielding his eyes, he tried to make out the interior of the room, noting rich fabrics and ornate furniture. The room was warm and clean, but smelled slightly musty, as if no fresh air had been permitted entrance for several years. It took some seconds for Monspeet’s vision to become up to the task, at which point they focused on a small boy in the centre of a massive bed, an oversized jacket draped round his shoulders.
“Who are you?” the boy quavered, fear evident in every word that he spoke. “Has Meliodas sent you?”
Monspeet bit his lip at this. If the prince was involved he was out of his depth. Brain working furiously, the soldier tried to think of how best to respond in a way that could extricate himself from this situation.
“No… and best not mention my visit to him,” Monspeet murmured, forcing himself to meet the boy’s eyes. They were the familiar coal black of the rest of his clan, but try as he might to sense it there was no sign of power. This was highly unusual; occasionally demons were born without magic or strength but it was extremely rare, and the children were invariably terminated at an early age for their own benefit. Weakness was not tolerated in the demon realm. “It was a mistake for me to come here, I merely took a wrong turn. If you will excuse me, I will trespass on your time no longer.”
The boy giggled, his face lighting up in an instant and Monspeet felt his chest squeeze. It was a gentle sound, one devoid of the usual cruelty, and it warmed his soul. “I know that’s tosh,” the boy blurted put through his laughter, “there rooms are really well hidden. No one wants…” The boy broke off, biting his lip and Monspeet suddenly felt an overwhelming pity swell in his breast.
“Please, stay for a bit,” the boy murmured. “Mel does his best but it’s really lonely here. He can’t see me that often, he’s so busy. He’s leading the war you know!” he finished proudly.
“Who are you?” Monspeet asked gently, moving closer to the boy, noting with shock the royal insignia on his clothing and his striking resemblance to his future leader. Even the hair was the same, two unruly strands sticking out of the top of his head. “You… you can’t be…”
“I’m Estarossa,” the boy said with a grin, “Meliodas’s younger brother. But I have to stay here,” he added regretfully. “I have no power you see, not yet, but I’m working on it!” he protested and Monspeet cursed himself. Obviously the horror he felt was showing plain on his face.
“Mel says once my power is awakened I can come out for real,” Estarossa continued, his eyes shining with his enthusiasm. “He takes me up to Britannia sometimes, but I’m not allowed out here. He says…” Estarossa halted, his eyes suddenly wary as he looked closely at Monspeet. “You’re not here to kill me are you?”
“N-no,” Monspeet stuttered, his hearts squeezing in his chest as the boy visibly relaxed. “But your brother is right,” he added thoughtfully, suddenly seeing the lie of the land. The boy was evidently shut up for his own protection. “You would likely be killed if you were found in the demon realm.”
“That’s what Mel said.” Estarossa sighed, his eyes cast down towards the velvet coverlet. “I knew he wasn’t lying. He never does.” Monspeet practically chewed his lip off at this; the one thing the General was known for was his ability to play fast and loose with the truth.
“I… I have to go, sorry,” Monspeet murmured, rushing on as Estarossa’s face fell, “we’ll both be in trouble if I’m found here.”
“You’ll come back and see me again?” Estarossa said timidly, his voice very small. “It really is lonely and you’ve been so nice.” Against his better judgement Monspeet managed a nod and a slight bow before taking his leave. Power or not this boy was part of the royal family, and was his liege by birth. He practically ran back through towards the castle, his breath coming quick in his haste; he no longer wanted to hide, he wanted to leave. Relief washed over him as the gloom subsided and the light of the castle came into view.
“Monspeet! What a pleasant surprise!” His hearts sank to his boots as he looked at the boy, so similar in features to the one he had just left. But this one was different, power rolling from him in waves, the mark of his accomplishment emblazoned on his forehead. He was done now; no way the General would permit this transgression to go unpunished.
Monspeet was just deciding whether to surrender or fight when Meliodas let out a bark of laughter. “You have found out my family’s secret. Now why would you do that? I told you that curiosity of yours would be your undoing.
“Well, you’re in real trouble this time,” Meliodas continued, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Father will not permit you to walk free with the knowledge of what you have seen. But don’t worry, your training is nearly complete. You are a valuable asset to the war, and I think I see a solution. I know a way to ensure your eternal silence.”
With that Monspeet allowed the prince to lead him away, fingers digging tightly into his elbow as they headed towards the Demon King’s throne room.
Chapter 42: Purgatory Dreams
Character list: Meliodas, Ban, Wild
Ban groaned, sitting up with some difficulty, feeling every bone in his spine crack back into place. He rubbed his head, the pain near to splintering his temple and then the smell hit him: rotten eggs and burning hair, his own it turned out. As he put out the sinders, his vision finally focused as the dust spat up by their fall finally clearing away. He watched lazily as the clouds dissipated into the wide expanse of barren nothingness that had been his home for the last twenty years, and mercifully his head began to clear.
“Hey, are you okay?” he called as the sounds of spluttering reached his ears. Meliodas moved next to him: the poor dude had landed face first into Purgatory’s rocky ground. But when he pushed himself up on his elbows, one eye swollen shut and cuts all over his face, the demon was still grinning. They had been together in this place for the best part of a lifetime and yet it still made him glad to see the Captain’s broad smile.
“Yo!” Meliodas replied as he finally stood, snorting coming from beside him as Wild slumbered on. The pig’s solid flank rose and fell in his sleep and his legs kicked under him as if he was running. But Ban was not concerned. The boar was miraculously unharmed, not even a scratch on him, not a hair out of place. They evidently made their livestock hardy in this arena of death.
“Another loss,” Meliodas added with a chuckle. “Better luck next time, I guess.”
Ban cackled as he pulled himself to his feet. “Your old man sure is a handful~” he sang as Meliodas snickered. “So what now Cap’n?”
Meliodas looked him up and down, his lips curved in a lopsided smile. “You know,” said he, “you’ve been wearing that suit for decades now. And it’s pretty torn up. Don’t you think you should try something else?”
Ban thought about this while examining Meliodas’s own attire. The dark shirt he had on was indeed the worse for wear; some of the pointed buttons were missing and it was riddled in holes, exposing the muscle on his chest and stomach. The trousers were frayed and in need of a wash, covered as they were in dust and debris. But there was no water in Purgatory: were it not for his immortality he would have perished decades ago.
“Well then, fancy a change?” Ban asked lazily, flicking a scrap of who knew what off his sleeve.
“Sure!” The demon leaned back slightly, stretching his arms above his head before resting them behind his back. Eyes narrowed slightly, he scoured the landscape, his gaze moving slowly along the cragged stone. Ban was not sure how much good this would do; the vista in front of them was banked with thick swirls of fog, acidic enough to burn the flesh from bone.
The sound gave it away. A creature that bore some resemblance to a gigantic horse came galloping over the dark ground, its back covered in spikes and a scaly tail flailing behind as it charged. Ban grinned, cracking his knuckles before launching himself in the air, falling down upon the creature with a definite smack. The beast bellowed and buckled even before Meliodas joined him, running through the animal’s legs and dodging its hooves to send a punch straight up into its stomach. With a cry of pain, the creature fell to the ground, a sickening thud echoing all around. Then the animal’s whinny turned into a gurgle in its throat before dying away and they were left with the sound of their own heavy breathing.
Quickly the pair got to work, stripping the carcass and scraping the skin clean before sewing the fabric together in patches. They hummed as they worked, exchanging occasional pleasantries as they fashioned new clothing. Eventually the talk turned to the fairy and goddess, the memories of whom made their existence worthwhile, and Ban felt his determination to get out of the place grow with every stitch.
“Done!” the Captain said cheerfully as he removed his tattered rags and, to Ban’s amazement, pulled on a tuxedo. The suit included a purple bow tie and flashy buttons down the front of the shirt. He was on the point of howling with laughter when he looked down at what he held in his own hands, starting slightly to see he had made the same thing.
“Well, put it on,” Meliodas demanded as Ban’s brow creased in a frown. He did as suggested, removing his rags and donning the rather sharp looking outfit, wondering how he had achieved a precise crease in the trousers. “You look good,” the demon said with a smile. “Straighten the tie though.”
“What the hell is going on?” Ban exclaimed as his eyes darted between his own body and that of his friend. “Why on earth did we make these?”
Meliodas snickered in his familiar way, “Hehehe. I dunno, but they look pretty flash….”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Both men spun round to face the boar, pointed tusks shining in the sparse light which came from who knew where. The pig must have woken up while they were working. “You were jawing about your girlfriends and made wedding suits,” Wild scoffed but his eyes were slightly watery round the edges. “It’s… I don’t know what… Cute? Weird? Anyway it’s something.
“But we’re never going to beat the Demon King with you dressed like that,” Wild snorted and Ban pressed his lips together. The animal was clearly correct. He was on the point of saying as much to the Captain when he noticed the demon was no longer where he had stood just a few seconds ago. The sound of a thunk followed by a squeak drew his eyes to the right, and he was unsurprised to see the demon approaching with the corpse of what looked like a large, twisted rat hauled over his shoulder.
“Better start again. Let’s make them the same as the old ones this time,” Meliodas decreed as he started once more to strip the animal’s carcass. “We clearly should always wear the same clothes.”
Ban nodded in agreement before setting to work, pushing visions of Elaine away for the moment. Surely it would not be too long before they escaped from this hell hole and he could see her again.
Chapter 43: New Beginnings
Character list: Ludoshel and Mael
Tap, tap, tap. The sound of his impatience echoed from the walls and, with some difficulty, he forced himself to still the movement of his foot. As humiliating it was to be left to stand in this corridor, his eyes flitting over the polished marble tiles and many oil paintings in an attempt to alleviate his boredom, the repetitive tick of his boot on the floor made it worse. Instead, he let his hands curl into fists at his sides and his jaw clench as he waited, and waited, and waited...
The sun travelled across the sky, the golden rays that poured through the large windows growing steadily deeper in colour until the flames of early sunset trickled through the glass panes. Ludoshel wished he could leave, could return to his training so that, one day, he would be the most powerful archangel ever to grace the goddess clan. But tradition dictated that, as the oldest male of his household since his father’s untimely death, he had to stay close. His mother was in labour, and because of that he had wasted the day pacing up and down this corridor, waiting for the child to be born so that he could resume his life.
He had to admit he resented this baby. He did not know much about children or childcare, but he had gleaned enough from his observations of other members of his clan to see that it took some work. The mothers were forever absorbed with their charges, either feeding or playing or walking their little ones to sleep. And, what alarmed him most, was that the men had it no better. They would come home from their training, exhausted and bruised, only have a small thing thrust into their arms. It only grew worse when the mothers were strong enough to resume their own training: then the men of the house were forced to actually look after the children on some occasions.
This was to be his life now, all because his father had been so inconsiderate to lose his life after getting his mother pregnant. As if it were not bad enough having to take an active interest in the household finances and participate in decisions about who should repair the roof, and whether this job was more or less important than fixing the plumbing. It was so utterly tedious, so… dull and stressful and all Ludoshel wanted was for it to end so he could spend his days training and building his skills. It was his destiny, he knew it was, to be the best and no baby was going to get in his way.
But why on earth was it taking so long? He had no experience of childbirth, but surely it should have been over and done with by now. He was just on the point of storming into the room in contravention of whatever custom may seek to prevent such action, when another noise rose above what could only be described as yells of agony: a quavering cry. At first, the sound seemed to be filled with bubbles, as if it were being pushed up through water, but it did not take long for the wail to strengthen, to build into an absolutely piercing shriek. Ludoshel stayed stock still by the door, listening as women sobbed and clapped and a frenzy of excitement floated through the air.
He waited expectantly, anticipating that the door would burst open and that he would finally get some sort of information, that someone would notice his presence for the first time that day. But there was nothing, not even the slightest sign of movement. With a loud ‘Tsk’, Ludoshel swept to the bench which lined one side of the corridor, sinking onto it with a huff, and he let his lips twist with his irritation.
It seemed like hours later when a woman crept into the corridor, closing the door he was staring at softly behind her. “It’s alright,” she murmured, her voice close to a whisper. “It was touch and go for a while, but she’s a strong one. She pulled through, praise Her Majesty, and the baby is doing fine, too.”
Ludoshel found it impossible to reply. A lump, hard and painful, had formed in his throat as the screams he had heard suddenly took on new meaning. His mother had been fighting for her life, and he had done nothing , nothing except for moaning in his head. “Can I see her?” he rasped, his voice broken from lack of use. “Can I help? Do you need anything?”
The woman shook her head in a comforting way. “No, no. All is well. Your mother is resting at the moment and the baby is sleeping peacefully. He’s a bonny lad. Perhaps you would like to see him?”
“To… see him?” The idea made Ludoshel feel slightly lightheaded, as if the world was askew on its axis. “You mean, I can see him?” he asked, and he swallowed hard as the woman chuckled.
“Of course! He is your brother after all. Come, but try and be as quiet as possible. Your mother had a hard labour and needs her sleep. He’s in the cot at her side of her bed,” the woman whispered over her shoulder as she opened the door.
Carefully, almost not daring to breath, Ludoshel crept into the room behind her. The last rays of the sun streamed through the window, the soft rose gold light shimmering in the still air. The space smelled faintly medicinal, the tang of herbs and iron hitting the back of his throat, not unpleasant but enough to remind him of the danger his mother had been through. He glanced at the bed, his mother’s face pale but full of peace and, with a rush, he let go of the breath he had not realised he was holding. To see the white coverlet rise and fall as she slept was the knot which had tightened inside his chest loosen considerably.
The goddess shuffled closer to the cot, peering into the wicker basket. It was lined with layer upon layer of blankets but, just about visible, was a small, swaddled thing, a tiny child with a scrunched up face, eyes closed and mouth drawn into a pout. Ludoshel stopped, then reached out a tentative hand to stroke the wisps of silver hair which adorned its head, his head, he corrected himself. His brother’s head.
The baby stirred, his eyes slowly opening, piercing blue gazing straight into his face. Ludoshel gasped, feeling a smile pull at his lips as the baby gurgled pleasantly, the bundle moving like a fluffy cocoon. Without warning, he felt a tenderness flooding his senses, his connection to the small boy hitting him like an arrow in his chest.
“I will keep you safe, always,” he murmured as the baby he now cared for more than any other being in the world drifted back into sleep.
Chapter 44: The Castle In Liones
Character list: Meliodas, Merlin and Elizabeth
“She really is cute isn’t she. What an adorable little girl.”
Meliodas gazed out at the castle grounds, his eyes fixed on the silver-haired child running with abandon across the field, arms outstretched as if in flight and head thrown back in laughter. She was followed close behind by two others, both running at her full pelt. Her siblings, having longer legs, caught up with Elizabeth easily and knocked her to the daisy-dusted ground, the three of them giggling like crazy as they rolled in the dry summer grass. The picture of perfect family life, the family he could never have.
Amidst the fun of the game, Elizabeth stood on stubby legs, wobbling slightly. Catching sight of her knight, she waved enthusiastically towards Meliodas, who grinned from ear to ear as he responded in kind. Veronica scowled, her displeasure evident even from this distance, and quickly pulled Elizabeth back into the game. He had no idea why she disliked him so much.
“Have you often seen her this age?” Merlin asked, her amber eyes boring into him, as usual seeking information she had no right to know. Meliodas sighed, he hated talking about Elizabeth’s past lives, as if they weren’t painful enough the first time round. But this was Merlin and, as he knew from long experience, resistance was futile.
“More times than I’d like, being honest. It makes things pretty awkward,” Meliodas replied, his eyes returning to the small girl at play.
“Why?” Merlin turned her face towards him, staring at him, a slight smile curving her lips. Meliodas sighed; he should have realised Merlin was not to be fobbed off. “I mean, what difference does it make what age she is?” Merlin continued into the silence. “I understand this is painful, but…”
“There’s always the possibility that her life will end young if I find her as a child,” Meliodas explained his fingers digging into the rough stone of the wall he and Merlin were sitting on. It had been a nice, lonely spot, the perfect place to keep an eye on Elizabeth until his companion of old had turned up. Now he was having to answer a bunch of questions he really did not want to tackle. “She can’t die until I’ve found her, right?” he continued. “If she’s an old woman already at least she’s had a long life for once. If she’s an infant, all bets are off.”
Meliodas focused his attention on the children still playing on the castle lawn. He looked relaxed, but his guard was not down: aside from being Princess Elizabeth’s personal Holy Knight, he had also sworn to protect her and, even in the near-absolute safety of the grounds of Liones Castle his senses were on full alert. Right now, the most likely threat came from the girls themselves. Margaret was a responsible child, but Veronica tended to be a little boisterous with play.
“Do you ever see her as an old woman?” Merlin asked in surprise. “I thought… well, I presumed that…”
“I know,” Meliodas said curtly. “Yes, usually she does die pretty young but there has been one occasion where she made it to a ripe old age. I took me a while to find her. I was…” Meliodas bit on his lower lip, his hands clenched into fists which he scraped on the wall. He had absolutely no desire to relive that experience.
“You were what?” Merlin asked unperturbed and Meliodas sighed; she never did know when to let go.
“I… it was the first time I tried… anyway it didn’t work. I woke up in Purgatory of all places. He kept me there for years. By the time I got out, Elizabeth was an old woman. She’d married someone else.” At this, Meliodas’s playful voice broke slightly as the memory of seeing his goddess in the arms of another, forced itself into his consciousness. It had nearly killed him, if that were possible of course. It was almost worse than seeing her die.
“She always loves me, no matter what her age,” Meliodas spat, his hands clenching into fists in his lap as Merlin continued to stare at him. “Even if she’s a small child she seeks me out.”
“The power of true love I suppose,” Merlin said thoughtfully.
“You think so?” Meliodas’ eyes narrowed slightly, the only sign of his perturbation.
“Well… yes. Don’t you too?” Merlin asked, her eyes widening slightly.
Meliodas looked out towards the grounds, his hearts aching as his eyes fell on the child in question. Elizabeth was laughing as she danced lightly across the ground, a sound that he usually found soothing. Now it felt more like a knife sticking in his chest. “No,” he acknowledged. “For me, it just brings home the reality; that this damn curse controls our lives. If we find each other when she’s grown, I can kid myself it’s genuine affection. But if she shows these feelings as a child? Well, then I know they must be fabricated.”
“You don't think Elizabeth loves you?” Merlin asked, incredulously. “After all these millennia…”
“She doesn’t. Not in the real sense,” Meliodas said softly, his bright green eyes shining. “Her feelings are pre-programmed. That’s why she comes to me even when she’s a little baby. The emotion is already there. I never earn it.”
“I think you are mistaken.” Meliodas’s fingers clenched, scraping across the rough stone. He ought to have known Merlin would not understand. There had been partners of course, but none that ever truly touched her heart; he wondered if she even knew what true love entailed. He knew he ought to let the argument go and appear to accept Merlin’s wisdom, but something in him would not let him give way. She was always so sure, so certain that she could articulate how the world worked. It was infuriating and he would prove her wrong.
“Well, you know more about this curse than anyone. Are you telling me it’s not a possibility?” he asked lightly, forcing his voice to assume its usual playful timbre. He felt a rush of satisfaction as Merlin’s head dropped, her eyes focusing on the hands in her lap. Got you he thought as he continued to regard her in silence, almost able to see the way her mind was working. “Come on, you don’t have to pretend with me. I’ve met her one hundred and seven times now; I know what I’ve seen.”
Lips pursed, Merlin took several deep breaths, her chest visibly rising and falling as she considered her next move. “I have a question,” she finally murmured, her lips a severe, thin line. “Do you love her?”
“What?” Meliodas asked, his eyes snapping to Merlin’s in an instant. “What do you mean?”
“What I say. Do you love her?” Merlin returned his gaze with no sign of discomfort and Meliodas suddenly felt his hearts beating wildly.
“Of course,” he spluttered. How could she ask that? In what way could he have left any room for doubt. “Do you think…”
“What I mean is, how do you know your feelings for her are real?” The challenge in Merlin’s glare was unmistakable, her grin triumphant. “If her’s are ‘pre-programmed’ what’s so different about yours?
“What is love anyway?” Merlin continued as Meliodas forced himself to stay calm. He placed his hands round the back of his head, smiling slightly as he regarded Elizabeth once again. It was nearly tea time and the children’s governess had come to find her charges and usher them back to the palace. Meliodas watched carefully as the party made their way back across the lawn, checking Elizabeth made it safely into the castle. He then rose, determined to follow her, thankful that her departure gave him an excuse to leave.
“You can’t answer can you?” Merlin crowed, her cherry lips curved upwards in an undeniable smirk. She always did like thinking she was right. “My view it doesn’t really matter anyway. If you feel it, it’s real. And Elizabeth feels it. Definitely. You must know that…”
“Got to go.” Meliodas quickly stepped away from the sorceress, heading back towards the castle. He was more angry than he had been for a while, and his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides as he worked to control his temper. He would not give Merlin the satisfaction of showing how much she had riled him, but her words nagged at his brain as he walked. What if he did not love Elizabeth? If it was all the curse…
“Mewiodas, will ooo come and pway with me?”
With a start he looked down as Elizabeth wrapped her arms round his legs, nearly knocking him to the floor and he smiled. Whatever the curse did to them in the future, they had each other today.